EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Going against the NFL's top-rated offense in points and yards per game was going to be tough enough, particularly playing on the road and on a short week. But doing so without four defensive starters? That seemed like too much to ask.
But with a makeshift secondary and some of his coaching and scheming acumen, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and his staff constructed a game plan that Vikings players executed well enough to hang tough with a high-flying Arizona Cardinals offense.
Both starting safeties – Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith – were out, which led the Vikings to insert undrafted rookie Anthony Harris and starting CB Terence Newman into the lineup in the back end. Moving Newman to safety thrust rookie CB Trae Waynes into the starting lineup, as well. Already using rookie LB Eric Kendricks in the lineup and rookie DE Danielle Hunter in the regular rotation, Zimmer's defensive roster was chock-full of youth and inexperience.
"I feel like our team did a good job of preparation, of understanding the way that we have to go out and fight," Zimmer said Friday. "I think our veteran leaders did an outstanding job this week as far as kind of taking the initiative of really what this football team needs to play like, needs to prepare like, needs to play like.
"I think that our young players that played, I think that we had four rookies that started on defense and I think seven or eight rookies that ended up playing a huge number of plays in the game, tried to perform the game plan as good as possible," Zimmer continued. "Really, I really want to credit the players for the way that they attacked the situation and especially coming after the loss that we had the week before."
In his first career start, Harris played on every defensive snap and was credited with a team-high 8 tackles.
Said Zimmer of the rookie's debut performance:
"I think he did good for the most part. First time out, the game didn't seem too big for him. He made some plays; it was a nice break on the one ball down the middle. He made some good tackles in the ballgame. He had some mistakes like everybody does, but I think he showed some good things."
Zimmer won't lean on moral victories and in multiple instances of speaking publicly since Thursday night's loss he's emphasized there are mistakes his defense must clean up before taking the field in Week 15 against the Bears. But there were some positive results from all the hard work the coaching staff and the players put in during a short week of prep for a very good offense.
The Vikings held Arizona's offense under its season averages in points per game, offensive yards per game and yards per play. Carson Palmer, a NFL MVP candidate through 13 games, connected on two long scoring plays – a 65-yarder to John Brown and a 42-yarder to Michael Floyd. The 42-yarder to Floyd was largely a function of miscommunication by the Vikings secondary and the inexperience of Harris may have shown on the 65-yarder to Brown because the rookie safety took a poor angle in pursuit. Those plays counted, but take them away and the results are even more impressive. Those two plays, which after reviewing appear stoppable given the way Zimmer's defense had played for much of the season, accounted for 34.5 percent of the Cardinals passing yardage and both of their TDs.
Zimmer always will deflect credit for positive results to his players, a wise and noble approach for the head coach to take and appropriate, as well, in this instance. But credit is also due to the way Zimmer and his staff organized and devised a scheme to battle with the NFL's hottest offense.
Zimmer on Bridgewater's performance:I think one thing about Teddy is he's a great competitor. He was a little bit like our football team was, none of us played very good the week before and we all played a little bit better last night. I think these guys have a lot of pride and I think he has a lot of pride. And every game is different. You get different matchups, different plays, different rushes, all kinds of things. I think it helped moving him in the pocket a little bit, I think getting the runs, getting those guys up there and those guys having to deal with Adrian, I think that helped a little bit. And then he just made plays. I think he threw the ball a lot better last night obviously than he did the week before, but you can probably say that about our whole football team.
Optimistic report on injured defensive starters
* *Aside from the four defensive starters who weren't able to play, the Vikings also had starting CB Xavier Rhodes leave the game briefly because of a hand injury. Zimmer sounded optimistic on the recovery efforts of everyone, though.
Rhodes wasn't scheduled for further evaluation with his hand injury and Zimmer said of the four starters who didn't suit up on Thursday: "I know that I got a pretty good report this morning that they're all moving in the right direction. We'll just have to see how that goes. I'm hopeful. These guys want to play bad. That's one thing about this football team is they want to fight for each other and these guys want to get back in there and fight as soon as they can."