It’s been a long time since Minnesota Vikings fans had concerned about their team’s defense.
In 2013 the Vikings finished 32nd in yards allowed but in Mike Zimmer’s first year they jumped to 14th. By his fourth season they were No. 1 in the NFL in yards and points against. And a “drop off” from their top-ranked year meant fourth in yards and ninth in points in 2018.
After a 37-30 loss in Seattle, you have to rub your eyes and refresh the Football Reference page a few times to make sure it’s right. Yes indeed the Vikings are 16th in yards and 11th in points. At the moment they are an average defense.
By a more detailed measure, Football Reference’s “Expected Points Added,” which factors game situation versus allowed yards and turnovers, the Vikings are 17th.
Assuming they don’t see a massive jump over the final four weeks and finish the year mid-pack, what does that do to the Super Bowl chances of a team that has been built around defense since the day Zimmer arrived?
The answer: Surprisingly not that much.
The reason: The Vikings have an offense that has performed better than the average offense of the last 20 years to appear in the Super Bowl and a similar defense to the average Super Bowl-appearing team.
|Year||Super Bowl Team||Offensive EPA Rank||
Defense EPA Rank
Since 2009 there have only been three offenses that ranked outside of the top 10 in EPA and ended up making the Super Bowl. Not coincidentally those offenses were still operated by Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning. On the other side of the coin, there have been nine teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league in defense but still reached the pinnacle of the sport.
The Vikings have one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL, ranking fourth in passing EPA and sixth in rushing EPA.
History shows us that so long as a team has a decent enough defense that has enough talent to be in the middle of the league and have some game-changing players, it can keep a team around for their offense to carry the load.
Zimmer’s defense may not have spectacular rankings this year but it does score well in one particular area: The Red Zone. The Vikings are fifth in Red Zone Percentage, giving up just 17 touchdowns in 36 tries by opponents.
That isn’t the only highlight. According to Football Reference they have the fewest missed tackles in the NFL and rank seventh in the percentage of drives that end with a turnover.
However, each year is a different entity and this season the Vikings will have to face top-notch quarterbacks no matter how the playoff seeding falls into place. The NFC postseason is highly likely to feature Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo. The Vikings have already lost to Rodgers and Wilson this year and gave up nearly 400 yards to Prescott.
Still they were at the doorstep of winning games against Seattle and Green Bay despite sub-par defensive performances. The problem: Both losses were on the road. And in the playoffs recent history says it is extremely difficult to open in the divisional round and travel.
The last team to play on Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl was Baltimore in 2012. The only six seed (which is the most likely for the Vikings) to reach the Super Bowl since 2009 is the 2010 Green Bay Packers. And four of the last six Super Bowls were 1 seed vs. 1 seed.
|Year||Super Bowl Team||Seed|
With an entire quarter of the season remaining there is still much to be determined in the rankings. The Vikings play a backup quarterback in David Blough this week and then see two future Hall of Famers before ending the season with Mitch Trubisky, who beat them twice last year. Fans might end up feeling the same, better or worse about the Vikings’ defense by the time they reach the playoffs. But recent history does tell us that having an average defense does not preclude you from The Big Game in the same way the mediocre offenses of the past did.