After their 38-31 loss in Los Angeles over two weeks ago, Mike Zimmer declared that he wasn’t worried about the team’s 1-2-1 record. Of greater import was his prize defense, which had been steamrolled for two straight weeks.
Since then, the Vikings are 2-0 after delivering a pair of solid defensive showings that look closer to the 2017 unit that led the league in points allowed, yards allowed and third-down percentage.
Their 27-17 win Sunday was a callback to last year as the Vikings made a subpar team look exactly that.
The Arizona Cardinals managed just 10 offensive points against the Vikings on Sunday as rookie quarterback Josh Rosen was sacked four times, threw an interception and failed to convert a third or fourth down in 12 opportunities.
“The thing we’ve done better the last couple weeks is we’ve eliminated these big plays, and that’s been a big point of emphasis for us defensively,” said head coach Mike Zimmer.
The Cardinals did have a pair of lengthy pass plays in the first half, but both times the Vikings answered the bell. Rosen’s 35-yard pass to Christian Kirk set the Cardinals up at the Vikings’ 11-yard line, but Minnesota held Arizona to a field goal by bearing down on the next three plays, culminating in Anthony Barr’s batted pass on third down.
In the second quarter Ricky Seals-Jones hauled in a 40-yard catch against Harrison Smith, but the Vikings held on two consecutive plays from the 1-yard line to force a turnover on downs. Ben Gedeon and Anthony Harris teamed up to break up the third-down play-action pass, which preceded a fourth down stop of David Johnson.
“It was pretty complex,” Rosen said of the Vikings defense. “The most impressed thing was their ability to get off blitz in [the third-down situation]. … That defense has been together for a very long time.”
The Cardinals have yet to amass 300 total yards in a game, and they weren’t about to do it against the Vikings on Sunday — not without a third-down conversion.
The Cardinals averaged third and 7.4 on the day. On their 10 failed conversions, Rosen was sacked twice, threw an interception to Harris and went 1 for 7 for minus-two yards when he had enough time to throw.
“[Zimmer] called a great game,” said Barr, who also forced a fumble. “Kept them off-balance, mixed up the coverages, mixed up the blitzes and coverage, and we were able to execute for the most part.”
Danielle Hunter got a pair of sacks to extend his streak to six straight games, but it was the defensive backs who got the chance to pressure Rosen on his two third-down sacks. Mackensie Alexander sprinted inside the right tackle for a first quarter sack of Rosen, and Harrison Smith nearly recorded a safety as he raced around the left tackle in the third quarter to sack Rosen at his own 2-yard line.
“We pride ourselves on getting to the quarterback,” said Smith, “whether it is four-man, five-man or six-man [pressure], we always want to do that.”
With the pass largely bottled up, the oft-trailing Cardinals had little chance to establish the run, finishing with just 61 yards on 20 carries. The Vikings have held their last two opponents to 3.8 yards per carry combined after allowing a pair of 100-yard performances in their consecutive losses.
Zimmer spoke after last Sunday’s win how “prideful” his defense was. With doubts swirling at the season’s quarter pole, the unit has begun to right itself.
“The way we have played the last two weeks is what they did last year,” said safety George Iloka. “We just have to improve on that and just keep building. The sky is the limit.”