Zimmer’s defenses trumped Vikings’ rankings

Which was more impressive last year – Mike Zimmer’s successes or the Vikings’ failures on defense? The numbers don’t lie.

Fans have been waiting to see how the Mike Zimmer defense is going to work in Minnesota. When the team fired Leslie Frazier, along with it went the antiquated Tampa-2 defense. For a team that had a defensive-minded head coach, the Vikings were about as bad as defense gets.

Zimmer has a lot to prove – and improve – on the Vikings defense, but he has worked his magic in Cincinnati, especially in areas where the Vikings were their worst. It pretty much ran the gamut of defensive statistics – where Zimmer’s defense was one of the best and the Vikings were at or near the bottom.

Defensive Rankings – There really should a better way of determining the comparative difference between offenses and defenses than strictly by yards. Teams can be ahead by 28 points in the third quarter and opponents abandon the run and pile up garbage yards in mop-up time at the end of the game. But, it’s the number the NFL uses. The Vikings had the 31st-ranked defense and were 31st against the pass. Zimmer’s Bengals were third in the league – fifth against the run and fifth vs. the pass.

Points Allowed – There may be no more telling stat than the points a team allows. The Vikings allowed a league-worst 480 points – 30 a game. Zimmer’s team allowed 305 – 19 a game. Zimmer’s Cincinnati team allowed more than 24 points in just three games … and they won two of them. The Vikings allowed more than 24 points in 13 of 16 games and had a record of 3-9-1 in those games.

Fourth Quarter Defense – The Vikings were outscored 133-110 in the fourth quarter, the most points they allowed in any quarter. Zimmer’s defense helped the Bengals outscore their opponents 114-58 in the fourth quarter – the least points they allowed in any quarter and by far their biggest scoring disparity for any quarter. The Bengals were finishers.

Third-Down Efficiency – The Vikings spent most of the season dead last in third-down defense, allowing conversions on 44.2 percent of opponent attempts – a number that hovered around 50 percent for much of the season. Cincinnati allowed conversions on just 32.9 percent of opposing chances – second-best in the NFL.

Time of Possession – A stat that directly correlates to third-down efficiency, when a defense gets off the field, the clock stops ticking against them. When they don’t, it keeps rolling. The Vikings held the ball for just 27:39 of games, almost a five minute-a-game time-of-possession disparity. Zimmer’s defense helped Cincinnati hold the ball for 31:58 – almost a four-minute T.O.P. advantage.

Yards Allowed – Zimmer’s defense allowed just 305.5 yards a game. The Vikings allowed almost that many yards passing per game. Minnesota finished 2013 allowing a whopping 397.8 yards a game.

Rushing Plays Allowed – In the modern era of the NFL, the only time people run the ball on a defense is because either a) they’re winning, or b) the defense can’t stop it. As much as the Vikings depend on the run, opponents ran 20 more times (443) than the Vikings (423). Minnesota opponents averaged 28 carries a game. The Bengals weren’t known as a rushing team, but had almost 60 more rushing attempts than the Vikings (481) and opponents ran just 385 times – almost 100 fewer rushes than the Bengals offense piled up.

Turnovers – Few things can change the complexion of a game faster than a big defensive play that turns the ball over and changes momentum. The Vikings had just 20 turnovers on defense (12 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries), while turning the ball over 32 times. The Bengals offense had 30 turnovers, but Zimmer’s defense made up for it with 31 takeaways (20 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries).

Passer Rating – Opposing QBs against the Vikings had a combined passer rating of 98.6 – a normal body temperature, but an awful team defensive passer rating. The only QBs in the league who had a higher passer rating than the Vikings allowed were Nick Foles, Peyton Manning, Josh McCown, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. The Bengals allowed a combined passer of 74.2. To put that into perspective, Christian Ponder had a higher passer rating than that in 2013 and he’s heading to training camp as the third QB on the depth chart.

It’s hard to determine which was more pronounced – the successes of Zimmer’s defense or the failure of the Vikings’. The impressive part of what Zimmer accomplished in Cincinnati was that he did it without a wearth of young free agent talent. For the most part, it was made up of players he developed. With new hopes springing as the countdown continues to the start of training camp, Zimmer will be expected to work his magic in Minnesota.

The good news is that he has a track record of success. The better news is that, given the Vikings’ 2013 defensive numbers, there would appear to be nowhere to go but up.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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