MINNEAPOLIS — The coughing fit seized Mike Zimmer like the mighty arctic winds howling through his players’ ear holes.
Red-faced, watery-eyed and raspy, the first-year Vikings coach excused himself from the microphone to clear out his icy lungs. First, four hacks. Then an explanation of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s improved deep ball-passing, specifically timing. Two more coughs interrupted him.
"There’s nothing in there," Zimmer smiled, sure to nip any speculation about his health — even after the seventh-coldest game in Vikings history — in the bud. "I swear."
Here stood the defensive guru general manager Rick Spielman and owner Zygi Wilf hired to resurrect arguably the NFL’s worst defense from a year ago. The reclamation project is far from complete, but more layers were added in a 31-13 win Sunday against Carolina.
"Hopefully, all of our guys improve throughout the course of this year," Zimmer told reporters at TCF Bank Stadium, his throat finally cleared of all debris. "If they haven’t, then I’m probably not doing a good enough job. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in trying to get each player to play better each and every week, each and every day, and that’s really what I love to — definitely not talking to y’all, but taking guys and trying to get them better.
"I want them to have great careers."
They’re getting there. Sunday provided the latest glimpse into how.
Even before holding the Panthers to 13 points — tied for Minnesota’s lowest opponent mark since Week 1 — the Vikings ranked 14th in scoring defense at 22.2 points allowed per game. Last year, they allowed a league-worst 30.
In terms of total defense, Minnesota has moved from second-worst in the league last year (397.6 yards per game) to 12th in 2014 (342.5).
To improve on that position Sunday, Minnesota shut down Carolina and Cam Newton the rest of the way after an early third-quarter scoring drive. In the first half, it parlayed the momentum from a pair of blocked punts returned for touchdowns into a pair of red-zone stops that resulted in field goals.
The numbers are better. The performances of key names like Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith are better. Bringing in stalwarts like Captain Munnerlyn and Anthony Barr have made the defense better.
But mostly, when things go sideways, Zimmer’s defense won’t to submit to a meltdown.
"We’ve never gotten down," said Smith, who’s tied for third in the league with four interceptions after recording just two last season, "not one time this year, not down on ourselves."
Especially not after a blown coverage by cornerback Josh Robinson allowed Newton to hit Philly Brown on a 32-yard deep post for a touchdown that brought Carolina — which lost its six straight — within 28-13 less than six minutes into the second half Sunday. Robinson shadowed Brown the entire way but never made a play on the ball, and didn’t have any safety help over the top.
The Vikings offense had gone three-and-out to open the third quarter, and the energy was suddenly shifting to the visiting sideline on a frigid, 12-degree day with 17 mph gusts whipping around the club’s temporary home.
"I don’t think we handled the big lead coming out of halftime near as well as I would’ve liked," Zimmer said. "The momentum was starting to change, I felt like."
So Zimmer called out his defense on the sideline during his team’s next offensive series. The rest of the way, it allowed 82 yards on 22 plays (3.7 yards per play) and five first downs.
The Panthers had gained 251 yards on 50 plays (5 yards per play) and 14 first downs up to that point, including its final successful possession of the day — an eight-play, 80-yard drive that took 9:15 off the clock.
"Offense was kind of sluggish coming out, and then we came out and gave up the touchdown on the fourth-down conversion," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "You just don’t want that ball to start rolling, so we knew the next couple series were really big. We had to get off the field and we were able to get off with a couple of stops and score some points."
Carolina’s next three offensive possessions ended in punts. The final two concluded on a garbage-time interception by Robinson and the final fourth-quarter whistle.
Newton completed 18 of 35 passes for 194 yards with a score and a pick. The Panthers’ ground game went for 178 yards on 33 attempts but couldn’t punch it in when they inched close to the red zone.
Punt blocks by Adam Thielen and Jasper Brinkley gave Minnesota a hefty scoring cushion to work with. But it also prevented the defense from getting much rest in the first half, as Carolina had the ball for 21 minutes, 43 seconds to the Vikings’ 8:17.
No problem, Zimmer and his players said.
"Any time you get two scores that way, your time of possession is going to be a little bit out of whack," Zimmer said, "but I’ll take that any day."
Said Smith: "You don’t see that happen a lot. . . . The defense being on the field more in that regard, that’s fine."
Griffen recorded a pair of sacks, adding to his NFC-second-best total of nine coming into the day. He also housed Brinkley’s punt block after a 43-yard return.
"I knew I could have a good year," said Griffen, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in March, "but it’s going even better than I thought. As a team, we just got to keep on pushing, keep on going to where we want to go. The season hasn’t always worked out for us the way wasn’t to go, but we’re fighters."
Which is why they say Sunday wasn’t their best overall defensive effort of the year. It came against the league’s No. 21 offense, and the Panthers’ 7-for-16 third-down conversion rate left something to be desired, Zimmer said.
The former Bengals, Falcons and Cowboys defensive coordinator was asked if he’d have to look harder at the film from such a solid, all-around performance in order to find mistakes.
"No," he smiled bluntly. "Trust me, I’ll find them. I saw a lot of them today."
Said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: "We gave up too many yards rushing. . . . They had some plays that we should’ve executed but we didn’t. We missed tackles, Cam scrambled a little bit and made a couple plays. I wouldn’t say this was our completely best game, but it feels good to get the win."