New Orleans Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) was tackled by Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) short of the goal line in the second quarter. ] JEFF WHEELER
The Minnesota Vikings faced the New Orleans Saints in their season opener NFL football game on Monday night, September 11, 2011 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

For as much as the Vikings’ reworked offense did to propel them to a 29-19 victory on Monday night, exploiting a New Orleans Saints defense that played with all the discord of a unit that had eight new starters, things might have been very different if not for a few stops from the Vikings’ defense.

The group spent plenty of time in the offseason working to improve in the red zone, after coach Mike Zimmer made it an area of emphasis following the 2016 season. The Vikings were passable in the red zone last year, allowing touchdowns on 24 of their opponents’ 44 trips inside the 20, but Zimmer wanted better from the group. He got it on Monday night.

The Vikings allowed just one touchdown in the Saints’ five trips to the red zone, and even that came late in the game, after the Vikings had already built a 17-point lead. On the Saints’ previous four drives inside the 20, they had to settle for Will Lutz field goals of 43, 21, 24 and 20 yards.

“Inside the 5-yard line, we spent an awful lot of time both sides of the ball this offseason and it showed why it’s so important tonight,” Zimmer said on Monday. “We’ve been putting a lot of these situations in the game; even that last one at the end where they did score, the clock was our friend at that point. We’re up three scores so we were just trying to get the clock to wind.”

The Vikings got into the habit of playing through game situations at the ends of practices in training camp, and they continued it after they broke camp in Mankato. That exercise, Zimmer believes, has made his players more conscientious about what to do in different game situations, and the Vikings were defensively sound with points on the line Monday night against the Saints.

They’ll try to continue it on Sunday in Pittsburgh, against what was the league’s 12th-best red zone offense last season. If the Vikings can keep the Steelers from turning a few drives into touchdowns, they might be able to dull the edges of one of the best offenses they’ll face and tip a difficult road game in their direction.

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