|Photo Courtesy of Vikings.com
The Vikings are just a few adjustments away from becoming an elite defense in the NFL. Daniel House tells you why they have the potential to be an enforcer in the league for seasons to come.
The Vikings are just a few adjustments away from becoming an elite defense in the NFL.
How soon people have forgotten the Vikings' defense was abysmal in 2013. In just two years, head coach Mike Zimmer has drastically improved this side of the ball. He has brought a new identity to the defense and it has changed the entire culture of Vikings football.
In 2013, Minnesota allowed the most points and second-most yards in the NFL. The Leslie Frazier Cover-2 scheme was haunting the team. In Zimmer's first year, he overhauled the defensive philosophy and the Vikings finished 14th in total defense. They gave up 344.7 yards per game and were 11th in scoring defense, allowing 21.4 points per game. This was an incredibly drastic improvement in less than a year. With a new scheme, coaching staff, and an adjustment to playing outdoors, it was hard to believe this group had reached their maximum potential yet.
We were right.
Mike Zimmer's physical, tough, and smart defensive philosophy changed the culture on defense in Minnesota. The additional improvement in 2015 came in almost every defensive category. They ranked fifth in the NFL, allowing only 302 (18.9 per game) total points. Additionally, the defense finished 14th in total tackles in 2014. They increased that number to 827 total tackles in 2015, which stacked up fourth in the NFL. Not to mention, they ranked 13th in yards allowed per game (344.2 yards) and teams converted on third down just 34.5% of the time (third-best in the league).
With all of that being said, the Vikings added some pieces on defense by drafting Clemson products Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse in the draft. They also signed linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (a Mike Zimmer product) and veteran safety Michael Griffin in free agency.
One could argue the only questionable defensive position group heading into training camp is the strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith. All of the other positions have a stable of players that are proven but must continue showing growth. Additionally, keeping the roster healthy and having the full artillery on this side of the ball is very important for establishing some continuity.
If a few holes can be patched and the same relentless philosophy can be exhibited by every defensive player, the Vikings have the chance to become the next elite defense in 2016.
Improving against the run
One area of the defense that needs to perform better is the Vikings' run defense. Last year, they ranked 17th in the NFL, allowing 109.3 yards per game on the ground. It was a small improvement from 2014 as the Vikings surrendered 121.4 yards per game. However, taking the next step towards becoming a powerhouse defense will be reliant on how this team can improve against the run. In 2015, the Vikings allowed far too much rushing yardage on first down. This forced the defense to have limited long-down situations in late downs. When teams can take more chances on second and third down, the defense can't pin their ears back and get after the passer. Not to mention, it puts more stress on the secondary as teams are willing to take more shots in earlier downs. The Vikings need to consistently get a strong push in the interior of the defensive line. Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd battled injuries last year and they must stay healthy in 2016. When those two players were 100%, the Vikings' run defense performed at a high level. Finally, wrapping up in the second level and preventing runs of the 8-10 yard range are very important to improving the overall opposing rushing yards per game average. When the run game is shut down, teams are forced to pass frequently and they won't control the clock.
More turnovers, please
In 2014 and 2015, the Vikings' defense didn't create an eye-popping amount of turnovers. The defense notched 13 interceptions in both seasons, ranking them 17th and 18th in the league, respectively. In 2015, the Vikings forced 12 fumbles (10 in 2014) but that number ranked just 25th in the league. More turnovers can occur when the team isn't in short down situations so often. If the opposing offense is placed in more passing situations, the defense can send more packages and play aggressive. Creating more turnovers and setting the offense with a short field would not only take the defense to the next level, but would provide more opportunities to score points offensively. With the Vikings capable pass rush and a talented group of cornerbacks, it's only a matter of time before they create more turnovers. However, an improvement against the run will be the key to notching more turnovers.
The strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith
The strong safety spot next to Harrison Smith has been a revolving door for the last four seasons. Mike Zimmer has heavily relied on trust to fill this position in the past. The Vikings added Michael Griffin in free agency, but he seems like a veteran talking piece. Jayron Kearse was drafted in the seventh round and he'll need to show his 6'4" frame and slim body structure can handle responsibilities in the backend. Entering training camp, Andrew Sendejo is most likely the leading candidate to win the job. Nonetheless, in 2015, Anthony Harris showed flashes in limited playing time. He can handle covering the deep third of the field and is a nice asset up in the box too. Last year, Harris made some excellent plays near the line of scrimmage as a run defender. He'll need to show he has the mental fortitude to win the job in training camp and the preseason. If the coaches can find an option that allows them to move Harrison Smith around the field, it could be a huge game-changer. However, it will take several training camp practices and preseason games to develop a better idea of the leading candidate for the strong safety position.
Better in two-minute situations
The Vikings' defense switched molds during the final two minutes of almost every game last season. They surrendered points in the final two minutes of each half in all but three games. In all, the defense allowed 90 points during the final two minutes of contests. That total includes a pair of game-winning field goals in losses at Denver and Arizona. These stats show the Vikings need to remain focused and sturdy in two-minute situations. There were times when the defense allowed the opposing team to get into potential game-cinching field goal situations. They need to have the same intensity and focus late in the game. It's also worth noting the stress that was placed on the defense by the struggles the offense faced in many of those contests. Time of possession quickly became lopsided and that wore down the defense later in the game. Finding an identity and offensive balance not only will help the flow/rhythm of the Vikings' offense, but it can keep the defense rested for critical late game situations.
To see my breakdown regarding how an improvement can be achieved in the Vikings' offense, click here.