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Rising to the occasion: Vikings defense is stepping up when it counts

Minnesota's defense has forced nine turnovers in the fourth quarter this year, helping the Vikings go 7-0 in one-score games so far this season.

EAGAN, Minn. — The offense has been getting a lot of the attention – and with one-handed catches like the one Justin Jefferson had against the Buffalo Bills, it’s to be expected. But overlooked in the Minnesota Vikings’ 8-1 start has been their defense.

Sure, Minnesota has allowed the fourth-most total yards in the league, and its red zone defense is among the worst in the NFL, but with the game on the line, the Vikings' defense has stepped up.

In the Vikings’ thrilling 33-30 victory over the Bills, Patrick Peterson jumped a Josh Allen pass in overtime to seal the victory. Peterson also picked a pass in the fourth quarter and linebacker Eric Kendricks recovered a fumbled snap for a touchdown to help Minnesota overcome a 17-point, second-half deficit – a common theme for this year’s Vikings.

This season, the Vikings' defense has forced the second-most turnovers in the league (18), and half of them have come in the fourth quarter. It’s allowed Minnesota to outscore opponents 80-43 in the final 15 minutes of regulation, helping the Vikings overcome fourth-quarter deficits in five of the games amid their current seven-game winning streak.

"Turnovers and takeaways are something we've been harping on since Day 1 – since we got in the building – and I think you're starting to see it translate," said Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks. "The mentality to finish, the mentality to be the closer of the team – we take it head-on and embrace that role."

For comparison, Minnesota was outscored 119-106 in the fourth quarter all of last season, with the defense forcing just six turnovers in the final frame of regulation. As a result, the Vikings finished 8-9, including 6-8 in one-score games. This season, Minnesota is 8-1 and 7-0 in one-score games.

"It's the belief that somebody's going to make the play when it comes their way," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who leads the team with four interceptions. "Whether it happens to be multiple plays in a row, whatever; whoever's time it is, they're going to make the play and it's a real thing that we believe in."

Against the Bills, it was Peterson and Kendricks' time. Smith's time came a week earlier with a fourth-quarter interception against the Washington Commanders. Smith picked quarterback Taylor Heinicke near midfield and returned it inside Washington's 15-yard line. Ten seconds later, Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was in the end zone, and Minnesota was an extra point away from overcoming a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit. 

Cornerback Cam Dantzler secured the Vikings' Week 5 win by ripping the ball from Chicago Bears receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette's hands with just over a minute to go, and Peterson's fourth-quarter pick in Week 6 squashed any hope for the Miami Dolphins.

The turnovers have compensated for a unit that's surrendering 381.2 yards per game, the fourth-most yards in the league. Despite the yardage, Minnesota is giving up just over 21 points per game.

"I think that's just the makeup of this defense," said Hicks, who leads the team with 77 total tackles. "I've been on defenses where things start to happen, you feel each chunk of yardage get bigger. I think I can speak for everybody, I don't really even feel (like that with this team). We're just out there playing together. Some plays are better than others and that's just part of it."

The turnovers could continue on Sunday when the Vikings host the Dallas Cowboys, who are coming off a loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys have turned the ball over seven times in their last four games, including two against the Packers.

"We want to have confidence," said Smith. "We want to respect what's going on – the chemistry, the fun that we're having – because that kind of breeds winning."

The "fun" has been going viral with the Vikings, after quarterback Kirk Cousins danced shirtless with diamond-encrusted chains draped around his neck – twice. After the Bills win, however, it was the defense getting in on the fun. If it continues to seal victories like it did against the Bills, expect the defense to be featured more and more in the team's celebration videos.

"Za'Darius actually bullied me into wearing the chains," said Peterson of Sunday's celebration. "He said I had a heck of a game, and why not give me the chains with the walk-off pick to end the game. ... First I denied him about five or six times, and then I was like, 'Alright, I'll do it.'"

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