If you know Mike Zimmer at all, you know what he was thinking during the Super Bowl.
The Minnesota Vikings’ head coach was, no doubt, enjoying himself a masterpiece defensive performance by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots — one that was reminiscent of the Pats’ first Super Bowl win over the Greatest Show on Turf.
There is no question about it: Defense won this championship. The Patriots held the Rams to three points and quarterback Jared Goff went 19-for-38 with 229 yards and one interception, good for a 57.9 quarterback rating. After the game, head coach Sean McVay, an offensive guru, said, “I got out-coached.”
You could just picture the incredible defensive performance put on by the Patriots sparking an idea in the offices of TCO Performance Center: Win with defense. Win with running the football, just like the Patriots, who gained 154 yards on the ground in their 13-3 victory Sunday evening.
That might be re-signing Anthony Barr to a big contract extension or bringing back Sheldon Richardson at top dollar or hanging onto players who could be traded like Trae Waynes or released like safety Andrew Sendejo. It might mean investing in free agents on the defensive side.
And as attractive as that might seem, it isn’t the right way to get the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Defense might end up playing a big role in the Super Bowl — it didn’t last year, by the way — but it is very unlikely to decide who gets a chance to play there.
For all the love that will be poured on Belichick’s beautiful defense, his offense ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring this season. The Patriots’ passing game was No. 3 in the NFL in Expected Points Added, sixth in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, eighth in total passing yards and 10th in yards per completion.
The Vikings were 22nd, 14th, 12th and 32nd in those categories.
When it was needed most, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on a deep pass to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
On the defensive side, Minnesota allowed one more point per game this season than the Patriots, who were sixth in points allowed. On offense the Pats produced 27.3 points per game versus the Vikings’ 22.5 per contest.
New England put together a solid defense while investing wisely. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was signed to the team’s highest defensive contract, but the Pats still spent $7 million less on the cornerback position than the Vikings. New England was 19th in cornerback spending and 16th in overall defensive spending and 14th in offensive cap space (ninth most on RB, first on TE). The Vikings were third in defensive spending.
Stacking up around Kirk Cousins, whether it be on a playmaker like Cordarrelle Patterson, another tight end, offensive line or extra running backs who can catch out of the backfield, should still be the Vikings’ main objective this offseason.
The ceiling for Cousins was set by a Washington team in 2016 that spent the second most cap space on offense, according to OverTheCap. That year the Vikings’ quarterback set his highest Pro Football Focus grade, highest yards per attempt mark and best team rank in Expected Points Added (fifth). In fact, Washington was only three spots behind 2016 Super Bowl Champion Patriots in passing EPA.
None of this is to suggest the Vikings should rip the defense limb by limb this offseason — it’s quite clear that an outstanding defensive performance is still capable of ruining a great offensive team’s season on the final Sunday of the year. But you have to get there first and you don’t get there with an average passing offense. Even improvements in the run game might not make a huge impact. Six of the top 10 (including No. 1 and 2) teams in yards per rush attempt missed the playoffs.
If the Vikings fail to support their quarterback fully, they will be increasing their chances of watching the great passing teams once again in February 2020.