EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have developed one of the toughest defenses in the NFL under the demanding, experienced and creative direction of coach Mike Zimmer.
If Adrian Peterson’s league-leading rushing total is the face of this team’s identity, the aggressive, disciplined and well-rounded defense is the rest of the body, as well as the mind and the soul.
The Vikings, who have given up the second-fewest points in the NFL, took back sole possession of first place in the NFC North with another hallmark performance by the players paid to keep the other team from scoring in a 20-10 victory Sunday at Atlanta.
There’s no better time of the year for this defense to be thriving.
“Anytime you have a north in your division, NFC North or AFC North, this is a pretty good ingredient going forward when the weather starts getting colder and things like that,” Zimmer said Monday as the Twin Cities area was topped with its first significant snowfall of the season.
The Vikings (8-3), who have a four-game winning streak on the road for their longest since 1998, play three of their next four games at home. It’s the stretch run of their two-year stay at the University of Minnesota before they become a downtown dome team again.
The last regular-season game is at Green Bay. Then there could be the playoffs, with the possibility of a cold-site contest or two.
“Everybody’s doing their job and understanding their assignment and scheme and playing fast,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “So hopefully guys can continue to play at a high level, and I think we’ll continue to be successful.”
Zimmer tends to ration the compliments, perhaps an overlooked reason among many why the Vikings have become such a force on defense. The Falcons scored a meaningless touchdown in the closing minutes, and the coach didn’t miss his opportunity to urge the group to be better in the future at finishing a game strongly.
“We’re going to have to that Super Bowl trophy in our hands to satisfy him,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, smiling.
The players hardly disagreed, though.
“You can always do better. We’re just trying to strive for greatness. We want to be champions,” Barr said.
The key to the scheme can sound quite cliche, but pass rushers not overrunning a play in pursuit of a sack and the secondary resisting temptation to chase a turnover can be critical toward success.
“That’s really what it’s about. Just doing your job. All 11 guys being where they’re supposed to be when the defense is called,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “If we do that, we’ve shown we can be pretty dang good. But we’ve also shown that when we don’t do that, we can be pretty mediocre. We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing here lately.”
Elite talent can’t be discounted, either.
Barr’s play, despite an injured left hand he confirmed Monday was broken three games ago, has been Pro Bowl-caliber. Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen have led the way on the line.
The defensive backs had one of their best collective performances at Atlanta, too. With star safety Harrison Smith out, steering Antone Exum Jr. into his first career start, the Vikings kept NFL receiving leader Julio Jones quiet and intercepted Matt Ryan twice.
“I think everybody just goes out and tries to play for each other,” Exum said. “When you make a mistake, it’s not just about you making a mistake. You’re trying to think about, ‘Oh, man, I could have left the corner out to dry on that one, or I wasn’t in the right gap and now I put the linebacker in a hard spot.’ We’re not just hurting ourselves, but we’re playing for the guy beside us.”
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