The Vikings, bodies still aching and egos still bruised, sheepishly took their seats inside the team meeting room at Winter Park on Wednesday afternoon.
As they waited for Mike Zimmer to storm in, the shared expectation was that the coach would soon be pounding their eardrums with four-letter words as he rewound the many missed tackles and blown assignments like the Zapruder film.
“I was expecting to get ripped,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “But he didn’t.”
Instead, Zimmer cued up only a handful of mistakes from the ugly season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers and, according to Munnerlyn, told his players, “We’re going to let that game go.” A few hours later, Zimmer channeled his inner Bill Belichick while repeating to the media that the Vikings were only “focused on Detroit.”
The Vikings turned the page with authority Sunday afternoon, defeating the Detroit Lions 26-16 in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium.
Some players, including a few team leaders, believed Zimmer’s message in the meeting room set the tone for the short week. But the second-year coach claimed there was no rhyme or reason to it.
“Sometimes I don’t know why I do things,” Zimmer said. “Everybody was mad. I didn’t sugarcoat anything. I was upfront and honest with them, but I’m smart enough to understand that [Monday night] was one game and we didn’t play like Vikings play.”
This time, the Vikings were the ones who outmuscled, out-schemed and outperformed their opponents. They jumped on running back Adrian Peterson’s broad shoulders at the onset of the game, plugged up their leaky run defense and hit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford so hard that his ribs needed to be x-rayed after the game.
They jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter and kept their still-winless NFC North rivals at an arm’s length throughout the game to avoid falling to 0-2.
“I’m really proud of how the team responded,” Zimmer said. “I told somebody after last week’s loss that it felt like we were 0-10, not 0-1. We had to really dig down deep and fight and practice and study. We had a lot of grouchy players last week, grouchy coaches. And I thought we answered the bell today.”
After getting just 10 carries against the 49ers, Peterson was handed the ball on the first three plays from scrimmage. He rushed for 45 yards on seven carries on the opening drive, which ended with a Teddy Bridgewater touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“I don’t know if that was actually the game plan, but it was working,” Peterson said of his heavy first-quarter workload. “And I guess if it was working, don’t stop.”
Peterson ended up rushing for 134 yards on 29 carries. He unofficially fumbled three times, though none of them directly resulted in Lions points. And he added two catches for 58 yards, including a 49-yarder after he whiffed on a block but broke loose after Bridgewater flipped him the ball to avoid a sack.
Bridgewater, meanwhile, bounced back from his shaky showing against the 49ers to throw for 153 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another. He was sacked just once.
The Vikings also recorded just once sack, but that statistic doesn’t do their pass rush justice. Pushed by inspired performances from defensive end Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, the Vikings hit Stafford eight times on the afternoon. After a couple of especially hard hits, he laid on the turf and grimaced before slowly getting up.
The Vikings also limited the Lions to just 38 rushing yards and a 2.4 yards-per-carry average after the 49ers ran all over them for 230 yards. When the Lions scored late to pull within 10 points, safety Harrison Smith burst into the backfield to stuff Lions running back Joique Bell on a two-point try and seal a win.
“We wanted to make sure we came out here and made a statement on who we really are as a defense. And we did,” Robison said. “Up front, we took it very personally last week.”
While Zimmer felt Sept. 20 was a little too early on the calendar for a “must-win” game, he knew the odds the Vikings would be up against had they lost Sunday.
Now, he is warning his players not to “take the cheese” after their resounding win.
Zimmer’s scowl might resurface Monday and this film session will surely be longer and less pleasant than the previously one. But Zimmer’s decision — conscious or not — last Wednesday to not rub his young Vikings players’ noses in the 49ers loss turned out to be the right one considering how they responded Sunday.
“He knows when he needs to lay into us and when he doesn’t,” Robison said. “He wanted to make sure that game didn’t beat us twice, so the best thing for us to do was move on, learn from the experience and make sure it didn’t happen two weeks in a row.”