When Mike Zimmer took over the Vikings two years ago, the team was giving up more points than any other team in the NFL. Things were pretty ugly. On average, the team was allowing 30 points a game. If the Vikings had a game where they allowed 20 points, they had a game where they gave up 40 to make up for it.
In his 20 games as head coach, the Vikings have allowed 30 points or more just three times and have allowed 20 or less 11 times.
Despite having a 2-2 record to start the season this year, the Vikings point totals allowed have been 20, 14, 16 and 23 – all point totals that, at a minimum, keep a team in a game and leaves the outcome in doubt. If you can hold an opponent down on the scoreboard, a couple of touchdown drives in the second half are typically enough to win.
The NFL has become a game of high-scoring offense. The Shield, the networks that carry football and the fans all seem to be on board with the idea of equating points with excitement. Fans would likely rather see a 38-35 shootout than a 6-3 defensive battle. But in the real world of the NFL, the team that can play better defense is likely going to have more sustained success.
In Denver, much of the credit for the Broncos’ success has been pinned on Peyton Manning and rightly so, at least in recent years. Manning is a Hall of Famer capable of making the plays that win games. But make no mistake: Manning is helping Denver win, but it is the Broncos defense that is bringing home the bacon and keeping the wins piling up. Just ask Teddy Bridgewater about Denver’s defense. He’ll have nightmare stories to tell you.
Zimmer is trying to instill that same sort of defensive mindset with the Vikings that is already rooted and in place with teams like Denver, Seattle and Arizona. They have good offensive players, but defense is their calling card and winning becomes contagious when a defense is capable of shutting down an opponent and requiring fewer points from the offense to win games.
It may sound cliché because in many ways it is, but the mantra among NFL players, especially defensive players, is that if you can stop the run defensively and run the ball on offense, you’re going to win games. Despite the running game seemingly being pushed to the back burner in favor of a pass-happy offenses that can open up a game with a 50-yard pass as opposed to a dozen runs of four or five yards.
But when it comes to the playoffs, which team typically wins? The team that can run the ball on offense and stop the ball defensively. Zimmer is creating a culture in Minnesota that 30 points allowed in any game is simply unacceptable. He has transformed the Vikings defense from one that routinely got abused to one that keeps the team in games even when it is behind and struggling to score points.
In the last 10 games last season, the Vikings had a record of 5-5. In those five losses, four of them were by four points or fewer. The team had a chance to win all of those games in the fourth quarter. They didn’t always make that happen, but thanks to a strong defense, they got the job done.
The Vikings didn’t win last week’s game at Denver, but it sent out the sign that even the best of teams will have a hard time having their way with the Vikings because Minnesota can control the clock when on its game offensively and shut down teams from putting up big points on defense. That is a recipe for long-term success.