As the Vikings cruised to a 13-3 finish and an appearance in the NFC championship game last season, one thing that worked in the team’s favor was the health of the NFL’s best defense.
Defensive end Everson Griffen missed one game because of plantar fasciitis and safety Andrew Sendejo missed two games because of injury and one because of suspension. Other than that, no Vikings defensive starter missed a start. It was logical to think the Vikings would not have that type of fortune again this season, the only question was how different things would be?
Seven games into the season, the answer is a lot different. The Vikings were without defensive tackle Linval Joseph (ankle, knee and shoulder injuries), defensive end Everson Griffen (personal issue), rookie cornerback Mike Hughes (ACL) and safety Andrew Sendejo (groin) for their 37-17 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
The Vikings lost two more key starters on Sunday when linebacker Anthony Barr (hamstring) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (sprained left ankle) went out in the second half. Zimmer downplayed any concern he might have that Rhodes or Barr could be lost for any amount of time.
Nonetheless, the NFC North-leading Vikings (4-2-1 and on a three-game winning streak) are going to have several important defensive players on their injury report this week as they prepare for next Sunday night’s game against the NFC South-leading Saints (5-1) at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I think we played well defensively today,” Zimmer said. “We had a lot of guys out. Linval didn’t play and there were quite a few that we didn’t have and then guys went out today. That’s part of (having) depth and part of the National Football League.”
Jaleel Johnson started in place of Joseph at nose tackle; Stephen Weatherly continued to start for Griffen, who has not played since Week 2; George Iloka started for a second consecutive week in place of Sendejo; Barr was replaced by Eric Wilson; and Rhodes was replaced by a combination of players that included undrafted rookie free agent Holton Hill.
Despite the absences, the Vikings held the Jets to 263 yards, including only 71 on the ground and their third-down defense remained the best in the NFL. New York was only 2-for-13 on third down and did not convert one until the third quarter. In the past two weeks, opponents are a combined 2-for-23 against the Vikings on third down. Minnesota also forced four Jets turnovers and New York had five fumbles.
The fact the Vikings’ defense scheme has been able to make life miserable for Arizona’s Josh Rosen (four sacks, one interception) and the Jets’ Sam Darnold (three sacks, three interceptions) in back-to-back victories does not come as a surprise. Zimmer long has been able to come up with looks that confuse even the best of the rookie quarterbacks.
But things will be far different next Sunday night when future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, who broke Peyton Manning’s all-time passing record this month, comes to Minneapolis. If Mackensie Alexander has to start in place of Rhodes, Brees will go right at him and he’ll do the same to Hill enters the game.
Zimmer undoubtedly will spend countless hours devising a game plan to slow Brees, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 177 yards with three touchdowns in the second half last season of a second-round playoff game against the Vikings that ended with Case Keenum’s improbable completion to Stefon Diggs on the final play of regulation to give Minnesota the victory.
Because the injury status of players is so closely guarded, it’s difficult to know if Rhodes or Barr will be able to play next Sunday. The Vikings won’t give an indication until the final injury report of the week is issued on Friday. The same goes for the status of Joseph and Sendejo — Hughes’ season is finished and it remains uncertain when Griffen will return from dealing with mental health issues.
“We’ve got to just keep fighting,” Zimmer said of his defense. “That’s why it’s so important that we as coaches continues to push these young guys because they are going to get in the ball game at some time.”