Notebook: Pass rush improves, but many questions remain for Vikings
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Seven different Minnesota Vikings defenders were credited with at least 0.5 sack in their 30-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
There's not many times five sacks feels like a shortcoming for a defense, but the Vikings' improved pass rush also added three quarterback hits as Chiefs quarterbacks Alex Smith and Tyler Bray were under duress thoughout the night.
Despite losing two perennial starters, the line figures to be the strength of a defense currently in a rebuilding process. Everson Griffen turned around Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher in the first quarter, put a hand up and helped force a bad decision by Smith, who threw his first interception to Captain Munnerlyn in the endzone. Munnerlyn's pick negated a Chiefs' drive propelled by a 42-yard pass interference call on Josh Robinson.
As the Vikings sort out the many questions in the back seven (middle linebacker, strong safety and third corner), plays by the front four helped make life easier in the secondary, which may be necessary for a position group still feeling out personnel.
Mike Zimmer's defenses have historically been effective at getting to the quarterback by using a group mentality. Defensive ends Brian Robison and Griffen both played on the inside at the three-technique spot to rush the passer on Saturday, while defensive tackle Tom Johnson saw work as an end in a 3-3 front with Robison standing up at times.
At this point, Zimmer is throwing a bunch of different looks at the wall to see what sticks.
On Saturday night, there weren't many looks that didn't work against a hapless Kansas City offense. The Vikings had three sacks in the first two exhibitions and could've had as many as eight on Saturday.
Not every pressure resulted in a hit or takedown, including a play in which linebacker Anthony Barr blitzed off the edge in the second quarter to force an errant throw by Smith, who also had Munnerlyn breathing down his neck. These kind of combo blitzes should be expected from Zimmer, who coordinated Cincinnati defenses that ranked in the top 10 in sacks forced for three straight seasons since 2011.
Kansas City, without Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe, had more first downs than Minnesota, but the Vikings allowed just three points before a last-minute touchdown.
However, the 'bend-but-don't-break' cliché typically stands true with redzone turnovers, such as when two Chiefs' drives were stifled by interceptions on Saturday. Smith's ill-adivsed decision to force a throw to an inside slant led to Chad Greenway's pick, the Vikings' second redzone pick in as many series in the first half.
If the Vikings should see continued success on defense, they will also have to turn around one of the most recent looming flaws: a lack of turnovers. Minnesota has just 30 interceptions since 2011, the fewest in the NFL in that stretch.
Munnerlyn's signing was aimed to patch a hole in the slot, but also as a proven playmaker forcing turnovers. But many undecided spots could be weaknesses: Harrison Smith still doesn't know who he'll be playing alongside; Josh Robinson saw first-team reps as the third cornerback and Audie Cole and Jasper Brinkley continue to swap snaps as the middle linebacker.
Shaun Prater grabbed the Vikings' third interception, while Sendejo dropped what could've been a fourth pick on the night. Prater, Derek Cox and Marcus Sherels worked the most at cornerback, as the trio combined with Robinson figure to be candidates for the third cornerback job in nickel packages.
After a round of cuts down to 75 players on Tuesday, the Vikings have one exhibition left, in Tennessee on Thursday, to decide on a starting 11 for the season opener at St. Louis.
So far, the lack of continuity hasn't mattered as the Vikings defense buried a Chiefs' starting offense that hasn't scored a touchdown in 16 preseason drives.
The Vikings' two longest plays on the night came on the opening drive as Matt Cassel connected with Matt Asiata for a 31-yard catch-and-run just before Cassel found Cordarrelle Patterson downfield for a 53-yard touchdown.
After the opening drive, Cassel and the Vikings' starting offense cooled to the tune of 7-for-15, 68 yards, one interception and three sacks for Cassel on the rest of the night.
The Vikings played Austin Wentworth as the swing tackle when Phil Loadholt (leg) left in the first quarter. On the next play, Cassel had the ball poked out by Jaye Howard, who bull rushed Wentworth into the endzone to force the safety.
A 75-yard punt return by Adam Thielen and a 34-yard interception return by Prater helped set up the Vikings' second-team offense for quick touchdowns off the arm of Teddy Bridgewater, who put the game away in the third quarter.
• Raymond, Sanford and Loadholt all left the game due to injury. Loadholt (leg) returned, but will reportedly have an MRI on Sunday.
• Punt returner Marcus Sherels coughed up a punt that Sendejo ultimately recovered; in contrast, Thielen took one of his two returns for 75 yards after making multiple defenders miss to set up Bridgewater's second touchdown pass on the night.
• Audie Cole led all defenders with eight combined tackles (seven solo), followed by Sendejo (five) and Smith (five).
• Tom Johnson, Corey Wootton and Prater were each credited with sacks. Brinkley, Robison, Griffen and Justin Trattou were each credited with 0.5 sack on the other two. Johnson led all Vikings with two quarterback hits.
• The Vikings offensive line paved the way for a 5.3 yards-per-carry average on 28 rushing attempts, including a 24-yard run by rookie Jerick McKinnon and a 22-yard run by Dominique Williams.