Defense can carry Vikings to NFC Playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 16: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins is sacked by Eric Kendricks #54 of the Minnesota Vikings in the third quarter of the game. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Vikings’ defense had one of its most dominant performances of the season on Sunday in a game they had to win to maintain their playoff hopes.

The unit made life largely miserable for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Mike Zimmer’s defenses have a habit of doing that to opposing quarterbacks. They were aggressive in getting after Tannehill, and never let the Dolphins get into much of a rhythm offensively in the 41-17 victory.

The defense got nine sacks on the day, their second-highest total of the season. They also limited the Dolphins to just 109 yards passing, 193 total net yards and 3.6 net yards per play.

Seven different players recorded a sack.

“That’s what we’re here for, to rush the quarterback so it puts us in a position to win,” defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said.

Mackensie Alexander made some history himself on Sunday. He got his fourth sack of the season on a fourth quarter blitz. It’s the most by a Vikings’ defensive back since Robert Griffith in 1999.

“I love it, getting sacks and stuff like that. Wherever I can contribute on this team to help us win, that’s all that matters at the end of the day,” Alexander said.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Alexander, now in his third season with the Vikings, has grown up a lot since his rookie year. He spends a lot more time studying, and breaking down film with defensive coaches Terence Newman, George Edwards and Jerry Gray.

“He’s been playing really well,” Zimmer said. “He should love to blitz, he doesn’t get blocked.”

Anthony Barr had one of his best games of the season on Sunday. He finished with seven tackles and two sacks to lead the defense. He has 49 tackles on the season, and three sacks.

Barr said Sunday the defense was flying all over the field, making plays and having fun doing it. His teammates said it was fun to watch.

“Big difference, the man is playing possessed right now. He’s all over the field,” Richardson said.

The only real defensive hiccup for the Vikings Sunday was on the first play of the third quarter. Kalen Ballage went untouched 75 yards for a touchdown, and at the time it cut the Vikings’ lead to 21-17. Zimmer said after the game it was his mistake and a bad defensive call.

From that point, the Vikings allowed one first down, forced four three-and-outs, a turnover on downs and got seven of their nine sacks. Tannehill finished the game 11-of-24 for just 108 yards.

Defensive end Stephen Weatherly said the game plan all week was to create pressure on Tannehill as much as possible.

The Vikings also took the Dolphins out of their offensive game plan with their ability to run the ball early and put up 21 first quarter points. They had 202 total yards in the first quarter and controlled the ball for more than 33 minutes in the game, compared to only 26 for the Dolphins.

Dalvin Cook’s ability to run the ball early let the defensive front seven take control of the game.

“Being able to run the ball and put up points means the opponent has less time to do what they want to do. It means they have to abandon their game plan quicker, which means they have to throw more, which means we get to eat more,” Weatherly said. “We get to take the dogs off the chain and do what we do as a defense”

The Vikings held Miami to 12 first downs for the game and only 2-of-12 on third down conversions. They also failed on their two fourth down tries.

For the season, the Vikings are fourth in the NFL in total defense at 314.3 yards per game and are allowing about 5.1 yards per play.

It’s play like that over four quarters that can carry the Vikings to the playoffs.