The Minnesota Vikings took only two healthy defensive ends to Philadelphia, a true test of conditioning and determination for Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly at a position where backups frequently rotate in for breathers.
They successfully powered through it, an apt summary of a critical 23-21 victory by the Vikings on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles.
”This game is as much mental as physical. If you ever look at an NFL schedule, it’s mostly meetings, right? So if your head is in the right place, your body is going to go wherever your mind tells you,” said Weatherly, whose sack of Carson Wentz in the second quarter forced an airborne fumble that Linval Joseph caught and returned for a 64-yard touchdown .
With three-time Pro Bowl pick Everson Griffen out indefinitely because of mental health issues, Weatherly has been promoted to the starting lineup in his third season. The other backup, Tashawn Bower, was inactive on Sunday with an ankle injury.
Rookie defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes made his NFL debut by taking a handful of turns at end, but Hunter (55 of 59 snaps) and Weatherly (54 of 59) rarely left the field after preparing all week for the probability they’d get a strenuous workout.
Hunter, who at age 23 has suddenly become the elder of the ends, was in Weatherly’s ear often.
”He kept saying, `It’s going to come. You’re going to hit that wall. We need you to push through it,”’ Weatherly said, ”and we were able to.”
Last week proved to be the perfect occasion, then, for a pep talk from Olympic gold medalist cross-country ski racer Jessie Diggins .
”She said coming in she doesn’t know much about football. She definitely doesn’t know what it’s like to go out there and try to maul someone, especially on defense,” Weatherly said.
”One thing she does know is preparation and what it’s like when you’re in your moment for your sport, and it’s that crucial time and you’ve given everything you have up until that point but you need more. Everyone has felt that at every position, when we feel like we’ve given it all and now that crucial point is coming up. What will you do? And she really hit home with that.”
Coach Mike Zimmer brings in guest speakers from time to time, and Diggins, a native of Minnesota, was the celebrity visitor on Friday.
”She did a great job of talking to the team, and honestly, as you’ve probably seen the race and some of the video she had, it was very emotional,” Zimmer said. ”But basically she talked about, `Anybody can do anything for 10 things,’ whether it’s 10 push-ups. She said, `Now I had 10 kilometers, but I count 10 strides.’ Who knows if any of that stuff is a big factor in winning, but it gets you to think about what’s important and how you can overcome when you’re tired.”
Diggins posted a picture on her verified Twitter account after her presentation in the team auditorium, with quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and Joseph.
Against the Eagles, Cousins completed 30 of 37 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown to Thielen. Diggs and Thielen combined for 17 catches and 207 yards. Joseph had a sack and the touchdown return. Coincidental, most likely, but they all took the message to heart.
Cousins gave the animated pregame reminder to the entire team just before kickoff about delivering the finishing touch the Vikings lacked in losing to the undefeated Los Angeles Rams 38-31 in their previous game. By doing so, they exact a measure of revenge on the Eagles for the NFC championship game loss in January.
”There is no better feeling,” Thielen said, ”than coming into a tough environment and winning.”
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