Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

Sunday slant: Fun returns with Minnesota Vikings’ frightening defense

It’s been decades since the Minnesota Vikings had a defense this good, and it’s already getting compared to some of the best in NFL history.

For a decade-long stretch that began 20 years ago, the Minnesota Vikings switched quarterbacks with some regularity under Dennis Green, but it was an offense that was somewhere between efficient and explosive from 1994 to 2004.

Upon Warren Moon’s arrival in Minnesota in 1994 until Daunte Culpepper’s debilitating injury in 2004, the Vikings featured Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George and Culpepper as their leading passers.

Moon threw for 4,200 yards in consecutive seasons. Culpepper’s final year in purple saw 4,700 yards and 39 touchdown tosses. Since then, however, there has been a glut of a real threat for a passer. Johnson returned under Brad Childress in 2005, but by then the offense had switched and struggled.

Minus Brett Favre’s initial revenge tour in 2009, it was easy for Vikings fans to forget what a truly competent quarterback looked like. Tarvaris Jackson’s jump passes infuriated fans. Gus Frerotte was just too old. After Favre, Christian Ponder’s happy feet transferred his feeling of fear in the pocket to a feeling of unease in the stands.

Enter Teddy Bridgewater, whom fans have to hope doesn’t face the same future of Culpepper post-surgery, and now Sam Bradford. Competent quarterbacking may be back.

But the Vikings have also gone through a stretch where truly intimidating defense was forgotten.

While Culpepper and the offense of the late 1990s and the early 2000s was flying high, there was always a feeling of unease anytime the opposition was within striking distance on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. The defensive line had some playmakers surrounding John Randle, but the secondary rarely featured a shutdown cornerback or ball-hawking safety.

Prior to Leslie Frazier’s final defense in Minnesota giving up 480 points on the season, the last time a Minnesota defense gave up more than 450 was in 1984, when Les Steckel’s one-year campaign surrendered 484 points.

Mike Zimmer’s first season in Minnesota put the Vikings back below 350 points (343), and last year the Vikings surrendered 302 points. This year, the Vikings are giving up an average of 12.5 points per game through the first quarter of the season. If that holds up, it would translate to 200 points allowed in a season.

The last time they were in the 200s was in 1998, when they gave up 296. The last time they were under 250 was in 1988 under Jerry Burns. They haven’t been below 200 since the Purple People Eaters days in the 1970s.

It would have been easy for Vikings fans forget how good a dominant defense can look, but it might be here to stay for some time.

As former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt pointed out, the Vikings have held opponents under 18 points in the last eight consecutive games, including their playoff loss. The last time they did that was with those Purple People Eaters in 1975-76.

That was also the last time the Vikings reached the Super Bowl.

So, yes, allow Zimmer and his defenders to downplay the enthusiasm and accolades. That’s what they do and they do it well. But go ahead and enjoy the resurgence of dominating defense in Minnesota while the offense continues to look for ways to improve.

Certainly the Vikings defense knows how good it can be, even if they realize that pride really can preclude the fall.

We would advise them to stop reading the press clippings, then, if that will only fill them with too much pride because there is plenty to proud of, and plenty for Vikings fans to get giddy over.

It will be harder and harder to avoid the questions the longer the Zim Reapers – a nickname we embrace that was suggested on the Viking Update message boards – continue to perform at this level. The national media is already making comparisons to some of the best defenses in NFL history.

From NFL Network

2016 Vikings Stat 1985 Bears
4-0 W-L 4-0
12.5 PPG 17.3
3 Non-Off TDs 2
15 Sacks 16
11 Takeaways 14

From Real Football

2016 Vikings Stat 2000 Ravens
4-0 W-L 3-1
12.5 PPG 13.75
15 Sacks 10
6 INTs 5
3 Def. TDs 1
3 Passing TDs 4
22 TFL 19
11 TOs 10

The Vikings are only seventh in overall defense, which is tallied by yards, but they are top 10 in so many that it’s hard to ignore them.

They are fourth in yards per play, eighth in rushing yards, eighth in rushing average, ninth in passing yards, third in passing average, fourth in the percentage of passes intercepted, fifth in sacks per pass play and second in points per game.

The Vikings also lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-10.

Zimmer started his defensive rebuilding project in the front seven in 2014, getting crucial run stuffer Linval Joseph in free agency to complement pass-rushing terror Everson Griffen and joining them with playmaking linebacker Anthony Barr in the draft. In 2015, he drafted Trae Waynes to help with the depth in the secondary and Danielle Hunter to help with pass-rushing depth up front, and targeted Terence Newman for a starting role opposite Xavier Rhodes, who was drafted the year before Zimmer arrived but whom the coach spent many sessions with working on technique. All those important pieces has allowed Zimmer to use Harrison Smith in a varied role incredibly effectively.

At this point, Zimmer has the players needed on defense and it is all coming together in his system’s third year in Minnesota, reminding fans just how much fun a stifling defense can be.

It’s been 40 years since a Vikings defense had a defensive stretch this good, but the fun might just be beginning. Vikings fans have seen it coming over the last 24 months. NFL fans are just starting to learn that defense is here to stay in Minnesota and wondering how far it can take the Vikings.


Viking Update Top Stories