EAGAN, Minn. - Class is still in session for Vikings headmaster Mike Zimmer. Nine games into the season, Minnesota’s head coach is learning how his unpredictable team is capable of performing week to week after a surprisingly inconsistent start.
However, victories in four of their past five outings - including Sunday’s 24-9 beat-down of Detroit - have stabilized the Vikings (5-3-1) as they enter the bye in the middle of a pivotal three-game set against NFC North Division opponents.
Their defense has fortified following a porous 0-2-1 stretch, punctuated by a dominant 10-sack feat against the sad-sack Lions. A dormant rushing attack is revving up with the return of dynamic running back Dalvin Cook. And their swagger has returned following humbling losses to lowly Buffalo and the high-octane Rams.
“Defensively, we didn’t start out very well,” Zimmer said Monday, Nov. 5. “Every year is a new year, but I do feel like we’re starting to look a lot more like I kind of expect us to. I hope we continue to do that. I think it’s still a little bit of a learning process.”
New quarterback Kirk Cousins still is finding his rhythm with first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, and Minnesota has had to battle a slew of injuries to offensive and defensive starters.
On Sunday, Cook worked a 70-yard dash down the left sideline into his limited return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him four of the previous five games.
Cook, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Week 4 last year, suited up Sunday for just the seventh time in 25 potential games with Minnesota. He was clocked at 22 mph during his long run, the fastest time recorded by NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
“He’s got a chance to hit home runs,” said Zimmer. “That, I think, was really good for him to get out there and get some game time action. When you haven’t played in six weeks and haven’t practiced all that much, I just think he’ll continue to get better, see some of the cuts a little bit better as he gets going.”
A week off before the Vikings travel to Chicago to play the first-place Bears Nov. 18 should help the walking wounded heal and rejoin the lineup for the stretch drive.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes battled an ankle injury that kept him off the field for several drives against the Lions. However, linebacker Anthony Barr was unable to go Sunday, and strong safety Andrew Sendejo missed his fourth straight game with a groin injury.
“I think most of those guys, I’m hopeful, that they’re all back,” Zimmer said.
Sunday’s record-setting sack attack against the Lions, led by Danielle Hunter’s 3 1/2, was Minnesota’s best defensive showing and continued the unit’s upward mobility.
Hunter has 11 1/2 sacks in nine games, more than the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders (seven) have as a team. His 37 career sacks in three-plus seasons have elevated Hunter into elite company of pass rushers.
After allowing 382 yards per game through the first four weeks, the Vikings have limited opponents to an average of 275 yards the past five, and 253 the last four. They kept a third consecutive quarterback under 210 passing yards by swarming Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
Perhaps most impressive is that they have stopped teams on third down in 49 of their last 62 attempts.
“I probably look at the third down tape four or five times during the week,” Zimmer said. “We changed some of the calls yesterday that we hadn’t called at all. Whatever you do they have to execute and they’ve been doing a good job.”
Meanwhile, the defending NFC North champions head into the bye alone in second place one game ahead of the Green Bay Packers and a half game behind the Bears - their next two opponents.
“Everything that we want to accomplish is still out in front of us,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph. “The first way to get into the playoffs is to win your division.”
Added wide receiver Adam Thielen: “Division games almost feel like two wins because they’re so important in the process of getting into the playoffs. First and foremost, you have to win those division games to get to that point.”