LAS VEGAS – The entire defense received a game ball Sunday for leading the Vikings to a 3-0 victory over the Raiders. A couple of players received game balls as well.
One was venerable safety Harrison Smith, who played in his 172nd game, the most by any defensive back in club history.
The other game ball went to a fellow who has played all of 13 games in his career but is putting himself in position to play many, many more and become a stalwart of a defense that is breathing fire.
Rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. was the standout of a smothering effort against the Raiders. He was all over Allegiant Field, making 13 tackles (seven in the first quarter) while sacking Las Vegas quarterback Aidan O'Connell once. Pace sealed the victory by getting in front of an O'Connell pass intended for Davante Adams for an interception. It came on the Raiders' first play after Greg Joseph's 36-yard field goal with 1:57 left in the game. That allowed the Vikings to run down the clock almost all the way down before making one final stop as time ran out.
"When we had to have it," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell told his players of Pace's pick.
Pace said the Raiders opened the game with a hitch to Adams that he didn't jump on. He saw the same situation in the fourth quarter and was ready for it. Pace made the diving catch, ran into the end zone and celebrated with a back flip.
"I knew he was running a hitch," Pace said. "The first play they come out with was a hitch. I knew he was going to throw it there."
Now Pace is showing coverage skills. He's listed at just 5-10 and 231 pounds, but he wallops ball carriers. He also has a chip on his shoulder after being undrafted out of Cincinnati. He believed in his talent, and that talent is beginning to show.
Pace had nine tackles against both the Broncos and Bears, so he now has 31 tackles over his past three games. When fellow linebacker Jordan Hicks left the lineup after he needed surgery on a leg to treat compartment syndrome, Pace became "green dot guy," meaning he has a receiver in his helmet that allows him to relay defensive signals from coaches. Those players have green dots on their helmets.
"He's got great command, you know," Kevin O'Connell said. "As a quarterback, you're always looking at ... who's ever running that huddle, 'What's that command look like, how is that information getting distributed around the huddle?' And ultimately, he's answered the bell and filled in a huge role."
As the offense searches for consistency after the season-ending injury to Kirk Cousins, O'Connell is leaning on his defense while the Vikings push for the playoffs. The timing is right, as defensive coordinator Brian Flores has his unit humming. Several players have blossomed under his tutelage, with Pace being one the best examples.
He doesn't lack confidence, but being undrafted has motivated him.
"I got that dog in me," he said. "That's all I've got to say. I've never been surprised. I know how good I am. I've been showing the world since I was young that I was good. Now I'm here in the league and still proving it."