Philadelphia, Pa. — While winning a road game in the NFC East requires a three-phase team effort, which the Minnesota Vikings got on Sunday, their 23-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles continued a pair of individual trends — one offensively, one defensively — that might have gotten overshadowed had the Vikings not pulled through to move to 2-2-1 on the season.
Adam Thielen made seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown to become the first player in the Super Bowl era to gain 100-plus yards through the air in their first five games. Defensively, Danielle Hunter took a page from Everson Griffen’s book last year and recorded a sack for the fifth consecutive game to start the year.
Both players — established veteran leaders — made huge impacts in a game the Vikings had to win, a heartening display for fans to prove that this Minnesota team isn’t going to let an early-season slump define its season of meteoric expectations.
Thielen set the tone for the day with a diving catch for 24 yards on the game’s third play. Later in the first half, he grabbed a 3-yard touchdown on a perfectly-thrown ball from Cousins in the back left corner of the end zone after getting his jersey tugged on the play by defensive back Ronald Darby. But his longest play of the day came on a first and 10 from Minnesota’s own 5-yard line in the third quarter. Thielen put a double move on Jalen Mills and caught a deep pass from Cousins, then turned it into a 68-yard gain.
“I just go where my reads take me,” said Cousins. “It comes back again to Coach [John DeFilippo] being aggressive and giving us opportunities. He called a double move the very first play of the drive backed up. That is an aggressive play-caller. You trust the receiver to win and trust the team to execute the play.”
As Thielen has morphed into one of the league’s top receivers, he’s also been given the platform to be a vocal leader. Zimmer noted during the spring that Thielen talked trash more now than he did when he was an undrafted free agent simply trying to make the team. Sunday he exchanged words with Mills after the defensive back broke up a third-down pass in the red zone.
“It’s just football. You get into the moment,” Thielen said. “I always love when guys talk smack after making one play, but that’s this game. It’s fun. It’s fun to have that heated battle, and we’re in a war. After the game we had a lot of respect for each other.”
That type of competitiveness has been clear to Cousins from the start of his time with the Vikings, though he finds Thielen’s competitive side to be an interesting juxtaposition from his default of ‘Minnesota nice.’
“He’s a really nice guy,” Cousins said. “He really fits the whole Minnesota nice vibe. He is a great spokesperson for this state, and yet he is a competitor. He loves to compete. He didn’t want to take a day off in OTAs or in training camp. When he isn’t involved in the offense for any amount of time, he gets frustrated because he wants to help the team.”
Thielen’s perfectionist’s mentality shone through after the game as he told reporters that “even when you have good stats it doesn’t mean you’re playing well.”
That’s true to form, according to Thielen’s head coach.
“He’s always talking about how he can get better,” Mike Zimmer said. “He comes up to me during the week and say, ‘I’m doing this and I just need to run, or I need to do this. … Even on the long one he caught he said, ‘Man, I’m faster than that.'”
Hunter’s five-game streak may not have historical precedent like Thielen’s, but on a broader level, it shows the Vikings that there might be life on the defensive line until Griffen returns, and that they weren’t frittering away money by doling out a five-year, $72 million contract to Hunter in the offseason.
The 23-year-old defensive end ended the game with a pair of quarterback hits, a sack to help hold Philadelphia to a field goal in the Vikings red zone and an assist on Eric Kendricks’ forced fumble with the Eagles inside the Vikings’ 10-yard line.
“The defense is a very prideful group,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think after the performance last week they wanted to get back to doing things. I went into the defensive meeting the other day and said, “Here’s what’s happening; this is what we have to fix to get going.’ These guys really took to heart about the things that we had to try to accomplish.”
After giving up 38 points to Los Angeles, the duo of Hunter and Stephen Weatherly finally reduced the glare of Griffen’s absence as they kept Wentz uncomfortable most of the first half.
Griffen started last season with sacks in eight consecutive games, but he’s currently away from the team getting treatment for a mental health issue. With veteran Brian Robison also getting released before the season, Hunter remains as the Vikings’ lone established presence at defensive end. He rarely took a play off Sunday as the Vikings’ only backup on the edge was Jalyn Holmes, who moved over from 3-technique.
“It’s just a mindset,” said Hunter. “You’ve got to believe that you can do what you need to do. It’s all about attitude.”
Hunter reached 30.5 career sacks with his takedown of Wentz. Only three defensive linemen in league history, per Pro Football Reference, have reached that mark before turning 24: Robert Quinn (34.5), Mario Williams (30.5) and Terrell Suggs (30.5). Hunter turns 24 on Oct. 29.
For now, he’s just happy with the win.
“[Zimmer] said nobody believed that we could win this game but us and the organization,” Hunter said. “We just had to keep grinding.”