The Vikings’ defense is not yet a top-10 unit, but it has made consistent strides this season in several ways. The third-down and red-zone shortcomings of a season ago have improved little statistically, but it’s a more whole group that is less reliant on DEs Jared Allen and Brian Robison providing the heavy lifting.
And the biggest difference has been the clutch playmaking. The defense, which features several new faces from last season, has made key plays when it has counted.
The Vikings have been willing to let teams move the ball in small and medium chunks, hoping to prevent the large gains and also hoping to make the key turnovers when needed.
Rookie S Harrison Smith’s interception and 56-yard TD runback against the Bears was one such play. Although Smith — who has been a steady, improving force this season — never returned punts in college extensively, he looked like a returner when he took it back the distance.
Smith said he still has technique issues he needs to clean up, even as his tackling has improved through the season. He most certainly knows he has room for improvement.
“There are things I can do better. It’s improved, but there’s more to work on,” Smith told PFW. “I am at a point where, when I mess up, I know how to fix it for next time it happens. I am getting coached up to where I understand my role and I at least know what adjustments I need to make.”
Another key contributor on defense this season has been DE Everson Griffen, who has spelled Allen and Robison and also has lined up as a nickel tackle next to Robison. The latter spot is where he has done some of his best work.
Griffen has broken out in his third season, building on a slow ascent in 2011, to put up career highs in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (six) along with a forced fumble and a fumble recovered. He says he has become a better student of the game, often bringing home video to watch at night, which has allowed his game to flourish more.
“I’m having more fun, but I am also studying more and better,” he said by phone this week. “I don’t know if it’s much more than that. I am learning the game. I am learning offensive football better, just the schemes they are trying to run and why they are doing what they are doing.”