With big names, and big paychecks, at every level of their defense, the Minnesota Vikings expected be dominant on that side of the ball this season.
Those expectations have been realized. It just took the stingy group a little longer to get there than they would have liked.
While Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and the rest of the offense continues to light up the scoreboard, Jared Allen, the Williams Wall and the rest of the defense has definitely held up its share of the bargain over the last three weeks.
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In five weeks leading into their bye, the Vikings defense surrendered an average of 376.4 yards – including 96.2 yards rushing – and 20.6 points a game, not counting the two defensive touchdowns that Pittsburgh scored on Oct. 25.
Since their bye week a month ago, however, the Vikings have allowed an average of 226 yards – 46.7 on the ground – and just 9.7 points. They currently rank eight in total defense and second against the run heading into Sunday’s game at Arizona.
“They are playing swarming defense,” coach Brad Childress said. “They are getting a bunch of guys to the ball.”
Just ask the Chicago Bears. Last week in the Metrodome, the Bears managed just 2 yards of offense in the second half of a 36-10 loss. They didn’t earn so much as a first down in the final 30 minutes.
“I think the last three games we’re playing the type of defense that really all along we expected to play,” linebacker Chad Greenway said.
Allen has 12 1/2 of the team’s league-leading 40 sacks. Kevin and Pat Williams are stuffing the run as usual and linebacker E.J. Henderson is starting to look more like the playmaker he was before a foot injury early last season.
And they have done it without Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield, who has missed the last five games with a right foot injury. The Vikings (10-1) hope to have to have their little leader back on the field this week against the Cardinals (7-4), who will no doubt test that secondary with receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.
While the combined record of their last three opponents is 10-23, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is still encouraged by the increased production. During the self-scouting portion of their bye week, Frazier cringed at the number of missed tackles he saw that led to big gains by opposing offenses.
It had to stop, Frazier told his defenders. And it has.
“Our guys have done a really good job in that area coming back,” Frazier said. “Our yards after catch have decreased tremendously and we just got to keep it going week after week and this will be a big week for it.”
The Bears were 2 for 8 on third downs last week and the Seahawks were 1 for 10 two weeks ago. All told, Vikings opponents are holding the ball for just 22 minutes a game over the last three weeks, which is indicative both of the defense’s ability to stop drives before they start and the offense’s ability to sustain long, time-consuming drives.
“I think we’re starting to come together,” Henderson said. “Turnover-wise, pressure up front, tackling, getting back to what we do and smashing the run, everything is starting to come together.”
Favre has been given much of the credit for the team’s success this year, and it appears that the 40-year-old quarterback’s presence even brings benefits to the defense as well. Give Favre, Peterson and the offense an assist for hogging the ball.
“The best defense is an offense that stays on the field,” Henderson said. “If they keep doing that, it’s great. We feel way more fresh. Better on Monday, better on Tuesday. I like watching those boys play and see No. 4 and the boys go to work.”
Just how far the defense has come will soon be evident. With Arizona and division-leading Cincinnati on the schedule, the tests will only get tougher.
“We have a tougher stretch coming up now with some offenses that are having some luck and a lot of weapons,” Greenway said. “We’ll see where we stand after these next few weeks, but we feel good with where we’re at since the bye.”