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, 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.
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.
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. 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).
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 Football Outsiders, 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 against 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 both the draft and free agency 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, whose play this season might be the biggest reason the numbers tell us the offense has at least caught up to the defense.