The Minnesota Vikings defense is living up to expectations in 2016.
The Vikings were expected to be a team built on running the ball and playing good defense. The first part has been an unqualified struggle; the second part has been an unqualified success.
Last year, the Vikings defense finished tied for seventh in the NFL in sacks with the Denver Broncos leading the way. This year, the Vikings, with 15 in three games, have a three-sack lead on the Broncos, despite playing two of their first three games on the road.
Minnesota’s defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks a league-leading 15 times, including eight against Cam Newton on Sunday, using a combination of blitzes and showing blitz and backing out in hopes of confusing quarterbacks.
Individually, Everson Griffen is tied for second with four sacks (Von Miller leads the NFL with five), but Griffen leads the league with 47 sack yards. Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter are tied for fifth with three sacks, and Hunter is tied for third with 28 sack yards.
“Danielle has a chance to be a really good football player,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Dynamic in really a lot of things, not just in the pass rush. He continues to play a little more freer than he has.”
As their big run-stuffing nose tackle, Joseph wasn’t expected to be one of the leaders in sacks, but coaches and even former nose tackle Henry Thomas believed Joseph had the potential to be a much-improved pass rusher.
“He’s been playing a lot more so that helps. He’s a powerful guy. He’s starting to understand a lot more on the pass rush,” Zimmer said. “He’s getting a lot of help, too, from the two ends and B-Rob (Brian Robison). We’re giving him some opportunities to collapse the pocket so that’s helped. I understand guys have sack totals and things like that, but at the end of the day a lot of these are team sacks. I think Everson’s last one, Hunter actually beat the guy and he missed sacking him and Everson got the sack. So there’s a lot of those kind of things that happen.”
The Vikings are also first in yards allowed per play, at 4.4.
Last year, Minnesota finished fifth in points allowed, and they are third in the league for 2016 by allowing just 13.3 points per game, bested only by the Seattle Seahawks (12.3) and Philadelphia Eagles (9.0).
Turnovers were an emphasis for the Vikings during the offseason and that seems to be paying off, as well. They are tied for second with five interceptions (getting three of them on Sunday) and are one of only seven teams to have an interception returned for a touchdown (Eric Kendricks’ 77-yard return in the opener).
They are also tied for second with five forced fumbles and tied for first with four fumbles recovered. They are also one of only four teams with a safety.
“We’re really careful about (turnovers) because I want our team to be a fundamentally sound, disciplined football team. I think the more times that you can get pressure on the quarterback, that allows you to do some of those things,” Zimmer said. “Some of it is when you have the opportunities, you’re going to get opportunities in every ballgame, whether it’s a tipped ball or we were fortunate that (Terence) Newman caught one. Fortunate that Trae Waynes caught the one on the sideline. A lot of times the receivers are so much better at doing those things than we are. A lot of times it comes down to pressure and the quarterback throwing it a little bit behind the guy. And also being tight in coverage, too, that helps.”
Individually, Waynes is tied for third with two interceptions.