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Vikings' balance on offense, defense pivotal to 9-2 start

Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (21) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions on Thursday, Nov. 23, at Ford Field. Raj Mehta / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—In Mike Zimmer's first three seasons as coach, the Minnesota Vikings often won games despite their offense.

Zimmer built a top-notch defense in a hurry, but the offense remained behind. Minnesota was 27th in the NFL in total offense in 2014, 28th in 2015 and 28th last season.

Well, the other side of the ball finally has caught up.

The Vikings are the NFL's only team to rank in the top five in total offense (5th) and total defense (5th). That kind of balance has been a key reason in Minnesota being 9-2 and tied for the second-best record in the NFL.

"It's important for us as an offense," wide receiver Adam Thielen said Friday, Dec. 1. "Obviously, we have a lot of confidence with our defense, but we want to kind of have their backs as well. So when they let up a score, we want to have their backs and score, so it just takes some pressure off them."

That's what is happening. Defensive players sure like what the offense is doing.

"I think the offense playing well just gives us a lot of confidence," said linebacker Anthony Barr. "We don't feel the pressure to make every play a score on defense. We just go out there and play freely. We still have got to play well and play our keys, and we can't just give up points. But the margin of error is larger."

The Vikings haven't finished a season ranked in the top five in total offense and total defense since 1994, when they went 10-6 and won the NFC Central. They have finished in the top five in both categories just three times in their previous 56 seasons, the others being in 1966 and 1975.

"This is a team game, and the reason why it's such a team game is you've got to have your offense, defense and special teams clicking on all cylinders, and right now we're doing that," said defensive end Brian Robison. "We just got to keep that going, and the offense, they're scoring points, which allows us to do things we want to do on defense."

Minnesota has improved on offense despite having lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford and top running back Dalvin Cook early in the season with knee injuries. But Case Keenum has stepped in at quarterback and was just named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, and a running-back tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon has looked good.

The offensive line has been impressive. Minnesota quarterbacks are being sacked an average of 1.1 times per game, down from 2.4 last season, and the average gain on the ground has been 4.0 yards, up from a league-worst 3.2 in 2016.

With the defense being so strong, Zimmer said before the season he was merely hoping for 21 points a game from his team. The Vikings have had eight games of scoring 21 or more and are averaging 24.6 points per game, on pace to be their most since the Brett Favre-led 2009 team averaged 29.4.

"In some games, it's tight and we start to pull away," McKinnon said. "Those are the games where (the improved offense) really shows. In the past, the defense had been the main focus. I feel this year everybody on offense had that chip on their shoulder, and that's what I think is making us play well."