The Vikings’ 2017 defense was consistently lauded as one of the best units in recent memory, and for good reason. They boasted three All-Pros, Pro Bowlers at all three levels and the top defense in both yards and points per game. But for all that praise, there was something lacking in the overall performance of the group: They were not the most prolific when it came to big plays.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will define “big plays” as three key drive-altering results: Turnovers, sacks and negative plays. The Vikings were either near the bottom or around the 50th percentile in virtually every aspect of all three categories. Granted, because of the general stoutness of their overall defense, they did not need a high quantity of game-changing plays. But the discrepancy between their defensive proficiency and their ability to end drives in one snap is a little jarring.
Let us start with turnovers. As far as interceptions go, the Vikings were decent, if not quite elite. Their pick total of 14 was tied for 13th in the league. Now, that number is pretty pedestrian, given their All-Pro secondary, but respectable nonetheless. The real head-scratcher is their ability to force fumbles. The Vikings forced a measly 16 fumbles last season, 29th-best in the NFL, and recovered only five. Remember, the Vikings defensive line was one of the bets at stopping the run in football. Their linebacking corps was tremendously productive. And on top of all that, the secondary is about as physical a unit as the league has to offer. Yet, they could only force 16 fumbles.
The Vikings do get credit in two areas when it comes to turnovers, however. For one, they were among the best in football at red zone takeaways; they had three last season, tied for fifth. Plus, their offense was so effective at taking care of the ball that the defense truly only needed to be what they were: Dominant without being necessarily exciting. That was evident in the team’s record when getting a small number of takeaways. They played in nine games with only zero or one takeaway, going 6-3 in such games. Of course, they were undefeated when they took the ball away two or more times.
As a pass rushing team, the Vikings were slightly less proficient than reputation would indicate. Though they boasted top-notch players up and down the starting unit, the lack of pass rush depth ultimately made Minnesota an average team, at least by the numbers. According to STATS’ Protection Index, which measures offensive line performance by a variety of factors, the Vikings were 15th-best in football at rushing the passer. They were relatively average in terms of hurries (18th-tied) and knock downs (18th-tied). Minnesota also forced the fewest holding penalties with nine, tied with three other teams.
And then there are general negative plays. The Minnesota defense ranked near the bottom in the league in total negative plays (25th) and runs for negative yardage (30th). They were middle-of-the-road in total negative yards (22nd) and sacks (17th-tied).
So why are the Vikings so good defensively? The simple answer is steadiness. They do not make a ton of big plays but they do not allow many, either. A good indicator of this is their secondary’s “burn percentage.” That is, how often they are beaten by the receiver they cover. Among players with at least 25 targets in 2017 (260 players), every single Viking defensive back finished in the top quarter of the league. The highest percentage was actually Xavier Rhodes at 54.2 percent, who was 66th. Harrison Smith, Mackensie Alexander and Andrew Sendejo were each in the top-20.
Another reason is that they were elite at halting promising drives. The Vikings were second in the league in average points per trip inside the 30 behind only the Chargers. They were first by a wide margin in touchdown efficiency on such trips. Throw in the third-most three-and-out possession allowed and you have a recipe for the number one defense in football.
What all this means is that if the Vikings even marginally improve their defensive playmaking, they could be looking at an historically great defense. Of course, they would also have to maintain the strengths the defense already possesses.
The lack of turnovers is the most worrisome, though it is only a slight worry. Last season, Minnesota gave the ball away third-least in the NFL. A lot of that had to do with Case Keenum. For however limited he may have been, he kept the offensive train on the tracks better than anyone could have imagined, especially in the red zone. Keenum’s red zone passer rating was third-best among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts, largely due to his 16 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Kirk Cousins, on the other hand, was far further down the list. He completed only 52.4 percent of red zone passes while throwing three interceptions.
The overall point is that the Vikings cannot be expected to have the same turnover ratio with Cousins at quarterback. He is going to throw interceptions because he takes bigger risks. He has a lot more boom than Keenum, but also a fair amount more bust. For the defense to maintain the overall effectiveness of last season, they are going to have to help out their quarterback with more big plays. They put a lot of money into their franchise quarterback, and the defense is going to get him the ball a lot. But just that one or two extra stalling of drives per game could mean all the difference.
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