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Vikings Continuing 'All About the Ball' Emphasis

EAGAN, Minn. — Swipe one, two, three and four.

One practice rep was nearing its end Tuesday when four different defenders took a swipe at the football. The ball carrier had the pigskin tucked tightly, so no fumble occurred.

Vikings offensive players know at this point of the 2022 preseason that there will be multiple teammates trying to knock the ball loose, even though it's only practice.

Sometimes it's worked and a defender has recovered during a practice.

Minnesota's defense is trying to replicate that success in a game as part of its core philosophy.

Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has mentioned multiple times since his hire in February that he wants the defense to be "about the ball." This includes earlier this month when he was asked about building the team's identity.

He was hoping to establish "the way we want to play football: how we want to be all about the ball and limit turnovers, how we want to be aggressive, how we want to be good in situations.

"I think that can go all the way down your depth chart if you emphasize it," O'Connell said. "I've learned with our team, you get what you emphasize. When you talk to these guys and you're real with them, top to bottom, rookies to 10-year veterans, these guys will respond."

Linebacker Jordan Hicks has personally had a hand in 20 takeaways (11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries) in his first seven NFL seasons. Additionally, two of the four fumbles Hicks has forced have been recovered by teammates.

Hicks was part of Eagles teams that tied for 10th in takeaways in 2015, ranked 10th in 2016 and vaulted to fourth in 2017 when Philadelphia earned the NFC's top seed on the way to winning Super Bowl LII. After forcing 31 takeaways that season, the Eagles collected 17 (tied for 22nd) in 2018.

He also was a starter in every game for Cardinals teams that ranked tied for 25th, tied for 18th and seventh in takeaways the past three seasons.

Every team wants to force and collect turnovers and win the takeaways margin, but how does a team bring it into existence?

"Emphasis. Since Day 1, we've emphasized getting the ball and attacking the ball and visualizing it outside of here so when we're on the field it becomes natural," Hicks said. "We're not stopping that emphasis.

"Going into the season, we've been told it's going to be in the front of the mind. We've seen it translate to the field so far with guys going after the ball," Hicks continued. "We keep track of it every day, and I think as long as you're practicing on the field and putting yourself in stressful situations where you can attack when you get on the field, it will become second nature."

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell also knows the value of taking away the football.

"It's a science. This started when I first got in the league with Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin," Donatell said. "They just told me, 'If you stop the run and you've got the ball, good things will happen to you.'

"And then I joined up with a guy named Mike Eayrs [a former Vikings research and development employee], and he showed me the stats," Donatell added. "He said, 'When you take the ball, it really helps your team.' So, everything we've ever done with every staff we've been on is to work and find an edge in that department, and it's ongoing. There's no summit to it. When you see us start out good, we're going to have to keep working on it to maintain that. Very important to us; it's every little thing we can ever think of to motivate, encourage."

The Vikings have forced a fumble by an offensive player in the fourth quarter of each of their first two preseason games, but the opponent recovered each time.

Safety Myles Dorn walloped Brittain Brown to jar the ball loose just before the 2-minute warning in Las Vegas, but Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., recovered it to help the Raiders hold on for a 26-20 win.

Against San Francisco, cornerback Akayleb Evans punched the ball away from Malik Turner but Jordan Mills corralled the football with 4:26 remaining, allowing the 49ers to add a field goal for a 17-7 edge.

"We practice that a lot. Every day in practice we focus on turnovers, so when the opportunity was there, I was just focused on a non-aggressive angle punch-out and it was there, so I took the shot and it came out," Evans said. "I wish we would have recovered it, but it will come."