Limbeck: Redemption for Vikings defense
The Minnesota Vikings defense got a bit of redemption Sunday.
A year ago the Vikings had the No. 1 defense in the NFL. But that defense was exposed over the final six quarters of the 2017 postseason.
That playoff hangover seemed to linger. This year the most puzzling aspect of Minnesota’s 1-2-1 start had been the play of that defense. Despite having all of its key players back, the Minnesota defense had been very shaky in pass coverage and was allowing 27.5 points per game.
Well, on Sunday, the Vikings returned to the site of last year’s NFC Championship Game debacle, and the defense turned in its best game of the season so far. It might be a stretch to say the Vikings saved their season, but they went to Philadelphia and exorcised last year’s playoff demons by holding on for a 23-20 victory over the Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champs.
In the process, the Vikings played the type of defense that fans had been expecting all along.
“Defensively that first half looked a lot more like what I’m used to seeing,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I thought the guys responded to what we were trying to do this week.”
The Vikings defense set the tone early as they held the Eagles to fewer than 100 yards in the first half and forced Philly to go 0-for-4 on third-down conversions. Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph had the team’s biggest defensive play of the year in the second quarter. With the game tied at 3-all, the Eagles were driving. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly, filling in for Everson Griffen, delivered a strip sack of Carson Wentz. Joseph picked the ball out of the air and raced 64 yards for a touchdown.
“Typically when you score on defense, your odds of winning go way up,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings defense not only scored, but that unit had another big takeaway on the Eagles’ first drive of the third quarter. Linebacker Eric Kendricks recovered an Eagles fumble at the Minnesota 5 to preserve a 17-3 lead.
The Vikings’ defensive effort was quite a turnaround from their last outing a week ago Thursday, when the unit allowed 38 points in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“The defense is a very prideful group,” Zimmer said. “I think after last week they wanted to do some things.”
If that’s the type of defense the Vikings can continue to play, the team should be headed for a strong turnaround. The offense, despite a lackluster running game, seems to be in fine shape. Quarterback Kirk Cousins continues to drop in some stellar throws, and he has a strong cast of receivers. Cousins (30-for-37 for 301 yards and a touchdown) set an NFL record Sunday by completing at least 30 passes for the fourth straight game.
Minnesota native Adam Thielen also continued his rise to stardom as a wide receiver. Thielen became the first receiver in NFL history to have more than 100 yards receiving in each of the first five games of a season. Thielen hauled in a perfect 3-yard TD dart from Cousins to put the Vikings up 17-3 late in the second quarter. The pair then hooked up on a 68-yard deep strike after Kendricks’ fumble recovery in the third quarter, setting up a field goal and a 20-3 lead.
“I thought he made some unbelievable throws and threw some guys open,” Zimmer said of Cousins.
The Vikings didn’t have an easy time down the stretch, however. The Eagles kept Minnesota out of the end zone in the second half.
Philadelphia was within 20-14 with less than 10 minutes left when the Vikings fumbled the ball away, on a lateral, at their own 30. But the Vikings defense held and forced an Eagles punt. It was the type of defensive stand that has been missing in 2018.
“That was a big, big momentum changer in the ball game,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings offense then produced a 55-yard drive taking nearly six and a half minutes off the clock. Kicker Dan Bailey, who had gone just 2-for-4 earlier in the game, booted a clutch 52-yard field goal with 2:47 left to give the Vikings a 23-14 lead.
“For him to make that kick, that’s why we brought him in here,” Zimmer said.
The Eagles sliced through the Vikings prevent defense for a 75-yard TD drive in just 98 seconds to pull within two with just over a minute to play. But the sure-handed Thielen bobbled and then recovered the onside kick to seal the much-needed win.
“I think his deal is he’s all heart,” Zimmer said of Thielen.
In a game that could turn their season around, the Vikings showed up and played with a lot of heart as well.
“It’s big,” Zimmer said. “We know what kind of team we can be.”