MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 27-17 on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, but the final score might not even reflect how the defense dictated for most of the day.
Minnesota controlled field position with solid play on special teams, and the defense was solid on first and second downs before going exotic in a variety of ways on third downs. Arizona was 0-for-10 on third downs and 0-for-2 when going for it on fourth downs.
The Cardinals got a defensive touchdown in the second quarter to tie the game at 10, but the Vikings were able to "double dip" with a field goal before halftime and a touchdown on their first possession of the second half, to create a 20-10 cushion.
Minnesota improved to 3-2-1 on the season by keeping the game on its terms against the 1-5 Cardinals and by performing at a high level during critical situations.
Pregame question: How would the Vikings defense do in its return to U.S. Bank Stadium?
The last time the unit played in front of the home crowd (Week 3 against Buffalo), the Vikings defense took the field twice on drives that started at or inside the Minnesota 25-yard line.
The Bills built a 17-0 lead and made it easy on their rookie quarterback, Josh Allen.
The Vikings faced another 2018 first-round quarterback named Josh on Sunday and made things less than rosy for Josh Rosen.
The Vikings gave up a couple of plays but were incredibly stingy during critical moments of the game.
Forty of Arizona's 269 net yards occurred on one play, a deep pass to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones that moved the ball from the Minnesota 47 and gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal at the 7.
Harrison Smith was mad at himself after the completion, but the Vikings defense responded to protect a 10-3 lead.
Minnesota stuffed David Johnson after a gain of 1 and a gain of 5 before an incompletion on third-and-1 from the 1-yard line. The Vikings smothered Johnson on a fourth-and-goal rush for the first of two turnovers-on-downs by the Cardinals.
Rosen completed 21 of 31 passes for 240 yards and a passer rating of 77.4.
On third downs, however, he was 1-of-7 passing for minus-2 yards and picked off by Anthony Harris.
The Vikings sacked Rosen four times (twice by Danielle Hunter and once each by Harrison Smith and Mackensie Alexander), including twice on third downs.
Head Coach Mike Zimmer implemented blitzes by Smith and Alexander, and he utilized different coverages and multiple players in an active secondary.
According to press box stats, the Vikings top four tacklers on the day were Smith, George Iloka, Rhodes and Alexander.
Iloka started in place of an injured Andrew Sendejo, but Harris also played a significant amount. Jayron Kearse, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes also got in on the action. Hughes, however, suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the game. He will have an MRI on Monday, Zimmer said.
Part of Zimmer's assessment of the game in his opening statement:
"Defensively, I thought we played very well, pressured the quarterback, a fourth-down stop, a fourth-down stand on the goal line that we stopped, [they were] 0-10 on 3rd downs. That's really how we have to play defensively.
Zimmer on eliminating big plays by other teams:
"We just have to go out and play and do our job, and the one thing, we gave them one big play today, but 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."
Anthony Barr on the opportunity to play with a lead:
"It's definitely nice. We know the offense is very capable of going out there making big plays and scoring points, especially with the teams we've played with the past few weeks. If we do our job on defense, we are going to keep giving ourselves the chance to win."
Barr on giving the Cardinals trouble:
"(Zimmer) called a great game, kept them off-balance, mixed up the coverages, mixed up the blitzes and coverage, and we were able to execute for the most part. We had some things we needed to clean up, but for the most part, I thought we did OK."
Iloka on if Sunday is what he expects the Vikings defense to look like:
"Like I said in the first interview [when signing in August], I came here because they had a really good team. They were real close last year, and I just wanted to help any way I can, just add to it. The way we've played in the last two weeks is what they did last year, so we've just got to improve on that and keep building, and the sky is the limit."
Stephen Weatherly on if the defense is "back to itself" after struggling earlier this season:
"We're getting back there. We've still got some things to work on moving in the right direction. Whenever we get good QB hits, pressures and, of course, sacks, it just re-energizes us and gets us excited for the next set of downs. Fourth-down stops are the same as turnovers, so we were really glad to get those too. It felt good to click as a defense."
Smith on if he feels like the defense is "getting back" to what people are used to seeing:
"Honestly, I am kind of sick of people talking about the defense 'we are used to seeing.' Every year is separate. This year is 2018, and that is what we are focused on right now. We want to be as good as we can be right now. That's as simple as it is.
Smith of if there's an "upswing" from the past two games:
"I think we have confidence no matter what. I think it is more of outside perception. We know if you win this weekend, next week and tomorrow is not guaranteed, so enjoy it."