When the Vikings boarded the plane to return to Minnesota from Arizona Thursday night, Head Coach Mike Zimmer joined a group of guys who spent the evening looking more like the team he envisioned in the offseason and earlier this year.
During the game, the jerseys looked a lot less familiar, particularly on defense where Minnesota was missing defensive tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo from the starting lineup.
Zimmer opted to move Terence Newman to one safety spot and insert undrafted rookie Anthony Harris into the other. First-round pick Trae Waynes started at cornerback opposite Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings held the Cardinals below their league-leading averages of yards per game and points per game, but fell 23-20 in a hard-fought and heartfelt outing in which guys united to fill in as best they could.
Zimmer said the showing was "more of what I'm used to seeing."
"We played with a lot of physicality, heart and effort," Zimmer said. "We had the three fumbles and gave up some big plays on defense, which didn't allow us to win the game."
It was a stark contrast to the outing on Sunday when the Vikings (8-5) fell to the Seahawks and Minnesota had to adjust to injuries for Barr and Smith early in the first quarter.
Rhodes suffered an injury that briefly sidelined him and led to Newman moving to corner and Robert Blanton playing safety alongside Harris. The Vikings opened the second half the way they started the game, with Rhodes returning to the mix.
"One of the big things Coach preached all week is no matter who is out there, our expectations don't change," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "I thought a lot of those guys on the back end stepped up and played well for key guys that are out, but moving forward, it's important for us to get healthy, and if we can play like this moving forward and get some of those guys back, I think we'll like where we're at in three weeks."
Harris was credited with eight tackles (tied with Chad Greenway and Eric Kendricks, according to press box stats), and a pass defended. He played coverage and blitzed, embracing the multifaceted role of a safety in Zimmer's defense. Rhodes led the team with three passes defended.
Zimmer was asked about opting to play Newman at safety, where he started for the first time in 185 times of opening a game, as well as a response to a question about the possibility earlier in the week.
"I knew I would but I didn't want to tell (the media) because you'd tell the other team," Zimmer said. "We thought Waynes was the next-best player and that's how we could get him on the field, by moving him to safety."
Newman said he tried to focus on the communicator aspect of playing safety that doesn't accompany cornerback. Although he saw room for improvements, he also liked the fight shown by teammates.
"We can all get better. I thought we played well from the standpoint of having a couple of starters down," Newman said. "Guys got the opportunity to play and I thought guys played hard, played fast and had a couple of (mental errors) that led to some big plays, but at the end of the day, those guys fought hard."