EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings were without six starters in their game against the Saints on Sunday Night Football.
While Minnesota suffered a stinging loss to New Orleans, several of the young players who stepped in for injured teammates performed well in larger roles.
Second-year linebacker Eric Wilson started in place of Anthony Barr, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury; rookie cornerback Holton Hill played for Xavier Rhodes (foot), and with tackle Riley Reiff (foot) unable to play, rookie Brian O'Neill made his third career start at right tackle after Minnesota again moved Rashod Hill to left tackle.
Running back Latavius Murray took the majority of carries in place of Dalvin Cook, but rookies Mike Boone and Roc Thomas combined for four rushing attempts and a catch.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked during his Monday session with Twin Cities media members about the depth that was demonstrated, and he pointed to talent as well as mentorship from veteran players.
"Most times, they are talented guys," Zimmer said. "I'd like to say it's a lot of other reasons, but they're talented guys. That's why they're on the team. I think they get an awful lot of help from some of the veteran guys. I know that Anthony Barr was very into the game last night, talking to those linebackers about certain things."
Zimmer added that former Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, who retired in August and joined Minnesota's coaching staff, also has been a significant help.
"I know Terence and Xavier were talking to Holton Hill quite a bit last night," Zimmer said. "That is part of the reason why we meet together all the time on defense, so everybody understands what their responsibilities are in relation to everybody else."
Hill played all 53 of the Vikings defensive snaps.
"I thought he tackled well," Zimmer said. "I thought for the most part he handled the times when he had to pass off receivers, he did that well. The times he pressed, for the most part, were pretty good. He lost a guy one time on a route. But for the first time out, the game didn't seem too big for him."
Here are four other topics Zimmer covered during his podium session:
1. Vikings have made positive progress
There's no denying that Sunday night's game against New Orleans featured ups and downs from Minnesota.
After reviewing the tape, Zimmer said "there were a lot of good things" he saw, including moving the ball offensively and defensively prohibiting big plays from Drew Brees and Co.
"Unfortunately, we had a couple turnovers. Basically that cost us the football game," Zimmer said. "But there are a lot of good things to build on. We'll continue to try to get better.
"Like I told the football team today, the last few weeks during practice, I watched this team go out there and do the things," Zimmer continued. "I feel like we are starting to become a pretty good football team."
Asked as a follow-up where he has seen the most progress, Zimmer responded, "pretty much all over."
"Defensively, I feel like we're eliminating some of the things that hurt us early in the year," Zimmer said. "I feel like the running game is getting better. I thought Latavius ran with a purpose. I thought the offensive line did a nice job in some of those things."
2. Improvement in the run game
The Vikings totaled 85 yards rushing against the Saints, who entered the game ranked No. 1 in run defense, thanks in large part to Murray's efforts.
Murray recorded 56 yards on 13 carries, his longest being a 12-yard surge for a Vikings first down. He also added five catches for 39 yards through the air.
Zimmer said "getting to the second level, probably" has been the Vikings biggest stride in the run game after struggling to get it going to start the season.
Through the first four games, the Vikings averaged 85 rushing yards per game, a number that is somewhat skewed by 116 against the 49ers in Week 1. Over the past four games, Minnesota's rushing average has increased to 111.3 rushing yards per contest, including a 195-yard outing against the Cardinals in Week 7.
3. Praise for Pat Elflein
The Vikings were without Pat Elflein in their first two games after the center suffered an ankle injury in last year's NFC Championship Game.
Since returning to the lineup, however, Elflein has been impressive and has played a role in Murray being able to get to that second level Zimmer referenced.
"Pat has done a nice job all year," Zimmer said. "He does a really good job of getting a guy turned, getting his hips in the right place and get getting up to the next level."
4. Win or lose, team over individual
Zimmer was asked during the press conference about Stefon Diggs taking ownership for the third-quarter interception of Kirk Cousins.
The head coach said during talks with the team, he emphasized team over individual – whether the scenario is positive or negative.
"Like I told them in the meeting today, the receivers need to stop saying that stuff because one person doesn't lose a game, one person doesn't [win] a game," Zimmer said. "We win around here as a team, we lose around here as a team.
"Guys make mistakes, miscommunication, whatever you want to call it, it happens," Zimmer added. "I will never put any one of those one things on one player, ever. We talk about, there's 22 guys on the field for [approximately] 150 plays in the game. Guys are going to make mistakes – that is what it is. The team that makes the least [number] of mistakes wins, but no one person loses the game."