By two key measures — points and yards allowed — the Vikings had the No. 1 defense in the NFL last season. That side of the ball has been a strength during Mike Zimmer’s tenure and a key to almost all the success he’s had.
That said, the question going into 2018 presented here is this: Is there any way the Vikings defense can be even better this season … or is it reasonable to expect it to be as good as it was a year ago … or is there inevitably going to be some slippage from the top?
First take: Michael Rand
Well, let’s start with the positives first. On paper there were upgrades. If there was one area that was merely adequate a year ago, it was the interior of the defensive line. Now that Sheldon Richardson is lining up next to Linval Joseph, the potential for havoc is huge. Add to that another talented corner in first-round pick Mike Hughes and the Vikings look loaded again.
That said, the defense fell apart in the playoffs. Was it fatigue or nagging injuries? Did the Saints (in the second half) and Eagles expose weak links? Or will the Vikings come back better than ever? My sense is the defense will be quite good again, but asking it to be No. 1 again is a lot.
Chris Hine: The Vikings have a great defense, no doubt, but they benefited from a great run of health in 2017, especially on the defensive side.
According to the website mangameslost.com, which attempts to quantify just how much injuries negatively impact a team, the Vikings were the second-healthiest team in the NFL last season. When you adjust for who was injured and the impact their absence had on wins and losses, they were seventh healthiest.
Several key members of the defense played in all 16 games — Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Eric Kendricks, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter — while Everson Griffen played in 15. That’s a lot of healthy talent. It’s unlikely the Vikings will get that lucky again, but I still think even if a few players get injured and miss significant time, the overall talent level should allow the defense to be as good as it was a season ago.
Rand: Good point about injuries. Guys might have been banged up but still playing in the playoffs, leading to the downturn (Griffen, as you noted, played 15 games but was hampered by a foot injury in the second half of the season that limited his effectiveness).
The bigger thing the Vikings have going for them is that for the first time in as long as I can remember they have an offense that can reliably compensate if the defense has a bad game. They did this in stretches last year with an above-average offense, but this year’s group has the potential to be truly special.
Hine: That’s the difference between this year and last. If the defense gets banged up, the Vikings have the skill personnel on offense to win a shootout if needed. Last year’s team needed the defense to be good to very good every week, and when it wasn’t (NFC championship), the offense couldn’t make up for it.
Rand: Bottom line if you’re a Vikings fan is don’t worry too much about the defense. Save your fretting for the offensive line and kicking game!
Final word: Hine
Pfft. Since when has a shoddy offensive line and bad kicking cost anybody?
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
More Hine: startribune.com/NorthScore