Sid Hartman
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While there have been questions about the Vikings offense all year, their defense has never been a concern. They are allowing the fewest points in the NFC at 17.2 per game. They are allowing just a 25.0 percent conversion rate on third downs (opponents are 18 -for-72 on third down), just ahead of the Denver Broncos. And they might have the best defense in all of football.

Trying to pinpoint the best defensive player on the team is a difficult proposition, as they have stars on the defensive line, at linebacker and at defensive backs. The future of this team has already been laid with the signings of Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith and Linval Joseph to multiyear contracts that have them under team control until 2021.

Griffen might have been the smartest signing that General Manager Rick Spielman has made, because the team clearly saw his potential far before he had achieved it.

His first big contract came in the 2013 offseason. In 2013, Griffen had recorded just 27 tackles but had 17½ sacks over his previous three seasons; they gave Griffen a five-year, $42.5 million deal with $20 million guaranteed.

Over the next three seasons he averaged 49 tackles and 10.2 sacks, reaching the Pro Bowl in 2015 and 2016.

And now they have extended him again, locking him up to be a core piece of the defense moving forward.

It looks like it was a smart decision, again. Griffen has 23 tackles in six games with seven sacks and a forced fumble. He has recorded a sack in six consecutive games and will set the Vikings team record for consecutive games with a sack if he can get a sack on Sunday against Baltimore.

Defense balances offense

When asked about his defensive unit, Griffen didn’t hesitate to praise his team.

“We’re bad,” he said. “We’re playing at a high level. We have to keep it up. We have to keep on stopping the run, playing our keys, contest all throws, no big plays, no explosive plays, and just play football, man, and get off on blocks and run to the ball and wrap-up tackle and don’t let them get extra yards after the hit.

“We’re just doing our job at a high level.”

There was a suggestion that because the defense is so strong, the offense simply has to not mess up anything to win games. But Griffen didn’t quite agree with that.

“We’re one team, one sound, one heartbeat,” he said, adding the offense is executing well. “We always have their back. That’s why this is the best game in the world, because you can always count on them and they can always count on us.”

What does an offensive line have to do to stop Griffen?

“They have to play their best because I’m going to bring it each and every week,” he said. “I’m going to prepare, that’s No. 1. I’m going to do my job, that’s No. 2. And No. 3 I’m going to line up and get off the ball.”

Griffen said when it comes to facing the Ravens on Sunday, he has no worries about going from playing familiar conference foes the past three weeks to playing an unfamiliar Baltimore squad.

“You play your keys,” he said. “You line up and you play your keys. If you have A-gap, you have A-gap, if you have C-gap, you have C-gap. If they yak the tight end, move the tight end, you do whatever you have to do.

“You play your keys. This is a play-your-keys game. Knock people, get off the ball, hit them in the mouth and try to win this game.”

Gophers get back to basics

The Gophers got their first Big Ten victory under coach P.J. Fleck, beating Illinois 24-17 at home on Saturday, by putting together their best rushing performance of the season with 292 yards on 55 carries. Kobe McCrary once again stepped in for an injured starter and finished with 153 yards on 24 carries with one score.

Former Gophers coach Glen Mason, who did color commentary for the Big Ten Network, said it was old-school Gophers football.

“P.J. Fleck talks about it all the time that you need a pair and a spare. And [McCrary] was not the spare today, he was the pair and had a really big day,” Mason said. “And the offensive line, for being a young offensive line, did a fine job.”

The Gophers still needed a 31-yard interception return by Jonathan Celestin late to topple an Illini team that started 14 true freshmen. And there’s no doubt that Demry Croft’s performance, completing five of 15 passes for 47 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, will lead to some questions about who starts at quarterback next week at Iowa.

“Let’s face it, that has been the criticism for the last several years for Minnesota, even when they have been successful,” Mason said. “They run the ball effectively but leave a lot to be desired [throwing the ball]. Statistics can be misleading, but when you throw for 47 yards and you have two interceptions, you’re really lucky to win a football game.”

Can the Gophers win another Big Ten game? “They play at Iowa this weekend and Iowa lost at Northwestern today, so who knows what will happen?” Mason said.

Jottings

• There’s a fun connection between Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is one of the best ever at his position and already has 4½ sacks this season, his 15th, and Twins first baseman Joe Mauer. The two played youth football together in St. Paul for three years. Suggs eventually moved to Arizona before playing football at Arizona State.

• Despite losing Aaron Rodgers, the Packers remain even with the Vikings in the Vegas sports books for Super Bowl odds at 20-1.

• One positive thing about the Gophers football team is that they have only three seniors on the first-team offense, and just one senior with the alternates. Defensively, they have only two seniors on the first team and three on the second. … A knowledgable source told me that if the U raises out-of-state tuition 15 percent, as reported, the athletic department won’t be hurt.

• The Wall Street Journal recently ran hypothetical valuations on college football programs, with Ohio State ranking first at an estimated worth of $1.5 billion. The Gophers ranked closer to the bottom at $260.3 million.

• According to Bovada, the Las Vegas sports books have the Gophers men’s basketball team at 50-1 odds to win the NCAA title. That is tied for the 15th best. … Gophers basketball season ticket sales, including students, are up 1,808 from last season. Student sales went up from 1,219 to 2,183.

• Vikings quarterback Case Keenum is the lowest-paid QB on the roster at $1.9 million. Teddy Bridgewater is making $2.2 million and Sam Bradford $18 million. … Talk about consistency, Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who leads the NFL in receiving yards at 489, is the only player in the league with at least five receptions in every game. … Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph on winning back-to-back NFC North games. “It’s huge to come out of this stretch with three straight division games 2-1. We didn’t want to drop two out of the three, especially both home games, so it’s a big win for us.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com