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After humbling start, Vikings' defense finding its way again

MINNEAPOLIS -- Stats don't tell the full story, but they often indicate a key part of the narrative.

For the Minnesota Vikings defense, which continues to find its way after a 27-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the statistics that are most telling are the ones that allowed them to dictate the game.

The Cardinals failed to convert on a single third down, going 0-for-10 on Sunday. It was the Vikings' best output since they stunted the Falcons' offensive attack last December (1-for-10 on third down) en route to setting an all-time record for third-down defense.

Coach Mike Zimmer dialed up exotic looks with his third-down blitz package to get after Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen. Linebacker Anthony Barr sparked trouble for Rosen just shy of the midway mark in the first quarter, coming off the edge on a third-and-7 to force the rookie to throw an incomplete pass and set up a field goal, which would be the only time the Cardinals led all afternoon. Zimmer mixed in several other third-down blitzes with cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Harrison Smith, who each recorded a sack before forcing the Cardinals to punt.

"When smaller guys or defensive backs get sacks, I always think it's the guys up front," Smith said. "They're more of a threat than us, so when those guys are getting pressure in four-man rushes and things like that, it makes it easy for us when we go."

Defensive end Danielle Hunter became the third player in team history to record a sack in each of the first six games of the season, joining the company of Jim Marshall and Everson Griffen. Hunter added two sacks to the Vikings total on Sunday.

Coming off a win in Philadelphia in Week 5 when the defense outlasted a late push by the Eagles, Minnesota followed up with a performance that served as a reminder why this unit was so successful in 2017.

In addition to their dominance on third down, the Vikings came out winners on two fourth-down stops: a pass break-up by Alexander on fourth-and-2 late in the game and a goal-line stand early in the second quarter, stopping the Cardinals on four straight plays before a turnover on downs.

"That's really how we have to play defensively," Zimmer said.

That goal-line stand may have been the point of the game that sparked the Vikings' defensive moxie the most. In that moment, they looked like themselves again, the unit that often came through last season when pinned deep in their own territory, leaving little in doubt that they would make a big stop or force a turnover at a critical time.

Barr did everything he could to further erase his own rough start to the season, forcing a fumble in the first quarter when he came up beside David Johnson and ripped the ball loose across his body. Seven plays later, the Vikings extended their lead by seven off a 37-yard field goal.

"Honestly, I wasn't trying to strip the ball," Barr said. "I just poked it out, and it happened. Good things happen next to the ball, and I'll try to keep doing that."

With safety Andrew Sendejo sidelined with a groin injury, the Vikings turned to George Iloka as his replacement. Zimmer also utilized a number of other looks with his reserve safeties, putting Jayron Kearse in "big nickel" situations often near the goal line. He also gave Anthony Harris a spike in playing time, which led to his first interception of the season when he picked off Rosen late in the third quarter.

Arizona's 269 yards of total offense was the lowest amount the Vikings allowed all season, which was aided by a handful of big gains, including a 40-yard catch by Ricky Seals-Jones and a 35-yard reception by Christian Kirk.

"There's a couple penalties in there and we had to overcome ourselves, but we can't worry about things that get called," Zimmer said. "We gave them one big play today, but the thing we've done better the last couple weeks is we've eliminated these big plays and that's been a big point of emphasis for us defensively."

It's far too early for any proclamations as to whether the Vikings' defense is back, but a performance like the one they recorded in Week 6 provides a refreshing sense of accomplishment for a unit that was humbled by its own early season ups and downs.

"We've just got to continue to be aggressive, continue to trust the system, to trust each other and continue having fun with this," Barr said. "That's the bigges thing. You saw us out there having fun today and playing with energy. When we do that, we have lots of success."