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Updated: October 9th, 2012 11:00pm
Zulgad: Defense has been Vikings' most pleasant surprise this season

Zulgad: Defense has been Vikings' most pleasant surprise this season

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There are several quality storylines that surround the Minnesota Vikings' turnaround from a 3-13 finish in 2011 to a 4-1 start in 2012.

Among them: Running back Adrian Peterson's remarkable recovery from reconstructive surgery on his left knee; Christian Ponder's emergence as a reliable NFL quarterback; and wide receiver Percy Harvin's early season MVP-worthy performance.

But Harvin knows those things wouldn't matter nearly as much if it wasn't for what his teammates on the other side of the football have been doing.

"The defense is playing huge for us," Harvin said on Monday. "I said after (Sunday's) game, especially at halftime, I told the 'D' that we owe them. Last week and definitely this week, they kept us in the game big time. If our offense can catch up to where our defense is playing right now we'll be all right."

The level at which the Vikings' defense has been playing during the team's three-game winning streak has to come as a surprise to all who watched this unit last season. The Vikings gave up an average of 358.2 yards per game to rank 21st in the NFL. The pass defense, and secondary as a whole, was particularly inept, surrendering 251.2 yards per game to rank 26th.

It didn't help matters that cornerbacks Chris Cook (legal problems) and Antoine Winfield (neck and broken collarbone) missed 10 and 11 games, respectively.

Despite the injury issues, the Vikings' defense was a big enough mess that coach Leslie Frazier demoted Fred Pagac back to linebackers coach after one season as defensive coordinator and hired Alan Williams to run things.

Williams wasn't exactly a household name when he was brought aboard after 10 seasons as a defensive backs coach with the Indianapolis Colts. Frazier, who had been the Vikings' defensive coordinator from 2007 until his promotion to interim coach during the 2010 season, first showed interest in Raheem Morris, who had been fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Mel Tucker, who elected to remain on the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that promoting Pagac didn't work.

Pagac is an old-style football coach, with much of his experience coming at the college level. He arrived in Minnesota in 2006 as part of Brad Childress' first coaching staff and during training camp that summer, it was Pagac, not defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who could be heard doing most of the yelling and screaming.

Pagac helped design a very aggressive and successful game plan as the interim defensive coordinator for the Vikings in the second-to-last game of the 2010 season. Minnesota upset the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14, as they kept quarterback Michael Vick guessing where the pressure would come from all evening and had Winfield blitzing on a consistent basis.

That victory likely went a long way toward helping Frazier get the Vikings' coaching job on a permanent basis and might have caused him to show loyalty to Pagac.

But anyone who has been around Frazier knows that his style does not involve raising his voice around his players unless it's absolutely necessary. When Frazier hired Williams, he knew that he was getting another guy who thought along those same lines. Williams doesn't believe that yelling and screaming at players will get them to work any harder.

Frazier and Williams had spent time together on Tony Dungy's coaching staff with the Colts in 2005-06, handling the defensive backs. The two became close friends.

As Frazier considered candidates for the coordinator's job he gave thought to assuming a more active role in coaching the defense. But he knew that coming off such a rough season, the entire roster would need his attention.

What Williams has done is carry the same type of vision and message to the defense that Frazier would if he was still the coordinator. So far it has worked. Especially since veterans such as Kevin Williams and Jared Allen got their wish for Williams to simplify things following a Week 2 loss.

That came after the Vikings blew a lead in Week 1 against Jacksonville late in the fourth quarter but managed to rally for the victory. Minnesota then lost to the Colts on a field goal with 8 seconds left after Andrew Luck easily moved Indianapolis down the field.

"When we made the decision to bring Alan aboard, part of it was hoping that, and knowing and believing that he would have a good rapport with the players, from a communication standpoint," Frazier said. "I thought that was one of his strengths, and that is exactly the way things have turned out. He does a good job of communicating to our players about what their expectations are, at every position, and how each guy fits into what we're trying to get done."

The Vikings rank seventh in total defense, giving up 304.2 yards per game, are sixth against the rush (78.6 yards per game) and 14th against the pass (225.6 yards per game). The 15.8 points per game they are surrendering places them sixth in the league.

The Vikings also have six takeaways, including four fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

"We worked hard during OTAs, we worked hard during training camp, things like that, and we started seeing things come together and the first two weeks we weren't happy with where we were and got back to looking at it on film and saw that we weren't executing the defenses that were called," defensive end Brian Robison said.

"So the last three weeks that's what it's come down to, we're finally executing the defenses, guys are being in the places they need to be and we're doing our jobs."

It doesn't hurt that the Vikings also are getting contributions from some newcomers, especially in the secondary.

General manager Rick Spielman made a trade with Baltimore on the opening night of the draft last April to get back into the first round in order to take safety Harrison Smith with the 29th overall pick. The hard-hitting Smith has become the starting free safety and provides the type of intimidating presence the Vikings have long lacked at safety.

Speedy Josh Robinson, a third-round pick out of Central Florida, has been used in nickel situations and last Sunday got the start at the left corner and rotated with veteran Antoine Winfield in the base defense. Robinson appears to be a significant improvement on the now-retired Asher Allen.

Meanwhile, Cook has returned from his legal issues to take over at right corner; Jasper Brinkley is starting at middle linebacker after missing all of last season because of hip surgery; and Letroy Guion has assumed the nose tackle job.

The defense gave up a season-high 23 points in the opener against the Jaguars and has not allowed more than 20 points in a game since. In their three victories, the Vikings have surrendered 13, 13 and 7 points.

This makes Frazier especially happy, given what he had to watch last season when he went so far as to take play-calling duties away from Pagac at one point.

"I was talking last week about how I think you win in our league, and how you do it for the long term, not the short term," Frazier said. "I believe being able to play good defense, being able to stop the run and not give up big plays in the passing game, gives you a chance to be successful every week. ...

"(If) you're not playing good defense, in my mind, it's just hard to win in our league. I know there are some teams that buck that a little bit, by putting up a lot of points and a lot of yards. I just think to be good in our league for a long period - and that's what we're hoping to be able to do, not just be a one-year wonder or a two or three-game wonder - we want to be a football team that is good for a long period of time, you have to play good defense. And we're doing that right now."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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