It was an epic comeback that will have a spot in the NFL record book for years to come.
But there were so many things that went wrong in the first half that it was ridiculous. Those were largely mistakes on offense and disasters on special teams. The defense did not play particularly well, but that unit was not responsible for the 33-0 hole.
When it came to the comeback and the 39-36 victory, the defense bore little resemblance to the team that ranked last in yards allowed and had been eviscerated by the Eagles, Cowboys and Lions.
There were some personnel changes that helped out quite a bit, but it was a schematic change that Kevin O’Connell had talked about and nearly all long-time observers of the team had known. There was a passive quality to the Vikings defense that had turned the unit into a sieve.
Much of the reason for that lies with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, but don’t let it be said that Donatell heard the criticism and did nothing about it. He heard the criticism, saw the passivity and at the very least, decided to save his own job.
The Vikings stopped playing vanilla defense against the Colts and changed to a particularly devastating type of Rocky Road in the second half. Blitzing, disguising coverages and causing havoc.
The Vikings allowed just 4.3 yards per play against Indianapolis, and cornerback Patrick Peterson played man-to-man coverage the majority of the time, setting the tone for aggression by the rest of the unit. Safety Harrison Smith, the most instinctive player on the defense, moved close to the line of scrimmage and made 14 tackles.
More than any other one factor, the Vikings were blitzing. More than twice as much as in any other game. Blitzes by Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, the two most important players on the defensive line, were very effective. Smith had 9 tackles, 0.5 sack and 1 QB hit, while Hunter had 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss and 4 QB hits.
“Bringing a couple pressures on third down,” Jordan Hicks said. “Even first and second down, we were bringing some pressures. Ed did a great job calling the game.”
Does it mean they have found the answer and will turn this thing around? No way. They did this against the most disorganized and dysfunctional team in commissioner Roger Goodell’s NFL. It was clearly a positive step, but it’s about repeating the performance and then gaining consistency.
Can it be done in a four-game span? Why not? The talent is there and there were positive results in Week 1 against the Colts. Now comes Week 2 against the Giants, a team with some toughness and a talented running back in Saquon Barkley, but not one that scares many opponents from an offensive perspective. Still, it’s a test, and if the Vikings can limit Barkley and put pressure on quarterback Daniel Jones, the results should be positive.
The last two weeks will take the Vikings to Green Bay and Chicago. There’s nothing that Aaron Rodgers would like more than to go after the Minnesota defense on a seek-and-destroy mission on the frozen tundra. That might be impossible, depending on the weather circumstances, but he certainly as the capability of leading his team and imposing his will.
The only game the Vikings have won by a margin came in Week 1 against the Packers, and that 23-7 defeat sent Green Bay into a deep funk for the majority of the season. But after beating the Bears and the Rams in their last two games, the Packers have some degree of hope that they can still make the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. That means they are likely a bigger test than the Colts or the Giants.
The Bears are a last-place team, but they have a game-changing weapon in quarterback Justin Fields. The Vikings couldn’t control him in their Week 5 victory, and he’s a much more confident leader now than he was then. The Bears will be playing with nothing to lose, but the Vikings will be playing to show they have a defense that’s capable of competing against the teams they will see in the postseason.
No doubt that’s a huge jump and passing the test in the final weeks of the regular season does not mean they will be successful in the playoffs.
However, it’s a pretty good bet that if they fail against the Giants, Packers and Bears, the postseason will be short and unhappy.