Speaking to reporters this offseason, new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell outlined his philosophy of what he called “the middle eight,” a term he learned from Patriots coach Bill Belichick during the offseason. of in New England.
O’Connell wanted to highlight the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half for the impact they can have on an opponent’s psyche if the defense gives up back-to-back points or the offense is out of sync. for almost an hour in real time.
If the Vikings’ defense was adequate in the middle eight minutes of games last year, O’Connell might not be the team’s coach right now. But Mike Zimmer’s defenses gave up an NFL-worst 11 touchdowns and seven field goals in the final four minutes of the first half last season, and the Vikings gave up three more scores in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
Minnesota’s offense, by contrast, scored just four touchdowns and six field goals at the end of the first half, with the same three touchdowns to start the third quarter against their opponents. That’s a net deficit of seven touchdowns and a field goal that, combined with the Vikings’ anemic endgame defense, amounted to too many close losses that cost Zimmer his job.
However, in O’Connell’s 23-7 debut Sunday, the Vikings used the middle eight minutes of the game to pull away from the Packers.
They went up 10-0 on Greg Joseph’s field goal with 3:54 left, forced a Packers punt, then drove 74 yards in seven plays, capped by Justin Jefferson’s second touchdown as he beat Eric Stokes on pillar. Za’Darius Smith and Harrison Phillips then pressured Aaron Rodgers on the Packers’ next play, and Harrison Smith picked off Rodgers’ pass to Randall Cobb.
Four plays into the third quarter, Jordan Hicks and Danielle Hunter sacked Rodgers and Dalvin Tomlinson recovered a fumble at the Green Bay 44.
Jefferson was called for a push on Jaire Alexander who overturned his catch at the Green Bay 28 to end the drive, but Joseph hit a 56-yarder with 9:51 left in the third quarter to put the Vikings up 20-0.
In all, the Vikings had three possessions that started in the middle eight minutes of the game that led to 10 points. They forced two turnovers against a quarterback who likes to double up when he scores late in the first half and early in the second, and reversed the Packers’ decision to call after winning the first coin toss.
Once they took a 20-point lead, with Rodgers missing his two starting tackles and wide receiver Allen Lazard, the Vikings could work with some level of confidence that they wouldn’t be able to bring them back with a scoring drive.
The Vikings excelled in a key area of emphasis for O’Connell, and afterward, it gave the coach some vindication that his decision to rest starters throughout the preseason paid off. The Vikings had been playing relatively penalty-free football — after last year’s flag-filled debut — and they made an area of the game that Rodgers loves once they built a comfortable lead.
“I answered a lot of questions [during the preseason] that our players are ready to play. … We knew the responsibility we had to prepare our players. they knew the responsibility they had to be personally ready for,” O’Connell said. “What I give our guys credit for doing, especially offensively in this game, was just, ‘Next, next.’ How many times can all 11 line up and do their job, whether it was huddle call, tempo, casual? We have a lot to fix, but I’m really, really proud of our team.”
TWO PLAYERS WHO SEPARATE
Tomlinson: Playing his first game at defensive end in the Vikings’ new 3-4 formation, Tomlinson was on the field for 39 of the Vikings’ 61 defensive snaps, and made a surprising contribution in the passing game throughout the game. He had one of his three pressures on Za’Darius Smith’s sack, and he recovered a Rodgers fumble after Hunter and Hicks went for a quarterback early in the third quarter.
Harrison Smith: The 11th-year safety has come to appreciate his cat-and-mouse games with Rodgers, and he came up with two of the Vikings’ biggest defensive plays on Sunday. Smith stood up to tackle AJ Dillon with a brutal hit near the goal line on a third down before Za’Darius Smith tackled Dillon to stop the Packers on fourth down. Then, when Rodgers tried to throw deep to Randall Cobb late in the first half, Harrison Smith threw his first interception against a quarterback in a decade. The last, as Smith fondly recalled after the game, came on Dec. 2, 2012 — Rodgers’ 29th birthday — when the Packers tried a fumble and Smith (then a rookie) picked off the pass to Greg Jennings at Lambeau. End field zone.
AN AREA OF CONCERN
Running room: According to Pro Football Focus, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison gained 100 of their combined 126 yards after contact, which means they averaged less than a yard before contact on their 28 attempts. The Vikings faced a talented Packers front seven, and managed to average 4.5 yards per carry, so that’s probably a fairly minor problem. But Cook and Mathison had plenty of work to do, and the Vikings will look to make it easier for them going forward.