The biggest difference in the Vikings’ turnaround from 2014 to 2015 is that it has been difficult to find a glaring weakness in the defense. The Vikings have quickly transformed their defense in Mike Zimmer’s image and the depth from front to back is as solid as the Vikings have had in years because each week someone else has stepped up to the forefront and made the plays that have helped the Vikings earn wins.
The Vikings haven’t given up more than two touchdowns in any game, perhaps the greatest accomplishment for the defensive unit. The only team to score more than 20 points was the Broncos when they kicked a late field goal for a 23-20 win after the Vikings rallied to tie the game late.
The Vikings have also stood out in two significant respects. With the myriad of stats that people come up with, the Vikings lead the league with fewest missed tackles, which is one of the basic tenets of playing defense, and they are the least penalized team in the league. Through seven games, the Vikings have been called for just 45 penalties; however, 29 of them have been called on the Vikings defense.
When you don’t allow touchdowns in great numbers, make tackles when you have a player in your sights and limit penalties, you are consistently putting yourself in a position to win every game.
The Vikings’ front line has been playing extremely well, as several players have been making contributions. Everson Griffen leads the team in sacks (4.5). Linval Joseph has been having as dominant a year as he’s ever had, prompting Zimmer to call him the best defensive tackle he’s ever coached. Sharrif Floyd has been battling injuries, but remains a disruptor in the middle when the healthy. Brian Robison is a veteran leader who has been making plays throughout the season and refusing to be the weak link of the D-line. Throw in super-sub Tom Johnson, who has played well when called upon, and you have a front four that is deep, talented and stocked with playmakers that can make the drive-killing stops, which is why the Vikings have allowed less than 30 percent of third downs to be converted. Even part-timers Danielle Hunter, Scott Crichton, Justin Trattou and Kenrick Ellis have made their presence felt when given sparse opportunities to play.
As much as the line has shown improvement in the second year under Zimmer, the biggest leap has been in the linebacker corps with the trio of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Chad Greenway. Kendricks and Barr are second and third on the team in tackles with 42 and 41, respectively, and they have combined to add 5.5 sacks – four from Kendricks and 1.5 from Barr. Kendricks has missed time due to a rib injury, but was so impactful early on that the Vikings felt confident enough to trade Gerald Hodges for a late Day 3 draft pick. Both Barr and Kendricks have been active, quick-to-the-ball defensive leaders who have raised the level of play of the defense as a whole and allowed Zimmer to be more creative.
The quiet improvement that has been noticed is grand old man Chad Greenway. At the beginning of the season, Greenway was a part-time player asked to make a minimal contribution to the 2015 defense. He wasn’t a “Zimmer guy” – his big organizational distinction was that he was Rick Spielman’s first draft pick as Vikings G.M. Many viewed this as Greenway’s swan song, but his 91-yard interception return for a TD will be shown in his career highlight film.
The secondary has been impressive as well, having undergone a makeover with the addition of veteran Terence Newman and the drafting of first-round rookie Trae Waynes. They have combined to give the Vikings cornerbacks a boost next to Xavier Rhodes and veteran Captain Munnerlyn, who, by his own admission, is having one of the best seasons of his career. At safety, the ascent of Andrew Sendejo to the starting lineup alongside Pro Bowl-caliber safety Harrison Smith, have given the Vikings as much depth in the secondary as they have had in years.
Fans were able to see the improvement of the Vikings defense, which was ranked at or near the bottom of practically every statistical category when Zimmer took over. A year and a half later, the biggest problem they have is trying to find a weak link because the team has bolstered itself at all three levels of the defense and have the look of a defensive unit that can carry the team to the playoffs, something that will be needed during the gauntlet of playoff-quality teams the Vikings will be facing the second half of the season.