Since the moment Mike Zimmer was introduced as the head coach in Minnesota, the Vikings officially became a defense-focused team.
His first draft pick was linebacker Anthony Barr and in Zimmer’s inaugural season on the Vikings’ sideline his club jumped from 32nd to 11th in points allowed.
But sustaining an excellent defense isn’t easy. In fact, only a handful of franchises have been able to maintain top-notch performances from year to year — the most notable recent example was the Seattle Seahawks ranking No. 1 in points allowed each year from 2012-2015.
Since the Legion of Boom faded, the Vikings are one of four teams to remain in the top 10 in yards per play allowed and one of two to maintain a top-five status.
Here is the top 10 teams from 2016 and how they performed the following two seasons:
|Team||2016 Y/P rank||2017||2018|
|New York G||7||30||17|
|Los Angeles R||8||18||27|
Using the Pro-Football Reference statistic “Expected Points Added” we can estimate how many points the Vikings’ defensive performances over the past three seasons have been worth. They have been remarkably consistent, adding 24, 54 and 23 points above the expected total (based on yards allowed and game situation). In an offensively dominated league, normally only somewhere between five and 10 teams score positive marks in EPA each year.
The Vikings are plus-101 points since 2016, ranking them third only behind the Baltimore Ravens (plus-127) and the Denver Broncos (plus-112).
|New York G||38||-50||-107|
What you will notice looking at both the yards per play and EPA charts is that many of the elite 2016 defenses fell off — some by the next year like the New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs and, yes, even the New England Patriots. Others like Seattle, Philly and Arizona took two season before they saw a large dip in EPA.
The evidence from these charts does not point to a guaranteed slide on defense for the Vikings. Rather it suggests general unpredictability of defenses from year to year. Bill Belichick is one of the great defensive minds in NFL history but his defense was downright putrid in 2017. Of course, Tom Brady still guided the Patriots to the Super Bowl with the No. 1 ranked passing offense in EPA.
The Vikings are very likely to improve from 22nd in EPA on the offensive side but they would have a tough time overcoming a significant drop on the defensive side. Kirk Cousins-led offenses have not ranked above 10th in points scored during his four years as a starter.
How can we figure out which direction the Vikings defense will go?
There are arguments for it going either way. The case for regression starts with aging core players. The case for sustainability begins with a brilliant defensive play caller.
First things first…
In 2017 the Vikings ranked No. 1 in yards and points allowed in the NFL and found themselves in the NFC Championship with the 10th ranked scoring offense. Here is how the core players of the ’17 defense performed last season by PFF’s grading system:
|Player||2017 PFF Grade||2018 PFF Grade||Difference|
Four players, all of whom are 30 years old or approaching 30, saw big drops in their grades. To give a clearer indication of how much they fell:
— Smith ranked No. 1 among safeties in ’17 and finished 14th in ’18
— Joseph dropped from sixth to 30th
— Griffen was 10th in ’17, 40th in ’18
— Rhodes went from 34th to 72nd
All of these grades can vary from year to year and one season is a very small sample size but players who are on the wrong side of their prime aren’t generally expected to have big bounce-back seasons. Joseph was out for a large portion of the offseason recovering from surgery and Rhodes struggled at times during preseason.
If key players continue to drift downward, it could be a major challenge for the Vikings to remain a top five EPA team. By last year’s numbers, the drop from third to 10th in EPA was 61 points — meaning they would have to make that number up on the offensive side and then some to return to the postseason.
On the other side of the coin, the Vikings suffered numerous injuries on defense last season and with the help of some solid performances from backups like Stephen Weatherly and Holton Hill combined with Zimmer’s play calling they were still able to finish third in EPA. They have traditionally been able to develop depth players who can step into roles when called upon.
Part of the reason is Zimmer’s third down schemes. The Vikings are one of only two teams to finish in the top three of third down yards per play in each of the last three seasons and the other club (Baltimore) was ninth twice.
|Team||2016 3rd down Y/P rank||2017||2018|
|New York G||8||30||30|
It’s hard to imagine the Vikings defense suddenly falling off a cliff on third downs when so much of their success is predicated on deception. The experience of players like Smith, Barr and Kendricks allows Zimmer to dial up anything in his playbook on a given third down.
Here are two examples in which the Vikings defense gave third down looks that baffled Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
In the first, the Vikings show blitz, giving a double-A gap look with the two linebackers lined up over the guards. Smith appears that he might come off the edge on the offense’s right side. Instead nobody blitzes and instead Danielle Hunter and Tom Johnson run a stunt on the right side. Tannehill is slow to react and steps up right into Hunter, then flights the ball to the flat, where Barr is ready to push him out of bounds well short of the first down.
In the next example, the Vikings show blitz again, this time with Barr lined up off the edge and Eric Wilson and Kendricks on the inside. Both Barr and Wilson fake blitz and the rush comes from the other side, where cornerback Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris come after Tannehill. The Dolphins quarterback looks to where his hot route would normally be but Kendricks dropped across the field into that area, forcing Tannehill to attempt to escape the pocket before throwing wildly.
Tannehill is hardly the only quarterback Zimmer’s third down schemes have confounded. Since Zimmer entered the league in 2014, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has his lowest yards per third down against the Vikings (with more than three games played against), gaining just 5.1 yards per play.
Will scheme be enough? It might have to be. Of course, if players like Joseph, Griffen and Smith have 2017-style seasons, the Vikings could again return to being the NFL’s best defense.