They have won their last three games by a total of 44 points after Sunday’s convincing 31-13 victory against the Houston Texans, and the narrative remains the same for the Minnesota Vikings: How is it quarterback Sam Bradford could be playing this well after joining the team just eight days before the season opener?
While that is a worthy subject, and obviously Bradford has been a shining star in the Vikings’ 5-0 start, leaving them as the only undefeated team in the NFL, it doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Not when the Minnesota defense has yet to allow more than 16 points in a game and a total of 63. Not when that defense has allowed only 1 touchdown in each of the last three games as the Vikings outscored Carolina, the New York Giants and Houston by a combined count of 77-33.
Sunday, the Texans totaled 214 yards, averaged 3.6 yards per play and failed on their first 12 third-down plays. Their only success on third down came on their only touchdown drive, which was late in the fourth quarter and began with the Vikings leading 31-6.
For the season, the Vikings have allowed 3.7 yards per rush, a 55.5 percent completion rate after quarterback Brock Osweiler connected on only 19 of 42 passes Sunday, and 19 sacks. They were relentless getting after Osweiler, sacking him 4 times and hitting him another 13. On first-down plays, the Vikings had allowed a league-low 3.46 yards entering the game, and the Texans averaged 3.85.
One of the attributes that attracted the Vikings to Bradford was his penchant for avoiding interceptions.
As head coach Mike Zimmer said, “We can’t turn the ball over very much. He has done a really nice job getting the ball out when he needs to, when he’s getting pressured, if he has to throw it away he will, get it checked down to the backs, all those things. We’re kind of a blue-collar team, anyway.”
That’s their philosophy because Bradford and the remainder of the offense know a punt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They know the defense will get the ball back most likely sooner than later and often it will be on a turnover. They have 12 takeaways thus far, but the offense has coughed it up just once, and Bradford has yet to throw an interception in 125 attempts. With his 22 of 30 performance Sunday for 271 yards, two touchdowns and a 123.1 passer rating, Bradford nudged his completion percentage to over 70 from 69.5 to 70.4.
As for that “blue-collar” mentality, when asked Sunday if the defense has taken Zimmer’s personality, linebacker Chad Greenway said, “I think your team does that naturally with a coach, good or bad. He embodies this football team and we obviously respond to him.”
Zimmer said the credit goes to the players, saying after the win against Houston, “We have good players and they do things right. I don’t think it’s a big secret. I’m probably the one that underestimates them the most. Each week when we go in to game plan, I’m the most miserable person in the world trying to figure out how to stop a team. They go out and they perform. I think they like to compete. I think they like to try prove how good they can be.”
They are doing just that. Defensive end Bryan Robison had 2 sacks Sunday, while unsung defensive tackle Tom Johnson had a sack and 6 hits on Osweiler.
Johnson said it’s evident when an opposing offense makes adjustments because the defense plays at such a high level.
“You can see that a lot of those teams are changing what they like to do,” Johnson said. “Guys that like to be in four- or five-, six- or seven-step drops are staying shallow, three or four. Guys that like to be real deep, to have their tackles 1-on-1 with our ends, they’re not doing that. They’re chipping out, having some backup. That’s part of the respect that they’re giving us, and at some point they’re going to have to go to what they like, and that’s going to open our game plan up.”
Robison said the approach is rather simple if not difficult to execute in getting a quarterback off his game. He said, “It always starts with stopping the run. That’s going to be any team we play. We have to stop the run and put them in those situations where they have to throw the ball. Once we get them in those situations, that’s what we want to do. It’s not necessarily all about sack numbers or things like that.
“At the end of the day we want to get a bunch of sacks, but what is more important to us is making sure we’re getting hits on the quarterback, that we’re getting around and frustrating him, that we’re having him move around in the pocket and do some things that they don’t want to do, because now they can’t sit there and look downfield for a 50-yard bomb. They have to pay attention to where we’re at up front.”
They also have a 12th man in their new venue, U.S. Bank Stadium, which is rapidly becoming one of the loudest in the league. That certainly played a role Sunday as the Texans totaled 14 yards on 13 plays in their first four possessions, and were trailing 24-6 at halftime after they managed only 67 yards on 28 plays (2.4 per play).
Said Osweiler, “At times as far as if you see something that the defense is doing, you want to audible and the play clock is getting down low, that is where it affects you because now you do not have time to do that. So now maybe you are throwing high and you are just going to throw the ball in the dirt. Where if you were at home maybe you can verbalize something in 2 or 3 seconds and get a different play.
“That is where the difference is on the road comes, but that is no excuse. We talked about it all week. Coach (Bill) O’Brien prepared us. He said rogue communication is going to be one of the biggest keys to this game.”
Now, the Vikings prepare for their bye, aiming to come back and pick up where they left off with games at Philadelphia and on Monday Night Football on Halloween at Chicago.
As Robison concluded. “At the end of the day when you look at our group, we’re about one thing and one thing only, and that’s winning. Guys aren’t out for themselves to pad the stats, they’re not going out there and being selfish and putting others in bad situations. We go out there and do our job and we do what we need to do within the scheme of the defense. If we keep doing that, we’ve got some great things that can happen moving forward.”