EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings have now won four of their past five games.
Minnesota is sitting at 5-6 and one game out of the playoff race after notching wins over Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Carolina.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer spoke with media members Monday afternoon and was asked if the young team is "learning how to win" in close games.
"I think the big thing was we fought like crazy. When I'm talking about learning how to win, I'm talking about understanding situations in the game, [like] a 2-minute drill. A week ago, we had fourth-and-6 [on defense], and we didn't stop them," Zimmer said. "Understanding those situations, understanding when it's time to take chances and when it's time to be smart about it. Really, all those situations. You put yourself in that many situations and it helps with the recall.
"I think the next time we're in fourth-and-6, we'll have an idea of how to play," he continued. "It was great to see Kirk [Cousins] go 6-for-7, I guess it was, on the last drive. [Chad] Beebe made the [touchdown] catch, but Kirk made big throws in there. Kyle [Rudolph] had a great catch as well, and I think there was a penalty on that play."
Zimmer later addressed the defensive improvements over the past several weeks. He pointed to not only scheme and approach but also increased experience and elevated performance of individual players.
"We're obviously doing some things different than we were earlier in the year, but we're mixing things up and changing things," Zimmer said. "We're trying to be smart about [when] we're aggressive and when we're not. They seem to be understanding the schemes a little bit more – I'm talking about basically the young guys. Some of these young guys are starting to improve.
"D.J. Wonnum's starting to get better and better, and I think he's going to be a good player," Zimmer added of the rookie defensive end who blocked a Panthers field goal attempt Sunday. "The two corners, [Jeff] Gladney and [Cameron] Dantzler, and really, Chris Jones and [Kris] Boyd have come in and played pretty well. So those things really help with that. We've got a mixture of rotational guys with the defensive line. [Linebacker] Troy Dye, he's playing quite a bit now. I think experience, probably, as much as anything."
View photos of the Vikings in "Big Head Mode" following the 28-27 victory over the Panthers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Here are four other topics Zimmer covered:
1. Quarantining a QB?
The Broncos on Sunday were without all four quarterbacks after one tested positive for COVID-19 and the other three were deemed "close contacts."
Zimmer was asked if he's considered quarantining or isolating one of the Vikings four quarterbacks (including Jake Browning or Nate Stanley on the practice squad) to further guard against a similar situation befalling Minnesota.
"No, we haven't really talked about that much. We talked about it earlier in the year. You know, quite honestly, if a guy isn't practicing, he's probably not going to play very good anyway," Zimmer said. "We'll just keep being really careful with our protocols and being smart with the masks and all of that. What happened to [the Broncos], from what I understand, was close contact. We've been really diligent about that, guys wearing masks and those types of things."
2. Next man up
The Vikings were without Adam Thielen on Sunday, but a number of players stepped up to help Minnesota defeat Carolina.
Among them, of course, was Chad Beebe, who scored the final go-ahead touchdown after muffing a punt return on the previous possession. Bisi Johnson also provided a go-to target for Cousins; the second-year receiver caught all seven passes thrown his way for 74 yards.
"I thought [Bisi] Johnson played well, and Beebe, both. I thought they both played well. We probably could have played Tajaé Sharpe a little bit more, but we've got a lot of guys in there. And then with Kyle [Rudolph] and Irv [Smith] and [Tyler] Conklin, it's all about how you can use the guys, not necessarily if they're receivers or not."
Note: Smith was sidelined Sunday but was mentioned by Zimmer as an overall part of Minnesota's passing game.
View photo of Vikings WR Chad Beebe's first career touchdown against the Panthers in Week 12.
3. Wanting to flip field position
There's no denying the ups and downs that Minnesota's special teams has experienced, and some of those "downs" have been quite costly.
Zimmer, who mentioned wanting his team to do better at flipping field position, was asked about the struggles on punt coverage where the unit is netting 34.8 yards per punt, compared to 42.6 last season.
"A lot of the guys we're playing on those particular units are now playing a lot of times on offense or defense, so we've got different players playing," Zimmer said.
He added that it would be "apples to oranges" to compare this year's special teams situation to that of the 2019 season.
"We've got new guys, young guys," Zimmer said. "We've got young guys that have been playing, guys that have been out, guys that really should be playing special teams are playing offense and defense. That's the truth of the matter."
4. Jefferson thrives in expanded role
Without Thielen, Justin Jefferson was targeted a team-high 13 times. He finished the day with seven total catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns, and he made things happen in all areas of the field.
Jefferson was a standout in the slot last season at LSU, but has continued to earn trust while working from multiple spots.
"Well, we knew he was going to get a lot of targets this week just because of the fact that Thielen wasn't there," Zimmer said. "Quite honestly, they rotated the coverage to him several times throughout the ball game. We kind of anticipated some of those things, were able to move him around a little more, which really helps because it makes the defense have to adjust to where he's at, but it's kind of been going on quite a bit now for the last four or five games.
"It gives you the confidence when you see him able to do it in practice," Zimmer added.