Vikings' defense finds groove ahead of Saints game

MINNEAPOLIS -- While delivering a message inside the pregame huddle ahead of the Cardinals game, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins called on his early years in the NFL to motivate his defense over what it could do to Josh Rosen.

“Defense,” Cousins bellowed, “I’ve been a rookie quarterback before. You can suffocate him. You can suffocate him. Make him miserable all day long, get us the ball back.”

It’s a piece of advice Minnesota’s defense took to heart from one week to the next, shutting down Rosen and notching an even better result against Sam Darnold in the Vikings' 37-17 win over the New York Jets on Sunday.

The effect the Vikings had in frustrating and confusing Darnold was particularly noticeable as the game wore on. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, after starting the game 6-of-9 passing with a touchdown in the first quarter, Darnold went 11-of-33 with three interceptions in the final three quarters, which is the worst completion percentage in that stretch of a game by any quarterback this season with a minimum of 15 passing attempts.

Darnold also botched a handoff with running back Bilal Powell, which marked the fourth turnover forced by Minnesota.

In the midst of a three-game win streak, the Vikings' defense finds itself in a groove that wasn’t easy to establish early on this season. The memories of hitting rock bottom against the Rams in Week 4 feels so long ago for a unit that’s back to dictating games and giving its offense ample opportunities to score.

“Defense is back to doing them,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “It’s no surprise. We’ve had some games where we’ve got to do our job, too. Just like this game, when they give us a turnover, we’ve got to get points, we’ve got to score. When the defense gets a turnover, the only way you take advantage of the opportunity is scoring.”

What was most impressive against the Jets was the performance Minnesota turned in down several starters. Starting at nose tackle in place of Linval Joseph, who might as well have been listed “full body” on the injury report with shoulder, knee and ankle injuries, Jaleel Johnson thrived in his first career start, helping the Vikings hold the seventh-best rushing attack to a season-low 71 yards. Stephen Weatherly continues to start in place of Everson Griffen while George Iloka handled duties at strong safety for a second consecutive game in place of Andrew Sendejo (groin).

How Minnesota was able to overcome two injuries during the game is a testament to its defensive depth. Eric Wilson held things down for linebacker Anthony Barr, who went down with a hamstring injury with 11:28 left in the fourth quarter. Not long after, cornerback Xavier Rhodes suffered a left ankle injury and was replaced by rookie Holton Hill, whose impact was felt immediately as he picked off a Darnold pass and set up the Vikings for a 34-yard touchdown seven plays later. Neither Rhodes nor Barr returned to the game.

“We have to just keep fighting and get in there,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “That is why it is so important that we, as coaches, continue to push these young guys, because they are going to get in the ballgame at some time.”

The injuries didn’t hurt the Vikings' ability to control the game, most notably with their dominant third-down defense, whose streak of consecutive stops dating back to the Eagles game finally concluded at 20 in the third quarter. The Jets were 2-of-13 on third down with their only two conversions a product of Darnold scrambling and a quarterback sneak.

The Vikings' defense dismantled rookie quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks and will look to carry the momentum it has built since Week 5 into another major test. The challenge becomes far greater when Drew Brees and the Saints come to town for a showdown on Sunday night.

New Orleans squeaked by the Ravens' No. 1 defense in a 24-23 win and carries a five-game win streak into U.S. Bank Stadium. Brees' dominance is something the Vikings are all too familiar with, dating to his second-half surge in the NFC divisional playoffs in January where he completed 17 of 22 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in a game that would have gone to New Orleans had it not been for Case Keenum and Diggs connecting on the Minneapolis Miracle.

The Vikings' defense should certainly feel accomplished given the way it redirected its trajectory over the past three weeks and will look to reach an even greater level of play against the highest-scoring offense in the NFL and a quarterback who just threw his 500th career touchdown pass.