Speaking to reporters this offseason, new Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell outlined his philosophy for what he called "the middle eight," a term he learned from Patriots coach Bill Belichick during his time in New England.
O'Connell wanted to stress the final four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half, for the impact they can have on an opponent's psyche if the defense gives up points in quick succession or the offense is out of sync for nearly an hour of real time.
Had the Vikings' defense been even adequate in the middle eight minutes of games last year, O'Connell might not be the team's head coach right now. But Mike Zimmer's defenses gave up a NFL-worst 11 touchdowns and seven field goals in the final four minutes of the first half last season, and the Vikings gave up another three scores in the first four minutes of the third quarter.
Minnesota's offense, by contrast, scored only four touchdowns and six field goals at the end of the first half, with the same three touchdowns to begin the third quarter as its opponents had. That's a net deficit of seven touchdowns and a field goal that, combined with the Vikings' anemic defense at the ends of games, amounted to too many close losses that cost Zimmer his job.
In O'Connell's debut 23-7 win on Sunday, though, the Vikings used the middle eight minutes of the game to pull away from the Packers.
Up 10-0 after Greg Joseph's field goal with 3:54 left, they forced a Packers punt, and then went 74 yards in seven plays, capping things with Justin Jefferson's second touchdown as he beat Eric Stokes to the pylon. Then Za'Darius Smith and Harrison Phillips pressured Aaron Rodgers on the Packers' next play, and Harrison Smith picked off Rodgers' pass for Randall Cobb.
Jefferson was called for a pushoff on Jaire Alexander that negated his catch at Green Bay 28 to stall the drive, but Joseph hit a 56-yarder with 9:51 left in the third quarter to put the Vikings up 20-0.
All told, the Vikings had three possessions that started in those middle eight minutes of the game, which resulted in 10 points. They forced two turnovers against a quarterback who loves to double up on scoring drives at the end of the first half and beginning of the second, and negated the Packers' decision to defer after winning the opening coin toss.
Once they took that 20-point lead, with Rodgers missing his two starting tackles and wide receiver Allen Lazard, the Vikings could work with some level of confidence he wouldn't be able to bring them back with a flurry of points.
The Vikings excelled in a key area of emphasis for O'Connell, and afterward, it provided the coach with a measure of vindication that his decision to rest starters all preseason had worked. The Vikings had played relatively penalty-free football — after last year's flag-filled debut — and made an area of the game that Rodgers loves into the moment where they built a comfortable lead.
"I answered a lot of questions [during the preseason] about our players being ready physically to play. ... We knew the responsibility we had to get our players ready; they knew the responsibility that they personally had to be ready," O'Connell said. "What I give our guys credit doing, especially offensively in this game, was just, 'On to the next, on to the next.' How many times can all 11 line up and do their job, whether it was huddle call, tempo, situational? We got a lot to correct, but I'm really, really proud of our group."
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Tomlinson: Playing his first game at defensive end in the Vikings' new 3-4 scheme, Tomlinson was on the field for 39 of the Vikings' 61 defensive snaps, and provided a surprising pass rush contribution throughout the game. He had one of his three pressures on Za'Darius Smith's sack, and recovered Rodgers' fumble after Hunter and Hicks sandwiched the quarterback early in the third quarter.
Harrison Smith: The 11th-year safety has come to appreciate his cat-and-mouse games with Rodgers, and came up with two of the Vikings' biggest defensive plays on Sunday. Smith stood up to running back A.J. Dillon with a violent hit near the goal line on a third down before Za'Darius Smith tackled Dillon to stop the Packers on fourth down. Then, when Rodgers tried to throw deep for Randall Cobb late in the first half, Harrison Smith got his first interception against the quarterback in a decade. The last one, as Smith fondly recalled after the game, came on Dec. 2, 2012 — Rodgers' 29th birthday — when the Packers tried a flea-flicker and Smith (then a rookie) picked off the pass for Greg Jennings in the Lambeau Field end zone.
ONE AREA OF CONCERN
Room to run: According to Pro Football Focus, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison gained 100 of their combined 126 yards after contact, meaning they averaged less than a yard before contact on their 28 attempts. The Vikings were facing a talented Packers front seven, and they still managed to average 4.5 yards per carry, so this is perhaps a fairly minor gripe. But Cook and Mattison had quite a bit of work to do, and the Vikings will try to make it easier for them going forward.