Vikings turnaround propelled by defensive renaissance

Minnesota has given up 19.4 points per game while winning five of the past seven games.

EAGAN, Minn. – Early in Sunday night’s win against Green Bay, the Minnesota Vikings pulled safety Harrison Smith up to the line of scrimmage along with linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, each of the three filling the ‘A’ gap between defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson in front of Packers center Corey Linsley.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers took one look and made a check with the offensive line, making sure they were ready to account for all three players. All three players ended up dropping in coverage, but Minnesota was disguising looks against a familiar opponent.

Later in the game, the Vikings rushed out of a similar alignment.

“Sometimes it’s just trying to get them to think on the sideline just as much,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said Monday after Sunday night’s 24-17 win. “Get over there and get on that board and draw a little bit and try to get them working on some other things.”

The ever-evolving Minnesota defense added another disguise to limit the Packers to 254 total yards. Rodgers finished 17-of-28 passing for 198 yards and was sacked four times.

“They played more two shell than in the years we’ve played against Mike,” Rodgers said after the game. “There hasn’t been any true cover and tonight they played some. That was a change-up. They slid some of their coverage and that’s why we tried to put (tight end Jimmy Graham) down the middle. We just ended up going elsewhere with some of the calls.”

The changes on the Vikings’ side paid off. Minnesota won for the first time in four primetime games this season, bolstered its playoff resume and likely ended any postseason chance for Green Bay.

It also continued a defensive renaissance that has propelled the Vikings’ midseason run.

Minnesota sat 1-2-1 after a Week 4 loss to Los Angeles, its defense looking like a shell of the league-leading unit from last season. The Rams put up 556 yards of offense in that question-inducing loss for the Vikings.

Zimmer went back to his board to fix the Minnesota defense. Noted for his use of the ‘A’ gap blitzes, Zimmer felt teams had seen the look enough over recent years because more teams have copied his style. Opponents were prepared for what the Vikings’ threw at them.

The ‘A’ gap blitz was one part, but Zimmer has talked about needing to change his approach.

Since the loss to the Rams, Minnesota has given up 19.4 points per game. The Vikings have allowed just 276.6 yards per game in that stretch and they’ve won five of the seven games.

“If you asked me that about seven weeks ago, I’d probably be pretty concerned,” Zimmer said of his defense’s rise up the league rankings. “It’s a long season. There are a lot of things that go on throughout the course of time. We still have good players. They’re playing good, they’re concentrating, they’re focusing on the things we have to try to do each week.

“I just think we’ve had to change a little bit from where we started the season and these guys have handled it well. There are still six games left.”

Minnesota is now third in the league in total defense, giving up 314.7 yards per game this season. The Vikings are 10th in fewest points allowed at 22.4 per game. They are tied for third with 36 sacks and tied for seventh with 18 takeaways.

Handling Rodgers, with yet more new looks, was the latest step.

“We always smell blood,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said after the game. “Our mindset is to get after the quarterback. That is the mindset we carry with us every game. Aaron Rodgers is going to make plays, so we know we have to get to him.

“I have a lot of respect for Aaron Rodgers but keeping him to under 200 passing yards is definitely a plus.”

Led by the defense, Minnesota bounced back from a tough loss a week earlier to NFC North-leading Chicago. Next up is Sunday at New England.

“That loss in Chicago hurt, and I know a lot of the guys felt that way,” Zimmer said. “I know that they were concerned about the future schedule going on, but we had to focus on one game. You can’t win six games without winning one, and so it was really important.

“When I was in the locker room before the game with the guys, they were pretty juiced up and ready to go. They were in Chicago too, we just didn’t do well enough. I think we have a pretty smart team, they kind of know and I’m sure they peek at the schedule and know that we got to play on two (opposite) coasts back-to-back (the following week at Seattle) and a night game and all the other situations. We just need to continue to do the things we’re doing and play smart football, which I thought we did last night.”

Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/Vikings

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