The Vikings are 6-6 and quarterback Kirk Cousins isn't returning from injured reserve anytime soon. Their playoff hopes rest in the expected return of receiver Justin Jefferson next week coming out of the bye weekend, as well as coordinator Brian Flores' 13th-ranked defense.
The Vikings are even better at preventing their opponents from scoring. The Vikings haven't finished with a top-10 scoring defense since 2019, and they currently rank eighth after giving up 12 points — four field goals — in Monday night's loss to the Bears. They've surrendered three touchdowns in the last three games.
How are they doing it? Many hands have come together to turn around the Vikings' defensive woes led by Flores, edge rusher Danielle Hunter and safety Harrison Smith. They've also seen the development of a cast of unheralded contributors. We'll highlight five of them below.
Safety Camryn Bynum and edge rusher D.J. Wonnum, who we'll get to later, have played more snaps for the Vikings defense over the last three seasons than anybody other than Smith. It makes sense they've developed into reliable role players. Bynum leads the team through 12 games in tackles (99) and defensive snaps (796) while starting every game. He doesn't leave the field for any reason, missing just one snap — in the Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers — over the last two years as a starter. He's just as reliable in play. Only safety Josh Metellus, who we'll also get to later, has a better missed tackle rate than Bynum. He hasn't allowed a touchdown in coverage while deflecting five passes and intercepting two key throws — both in the Oct. 23 win over the 49ers.
Like most defenders who play under Flores, Bynum's intelligence allows him to be versatile. But he's most often trusted in deep and midfield coverages, where his preparation and instincts flourish. He also quickly drops downhill whether in run support or to defend the Bears' perimeter passing game on Monday night. Below is an incredible tackle by Bynum, who reads the screen to Bears running back Roschon Johnson and thwarts a third-down attempt. Johnson weighs 25 pounds more than Bynum, who drives him backward. Punishing play for a typically deep safety. The Bears settled for a field goal.
Safety Josh Metellus signed a two-year extension with just over $5 million guaranteed before the season started. He expected to play a bigger role under Flores, but now coaches can't take him off the field. The team captain was known for his roles on special teams, and he can't play that as much due to his outsized duties on defense. He ranks third on the team in tackles (81), aligning nearly everywhere from deep safety to slot defender to inside linebacker. That range is shown in his four pass deflections, three forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He did a little of everything in the Oct. 29 win in Green Bay, blitzing Packers quarterback Jordan Love during an early incompletion. Metellus later corralled Love during a third-down scramble and intercepted the Green Bay quarterback. Quarterbacks have had some success throwing against Metellus, starting with the Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers. But he's physical and can make plays on the ball when in position.
In the video below, you'll see the Vikings in man-to-man coverage. Metellus motions with Packers tight end Luke Musgrave, who runs an over route. Musgrave had a chance to make this catch, but Metellus closes and disrupts any hope at a second attempt.
Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has the most run stops (28) for the Vikings' fourth-ranked rushing defense, according to Pro Football Focus. He does much of the dirty work as a setup man in the middle, but also makes plays on his own. They mostly come against the run since he isn't the focal point of the blitz schemes, nor is he a very effective one-on-one pass rusher. He can still put a move on a blocker.
In the video below, you'll see the Saints run up the middle on third-and-1. Phillips initially aligns over the right guard's inside shoulder. At the snap, he lurches inside and across the center. This forces Alvin Kamara to cut back the run into linebacker Jordan Hicks (and Phillips) for the run stop. On the fourth-and-1 play following, the Saints false start because of a wily pre-snap flinch orchestrated by Phillips, who takes credit afterward. Flores has called Phillips the "coordinator" for such gamesmanship in short-yardage spots, before which interior D-lineman suddenly move to draw early motion by the offense.
Linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. has been a revelation as an undrafted defender who first caught Flores' eye at the Senior Bowl, last offseason. He not only shut down talk of a rotation with second-year linebacker Brian Asamoah II, he has replaced an injured Jordan Hicks as the defensive signal caller in the past two games. At 5-foot-10, he's not an imposing presence. But he slips blockers and is a hard-nosed tackler. He should continue developing into a more consistent run defender. He ranks seventh on the team in tackles and 10th in defensive snaps while starting eight of 12 games.
In the video below, you'll see how Pace has been an effective blitzer in this system. He sacked Bears quarterback Justin Fields with a delayed showing off the right edge and sidestepped running back Roschon Johnson. There's little wasted movement as Pace lunges at Fields.
In Atlanta, Pace slipped under two Falcons blockers to stop Bijan Robinson for one yard.
Edge rusher D.J. Wonnum has helped the Vikings make up for the loss of Marcus Davenport, who had signed a one-year deal with $10 million guaranteed to fortify the pass rush opposite Danielle Hunter. But Davenport has played just four games due to ankle injuries. Wonnum has started 10-plus games for the second time in the last three years, going back to his South Carolina days as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He drops back into coverage (60 snaps) more often than Hunter (10), and has batted four passes down at the line. He's a solid tackler and effort player. He can win one-on-one reps when given the time. His sixth sack this season came in Denver on third down.
In the video below, you'll see the Vikings dupe the Broncos protection scheme. They show six pass rushers. The Broncos slide protection to Hunter's side. But the Vikings only bring three pass rushers while still getting Wonnum into a one-on-one rush against Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles. Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson holds onto the ball against eight Vikings defenders in coverage. Wonnum finishes the play.