The Minnesota Vikings’ defense wasn’t perfect against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, but with two forced fumbles, three sacks and only six points allowed in the first three quarters, they looked a lot more like last season’s No. 1 defense than at any other time this year.
Prior to the key win over the Eagles, the Vikings had given up 29, 27 and 38 points to Green Bay, Buffalo and Los Angeles. Following the loss to the Rams, head coach Mike Zimmer said the team had played the worst pass defense he’d seen.
The three sub-par performances included a myriad of big plays through the air and less pressure on opposing quarterbacks than Vikings fans were used to seeing. There hasn’t been a Vikings team under Zimmer that preferred to win via shootout.
Even after a solid showing in the City of Climbing Greasy Poles, the Vikings still rank 21st in yards per game, 23rd in points per game, 29th in passing plays over 20 yards, 32nd in passing plays over 40 yards and 3rd worst in quarterback rating allowed.
But it’s a long season.
Last year the New England Patriots were the third worst team in opponent passer rating through five weeks and ranked eighth in Weeks 6-17. They landed in the Super Bowl. The Jets were in the top 10 after five weeks of the 2017 season and ended up 25th.
The Philly win could end up representing a turning point for the Vikings’ defense. The question is whether the arrow is now pointing upward or if the victory over the Eagles was a product of things literally bouncing their way.
Let’s start with the numbers.
If there’s any stats that point toward the Vikings coming alive on defense, it’s the fact that they are third best in the NFL in third down percentage and have allowed only seven first downs on 32 tries on third and long (11th). That means that Zimmer’s third down pass rushes are still working. Overall, Pro Football Focus also grades them as a top 10 pass rush.
While the loss of Everson Griffen has been felt, no doubt, Stephen Weatherly has stepped up, creating 12 hurries in 120 pass rushes (per PFF), including a strip-sack that turned into a Linval Joseph fumble return for touchdown.
Sheldon Richardson is doing his part. After a dominant performance against the Eagles, he’s up to 20 hurries and grades the highest of any Vikings defender by PFF metrics.
They are also largely shutting down opponents’ run games, allowing 4.0 yards per carry (11th). PFF grades the Vikings as a top 10 run defense.
All these things tell us that the defensive line is doing its part — and that’s where success on Zimmer’s defense begins.
The part of the defense that is going to be difficult to predict is the linebackers and corners. It’s difficult to know whether we should expect progression to the mean or the Vikings’ passing defense to continue its struggles.
The case to be made for the linebackers’ improvement is simple: Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr have not struggled in their careers against the pass like this before. You could surmise that it’s simply not who they are and their performances will improve.
Last year Kendricks allowed an 83.1 rating on throws into his coverage and Barr gave up a 95.1 rating. This year those numbers have blow up to 133.7 and 145.5, respectively. After a No. 1 ranking against opposing running backs in the passing game (per Football Outsiders), the Vikings are dead last at stopping them. It seems nearly impossible that they would remain that high considering the talent level of the two players.
Same goes for the defensive backs. Between 2016 and 2017, Xavier Rhodes established himself as one of the league’s most dominant shutdown cornerbacks, allowing a 47.0 rating against in ’16 and 73.2 last year despite matching up with Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Julio Jones and AJ Green. So far this season opponents are 20 for 29 with an 89.3 rating.
Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander have given up 26 receptions on 29 targets. In 2017, the opposition completed just under 60 percent when targeting them.
But even in one year, we’ve seen a change across the NFL. Passing stats have gone bananas and show no signs of slowing down. The average quarterback rating league wide is 93.4, way up from 86.9 last year.
The Vikings will have an opportunity to get back on track against rookie quarterbacks the next two weeks, but the stretch run includes Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson and a potentially-rising young QB in Mitch Trubisky.
Then again, last year they went through a stretch of Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. They won all but one of those games and only allowed more than 300 yards passing once.
So at this point there’s a case to be made that the Vikings have a chance to get back on track, but there’s a domino effect from the absences of Griffen and Terence Newman. Opponents do not have to factor for Griffen with extra tight ends and running backs to slow him down. And while Newman is still around the team, his impact as a coach on the field appears to be missed early on.
If the Vikings’ defensive backs come together and their defensive line creates pressure like they did against the Eagles, the odds of a return to the playoffs are high. If not, the Brees’s, Brady’s and Wilson’s will make life very difficult on them.