Fresh off a thrilling victory in which the offense and defense were putrid in the first half and brilliant in the second half, and staring at a long stretch of time off until the Vikings play again (Monday, Dec. 2, at Seattle), this question keeps popping into my head:
Are we at a point now with the Vikings where the offense has caught up to the defense in terms of which is the better unit? And if we are going to go that far, might we even go further and suggest that the offense is better than the defense?
Let’s start here: Defense has clearly been the Vikings’ identity since Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach in 2014. And in the first five years (2014-18), as Zimmer has instilled his philosophy and built up the talent/schemes on that side of the ball, the defense was always ahead of the offense.
To illustrate that point, let’s just look at the Pro Football Focus rankings — Zimmer’s favorite! — on both sides of the ball.
2014: Offense — 21st. Defense — 4th.
2015: Offense — 17th. Defense — 7th.
2016: Offense — 23rd. Defense — 19th.
2017: Offense — 6th. Defense — 4th.
2018: Offense — 14th. Defense — 10th.
The gaps are maybe closer than I thought they would be in the last few years. But I think if you asked anyone what the identity of all those teams was — the way in which the Vikings expected to win — it was defense. And at the end of the day, the defense still ranked ahead of the offense each of those years, at least in the PFF metrics.
But this year is … different. It’s very much like 2017 in that both units have been very good for much of the time, but the rankings are reversed. This year, the Vikings are No. 4 in offense per PFF and No. 6 in defense.
If we shift to Football Outsiders and their DVOA efficiency metric, it’s a similar story: No. 6 in offense, No. 7 in defense.
Prefer less advanced stats? The Vikings are No. 9 in yards per game but just 15th in yards allowed this season (though they are No. 8 in points scored but still fifth in points allowed, a testament to the bend-but-don’t-break nature of this year’s defense).
Also, here’s another stat for you: In Zimmer’s first five seasons, the Vikings were a combined 9-26-1 in games (counting playoffs) when they allowed at least 20 points. During that time, Zimmer was fond of repeating that if the offense could get him 21 points the Vikings would win (and he was often correct).
This season, the Vikings are 4-2 when allowing 20 points or more, including wins each of the last two weeks (28-24 at Dallas, 27-23 over Denver). What’s extra interesting about that is that the Vikings allowed 20+ points in 36 of Zimmer’s first 83 games (counting playoffs), just 43% of the time. This year it’s six of 11 games, or 55%.
Those numbers suggest the offense is being asked to do more this season and that it’s up for the challenge.
If we further want to split hairs, you can argue the Vikings’ offense is ahead of the defense this year because it has better balance between run and pass.
Per FBO, the Vikings are No. 8 in both passing and rushing offensive efficiency this year; on defense, they are No. 5 against the run but a mediocre No. 14 vs. the pass.
*I think there’s at least enough statistical evidence to say the Vikings’ offense has caught up to the defense — and perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising since the Vikings have invested more heavily on that side of the ball in recent years.
In 2014-16, Zimmer’s first three seasons, the Vikings had a total of nine picks in the first three rounds of the draft. Six of those were used on defensive players, and five of them still play key roles: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander.
In 2017-19, the Vikings have used six of their seven picks in the top three rounds on offensive players, all of whom are contributing this season: Dalvin Cook, Pat Elflein, Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith Jr. and Alexander Mattison.
There’s also the matter of the $84 million investment in quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is a big part of this year’s offensive story.
*But is the offense better than the defense? I’m not quite ready to say that yet, and maybe it still comes down to trust.
I’ve seen the defense come up big more often in the past than I’ve seen the offense do it, and that’s still my expectation (right or wrong). If there was one play from the 3 yard line in the closing seconds, a touchdown wins the game, would you rather have the Vikings’ offense trying to score or the defense trying to make a stop?
I still think I like the defense more in that situation — whether that’s the recency bias of seeing them do it against Denver or six seasons of seeing Zimmers defenses, that’s my answer.
But if you’re a Vikings fan, you have to feel good about the balance on this team. Teams are most dangerous when they can win in a variety of ways, particularly in the playoffs. I can picture the Vikings winning 16-13 or 30-27. They finally have a team that can do both.