Vikings

Vikings Rediscover Pass Rush and Return Game to Snap Month-Long Skid

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

The Minnesota Vikings weren’t getting home on Carson Palmer. They were pressuring, yes, but the sacks were still not there, Palmer had 153 yards passing before halftime, and the Cardinals had 17 points. Zimmer was tempted to blitz and put additional pressure on the veteran Palmer, who was locked in on his favorite target, Larry Fitzgerald, Jr.

Zimmers’ players talked him out of it, however. “There was a lot of times I wanted to blitz,” Zimmer said after the game, “and they kept telling me, just do what you’re doing, we’re rushing the heck out of the quarterback, so I did.”

The Vikings just kept sending the front four and finished the game with 15 quarterback hits, including four second-half sacks – the last of which sealed the game on an Arizona 4th and 6. Danielle Hunter got two sacks, breaking out of a miniature drought. Harrison Smith and Brian Robison added one apiece.

“just do what you’re doing, we’re rushing the heck out of the quarterback.”

The Vikings seemed to be spreading their front four wider than usual, particularly in third down situations. This might take a little bit of film comparison to confirm, and will be a good question for Zimmer at Monday’s presser, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we hear the Vikings tried to mix up their look on the defensive line.

The Vikings’ pressure on Palmer forced him into numerous pickles where he threw the ball away – one time even taking an intentional grounding call as he was chased by the formidable stampede of Everson Griffen, Robison and Hunter. Like many teams in the NFL, Arizona’s offensive line has been marred by injuries, and they suffered another when Mike Iupati rolled his left ankle in the first half. Iupati returned to the game but played poorly at left guard. This is nothing new for the Cardinals, who had allowed the fourth-most sacks in the league entering play on Sunday, and their four additional sacks surrendered puts them at 31 for the season. “Just effort and coach putting in some good calls,” Harrison Smith said about the rejuvenated pass rush.

Something the Vikings didn’t do much of during their four-game losing streak was lead, allowing other teams to have play-calling flexibility and strong run games when playing from in front. Sunday, Minnesota scored a first quarter touchdown for the first time since Week 5 and led by 10, 27-17, when the Cardinals first touched the ball in the second half.

Something the Vikings didn’t do much of during their four-game losing streak was lead.

Minnesota had been 23rd in the league over the last three games stopping the run. While the negative trend of permeable run defense will continue based on Arizona’s 135-yard output, the Vikings only allowed 25 rush yards in the second half on a mere six carries after being gashed by Northern Iowa’s David Johnson for 89 yards in the first half alone. This is thanks to that double-digit lead. The Cardinals ran it less and dropped back more with a patchwork offensive line, hence Minnesota’s second-half success tossing around Palmer.

They also covered better, holding Fitzgerald to two catches for 10 yards after halftime. Their game-winning sack was a classic coverage sack where Palmer had nowhere to throw after going through each of his reads, and when forced to improvise, Palmer is notoriously a subpar quarterback.

“Second half was a totally different story,” said Robison. “Everything was kind of flipped. Our pass rush came back. We played the run much better. I think we probably held them to less than twenty yards in the second half rushing up until that last drive. That’s the way we have to play.”

Returning to Form

The Vikings accomplished a 5-0 start this season by delivering timely defensive and special teams touchdowns at an uncanny rate. They had zero during their four-game skid, but they notched two on Sunday in the victory.

The first came from Xavier Rhodes on a 3rd and goal that prevented Arizona from tying the game or taking the lead and turned into the franchise’s longest-ever interception return: 100 yards to the house. Rhodes played zone coverage on the pass that was supposed to go to receiver John Brown. Captain Munnerlyn did an excellent job of jamming Brown, preventing him from adjusting to what appeared to be a poorly thrown ball. All Rhodes had to do at that point was catch it and outrun Palmer down the sideline for his first touchdown since high school. “I just knew what it hit my hands the only thing I knew to do was run,” Rhodes said. “That is exactly what I did, was run.”

Rhodes now has four interceptions on the season, by far his best year for takeaways in his four-year Vikings tenure. He also made a diving interception on Arizona’s lone deep ball of the day, intended for Michael Floyd.

Minnesota’s other return score came from sparkplug Cordarrelle Patterson, who continues his resurgence. Like Rhodes’ TD, Patterson’s 104-yard return to kickstart the second half extended a 3-point lead to a 10-point lead. It was his fifth career kick return touchdown on his only runback of the day. “When I saw the hole open up, a truck could have got through there,” Patterson said.

Zach Line, Rhett Ellison and Justin Trattou had key blocks on the return as Patterson went untouched to the end zone. He proceeded to jump into the crowd and spill a fan’s alcoholic beverages. “I owe him two beers,” said Patterson, offering to reimburse the man.

It was the type of three-phase victory the Vikings experienced routinely in September and early October. They scored touchdowns in each phase, played with the lead and locked down when it counted.

Now the NFC North will be on the line as the Vikings visit the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. “I had ‘Victory 10 Minutes,’” joked Zimmer after the win. “Now it’s time to get on to Detroit.”

Look for Arif Hasan’s reaction to the game at ColdOmaha.com on Monday morning. I’ll have a piece on the Vikings’ Wildcat Formation in the coming days.

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