But are numbers always the answer? Vikings safety Harrison Smith doesn't think so. While everyone on the defense is aware that the Vikings are 30th in defense and 29th in pass defense – allowing an absurd 326 passing yards a game – the numbers don't tell the complete story.
"You're aware of where you rank, but you can't put a lot into it," Smith said. "You don't want to be last or near the bottom in any category because that gets noticed pretty easily. The stats don't always tell the story because you can be ahead late in a game and the other team is piling up yards late because that's what you're giving them to keep the clock going. The key is what you see on film. When you make a mistake, it's there for everyone to see and it doesn't matter what point of the game it's at. The stats don't always tell you how you're team is doing. The film does."
What the rankings don't include is big plays that kill a defense and extend drives that turn into points. Denver, for example, has the 29th -ranked overall defense, despite having the league's top-rated run defense. Why? Because Denver has been such an offensive juggernaut that they build double-digits leads and force opponents to be one-dimensional on offense. Is Denver's defense bad because it has allowed more passing yards than any other team in the league? No, because the Broncos are 5-0.
Big leads haven't been an issue for the Vikings, so where is the difference? Smith believes good defenses can be judged in two areas – big plays (20 yards or more) allowed and getting off the field on third downs. The Vikings have struggled in both areas and the blame has been shared by all three levels of the defense.
"The big plays are what have really hurt us," Smith said. "We just need to get everyone doing their own job and limit those. We haven't been horrible on defense. We've been creating turnovers, which is good. But it's the big plays we've allowed that have been our biggest problem."
Smith said the best way to fix the problems the Vikings have experienced, especially late in games, is to get back to the fundamentals – learn from your mistakes and correct them. If players quit trying to do too much and all 11 of them simply focus on what their role and responsibility in the defense is, the success will continue and the only numbers that will matter are the numbers on the scoreboard. Through four games, the Vikings are allowing 31 points a game and that will have to change, but there isn't a need for panic.
"We're in control of what we do and we need to show some more things on the back end (of the defense)," Smith said. "There's no magic to it. People might be panicking and thinking certain things, but it's all about just doing your job, knowing where to line up and executing. It's not like guys are getting beat physically one-on-one. It's just about knowing where to be and getting it done."
After blowing leads in the final minute against Chicago and Cleveland, it looked as though the Steelers would repeat that trend when they rallied in the fourth quarter. But, this time, with the game on the line, the Vikings defense rose to the occasion and made the plays in the final minute that preserved the victory.
Smith said the Vikings are ready to start asserting themselves on defense. They have struggled, but, even so, a play here or a play there and the Vikings would be coming off their bye with a 3-1 record, not 1-3. There is improvement that can and will need to be made, but he doesn't think the Vikings are that far away from being the team that went to the playoffs last year. When they got hot in 2012, they were getting the job done on offense, defense and special teams. If the defense can hold up it's end of the bargain, the Vikings can reverse their fortunes pretty quickly.
"We're doing a great job of creating turnovers, which gives you a great chance to win," Smith said. "If we can continue getting the turnovers and cut out the big plays we've been giving up, we can get a lot better in a hurry."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.