As much as the NFL game has changed over the years, especially with the advent of new rules designed to make it more difficult to get physical with receivers, one thing that hasn’t changed is that you win championships with defense.
The Denver Broncos proved that Sunday night when they throttled Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50 and it remains the blueprint by which teams like the Vikings are looking to build upon in 2016 and beyond.
From the time John Elway took over as general manager of the Broncos, stressing defense in the draft and free agency was a priority if the Broncos were going to win a Super Bowl for the first time since Elway was playing quarterback for the team. The Broncos used their last five first-round draft picks on defense, one of them being Von Miller – the game’s MVP and the player selected with the second pick of the 2011 draft after Newton.
The Broncos had good teams over the last several seasons, but it took a strong defense – one of the most oppressive in recent years – to win a Super Bowl.
Seattle made it to the previous two Super Bowls on the strength of their defense and, while Carolina led the league in scoring, it can be argued that much of its success was due in no small part to having one of the league’s better defenses, finishing the regular season with a league-best plus-20 turnover differential.
The Minnesota Vikings are closing in on being a team that can boast talent at all three levels of the defense.
Up front, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd can all dominate games and what Danielle Hunter showed his rookie season is reason for confidence that the Vikings will be set to unleash the hounds in 2016.
At the linebacker spots, the Vikings have used two premium draft picks the last two years to improve the position – taking Anthony Barr in the first round of the 2014 draft and Eric Kendricks in the second round of last year’s draft. With Chad Greenway nearing the end of the road for his career, the Vikings could end up with a young core of linebackers that, if they stay healthy, could carry the middle of the defense into the next decade.
In the secondary, the Vikings already have one Pro Bowl player in Harrison Smith and have used two first-round picks on Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, both of whom are expected to develop into shut-down type corners.
The Vikings success in 2015 was a testament to what an improved defense can do for a team in the modern era. The Vikings offense was centered a running game that was augmented by passing, not the other way around. Yet, when all was said and done, they finished 11-5 and finally wrestled away the NFC North championship from the Packers. They did it with one of the statistically worst offenses in the league (ranked 29th in yardage and 31st in passing yards). How did they do it? With a defense that allowed two or fewer touchdowns of any kind in 16 of the 17 games they played.
Denver showed that an oppressive defense can make up for an offense that consistently struggled to points on the board. Given the high-octane nature of the new NFL, strong offenses can take teams a long way. But, when it comes right down to it, defenses still win championships and the Vikings have a lot of pieces already in place to pick up where the Broncos left off and make a run for the title that has eluded them for more than 50 years.