Cornerback Xavier Rhodes executed perfect press coverage on a reporter’s toss-up question Monday about optimism and the 6-2 Vikings. The inquiry, not unlike an opposing receiver, was jammed at the line.
“Too early,” Rhodes said.
The Vikings returned from the bye week to ramp up preparations for Sunday’s game in Washington, where last year the Vikings’ stout defenders allowed 26 points and 388 yards in a loss. So until the Vikings shut down offenses in the NFC playoffs, Rhodes doesn’t want to hear superlatives like “elite” about their defense. They heard plenty of all-time great comparisons after last year’s 5-0 start, which ended in watching the Lions and Packers make the playoffs.
“We can say that when it’s Week 17, the season is over and we’re in the playoffs and we’re going for the Super Bowl,” Rhodes said. “That’s when we can say we’re an elite defense. Right now, we’re still just trying to establish ourselves.”
The defense wasn’t the main reason for last year’s collapse, but under coach Mike Zimmer’s watch they’ve carried a bit of humble pie into another strong start this season. The backbone of the Vikings, their defense has been one of the NFL’s best through 2017’s first act by ranking second in third-down conversions allowed (28 percent), third in points allowed (16.9) and fourth in yardage (282.1).
What’s new this season is the Vikings’ run defense, which so far has prevented a 100-yard rusher in eight games. They’re allowing just 81.4 rushing yards per game, third-fewest in the league.
“I think we just need to continue to stop the run,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “That’s the biggest thing. Everything else kind of falls into place. That’s the way it’s been all year.”
Waynes running the gamut
Cornerback Trae Waynes has one man to thank for being one of the NFL’s most-targeted cornerbacks: his teammate, Rhodes. As quarterbacks shy away from the stingy Rhodes, Waynes already had been thrown at 56 times in eight games, according to Pro Football Focus, fourth-most among all corners.
“Each game I tell him, make them change their mind about throwing your way,” Rhodes said. “He’s starting to do that.”
Rhodes first challenged Waynes, the Vikings’ 2015 first-round pick, as a run defender when he was drafted. Now Waynes, according to PFF’s metric, is the league’s best run-stopping cornerback so far this season with 11 run stops, which are categorized as gains of 3 yards or less.
“I always told him Trae, when he first got here, ‘You’re too small, I don’t think you’re ever going to come up and make a tackle,’ ” Rhodes recalled, “which he proved me wrong on that. This year he’s coming down and showing a lot of heart in that aspect of his game.”
McKinnon among the best
Jerick McKinnon has produced alongside the NFL’s best running backs in his four games since becoming the lead of the Vikings backfield rotation. In the four games after Dalvin Cook’s injury, McKinnon’s 424 yards from scrimmage rank fifth among all backs, trailing only Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon and Jordan Howard in Weeks 5-8.
What’s the driving force?
“The offensive line,” McKinnon said Monday. “Those guys have been getting it done week in and week out — consistent play. Those guys open up things for us and allow the whole offense to work.”
The Vikings have lost six of their past seven games after a bye week. They’ll further test that poor trend Sunday in Washington.
“I think people look too far into that stuff,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “We’re a totally different team this year than we have been in the past. I don’t think [previous losses] had anything to do with coming out of the bye week.”