Vikings' D wins it at the end

Updated: October 19, 2003, 7:16 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- There was over a minute left on the clock, Minnesota was clinging to a 28-20 lead and Denver was only 30 yards away from the end zone on first down.

The fans in the Metrodome could almost feel Minnesota's undefeated record slipping away.

But in their biggest test of the season, the Vikings' defense made the late-game stand.

"We were pretty confident we could stop them," linebacker Greg Biekert said.

First down: Danny Kanell's pass to Ashley Lelie was broken up by Ken Irvin.

Second down: Biekert tackled Adrian Madise on a 5-yard pass.

On third down, tackle Matt Lepsis was called for a false start and the fans grew louder. All of a sudden, it was third-and-10.

Irvin stopped Clinton Portis for no gain, and on fourth down, Lance Johnstone -- who already had an interception return for a touchdown and 1{ sacks -- tipped Kanell's pass incomplete.

Game over. Still undefeated.

"They hung in there. I thought it was a good character game for the defense," Minnesota defensive coordinator George O'Leary said.

A year ago, the Vikings might not have made a stop like that. But the defensive improvement has been one of the main reasons why the Vikings were one of only two undefeated teams in the NFL after Sunday.

"We're finishing better than we were last year, and we're playing a lot tougher throughout the game," said safety Brian Russell, who had the first of Minnesota's three interceptions and tied a team record with an INT in six consecutive games.

"It puts us in a position to hold strong for a win at the end instead of trying to make up points or blitz to cause turnovers to get the ball back to the offense," he said.

These days, the Vikings defense is in the more comfortable position of protecting leads instead of trying to keep them from increasing. One big factor has been an NFL-high 16 interceptions.

They had 16 total last season.

Russell tied Paul Krause's 1968 record in the first quarter, when he picked off Steve Beuerlein's deep pass to Rod Smith at the Minnesota 5 to kill Denver's drive. Then came Corey Chavous' fifth interception of the season in the second quarter.

But Johnstone's proved to be the game-winner. Beuerlein's pass to Smith was off target, Johnstone got his hands on it and ran untouched down the left sideline. His teammates piled on him in the end zone.

"It felt real good. It's been a couple of years since I've been in the end zone," said Johnstone, who had three touchdowns in five seasons with the Oakland Raiders.

It was the first time this season the Vikings had a turnover returned for a TD.

Chavous admitted he was surprised by how many interceptions the Vikings have already snared.

"The first couple of weeks, we were like, 'Wow, we're getting turnovers.' The next week, 'OK.' The next week, 'OK. What's going on here?" Chavous said.

O'Leary said the improvement has come simply from having more experience.

"I think they are more aware of what routes and what other people are doing," O'Leary said. "Credit the players. I think they go out and they understand tendencies ... they understand coverage awareness."

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index