Over the course of four-plus tightly contested quarters of play at TCF Bank Stadium last Sunday afternoon, the Vikings, who now are an impressive 6-2, had already made quite a strong statement of sorts about who they are and who they intend to be this season.
But then head coach Mike Zimmer stood up after his team’s hard-fought 21-18 overtime win over the Rams and doubled down, taking exception with the style of play favored by the St. Louis defense in general, and specifically the elbow to the head that Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner laid on sliding Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a penalized hit that knocked Bridgewater out of the game with a concussion.
Labeling Joyner’s hit a “cheap shot,” Zimmer added pointedly, “If we were on the street, we probably would have had a fight,” making it clear that he laid the blame for the Rams’ over-the-line aggressiveness at the feet of St. Louis defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has a history of coaching players in the art of knocking opponents out of games. They came across as stern words of warning more so than complaints, and they registered in a distinct tone-setting way.
Zimmer’s blunt message was aimed at the Rams, but its most important audience was his own locker room. Because if they weren’t already, his Vikings players are now completely committed to their second-year head coach and everything he’s selling. It was one of those defining moments when Minnesota stood firmly as a team, and maybe for the first time realized its own strength.
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“We love Coach Zimmer here,” Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph said via phone Tuesday morning. “We’ve got Zimmer’s back because he’s got our back. If anything happens to any one of us, he has our back. And for him to do that, and say that, that’s him showing us he cares about his team and his players and he’s not going to let anybody take advantage of us. Just like I’m not going to let anybody take advantage of him. So I respect him for that.”
Zimmer’s team has cultivated a resilient mentality and identity for itself this season, and the win over St. Louis was almost the perfect example of the grind-it-out style of play that has produced a series of close, low-scoring victories. Winners of six out of seven, the Vikings suddenly are tied with the faltering Packers for first place in the NFC North, and Minnesota is finding value in succeeding despite playing games decided by a razor’s edge. Minnesota’s current four-game winning streak features wins by 6, 9, 3 and 3 points, and the Vikings are averaging 21 points scored and 17.5 points allowed through eight games—almost exactly the margin of their gritty 21-18 win over the Rams.
“That’s just how this league is,” Joseph said. “You have to earn every win in this league. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. That’s what we coach here. Every day we work hard to be the best in our class, and Coach Zimmer is right there in the mix with us. He’s going to coach it the best way and give us the best tools to go into the game and come out on top. We are winning games when everybody does their job, because when that happens, everything will fall for you at the right time.”
Nobody personified that right-play-at-the-right-time reality against the Rams better than Joseph, who turned in a monster game with a career-high 10 tackles, with seven of those solo, three of them for loss, with two quarterback hits and an 8-yard sack he split with strong safety Andrew Sendejo. With defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Eric Kendricks both missing from the lineup against St. Louis, the Linval-led Vikings defense still managed to hold Rams star rookie running back Todd Gurley in check, limiting him to 89 rushing yards on 24 carries (3.7 average), the first time he started a game and finished with less than 128 yards in his brief NFL career.
Joseph deflated the Rams with game-turning plays three different times, dropping Gurley for a 6-yard loss on the first play of overtime, after Zimmer boldly decided to take the wind rather than the ball to start the extra period; corralling Gurley again on a two-point conversion run with Minnesota leading 10–6 in the first quarter; and coming through to tackle Gurley for a 2-yard loss that sparked an early third-quarter three-and-out, right after Bridgewater had thrown an interception in the end zone with the Vikings trailing 15–10 on their first possession of the second half.
In a game that St. Louis tied 18–18 on kicker Greg Zuerlein’s 53-yard field goal with 17 seconds left in regulation, that point-after try that St. Louis passed on in the first quarter in favor of a Gurley run wound up being very significant. All day, Joseph was in the middle of things, helping to limit St. Louis to just three points from halftime on. The Rams were just 2 of 16 on third downs, improving Minnesota’s defense to second in the NFL in that category (30% conversion rate), with the Vikings ranking second in points allowed (17.5 per game) and seventh in yardage (332).
Zimmer’s gutsy decision to let St. Louis have the first overtime possession spoke volumes about the faith he has in his defense, and he recently singled out Joseph as “maybe the best” nose tackle he has coached in his long career, no faint praise from Zimmer, who once coached standout defensive tackles in Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins and Dallas’s La’Roi Glover.
“It feels good (to hear Zimmer’s praise),” said Joseph, a sixth-year veteran who is only 27 and just entering his prime. “He saw how I came in last year and had a slow start and was trying to learn the defense. I told him, ‘It’s a new year, I’m ready to go. I’m healthy and I’m here to help this team win.’ And that’s what I’m doing, trying to be a leader on and off the field and make my plays when my number is called. He sees it, he knows it, he trusts me, and I trust him. I feel like everyone in this locker room trusts one another. We’re a very close family here in this organization, and that’s how we like it.”
Joseph’s teammate, defensive end Brian Robison, amped up his campaign for a Pro Bowl berth for Joseph after his dominant performance against the Rams, and it’s clear now why Zimmer made adding the former New York Giants defensive tackle a clear priority in 2014’s free agency, when Minnesota signed him to a five-year, $31-million deal. (But why exactly did New York general manager Jerry Reese let him go?)
“He’s having a Pro Bowl-type season,” Robison said after the win over the Rams. “He should go to the Pro Bowl. If he doesn’t, it’s a travesty.”
Said Joseph: “It’d mean a lot to me, because everybody plays this game to go the Pro Bowl, to go the Super Bowl, to be in the top 100. Those are the gifts, the honors you get from playing this game. The Pro Bowl would be big, because that’s one of the things on my list that I would like to check off and be able to reach before I retire.”
Those types of accolades will likely come his way if these Vikings keep winning. At 6-2, they are off to the start they hoped for, but can they finish? They’re about to embark on the toughest five-game stretch on their schedule: at Oakland this week, then home against rival Green Bay, at Atlanta, home against Seattle, and at Arizona. Still looming is a Week 17 trip to Lambeau Field.
“I’m glad that things are not going well for them (the Packers),” said Joseph, mentioning Green Bay’s two-game losing streak that has brought back into a tie with the Vikings. “I’m glad that we’re even with them right now. But you never know how this league is going to go. I can’t wait to play them, and I know they can’t wait to play us, and to see who’s really going to be on top. But hey, man, I’m excited about this whole season. I’m excited about playing Oakland. I’m excited about every game that’s coming towards us.”
Joseph, a second-year pro on the Giants’ 2011 team that won a Super Bowl after going 9-7 in the regular season, understands the story of this year’s Vikings has largely yet to be written. Minnesota, he said, has been methodically building something special ever since it got embarrassed 20-3 at San Francisco on the Monday night of Week 1, falling flat after an offseason of optimism and hype surrounded the franchise.
“We have a great team here,’’ said Joseph, the NFL’s only active player who is from St. Croix and a native of the Virgin Islands. “Not a great defense. Or a great offense. Or a great special teams. The whole team. I love this team, because every day we work hard to be great. We’re coming together and that’s what’s making it work so well and so good. We’re doing this together. There’s not one person out front trying to be a hero. We’re all working together.”
At midseason, everything is working so far in Minnesota. Zimmer has a tightly-knit and talented team on the ascent and believing in itself, with a dominant player in Joseph who is ready and willing to lead the way.