Vikings defense off to playoff-caliber start ahead of its biggest test yet
Like that exquisite lunar eclipse on Sunday night, you can clearly see it coming. Both the emergence of Mike Zimmer’s defense as a force in Minnesota and the collision that awaits this week, when the Vikings’ young and aggressive pass rush will be aimed squarely at the vulnerable 39-year-old body of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, with bad intentions in mind.
There’s no better matchup in the NFL’s Week 4 than Manning’s knack for surviving and thriving against a physical Vikings defense that is starting to impose its will on opponents. Minnesota (2–1) the past two weeks has abused the opposing quarterback, knocking both Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and San Diego’s Philip Rivers around all day long in double-digit wins at home in TCF Bank Stadium.
Quarterbacks who run up against this athletic Vikings defense are starting to pay a painful toll, and on Sunday in Denver, a measuring-stick challenge presents itself with the wily Manning and his 3–0 Broncos.
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink, and we have to try to get to him and be physical with him as much as we can,” said veteran Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway of Manning on Monday, one day after his highlight-reel 91-yard interception return for a touchdown provided the exclamation point to Minnesota’s 31–14 trouncing of the Chargers. “You want to beat the best and he’s proven to be the best over his career at multiple levels and for multiple teams now. It’d be a great challenge for us to beat him and especially at home in his environment. The challenge is definitely taking down Peyton. Hopefully we’re up to it.”
After a preseason filled with playoff expectations, the Vikings got pushed around in a 20–3 loss at San Francisco on the Monday night of Week 1 and left the Bay Area with a harsh reality check. But they have quickly flipped the script and starting punishing people in response to that beating. Stafford was sacked just once in the Lions’ 26–16 loss at Minnesota, but he was hit early and often and left looking dazed and confused by the constant barrage of pass pressure. Ditto for Rivers on Sunday, when he was sacked four times, throwing that pick-six and fumbling once. For his own safety, the Chargers pulled Rivers in the fourth quarter and let backup Kellen Clemens handle the mop-up duty.
“[Sunday] was the complete opposite of what we did in San Francisco,” said Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, the 13th-year veteran who joined Minnesota this off-season and has played for Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati. “Our defense is predicated off stopping the run, and it starts with our really good defensive linemen and linebackers. You stop the run, then you can pin your ears back and get after the quarterback. We stopped the run [Sunday] and put them in situations where they became more predictable, and then you saw what our D-linemen are capable of. Any time those guys can rush the quarterback a little bit, it’s going to be a long day for the quarterback.”
The Chargers rushed for 90 yards on 28 carries (3.2) on Sunday, but they were mostly low-impact yards, and Minnesota’s talent on defense is starting to set the tone in games. The Vikings rank fifth in the league with just 16.7 points allowed per game and have yet to surrender more than 20 points. Their 6.4 yards allowed per pass attempt is tied for fourth, and defensive end Everson Griffen had 1 1/2 sacks and five hurries against San Diego, tying him for fifth in the NFL with three sacks on the season. Since the start of last year, Griffen’s 15 sacks are tied for sixth in the league with Denver outside linebacker Von Miller.
You knew Minnesota was going to build one of the NFL’s better defenses the minute it hired Zimmer as head coach in early 2014, and the longtime defensive coordinator has not disappointed on that front.
“I think we’re starting to get there,” said Greenway, the Vikings’ 2006 first-round pick and now longest-tenured member of the defense. “I think we have to establish an identity of who we are, and you can’t really get an identity without doing it multiple weeks in a row. Now we’ve put together two weeks in a row against some pretty solid opponents, and obviously Denver is going to be a huge challenge for us. But playing good two weeks in a row is only a step in the right direction.
“The reality is we do have a lot of good athletes and a lot of good players on this defense, with good young guys. But that doesn’t make you a good defense. It just means you have the talent if you can put it together over the course of a 16-game season. The best thing about Coach Zimmer is he’s going to keep us humble, he’s going to keep us hungry, and he’s going to keep us working, not letting anybody get out over their skis.”
If anybody has had an “out over their skis” moment in Minnesota of late it’s Greenway, whose memorable 91-yard gallop down the Vikings sideline was just his second NFL interception return touchdown and his first since 2007. After Griffen pressured Rivers yet again, Greenway gathered in a tipped pass at the Vikings' nine-yard line and headed to the right, where an absolute convoy of teammates waited to ecstatically escort him into the end zone. The Minnesota sideline went nuts as the play unfolded, with both Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray colliding with an official and falling to the ground, as the wildly popular Greenway capped an emotional day he’ll never forget.
Greenway’s 82-year-old grandfather on his father’s side, Tom Greenway, was attending his first Vikings game ever on Sunday, journeying from the family’s home in South Dakota over the weekend for both the game and a birthday celebration for Greenway’s one-year-old daughter. Greenway lost his father Alan to leukemia in December and lost his grandmother on his father’s side the following month.
“It was obviously a special day for me and my family,” said Greenway, who after the game gave his grandfather the ball he intercepted. “My grandfather lost his wife of 60 years and his oldest son in a short span of time. As I went to bed last night I was just thinking how special of a thing that was. You know, I’m not probably the most publicly religious person, but sometimes you just think that there’s something else going on for it all to be wrapped up in that sweet of a bow for me. I had to think that my dad and grandmother had a part in that somehow. At least I like to think that way and nobody can tell me any different. What a special day, with my mother being there and my grandfather there. It was incredible.”
Greenway, a former All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, has seen his playing time cut back dramatically this season, maintaining his starting weakside linebacker role but playing only in the Vikings’ base defense for the most part, coming off the field on passing downs. He has accepted pay cuts the past two off-seasons to stay in Minnesota, the only NFL team he has ever played for after being drafted out of the University of Iowa, because at age 32 he wants to be a part of what Zimmer is building in the Twin Cities.
It was easy to see the respect and affection his teammates hold for him by their unbridled enthusiasm on his long scoring return.
“It was such a long return and my blockers had a better angle than I did,” Greenway said. “So by the time I got to the sideline to get going up the sideline, they were basically there waiting for me. Then the last 40 yards or so we just kind of jogged in. It was pretty amazing. Those guys wouldn’t let anything happen to me.
“You can’t really describe a moment like that. I’ve been here a long time and some of these guys were in high school or even middle school when I came to the NFL. It’s a special thing to me. There were so many times in my career a ball has been tipped and it’s just out of reach or I’ve been out of position and not made the play. To be able to grab it and then have my teammates literally just convoy me into the end zone, it was awesome, just icing on the cake for me and my team.”
With two home wins in a row the past two weeks, the Vikings have now won five consecutive games at their temporary home of TCF Bank Stadium and six of seven dating from midseason of last year. The “outdoor” Vikings are rapidly building a home-field advantage, but this week’s challenge of winning in Denver is one of the toughest in the NFL. The Broncos are 23–2 at home in the regular season since Manning arrived in 2012.
“It’ll be a great test for us to see exactly where we are,” Newman said. “After our last two weeks, there’s been a lot of positive stuff going around, and that’s good, but we’ve only won two games. What does that mean? Nothing. We’ve won two games. But now we’ve got to be consistent and string some wins together and then maybe we can build something good here.”
It is still early, but there’s something good building in Minnesota, especially on defense. You can see that much coming. These Vikings are a young and talented team on the rise, and they have the pieces in place to make this a playoff-bound season.