EAGAN, Minn. – It's never easy to win on the road in the NFL, which made the Vikings victory Sunday in Houston a special one.
But add in the fact that the Vikings had to endure a wild week of enhanced COVID testing and protocols — plus an on-the-fly practice schedule — and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was pleased with his team's resiliency over the past week.
"I thought we handled the week really well. It seemed like they threw all kinds of things at us," Zimmer said. "I got a text at 9 p.m. — I think it was Wednesday or Thursday — that said I had to change practice and the schedule because I couldn't do it that way [based on timing].
"That's the kind of things we had to deal with, not only as players and coaches, but our staff, [too]," Zimmer added. "It's part of the way things are now. I was proud of how resilient they were, there was really no complaining."
Zimmer quipped that players asked if they could have a virtual Wednesday schedule, which they had adjusted to last week, since the preparation ended with a win.
Zimmer said the team will meet and hold practice as regularly scheduled on Wednesday, as things are now back to normal in preparation for Week 5's road game against the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football.
"Normal week. Just testing once a day and so on and so forth," Zimmer said. "So we're done with two-a-day testing."
Here are four other topics Zimmer discussed Monday:
1. Zimmer expects Smith to play
Vikings safety Harrison Smith was disqualified just before halftime in Sunday's game, in a ruling that came from the league office in New York.
And while Zimmer was heated about the ejection in the moments after — and passionately defended his longtime safety postgame — it appears Smith will be available for Sunday's game in Seattle and won't face additional discipline.
"I have not heard a word [from the NFL]," Zimmer said. "So I anticipate him playing, yes."
George Iloka, who mostly worked at nickel instead of safety in practice last week, played 43 total defensive snaps against Houston.
Zimmer said that with Mike Hughes and Kris Boyd inactive for the game, Iloka was viewed as the backup slot cornerback before having to focus on safety.
"Well he gets some reps [at safety], but we had one nickel going into the game," Zimmer said. "We're just trying to make sure he understood that position. He still got reps at safety, just not as many as he normally would."
View photos of the Vikings in "Big Head Mode" following the 31-23 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
2. Good in goal-to-go
The Vikings were at their best — on both sides of the ball — inside the red zone in Sunday's win.
Minnesota's defense shut the door on Houston all three times the Texans had goal-to-go situations, including on their final possession.
The Texans only managed a pair of field goals in those three sequences, as Houston was 0-for-3 on touchdowns inside the Vikings 20-yard line.
Zimmer explained the team's longtime focus on that key area of the field.
"Yeah, we've put an emphasis on inside the 5-yard line and we've put a big emphasis on the low red zone, I guess you'd call it," Zimmer said. "Those two areas have been just points of emphasis. You've probably heard me talk about third downs in the red zone on both sides of the ball and how it equates to points for either team.
"So that's some of the areas that we've been working on," Zimmer added. "I think I said this [Sunday]: There's some art to playing in the red zone and understanding where the players have to be in relationship to the receivers and so forth, and if you can run the ball in, it makes it especially difficult on the defense."
Offensively, the Vikings were 3-for-3 in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations. Adam Thielen had a 9-yard touchdown catch, while Dalvin Cook had touchdown runs of 5 and 7 yards.
View photos of RB Dalvin Cook's second touchdown during the Vikings-Texans game on Sunday at NRG Stadium.
3. All about the process
Of the 53 active players on Minnesota's roster, more than half of them are under the age of 25.
And while nobody in the building is pleased with a 1-3 start, Zimmer said Monday that he does like the progression that the Vikings young players have made so far. Minnesota has 30 players who are 25 or younger.
"Well I think the biggest thing right now, the young guys are all getting better," Zimmer said. "It's just obviously taking more time with the lack of OTAs, training camp, things like that."
Zimmer, who broke into the NFL as the Cowboys assistant defensive backs coach in 1994, relayed a story from his early coaching days about how a team was molded into a winner.
Despite winning three Super Bowls in a four-season span after the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons, most of the key players on those teams endured a tough 1-15 season in 1989.
"When I went to Dallas, they reminded — Troy Aikman and those guys … Darren Woodson — they'd always remind them they were 1-15 their first year before they started learning how to win and learning how to do things," Zimmer added. "Sometimes it just takes more of a process when you have a younger team."
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
4. Assessing the linebackers
Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson put in a full-day's work in Week 4, as both played all 65 snaps on defense. They were joined by safety Anthony Harris and rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney.
Hardy Nickerson (nine) and Todd Davis (eight) combined for 17 snaps in Minnesota's base defense, as the Vikings continued to adjust with captain Anthony Barr, who is out for the season with a torn pec.
Zimmer gave credit to that unit, and the rest of the Vikings defense, for staying on-point against a dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson.
"It's getting better. We miss Barr, obviously," Zimmer said. "When it first happens, it's kind of a little bit of a shock and what [do we do] with the communication. It's getting better now.
"I thought our linebackers did a really nice job, especially [with Houston] running the tight end back and they run the option, where [the quarterback] can hand the ball off to the back or he can pull it out and run bootleg," Zimmer added. "I thought our defensive ends and our linebackers did a great job on that because it's very complicated. We had to work really hard on that last week, especially with a short week."
Yannick Ngakoue and D.J. Wonnum were credited with sacks on Watson, who rushed for just nine yards on five attempts, while a third sack was credited as a team.