When Mike Zimmer took over the Minnesota Vikings last year, he began leading a team that was dead last in scoring defense, allowing a league-worst 30 points a game. He vowed to make changes and his first duty was going to be making a marked improvement in how the Vikings defense played and how many points it allowed.
Through seven games this season, the Vikings haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than two touchdowns in any game – allowing two TDs in six games and one touchdown in the other (vs. Kansas City).
“I didn’t know that we had done that,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We take a lot of pride in being able to keep teams out of the end zone. You’re always looking to keep teams from scoring. Obviously, that isn’t always possible. The other guys are getting paid, too, but we have been making a lot of plays this season to get the defense off the field and keeping the scoring down.”
The Vikings have had stretches where points have been at a premium because the offense hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard on its own. As a result, the Vikings have been in a lot of close games that the outcome hasn’t been decided until late in the game.
The ability of the Vikings defense to keep teams from getting on the scoreboard has helped make up for an offense that has been a notoriously slow starter in games and kept the team in the hunt until the offense can find its rhythm.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our offense that they can get on a roll and score,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Our job is to make sure we don’t put the pressure on them to score a ton of points because we can’t stop the other team. All we’re looking to do is play at a level that gives us a chance to win. For the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
The Vikings are currently second in the league in scoring defense, averaging opponents to score just 19 points a game – second only to Denver. The confidence that the defense has been able to build and develop has been based largely on their ability to limit the number of touchdowns their opponents have been able to put up.
Even last year when the Vikings made the jump from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack, opponents scored 38 touchdowns – an average of about 2.5 touchdowns a game. At their current pace, the Vikings are in line to allow just 30 touchdowns.
“We come into games expecting to shut down whoever we’re playing,” safety Andrew Sendejo said. “That’s what we’re out there to do. We’ve worked hard to take away the guys who make big plays and make it so if someone is going to score on us, they’re going to have to work for it because we’re keeping them from getting the huge plays.”
The Vikings enter play this week with the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL – 15th against the run and ninth against the pass. The team is still trying to make up for their opening-night debacle at San Francisco. In the season opener against San Francisco, the Vikings allowed the 49ers to roll up 230 yards of rushing offense, which had them in last place in that category through the first week.
Since then, the Vikings have been allowing just 84 yards a game on the ground, one of the top marks in the league. It still hasn’t been able to offset the hideous start to the season that the defense had, but, with continued strong numbers, slowly but surely it is getting erased.
“The goal we have for each week is to clean up the mistakes that we’ve made, improve every game and do our part to win games,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We’ve been doing that a lot better recently and the results have spoken for themselves.”
Those results include allowing more than 20 points in just one game – a 23-20 loss to Denver Oct. 4. The Vikings’ ability to prevent teams from putting up big numbers has been critical to their 5-2 start and one of the primary reasons that the Vikings are being looked at as a team that could make some noise in January, where running the ball and playing strong defense are the calling cards to success.
In the second year of the Zimmer defense, the Vikings are showing improvement from being among the worst defenses in the league to one of the best. Last year the Vikings made the jump to the middle of the league in terms of defensive ranking, which is based on yards allowed. They’re currently ranked No. 7, which puts them in the elite category, but safety Harrison Smith says the Vikings are focused on the category in which they’re ranked No. 2 in the league – points allowed.
“We don’t pay much attention to the stats that talk about the yards you allow,” Smith said. “The only number that we care about is points. How many did we score and how many did they score. As a defense, we’re looking to be consistent and we’ve been able to do that when it comes to not allowing teams to score a lot of points. That’s the only number that matters to us, but we’ve done a good job of limiting those points and putting us in a position to win.”
With the Vikings looking to end the first half of the 2015 season with a 6-2 record, there are many reasons for the turnaround in the team’s fortunes. Teddy Bridgewater is improving in his second year as quarterback. Adrian Peterson is back as the centerpiece of the offense. The Vikings have played strong on special teams. But if you’re to look for a primary reason why the Vikings are 5-2 this year and were 2-5 at this point last season, it’s because the defense is keeping the team in games by keeping the points allowed low enough that big plays from the offense and special teams can be enough to win close games.