In a huddle before their Week 6 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, a screaming Kirk Cousins told the Minnesota Vikings’ defense they could smother rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. And then they did. On Sunday against the New York Jets, they did it again to another rookie.
Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in the 2018 draft, looked very much like a first-year player when matching up against Mike Zimmer’s defense. In a 37-17 win, the Vikings held Darnold to 16-for-41 with 195 yards and three interceptions.
For the third straight week, the defense came up with big plays and led the team to a win.
The Vikings opened up Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium quickly with a strike from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen for a 34-yard touchdown, but the Jets responded with an 86-yard drive, capped off by a 12-yard TD throw from Darnold to tight end Chris Herndon.
And that was pretty much the end of the Jets’ offensive success for the day.
The remainder of the Jets’ drives in the first half went like this: punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt. None of those drives included a single first down.
The rookie opened the second half the same way he finished the first. Gang Green punted on their first drive and then Darnold was picked off on his second go at it. His pass down the sideline was tipped by Xavier Rhodes into the hands of Harrison Smith, who took the ball inside the Jets’ 10-yard line, leading to a field goal that put the Vikings up 20-7.
Darnold went the entire third quarter without completing a pass — though he didn’t have a ton of help with two accurate balls getting dropped during a field goal drive.
He didn’t get a hand with the running game either. Heading into the game, New York ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing, but had little success against the Vikings’ front seven, gaining just 3.0 yards per rush.
It took the Vikings’ offense into the second half to fully take advantage on offense. Up by 10 points, running back Latavius Murray repeated his excellent performance from last week, breaking off a 41-yard touchdown run up the middle.
Early in the fourth quarter, Darnold found somewhat of a groove, hitting running back Isaiah Crowell for a 21-yard pass, scrambled for 10 yards and then found Herndon for an 18-yard play that set up a 1-yard touchdown to bring the Jets back within 10 points.
But the Vikings didn’t let Darnold bring his team back. On the following drive, the former USC star overthrew his receiver into the hands of rookie Holton Hill. Cousins made the Jets pay with a touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson to put the Vikings up 34-17. Trae Waynes followed up with another interception to officially close the door on the Jets with a field goal by Dan Bailey.
The Vikings badly needed a shutdown game from their defense as the offense struggled for a large portion of the day, finishing 2-for-14 on third down.
While the Vikings’ defense hasn’t exactly been going up against proven quarterbacks, they needed a run of impressive performances heading into their matchup with the New Orleans Saints to prove that down games against Buffalo and Los Angeles were far in the rear view mirror.
Now they have put together three straight games in which they have pressured opposing quarterbacks and caused key turnovers — signs that Vikings fans got used to seeing over the past three seasons. In order to slow down a much more impressive opponent next week, the Vikings will have to carry over some of the things they have done best against Philadelphia, Arizona and New York.
Zimmer’s defense also put together its dominant game against the Jets while short handed. They were missing Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Joseph, starting safety Andrew Sendejo and Everson Griffen. With injuries to Anthony Barr and Xavier Rhodes, it appears the Vikings’ depth on defense will be tested even more next week.