Unlike Before, Vikings Succeed Despite Injuries
*note, this article was written following the Vikings week 4 win against the New York Giants
When all-world running back Adrian Peterson went down with a knee injury in the Vikings second game, it would be understandable if long-time fans flashed back to 2014, when the Vikings opened the season with a 34-6 win over the Rams, but lost Peterson for the year and ultimately finished 7-9, and thought another promising season could be lost. But a lot has changed over the last two years and the 2016 Vikings, as shown by their 4-0 start, are a different bunch.
It starts at the top with Head Coach Mike Zimmer. After more than 35 years as a college and pro assistant, as the top guy in Minnesota, he has the Vikings playing disciplined, team-first football and it shows. The team is built in Zimmer’s image, a selfless group more concerned with wins than individual stats. And while Zimmer is quick to bark when the effort level isn’t where he expects it to be, he also takes care of his players, like giving them breakfast sandwiches every Wednesday after a win and trying to help Blair Walsh solve is kicking woes.
The team-first approach is a big reason why the Vikings are humming along on both sides of the ball. On offense, the game plan is simple, keep Sam Bradford upright, open holes for Jerick McKinnon (who is averaging almost four yards per carry, compared to Peterson’s paltry less than two) and take what the defense gives you. Bradford is thriving in the system. The former first round cast off is hitting almost 70 percent of his passes and has four touchdowns and no picks. A big benefactor of improved QB play is tight end Kyle Rudolph. Having never eclipsed 500 yards receiving in a season, the former second round pick is emerging as a favorite target of Bradford’s, catching three of his four touchdowns.
On defense, not surprisingly since this is Zimmer’s area of expertise, it’s like the 1970s all over again, invoking fond memories of the Purple People Eaters. Despite the level of competition they’ve faced, the Vikings are shutting everyone down. The Vikings are second in the NFL with 15 sacks and when they blitz, opposing QBs are only completing 41 percent of their throws, second best in the league. Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Eli Manning have all come away losers against this defense. The Vikings’ defense made a statement to a national audience in their 17-14 win against the Packers on Sunday Night Football.
Opposing receivers aren’t fairing much better. Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin and Odell Beckham, Jr. have all been slowed or stopped. In fact, Beckham was held to a career low 23 receiving yards in the Vikings 24-10 win over the Giants. While the blitzing is impacting the quarterbacks, the play of defensive back Xavier Rhodes, who has developed into a shutdown corner, is what makes receivers cringe when they step on the field against this defense.
The only Achilles heel that could derail this promising season is Walsh’s kicking woes. He hasn’t been the same since shanking a 27-yard, would be, game winner in last year’s playoffs in Seattle. After missing only five kicks last season, Walsh has already missed three this year, to go along with missing two extra points (although he missed four of those last year.) Zimmer said the team isn’t looking to bring in competition for him “yet” but if the misses continue, and the Vikings want this season to truly be different than disappointments past, this is one area they will have to address.