In the NFL, some of the greatest success stories happen when teams have the same players on the field over time. You have a roster of players that know their role, whether it be as a starter or a reserve, and they compete as essentially the same unit.
Defensively, individual player snap counts can vary greatly because of the numerous sub packages implemented on that side of the ball. Offensively, if you stay healthy, it’s easy to load up on high snap percentage numbers if those players are returning. Using the 2015 Minnesota Vikings as an example, all five starting offensive linemen took more than 99 percent of snaps. Mike Harris and Joe Berger took all 1,020 snaps, Brandon Fusco missed one snap, T.J. Clemmings missed just six and Matt Kalil missed seven. Throw in that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took 992 of 1,020 snaps (97.3 percent), more than half the offensive starters missed just 43 of a possible 6,120 snaps.
That isn’t unusual for offense. But, on defense, all three levels see changes in personnel on a regular basis by design. Defensive linemen rotate in and out, a linebacker typically leaves for a nickel corner in passing situations, so personnel changes a lot without even factoring in injuries that are a part of the NFL game.
What the Vikings have done defensively since head coach Mike Zimmer took over in early 2014 has been nothing short of astounding.
When Zimmer took over, he conducted a pretty significant house cleaning on the defensive side of the ball, which isn’t unusual when a new head coach comes in and decides to evaluate the players he wants to keep and who he is willing to let go. Only 56.7 percent of the players on the field for snap counts in 2013 under Leslie Frazier were on the roster in 2014 – a relatively massive turnover of about 45 percent of the field time for defensive players from the old regime to the new.
However, in his first offseason, Zimmer liked what he saw and made sure the players he wanted to keep remained. In 2015, the Vikings headed into training camp with players who accounted for 93.6 percent of the defensive snaps from 2014. That ranked the Vikings second in the league behind only the St. Louis Rams, who had the same personnel heading back to the organization for camp in 2015 that accounted for 94.4 percent of the defensive snaps in 2014.
Only 25 percent of the in the NFL reached 80 percent returning players that accounted for defensive snaps from the previous year – St. Louis, Minnesota, Cincinnati (87.0 percent), Carolina (84.4 percent), New York Jets (83.8 percent), Kansas City (83.1 percent), Seattle (81.6 percent) and Buffalo (81.5 percent).
This season, not only have the Vikings surpassed the Rams for first place, it isn’t even close.
If you look at the snap counts from last year, the Vikings defense was on the field for 1,070 plays. Given that there are 11 players on the field for each play, there was a total of 11,770 defensive snaps last season.
Of the players who accounted for those snaps, the Vikings still have on their roster players that accounted for 11,342 of them – a whopping 96.4 percent of the snaps.
The only players missing from last year’s defensive roster that had snaps are Robert Blanton (231 snaps), Gerald Hodges (151 snaps before he was traded to San Francisco in October), Jason Trusnik (33 snaps), Shaun Prater (seven snaps) and Josh Robinson (six snaps).
Added together, that totals just 428 snaps – fewer total snaps than 13 individual players for the Vikings had last season.
Considering the amount of roster turnover that takes over franchises every year – free agency, releases, retirements, etc. – what the Vikings are facing in 2016 is almost unprecedented in the modern era of the NFL. It’s one thing to keep the band together, it’s another to keep the Band of Brothers almost entirely intact with no significant losses – Hodges was gone after Week 4 and, in the final 12 weeks of the season, Blanton was on the field for two defensive snaps or less in eight of them and six or fewer snaps in 10 of them.
If you believe that success in the NFL is a direct result of momentum, comfort with personnel and their comfort with the coaching scheme, the Vikings may well be on their way to big things this season if they can stay healthy because, coming off an 11-5 season, they have the entire core group back and ready to rumble once again in 2016.
The numbers don’t lie and these numbers are screaming from the top of U.S. Bank Stadium that to beat the Vikings you’re going to have to go through a defense that was decent in 2014, much improved in 2015 and potentially dominant in 2016.