EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. As the Minnesota Vikings season nosedived last year, a lot of the blame was placed on a historically bad secondary, which allowed a 107.6 quarterback rating, the second highest mark in NFL history.
Injuries and an overall lack of competency were common themes as Minnesota led the league with 34 passing touchdowns allowed, while tying a league-low with eight interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks completed 68.2 percent of their passes, the second-highest total in the league.
The Vikings turnaround this season, recovering from last year's 3-13 record to go 3-1 and lead the NFC North prior to Monday night's game, starts with a renewed vigor on defense, especially from the secondary.
"When you've got the tools to work with in the secondary, your game plan can be executed, your goals can be accomplished," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We're better in the secondary than we have been in the past. We made some plays yesterday on a couple of balls that I don't know a year ago if we would have made those plays. I think a combination of having better talent along with guys understanding what's being asked of them."
Last season, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford enjoyed his two games against Minnesota's secondary, throwing for 605 yards, a 69.3 completion rate and four touchdowns without an interception in a pair of wins. Stafford, directing the league's top passing offense this year, was 30 for 51, passing for 319 yards in Sunday's win by the Vikings. He was sacked five times and didn't throw a touchdown.
Minnesota also held All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson to five catches for 54 yards.
The secondary received an infusion this offseason, with Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook returning to the lineup after each missed most of last year. Safety Harrison Smith was drafted in the first round and cornerback Josh Robison was a third-round pick. And, aside from safety Mistral Raymond's ankle injury that will keep him out a few more weeks, the Vikings have been healthy.
There has been more than health and new players that have contributed to the resurgence, especially following the Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, when the defense struggled in two-minute situations over the first two weeks.
"Just the mentality," linebacker Chad Greenway said of the change the past two weeks. "I think we just sort of set our jaw and just said, 'We're going to be this type of defense and this is what we want to be.' If we're willing to do that we've got to put it on tape. We can't just say it and think it's going to happen, will it to happen, we have to go out there and actually do it. We were able to do those things these last couple of weeks."
The players have also bought in to new defensive coordinator Alan Williams' style and game plans.
There were reported backlashes with the defensive schemes being run last year by first-year coordinator Fred Pagac and Frazier stepped in and directed the defense for part of the season. This year, the Vikings own a top-10 defense and have allowed the eighth fewest points in the league heading into Monday night.
The secondary, which was Williams specialty coming in after spending the past 10 years as the defensive backs coach in Indianapolis, has given up an average of 228.3 yards-per-game passing as opposed to 251.2 last year. Opponent's quarterback ratings are down to 88.8, which is 16th in the league, and a 62.2 percent completion rate is 15th in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the run defense ranks seventh, allowing 85.3 yards-per-game.
"I think some of it was the mentality," Frazier said. "But also, I think Alan getting in a groove with our players, getting a better understanding or feel for how to utilize some of our players. But, for sure, our players also taking some ownership in some of the things we were trying to do, and really wanting to set the tone as a defense, about how we play."
The two-minute situation in the first two games was alarming, with Minnesota allowing touchdowns on all three of the drives by Jacksonville and Indianapolis in such situations. The 18 points scored, and the yards gained, on those three drives have been the biggest hits to an otherwise stout defense.
Losing the way they did, in the final minutes, to the Colts changed the Vikings, who were determined to not fall into the same pattern they did last season. The difference can be seen on defense the past two weeks. Before last week's effort against the explosive Lions, Minnesota held San Francisco to 280 total yards, 191 in passing and 89 on the ground.
"I think the biggest thing we've done is being more disciplined: executing better, not missing tackles, things like that, just going back to the basics," defensive end Brian Robison said. "There were a lot of things said during that week that needed to be said. Coaches have definitely ramped it up a little bit. Players have ramped it up a little bit. We've been practicing better. There's a whole different morale on this team as far as trying to get the little things done correctly."
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