Whether inside the teamwide huddle on the practice fields at TCO Performance Center in Eagan or within position groups like the offensive line, Vikings players discussed bringing a fight to Monday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Right tackle Brian O'Neill is one of the Vikings veterans who has been around long enough to get beaten down by a San Francisco organization that had handed the Vikings a 1-3 record in four meetings between 2015-21. The 49ers also brought a physical and chirpy edge to joint practices in August 2022 that stuck with Vikings players.
This time, they wanted to "meet the bully in the middle of the schoolyard," O'Neill said after his group became the first offensive line to not allow a sack against the 49ers this season in the Vikings' 22-17 win.
"I felt like they talked a little bit too much when we played them in training camp last year — some late hits on our guys, trying to play the bully ball," O'Neill said. "You meet the bully in the middle of the schoolyard, and you hash it out. That's what we did."
"There's a little bit extra there, just knowing who they have, being that good," he added. "It was fun. Just the fight is fun in games like that."
Linebacker Jordan Hicks delivered a similar message to the Vikings defense.
After a practice last week, head coach Kevin O'Connell called on Hicks, a team captain, to break down the post-practice huddle. Hicks pulled from his three seasons in the NFC West. The former Cardinals starter rallied teammates against his former division foe by saying he was tired of hearing about their strength and power.
"Especially going into a game like this," Hicks said. "When that's all you're hearing, right? About how physical they are? Forget that. We're the physical team. We're going to take it to them and they have to deal with us."
"When teams walk away from our games," he added, "we want them to say, 'That was a physical game. We feel beat up.' "
O'Connell credited the Vikings defensive line after running back Christian McCaffrey, the NFL's leading rusher, was held to 45 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Defenders Harrison Phillips, Jonathan Bullard, Jaquelin Roy and D.J. Wonnum each had a run stop for no gain or a loss.
"They needed to try to match the physicality of one of the more physical teams," O'Connell said. "I thought our D-line played on their side of the line of scrimmage. I thought we set great edges: D.J. Wonnum, Danielle [Hunter], Pat Jones, and that allowed our backers and safeties to be involved in some plays."
Against star edge rusher Nick Bosa and one of the NFL's best defenses, the Vikings gave quarterback Kirk Cousins time to operate and find open receivers downfield. One of the game balls awarded by O'Connell after the win went to the offensive line, which started left guard Dalton Risner for the first time with Ezra Cleveland (foot) sidelined.
Cousins took just six hits on 45 dropbacks as he passed for a season-high 378 yards.
"Our tackles have been really, really good all year for us," O'Connell said. "To answer the bell like they did tonight ... can't say enough about [Christian Darrisaw] and Brian O'Neill and what they mean."
The Vikings line set a tone from the first snap when running back Alexander Mattison found a wide lane for a 19-yard run, the team's longest of the season.
But the Vikings still couldn't muscle their way into a rushing touchdown, which bit them in two goal-to-go sequences. They're the NFL's last team without a rushing score this season.
Despite twice having first-and-goal — from the 49ers 2-yard line and 1-yard line — the Vikings settled for chip-shot field goals. Each time the Vikings tried running on first down; Mattison was tackled behind the line, and they also failed on a "tush push" quarterback sneak (a second attempt at a sneak was negated by a penalty). Each time, Cousins responded with two throws that didn't result in scores.
From the 49ers sideline, head coach Kyle Shanahan didn't see much concern from Cousins throughout the game.
"When you go against a quarterback like that, you've got to make him uncomfortable," Shanahan said, "and he didn't seem too uncomfortable."
Body blows and hard tackles led to a handful of in-game medical evaluations. Tight end T.J. Hockenson, who had a season-high 11 catches for 86 yards, spent a brief moment in the medical tent after a 49ers defender landed on his right foot. He returned to the game.
"Half his catches he got smoked on," said George Kittle, the 49ers tight end and Hockenson's former Iowa teammate. "I was like, 'How sore are you?' Had the trainers come out twice. He's a little dramatic, but absolutely love him to death. Happy for them. Not really."
Star Tribune staff writers Chris Hine and Ben Goessling contributed to this story.