EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings came out of their bye in Week 10 facing a daunting seven-game stretch that will determine if Minnesota makes the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Minnesota is two games into that stretch run, which will now turn into a cross-country quest to be one of 12 teams playing in January, and has mixed results.
The Vikings doomed themselves in the opening game of that stretch with a loss in Chicago, but Minnesota righted the ship with a 24-17 win over Green Bay on Sunday Night Football in Week 12 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota will now travel to New England in Week 13 before heading to the West Coast for another prime-time game, this time against Seattle on Monday Night Football. The Vikings finish with two of three games at home.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Monday that he was impressed with how his team bounced back with a key division win, and noted those types of performances will be needed as Minnesota battles for a playoff spot and potentially a division crown over the final five games of 2018.
“That loss in Chicago hurt, and I know a lot of the guys felt that way,” Zimmer said. “I know that they were concerned about the future schedule going on, but we had to focus on one game. You can’t win six games without winning one, and so it was really important [to win Sunday].”
Zimmer added that the Vikings focus and energy level were ramped up ahead of the 117th Border Battle with the Packers. Minnesota’s 24-17 win pulled the Vikings to 6-4-1 on the season.
“When I was in the locker room before the game with the guys, they were pretty juiced up and ready to go. They were in Chicago, too; we just didn’t do well enough,” Zimmer said. “I think we have a pretty smart team, they kind of know … I’m sure they peak at the schedule and know that we got to play on two [opposite] coasts back-to-back and a night game and all the other situations. We just need to continue to do the things we’re doing and play smart football, which I thought we did last night.”
Minnesota won NFC North titles in 2015 and 2017 under Zimmer. Chicago currently leads the division at 8-3.
Here are four other topics Zimmer discussed Monday:
1. DeFilippo mixes and matches
Zimmer only got to the second sentence of his opening statement at his press conference Monday before he praised the balance that the Vikings showed on offense Sunday night.
The Vikings had 38 pass plays and 29 rushes against the Packers, although quarterback Kirk Cousins accounted for six of the runs. That works out to 57-43 percent split in favor of passes on Minnesota’s 67 offensive plays.
The Vikings racked up 416 total yards on offense, their fourth-highest total of the season. Minnesota threw a variety of looks at Green Bay to rack up nearly 150 more offensive yards than in the Week 11 loss to the Bears.
“First, I think [Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo] did an outstanding job last night,” Zimmer said. “I know people have been on his rear end a little bit and they’ve been on my rear end a little bit, and that’s fine. But he did a really good job of mixing the game, the flow of the game, trying to keep them off balance.
“I thought he did a really outstanding job and part of it was, most of the plays that were called, we executed pretty well,” Zimmer added.
Minnesota currently ranks 13th with 368.5 yards per game and 15th with 24.1 points per game.
2. Scramble drill
Cousins set a Vikings record by throwing for 767 yards in two games against Green Bay in 2018, the most against the Packers in a single season. (Randall Cunningham had the previous record of 706 yards in 1998).
But Zimmer lauded Cousins’ ability to scramble as a way to keep Green Bay’s defense honest on Sunday night.
Including two kneel-downs in the victory formation, Cousins had six carries for 17 yards with a long run of 11 yards against the Packers. Zimmer said the two spoke last week about making the opposing defense think a bit about the threat of the quarterback taking off and running.
“I had the opportunity to talk to Kirk. I talked to him two or three times last week about just some of the things that I felt like would help us offensively,” Zimmer said. “When it opens up like that, run. If you have a quarterback, basically what I told him, ‘If you have a quarterback that’s not going to run, the defenses are going to play extra coverage, they’re not going to worry about that.’
“You’re playing a guy like [Aaron] Rodgers, you have to worry about it,” Zimmer added. “You have to put an extra guy on him sometimes. I just think that adds to everything that we did last night.”
Cousins now has 103 total rushing yards and a touchdown in 2018.
3. A defense on the rise
There were plenty of questions and concerns about the Vikings defense after Minnesota opened the first month of the season with a 1-2-1 start.
The Vikings gave up yards in chunks, points in bunches and didn’t look much like the unit that had staked a reputation as one of the league’s best units in recent years under Zimmer.
But a turnaround over the past two months now has Minnesota ranked third in yards allowed per game (314.7) and 10th in points allowed per game (22.4).
Zimmer credits his players’ work ethic, along with minor systematic changes, for getting things back on track.
“If you asked me that about seven weeks ago, I’d probably be pretty concerned,” Zimmer said about the state of his defense. “It’s a long season. There are a lot of things that go on throughout the course of time.
“We still have good players. They’re playing good, they’re concentrating, they’re focusing on the things we have to try to do each week. I just think we’ve had to change a little bit from where we started the season and these guys have handled it well,” Zimmer said. “There are still [five] games left. I was with a defense one time that we were fifth in the league with five games left and we ended up 13th. There’s still a long ways to go, but we have to continue to keep pressing the issue, keep doing the things we have to do to win football games.”
The Vikings are tied for third in the NFL with 36 total sacks and are tied for seventh with 18 takeaways.
4. O’Neill blossoming as a rookie
Brian O’Neill has played 502 snaps as a rookie, as the 2018 second-round pick has been on the field for roughly two-thirds of Minnesota’s offensive plays.
The former tight end at the University of Pittsburgh has more than held his own, using his athleticism and quickness. He moved into the lineup because of injury but is now starting.
“Well, really the athleticism was the thing. He was still pretty green when he got here, but he’s a really, really good athlete,” Zimmer said of what appealed to the Vikings during the draft. “As far as trying to get to the second level, he’s always done a good job with that. He’s had to improve his pass protection, which he’s done quite a bit. There’s still some areas that he’s got to get better at.”
But Zimmer, who is known as an old-school coach, has liked another facet of O’Neill’s game in recent weeks as the offensive tackle has now made six starts in 2018.
“The thing that he’s showed me the most in the last four or five weeks is his grit, and I like that. You’ve got to be tough to play that position, because you’re banging a guy every single down,” Zimmer said. “You’re sitting back and taking on guys who are bull-rushing you and all that stuff, and he’s shown a pretty good amount of nastiness.
“That’s the kind of guys that I want to have here … along with the guys that we have,” Zimmer added.