MINNNEAPOLIS — The Vikings defense reached the halfway point of the 2020 season Sunday afternoon still looking like a fresh-faced group that is short on overall experience.
But for a unit that features less than half of the presumed starting lineup at the beginning of the season, Minnesota's defense appears to be rounding into form a bit.
The Vikings turned in their second straight solid performance in Week 9, starting fast and making timely plays in the second half to help deliver a 34-20 home win.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is well-aware of the manpower lost throughout the roster — as Shamar Stephen, Eric Kendricks, Eric Wilson, Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are the only starters left from training camp.
Yet with so many young players on the field, Zimmer said Sunday that his group has progressed in recent weeks.
"We've had to change a lot of things because of our personnel with what we've been trying to do defensively," Zimmer said. "So part of it is narrowing some of the package down. Some of it is adding some things that we feel can help guys in coverage.
"Some of the things have been how we can add to some of the guys in rush. I thought they played well today," Zimmer added. "There weren't a lot of mistakes that I saw throughout the course of the ball game. I thought we played hard, and that's a big key to it."
The final stat line showed 421 total yards allowed to the Lions, but Minnesota set a season-best by allowing just 20 points.
That improved from last week's total of 22 points allowed to the Packers, which was a season-low at the time.
The Vikings got off to a quick start Sunday, limiting the Lions to a three-and-out to open the game. Minnesota scored a touchdown on its first possession, and Detroit followed by advancing into field goal range, but Matt Prater's kick sailed wide left.
Minnesota's offense scored again, as the Vikings defense then took the field with a two-score lead late in the first quarter, a rarity for that unit so far this season.
Vikings second-year cornerback Kris Boyd had a pass breakup on the Lions first play of the game, while rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney was involved early with a pair of open-field tackles.
"Really, at the start of the game," Gladney said when asked when the Vikings gained their confidence. "We came out with one goal, and that was to start fast. We did that and held it the whole game.
"It's very important to do that," Gladney later added. "Like I said, just coming out the gate, playing as a team and playing fast. If we execute our calls, we're tough."
The Vikings defense held steady for a quarter-and-a-half while Dalvin Cook and the offense romped to a 27-10 cushion on the scoreboard.
But just when the Lions seemed to have found some life, Minnesota's defense made a pair of game-changing plays on back-to-back possessions.
First, linebacker Eric Wilson picked off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the red zone with less than five minutes left in the third quarter to preserve the 17-point lead.
And with Detroit threatening on its next possession due to a blocked punt, linebacker Eric Kendricks intercepted Stafford in the end zone to also keep the Vikings lead at 17.
"You have to tip your hat to the defense and the way they played, creating red-zone turnovers and giving us the football back," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "A lot of positives today that we can continue to build on."
Added Zimmer: "Some of the key areas – [Eric Kendricks'] interception, I think that came after a blocked punt, so that was big. Eric Kendricks' interception was off of a double move."
Minnesota's third and final takeaway of the day came from safety Harrison Smith, who picked off Chase Daniel early in the fourth quarter. Daniel was in for Stafford, who exited the game late in the third quarter and was in the concussion protocol.
Besides holding the Lions to a season-low 20 points, the Vikings defense also was a smart and disciplined group, with just two penalties for 22 yards.
Minnesota is now 3-5 at the halfway mark of 2020, thanks in part to a defense that could be poised to really turn a corner soon.
"I thought we played smart today," Zimmer said.
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