The Minnesota Vikings have already surpassed most external expectations for this supposed rebuilding season, winning games with a method that defies modern NFL convention.
This is the rare team right now that is stressing the need to become more balanced on offense by throwing the ball more rather than the other way around, but it's not about to apologize for its approach.
Despite Christian Ponder's paltry 58 yards passing, the Vikings were in control of Sunday's 21-14 win over Arizona from start to finish and improved to 5-2. That's more than half of the nine victories they accumulated over the last two years combined.
Thanks to Adrian Peterson's powerful running and a relentless pass rush by the defensive line, the Vikings are playing with momentum and confidence even if they're still struggling to complete the mid-range and long throws down the field.
"However way we do it, you just like to win," coach Leslie Frazier said. "I do believe you want to be a balanced team. You want to be able to throw the ball as well as run the ball effectively, but there are times where something is being taken away you have to be good in other areas. Fortunately for us, we're at a point as a team where we can make up for deficiencies in other areas. There was a time where that would not have been the case. It shows that we're growing."
Peterson had a season-high 153 yards on 23 carries, his comeback continuing to amaze the Vikings as well as the rest of the league. As long as he's been here, they've naturally been focused on featuring one of the best running backs of his generation, even during Brett Favre's remarkable un-retirement season in 2009.
On the other side, a formidable front seven that can keep the ground game in check and put pressure on the opposing passer has long been a hallmark of the Vikings, too. They tied for the NFL lead with 50 sacks last year even with a 3-13 record.
The twist on this season is the way they've been able to consistently apply an effective pass rush without blitzing. With Jared Allen and Brian Robison leading the way, the Vikings are third in the league with 22 sacks, but they've done it without sacrificing a linebacker, safety or cornerback in their pass coverage. That plus the healthy return of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield and the addition of rookie safety Harrison Smith has resulted in a significantly improved secondary.
The Vikings have rarely been beaten by the long passes that crushed them so often last year or in the seasons before that, limiting Cardinals star Larry Fitzgerald on Sunday just as they did Lions standout Calvin Johnson in a win at Detroit on Sept. 30.
"We really just focus on what we're going to go out and do, and if the offense puts up 40 points, that's great. If they don't, we're still going to try and play the same ball that we know how to play," Smith said.
The Vikings sacked Arizona's John Skelton seven times and forced him into two turnovers.
"I've missed a few this season already, so just to get close to him and get him on the ground was huge for me," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "Hopefully they come in bunches."
Interceptions have come in bunches for Ponder lately after going the first four games without one.
"I'm trying to do too many things. I'm getting out of the pocket and trying to force it to happen. I have to be a lot smarter and make better decisions, for sure," Ponder said, adding: "We're definitely relying on our run game, and that's not a bad thing. We just need to keep making progress in the passing game."
Frazier pinned much of Sunday's struggle on a tricky, tough Cardinals defense. He expressed no concern with Ponder, only confidence in how much more mature and better suited he is to handle the game than during his rookie year.
"I'm convinced of it, seen enough evidence of it in practice, even in games, where he's bounced back from some tough plays," Frazier said, "and his teammates have seen it as well."
NOTES: Peterson, who has been bothered more by a sprained left ankle than his surgically repaired left knee, was not as sore on Monday as he was a week ago, according to Frazier. "So that's encouraging. We'll be smart tomorrow and get him ready to go on Thursday," the coach said. ... Backup TE John Carlson took a hit to the head and developed concussion-like symptoms and probably won't play against Tampa Bay with only three days to heal.
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