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Surging Vikings Defense Creates Turnovers in Win Over Falcons

When the Vikings defense needed to force a turnover, cornerback Akayleb Evans struck and safety Josh Metellus pounced.

Down eight late in the third quarter, the Falcons had a chance to pull away from Minnesota Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But a first-down rush by rookie running back Bijan Robinson shifted the game.

Robinson hit a gap running left and reached the second level, but Evans trailed the play and punched the ball free. Metellus recovered it at the Falcons 40-yard line, helping spark an 11-point Vikings run.

Minnesota won 31-28 behind consecutive forced turnovers in the third quarter and three total touchdowns from newly acquired quarterback Joshua Dobbs, including a game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Powell with 27 seconds to play.

"You start to get the point that this was a culmination of a lot of things and a lot of different avenues of our football team, where you know, at any one particular moment, it would have been understandable to allow the circumstances to overwhelm us," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "But not this team, not this collection of guys. And that's what I'm most proud of."

The Vikings defense is surging under Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores. The Vikings 11 forced fumbles through nine games are their most since forcing 13 in the first nine games of the 2009 season. Minnesota has now recorded four games with at least one forced fumble and one interception. That mark is tied for the second most in the league this season.

Cornerback Byron Murphy followed Evans' forced fumble by intercepting quarterback Taylor Heinicke on the Falcons next play from scrimmage. Heinicke threw for 268 yards, one touchdown and one interception after the team started him over Desmond Ridder, who started the first eight games of the season.

Murphy returned the interception 18 yards to the Falcons 24. Kicker Greg Joseph netted a 31-yard field goal five plays later, which gave Minnesota its first lead.

"The interception by Byron. Josh Metellus coming out of that pile somehow with that football. Akayleb Evans, [I] can't say enough about punching that out," O'Connell said. "Great technique, fundamentals, a guy that's come a long way with his tackling."

But Minnesota needed a game-winning drive to beat Atlanta because the Falcons retook the lead on a 13-play scoring drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock late in the fourth quarter. On the drive, Atlanta ran the ball 11 straight times. Running backs Tyler Alleiger and Robinson combined for 53 yards on the series, which accounted for nearly half of their 110 total rushing yards.

Linebacker Jordan Hicks acknowledged how much adversity the Vikings have already faced this season.

The team's fourth straight victory may have been the most adverse yet. Starting quarterback Jaren Hall exited the game with a concussion just eight plays into his NFL debut. Two series later, receiver K.J. Osborn also suffered a concussion. Running back Cam Akers injured his ankle on the last play of the third quarter. After the game, O'Connell said the team fears it's an Achilles injury.

"This whole season has kind of been a story of adversity with the first half being turnovers, us not getting a turnover [and] our turnover margin being as low," Hicks said. "Then being able to fight back, turn it around and look it square in the face and just fight our way off the ropes."

As O'Connell said, Minnesota could have found reasons to fold. Dobbs' first two drives ended in turnovers. He was sacked in the end zone by defensive end Calais Campbell for a safety four plays into the second quarter. The Falcons gained just 38 yards on their ensuing possession, which ended with a 43-yard Younghoe Koo field goal.

Three plays later, Falcons linebacker Arnold Ebiketie strip-sacked Dobbs, and linebacker Lorenzo Carter returned it to the Minnesota one-yard line. But the Vikings defense stonewalled the Falcons, forcing another short Koo field goal. That Falcons scoring drive lasted four plays and gained negative four yards.

Koo made all four of his field goal tries, including two 50-plus yard kicks. But the Falcons average yards gained on those drives was just 16.8.

Hicks recorded a game-high 11 sacks and notched his first sack of the season. Murphy added three tackles, two pass breakups, an interception and a tackle for a loss.

Offensive tackle Brian O'Neill knows how challenging facing the Vikings defense is. He mentioned the grueling battles during training camp taking on Flores' new system. On Sunday, O'Neill again relished watching the Vikings force multiple turnovers and execute another successful game plan.

"They played great. They've been playing great all year," O'Neill said. "I hated going against them in training camp when I was out there. I don't know if you guys heard about how it was going against them during training camp. But they're playing really special right now, and hopefully we can continue."