Vikings keep win in perspective, but defense appears improved

Showing varied defensive looks, Minnesota brought multiple blitzes to confuse St. Louis on Sunday, ending with five sacks.

L.G. Patterson/L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — In the aftermath of a resounding 34-6 win on the road and a defensive showing which hadn’t been seen since late in the 2012 season, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer quickly tempered the enthusiasm surrounding his first win as a head coach.

Minnesota had allowed just two field goals to the St. Louis Rams, the first time the Vikings had held a team without a touchdown since Dec. 23, 2012. A defense which allowed the most points and the second-most yards in the NFL last season had harassed St. Louis quarterbacks with five sacks and two interceptions.

Zimmer, who has said he’s not easy to please, called the defensive performance "OK" in his postgame press conference.

Expectations have been raised.

"I’m just trying to be realistic," Zimmer said on Monday. "This is one game out of 16. And I know what we have to do to be a good football team. I think I’m trying to teach our players what we have to do to be a good football team.

"So it’s not about caution. I understand we haven’t lost in the preseason and like I’ve said before, it’s so much to me about the process about how we accomplish these things. Not so much what the record is at this particular point in time."

Zimmer knows his defense and Minnesota is still a work in progress in the perfectionist coach’s eyes.

"Like I told the team this morning, we have to keep grinding," Zimmer said. "We’ve got so many things that we have to work on, so many areas. But we were, I think, were a tough-minded, aggressive, tough, disciplined football team."

Sunday’s performance offered an eye-opening departure from the typical Monday following a recent Vikings road game. The Vikings had lost eight straight regular-season road games before Tuesday. A defense that had seen its share of difficult times could appreciate the chance to speak with the media with smiles and heads held high.

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"It’s nice not to come in here and apologize things away," said linebacker Chad Greenway. "It’s nice to just get a ‘W’ on the road, first time we’ve won on the road in a long time. So, it’s a good start for us and coach Zimmer’s not going to be happy with our performance. It’s just about pushing forward to the next week. We know how long this season is. So, it’s just about improving week to week and we’ll certainly have our hands full this weekend."

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are the next test on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium in the Vikings’ first home game. Quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford follow in subsequent weeks.

Bigger challenges are coming, but the Vikings also feel better prepared for what’s ahead. Zimmer’s influence was demonstrated on Sunday, the changes apparent.

Minnesota continued where it left off in the preseason when the Vikings allowed the second-fewest points (12.3 per game), had the second-most interceptions (five) and second-best turnover-margin (plus-5) and put up 11 sacks.

Showing varied defensive looks, Minnesota brought multiple blitzes to confuse St. Louis, ending with five sacks (tied for the most in the league in Week 1), seven tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits.

The Vikings tied for the fewest points given up heading into Monday night’s action. The 318 yards allowed to the Rams is the eighth-lowest total in the league through Sunday of Week 1.

"I think you’ve seen it all preseason, the fact that Zimmer has so many calls, so many different fronts, so many blitzes, it makes us unpredictable," defensive end Brian Robison said. "But at the same time, we didn’t play perfect ball, so we have a lot to build on."

The new pieces played a big role.

Everson Griffen, a full-time player for the first time in his career, had two sacks. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, both signed in the offseason, had sacks. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr tied for the team-lead in tackles with safety Robert Blanton, himself a full-time player for the first time in his career.

While Harrison Smith isn’t new to the defense, he’s back at full-strength after missing eight games last season and returning late from a foot injury. Smith had a sack on a blitz and put the game away with an interception return for a touchdown.

"It definitely felt different," Robison said. "But at the same time with even as much as we had in our game plan, it just seemed like things went by very smoothly. That’s what you want to do. When you put in a new defense, you don’t want to be out there thinking, you just want to go play and that’s what we were able to do yesterday."

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Zimmer has turned around defenses before.

When he became Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator in 2008, the Bengals had one top-10 showing in the previous 18 seasons. Zimmer helped Cincinnati to the 12th-rated defense in his first season before top-10 performances in five of his final six seasons with the Bengals.

"I know the D-line’s enjoying it," Greenway said. "Their performance yesterday was awesome. Just a complementary defense, back end, front end and when you win, it always seems to work better."

Zimmer believes the numbers could have been higher. He said the team backed down its blitzing late with a big lead.

"I know they got some yards there at the end, but I think we could have hit them a few more times if we tried," Zimmer said. "I like our blitz package and what we do out of it. It’ll vary week-to-week from what we do just based on who we’re playing. . . . Yesterday the quarterback would not have mattered."

Starting with Tom Brady this week, the Vikings will get the chance to see their rush against a top quarterback.

"This can’t be our pedestal," Griffen said. "Our pedestal has to be up here. We’ve got to reach for the sky, baby."

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