The Minnesota Vikings are growing in confidence, secure in their personnel on defense and their scheme.
But, are they the best defense in the NFL?
That all depends how that is measured. The Seattle Seahawks are ranked first in yards allowed, usually the benchmark referenced for the top defense. The Vikings are fourth there.
However, in points allowed, the Vikings lead the NFL (followed by the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Seahawks).
“We already know that we’re the best in the league. It doesn’t matter what nobody says,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said when asked how much it would mean to be known at the best. “We came into the season and guys said that we were the underdogs, guys got other defenses that they think is better. We know what it is and every week we’re going to go out to prove it.”
The defensive linemen have been especially strong.
As a unit, they have combined for 17 sacks (1st in NFL), 17 tackles for loss (tied for 1st), five forced fumbles (tied for 1st), one interception (tied for 1st) and one safety (tied for 2nd).
“Everybody is capable of winning any time. Everybody has speed. Everybody has power … everybody is deadly,” Johnson said of the defenders. “Offenses have a lot on their plate to stop all of us at one time.”
That’s true. After the Vikings were coming off an eight-sack performance against Cam Newton, Eli Manning had his game plan, which seemed to entail getting rid of the ball quickly, whether it was directed at a receiver or the ground.
When he went deep for Odell Beckham Jr., who was held to a career-low 23 yards, Xavier Rhodes came away with the interception, but that wasn’t just an anomaly. On passing attempts over 20 yards, opponents have completed just 5 of 19 passes for no touchdowns and an NFL-low passer rating of 18.9, with the Vikings recording three interceptions in those 19 attempts.
“It’s fun, man. We’re having a good time. We enjoy each other on and off the field,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “I think that’s the best part of this is we’re very close and we all get along really well. We’re very similar in terms of personalities. It’s been a great experience.”
In addition to points allowed, the defense is top 10 in total yards per game and per play, rushing yards per game, rushing average, passing yards per game, passing average, percentage of passes intercepted, sacks per pass play, first downs allowed per game, third-down efficiency and fourth-down efficiency – all 12 of the major categories routinely tracked by the NFL.
Many of those statistics are assisted by the fact that they’ve gotten better shutting down the opponent’s running game this year.
“It helps when the (Vikings) offense gets in the end zone and (the opponents) have to kind of throw the ball a little more,” Barr said. “I think it was 14-0 (on Sunday) before I even sat down. That’s a big deal because now they’re one-dimensional and forced to try to keep up with us. If you’re down 14-0, it’s going to be tough to score three touchdowns against our team.”
They’ve proven that.
The 63 points allowed through the first five games is the lowest mark for the franchise since the Purple People Eaters allowed 49 points through five games in 1977.
Johnson said it helps that they have experienced defenders who know how to “exploit guys sometimes.”
Barr echoes the sentiment espoused by defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer, who believes his players care far more about winning and team statistics than individual stats.
The same goes for Brian Robison, who had two sacks on Sunday but knows it’s a full-team effort and doesn’t care too much about being known as the best defense in the NFL.
“We want to be known as the team that wins next week. We want to be the team that’s known for winning each week,” he said. “We’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year, but I think the sky is the limit for this defense.”