NFC North Reporter
The Minnesota Vikings defense sealed the team’s 34-26 win over the Arizona Cardinals thanks to back-to-back sacks of quarterback Kyler Murray — and those weren’t the only plays the defense made.
You probably wouldn’t look at a score in which the opponent scored 26 points and think it was especially highlighted by the defense’s performance, but the Vikings came through when it counted.
They were creative up front, running different stunts and blitz packages that exploited known mismatches. They created turnovers just as the Cardinals were gaining momentum. Patrick Peterson and Jordan Hicks were outstanding against their former team, and the team’s biggest defensive acquisition this offseason, linebacker Za’Darius Smith, had himself a game.
When all was said and done, the Vikings recorded three takeaways, two of which were interceptions, both coming in critical moments. Minnesota had just retaken the lead in the third quarter, up 21-17, when safety Harrison Smith picked off a pass intended for Robbie Anderson on the first play of the Cardinals’ answering drive, stopping them in their tracks. The Vikings capitalized, going up by two scores thanks to a four-yard touchdown run by Dalvin Cook.
Dalvin Cook on Minnesota’s team culture
Dalvin Cook spoke with FOX Sports’ Kristina Pink after the Vikings’ 34-26 victory over the Cardinals. He talked about the culture the team is creating in order to win close games.
Cam Bynum’s interception also came after a Vikings touchdown drive that put them ahead by eight points late in the fourth. The Cardinals had made it into Minnesota territory when Murray took a shot over the middle for Zach Ertz. Bynum was there instead.
“I think our coaches are preparing our guys for those critical moments,” coach Kevin O’Connell said after the game. “Both Cam Bynum and Harrison Smith getting those interceptions in the deep part of the field, I think it’s huge for our team. It’s a great example of what our defense can be when our front is physical. [We] slowed down a good rushing attack with a real weapon at the quarterback position to kind of hold them from really getting those explosive runs that … fuel their whole offense. It allowed us to play a little bit more coverage, have a plan for [DeAndre] Hopkins. He’s a special player.”
The defense also had the benefit of a revamped offensive performance in which the Vikings did exactly what they set out to do: focus on the run. Cook had his first 100-yard game of the season, rushing for 111 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The Vikings had 173 total yards on the ground, with a run/pass split of 29 and 36, respectively. They were also five-for-five inside the red zone and had 381 yards of total offense.
Hopkins was about the only bright spot for the Cardinals, accounting for most of their offensive production. Despite him being well-covered most of the game, Hopkins nabbed 12 of 13 targets for 159 yards and a touchdown. His only recorded incompletion didn’t come until the Cardinals’ final drive of the game.
And though it didn’t have much of an answer for Hopkins (virtually no one does), and despite Arizona’s last drive looking promising at one point, the Minnesota defense clamped down in the end. With no timeouts, down eight points, Murray had led his team as far as the Vikings’ 37-yard line before Za’Darius Smith recorded his third sack of the game. It was followed by Harrison Phillips with another sack as time expired, giving the Vikings the win.
Vikings defeat Cardinals after two clutch sacks
The Vikings defense proved to be the hero in Minnesota’s 34-26 victory over the Cardinals. Za’Darius Smith and Harrison Phillips came up with sacks on last two plays of the game.
Smith was absolutely on fire the entire game. Though traditionally an edge rusher, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell had some other plans for him against the Cardinals. The Vikings found a mismatch with center Billy Price, and Smith made them pay for it … twice. His first two sacks of the game came right up the middle, overpowering Price outright to get to Murray. On the day, Smith ended up with seven combined tackles, four of which were for loss, three quarterback hits, three sacks and a pass breakup. He was simply everywhere, allowing the rest of the defense to play off of him. His performance earned him a game ball, which was waiting for him in the locker room.
“It’s really hard to have a protection plan for a guy that could be in any one of five spots up front,” O’Connell said. “We can use him to manipulate the protection call if we want. We can use him to try to isolate somebody in protection if we want. And then how does everybody play off of that, linebackers included. Just to continue to allow our athletes to kind of show up on some of those downs, especially against a quarterback like that. I just can’t say enough.”
As if Smith didn’t do enough, O’Connell also mentioned that he asked for “one more” at the end of the game. Smith then promptly collected that aforementioned third sack to put it away.
“He was the first one to tell me about it,” laughed O’Connell.
It’s only fitting the game ended with the defense on the field. Even when the Vikings offense went three-and-out after the Bynum interception that allowed Arizona that one last drive, there didn’t seem to be any panic. The Vikings look, dare I say, confident in their ability to bounce back, evidenced by the multiple lead changes throughout the game.
After going 6-8 in one-score games last season, Minnesota has won all five of their one-score games this year, and they are maybe (just maybe) changing the narrative of what a typical Vikings performance is.
“The feeling you get on our sideline in our locker room no matter what the circumstances are, I do feel like these guys believe in each other,” said O’Connell. “They believe in what we’re doing and ultimately, they believe that we’re one play away from being where we want to be if the momentum maybe isn’t on our side. That’s a proud feeling for a coach because when you know these guys are feeling that, you know you have a chance to overcome a lot of the adversity that’s in front of us.”
The Vikings now sit comfortably atop the NFC North with a 6-1 record on the season.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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