Nearly two weeks ago, the Vikings lost their star running back and a key offensive lineman.
However, Minnesota hasn’t lost a game in more than eight months.
Heading into their Monday night matchup with the New York Giants (2-1), the Vikings (3-0) qualify as one of the early surprises in the NFL. They topped the Tennessee Titans before earning surprise wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers despite an unimpressive offense that is now led by a quarterback who didn’t arrive in Minnesota until the preseason ended.
For these Vikings, it is not about offense. With running back Adrian Peterson gone and new signal-caller Sam Bradford doing just enough to move the ball, Minnesota is winning thanks to defense and special teams.
Coach Mike Zimmer — a defensive specialist during his six years as an assistant with the Bengals — has a defensive unit that heads into the Giants matchup averaging an NFL-best five sacks per game and is tied for second in interceptions.
The Vikings’ defensive unit insists it isn’t focusing on its own press clippings, instead doing its homework on the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning.
“We’ve got our hands full,” said Vikings defensive back Harrison Smith, who had a 35-yard touchdown return after intercepting Manning in late December when the Vikings won 49-17 — a Giants loss that all but sealed the fate of since-dismissed former coach Tom Coughlin. “They’ve got a bunch of very talented receivers that pop out on film, so there’s definitely a lot to do this week. Anytime you play a quarterback like that, it challenges you.”
Last year, the teams played outdoors on a cold winter night in Minnesota. This year, the Vikings’ sparkling new U.S. Bank Stadium is the site, and conditions will be perfect under the glass roof.
The Giants’ three-headed tandem of wideouts is sure to test the Minnesota defense on the turf, with rookie Sterling Shepard joining Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. as deep threats. Shepard, a second-round pick from Oklahoma, caught five passes last week, including his second pro touchdown.
While Peterson’s absence means that the Giants run defense will get a potential break, there are sudden question marks in the New York backfield as well.
In a 29-27 home loss to the Washington Redskins last Sunday, New York running back Shane Vereen was lost, likely for the season, to a triceps injury. That means the Vikings won’t be the only team with a “running back by committee” approach.
The Giants’ Orleans Darkwa and the Vikings’ Jerick McKinnon aren’t the running backs one would normally expect to delight a national TV audience, but both teams will battle with what they have.
“Orleans always runs hard,” Giants guard Justin Pugh said. “Even going back to last year, he puts his head down and he’s going to get some yards. I’m excited for him to get the opportunity. That’s huge, that’s something that you dream about, to be the starting running back. He’s going to have his chance on ‘Monday Night Football.'”
In addition to Manning’s two interceptions during the Washington loss, the Giants’ other glaring issue was penalties. New York was flagged 11 times for 128 yards, a trend that first-year coach Ben McAdoo knows cannot continue.
“We knew (the referees) were going to throw the flags, and throw them early and often,” McAdoo said. “We need to be a more disciplined football team, and we’ll get that fixed.
“Yes it’s disappointing. We need to be better than that, we are better than that, we need to address it this week, and we’re going to fix it.”
The Vikings had similar troubles in their only other home game, a 17-14 win over the Packers in Week 2, when they were penalized 13 times for 137 yards. That was an error Zimmer vowed to correct as the season goes along.
For non-division rivals, there is plenty of recent history between the Giants and Vikings. The Monday game will be the 12th regular-season meeting in the past 16 seasons. Perhaps the most famous Vikings-Giants matchup determined the 2001 NFC title, when New York advanced to the Super Bowl via a 41-0 blowout of Minnesota in the Meadowlands.
“They’re playing good football,” Manning said of the Vikings. “We’ll have to see if we can get back on track and play some better football.”