The outcome was secured at the two-minute warning, but the Vikings defense still looked angrier than hornets protecting their nest.
The Detroit Lions had first down at the Minnesota 11, trailing 24-6. The Vikings refused to concede an inch.
Three downs, minus-8 yards, another sack and the Lions settled for a meaningless field goal.
Mike Zimmer’s defense finally looks like its old self again.
“We’re just finding our identity,” Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes said.
Which is what?
“Aggressive,” Rhodes said. “What it’s always been.”
They appeared to find kryptonite at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, but their feistiness and confidence has returned in full force, the latest evidence found in a 24-9 dismantling of the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The defense produced a team-record 10 sacks in holding the Lions to three field goals and 209 total yards. Their suffocating effort also included 10 tackles for loss and 17 hits on quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose uniform resembled a straitjacket.
“That was a fun game,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “We left some [sacks] out there, to be honest with you.”
“About three or four,” he said.
He wasn’t complaining necessarily because 10 sacks was a historic total. Richardson recalled playing on a different defense that once registered 10 sacks in a game.
“Pee Wee,” he said. “High school, maybe [too]. But that wasn’t fair. I was kind of the biggest person on the field.”
Zimmer’s defense has regained its BMOC status after being torched by big plays early in the season in a continuation of the final six quarters of 2017.
It was strange and alarming to see Zimmer’s defense exposed to that extent after distinguishing itself as the NFL’s No. 1 defense for most of last season.
A 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams marked a low point that initiated schematic changes by Zimmer to counteract adjustments being made by offenses against his blitz packages and coverages.
“We’ve had to change up a lot of things that we’ve done,” he said. “Luckily, our players have been able to execute it. Part of it is having enough confidence to call some of these things and still be good against the run.”
It helps to have a defensive line that safety Harrison Smith affectionately calls “a bunch of dogs up front.” Those dogs treated Stafford like he was a chew toy. Nearly all 10 sacks came from the line, led by Danielle Hunter’s career-high 3½.
The signature moment came on Hunter’s 32-yard fumble return for a touchdown that started when Stafford hurriedly pitched the ball to his running back as if he was holding a live grenade. He saw defenders closing on him like a cheetah.
“We got after it,” Richardson said. “We were getting to the quarterback early and often.”
The way it unfolded felt like déjà vu, or 2017 to be precise, when their defense overwhelmed offenses with a perfect marriage of relentless pass rush and tight coverage.
“If you hold a team to nine points and have 10 sacks, you’ve got a pretty good shot,” Smith said.
The sack total was the result of a snowball turning into an avalanche. And the pressure came mostly from their front four. The Vikings didn’t need to blitz to make Stafford appear skittish.
“We look for situations where you get to pin your ears back,” Everson Griffen said.
Their swagger has returned. Something changed after that Rams loss, whether it was new wrinkles in scheme, or Griffen’s return, or a combination of different factors.
“Our defense still has a lot of improvements to make, but we can be good,” Griffen said. “We can be really good.”
They showed that through most of last season. Sunday’s performance felt like a return to that standard. Richardson shrugged when asked what changes have allowed the defense to regain its identity.
“Heck if I know,” he said. “Just keep it up, guys.”