Vikings’ defensive improvement by the numbers

The Vikings defense took big steps forward in most of the key statistics in Mike Zimmer’s first season.

When the Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer to be their head coach following the 2013 season, his primary objective was to improve one of the NFL’s worst defenses. While the Vikings only made an improvement of 1½ games in Zimmer’s first season, going from 5-10-1 in 2013 to 7-9 in 2014, there is little doubting that the Vikings defense has shown significant improvement in the first year using Zimmer’s scheme.

The numbers don’t lie and statistics are often the basis by which success or failure is judged. For those who question the level of improvement the Vikings defense made in 2014, the cold hard facts tell the story.

The total defensive numbers were relatively stunning in the scope of the increase that was experienced in just one season. Among the defensive highlights:

In total yards per game allowed, the Vikings improved from 31st (397.8 yards) to 14th (344.7). In terms of total yards per play, the improvement was from 24th (5.6 yards) to 14th (5.4)

The only backward step the Vikings took was in terms of rushing yards per game, which dropped from 16th (110.4 yards) to 25th (121.4), but much of that can be attributed to the dramatic improvement in pass defense that forced teams to try to gain more yards on the ground.

The biggest jump, and perhaps the most important, was in passing yards per game, as the Vikings jumped from 31st place (287.4 yards) to seventh place (233.3), as well as the yards per pass play improving from 23rd (7.5 yards) to 14th (7.1).

The Vikings defense also showed marked improvement in creating turnovers through interceptions, improving from 29th (12 interceptions in 648 passes) to 19th (13 interceptions in 534 passes) – an interception percentage increase from 1.9 percent to 2.4 percent.

The Vikings pass rush also showed significant improvement, jumping from 24th in sacks per pass play to eighth place. The Vikings had 41 sacks in each season, but in 2014 their 41 sacks came on 114 fewer passes.

One of the most obvious improvements was in terms of third-down conversion rates. Simply stated, when a team can stop an opponent on third down, the drive ends. If it allows conversions, the drive continues. In 2013, the Vikings were 30th in third-down defense, allowing conversions on 102 of 231 third-down opportunities (44.2 percent). Last year, they jumped up to 20th, allowing conversions on 90 of 217 third downs (41.5 percent). An increase of less than 3 percent may not seem like much, but considering that each one represents the defense coming off the field, those are big numbers from the X’s and O’s standpoint.

Perhaps the most impressive improvement came in points allowed, which is the only statistic that really matters. In 2013, the Vikings were dead last at 32nd in points per game allowed at 30 points a game. In 2014, they improved to 11th place at 21.4 points a game. Considering how many games are determined by fewer than seven points, that figure represents the difference between winning and losing many games.

The Vikings aren’t at the point where everyone is in unanimity that they will be a playoff team in 2015, but the general consensus is that they are moving in the right direction and are a team to watch this season because they definitely have playoff potential – due in no small part to the significant improvements they made on defense in Zimmer’s first year.

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