Sure, members of the Minnesota Vikings’ No. 3-ranked defense would like to be ranked first and known as the best defense in the NFL.
But, really, that’s a secondary goal. The primary statistic for Vikings defenders?
“Holding that trophy at the end of the year. You can be the No. 1 defense. You can have all the statistics and stuff like that, but if you fall short from winning the Super Bowl, it’s nothing,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “It means nothing. I know teams that didn’t have a great defense that went on to win the Super Bowl. That happened a lot, but at the same time great defenses went on to win the Super Bowl. The only thing we focus on is trying to win that trophy.”
That’s exactly the type of answer defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer would appreciate.
Despite his defense rounding into something close to what he envisioned when he took over the Vikings in 2014, the bye week afforded head coach Mike Zimmer the time look at everything his team can do better.
“I’ve never talked to them about number one in scoring defense. Actually, I’ve never talked to them about number one in defense ever,” Zimmer said. “For us, I know it sounds cliché or something, but we just try and work on the process of guys doing their job, being in the right place and making plays.
“Obviously we don’t want them to score. I think so many other things get factored into that – how you play in the red zone, are you giving up big plays, how are you on third down. I think all those things are a combination of getting to the scoring defense. To me, it’s a product of the other things that you do defensively.”
Right now, the Vikings have the second-ranked defense with Seattle sitting in first. But Minnesota is top 10 in all the major categories regularly tracked by the NFL:
- Second in yards
- First in yards per play
- Fourth in rushing yards per game
- Eighth in rushing yards per attempt
- Sixth in passing net yards per game
- First in passing net yards per play
- Fourth in percent of passes intercepted
- Fourth in sacks per pass play
- Tied for sixth in first downs allowed per game
- Sixth in third-down efficiency
- First in fourth-down efficiency
- Second in points per game differential
Those are some pretty impressive rankings given the consistency of the defense in numerous areas. However, just like Zimmer, players see the need for improvement in different situations.
Linebacker Anthony Barr said third-down defense and tackling in general can get better. After trailing in their first three games, Munnerlyn pointed to starting faster, eliminating mistakes and finishing strong.
“We’re not perfect,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ve made mistakes, just like everybody else makes mistakes so we’ve just got to go out there and try to execute and try to eliminate some of the big plays we’ve been giving up.”
Right now, the Vikings are first in points allowed per game and haven’t given up more than 17 points since losing 23-20 to the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 10, 2015. Since then, the Vikings have won eight straight regular-season games.
But now that they return from the bye, Munnerlyn says it is a reset on the record, a message that likely came straight from his head coach.
“I think it 0-0 now, and we start a new season. You just forget about what has happened in the past, and we start moving on,” Zimmer said. “So, now it’s, for us, I think it’s an 11-game season and we’ll see where we’re at then.”
Last year, the Vikings went 9-3 after their bye, including a five-game winning streak following the bye, then losing three of their next four before finishing the regular season on a three-game winning streak, including a 20-13 win at Green Bay that sealed their NFC North Division title.
At this time, the focus is on continuing to improve.
“If you stay the same, other teams are going to come and pass you up, so for us it’s just business as usual,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Bring your own lunch pail to work and try to put our right foot forward to try to get better each and every day.”
Although the goal isn’t necessarily to have the top-ranked defense, Munnerlyn knows that would be a good sign to getting the Vikings where they want to go. After all, having the top-ranked defense worked for the last Super Bowl champion.
“If you look at it like when Denver won it last year, they were very good at stopping the run, forcing teams to pass the ball. It was just complete defense,” Munnerlyn said. “They definitely were a complete defense. They had pass rushers. They had guys that could cover them up in the back end and they didn’t make mistakes. So you definitely look at that, and they kept the score down. That’s definitely key to success.”