The love showered on the Vikings as a trendy playoff pick stems from the fact that, like most things in the modern-day NFL, offense creates the most buzz.

And the Vikings have two obvious reasons fueling the surge in optimism: Teddy Bridgewater’s development and Adrian Peterson’s return.

(Of course, the optimists should remember that Peterson and Bridgewater can’t block and protect for themselves. Their offensive line’s state of flux should not be accepted as a minor inconvenience not worthy of concern. It’s a big deal.)

But the feel-good vibe of the offense’s 1 and 1A figures makes sense. Bridgewater has become the new face of the organization, and Peterson remains the star attraction on the marquee.

And yet don’t be surprised if the team’s identity emerges and takes root on the other side of the ball. The Vikings have the makings of a top-10 defense.

A defense that likely could outperform their offense.

“Those guys are still going to be the face of the organization,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “Adrian is Adrian. Let me repeat that: Adrian is Adrian, so he’s always going to be the man and the face of the organization. Those guys are the face and we’re going to do our part.”

Their part carries a different distinction now. The suggestion of a top-10 defense looks strange in print, considering the mess that Mike Zimmer inherited last offseason.

A case can be made that the Vikings fielded the worst defense in the NFL in Leslie Frazier’s final season. It was “Gigli” bad.

They ranked either last or next-to-last in the league in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. Or what we’ll refer to as the Trinity of Calamity.

Zimmer turned that lemon into a respectable outfit that shed its punchline status.

The Vikings finished 13th in the league in offensive points allowed, shaving 113 points off their total from the previous season, which represented the largest improvement of any NFL team.

They jumped 17 spots to finish 14th in total defense.

They improved from 31st in pass defense to seventh — their highest ranking in that statistical category since 1993.

Their turnaround resembled one of those miracle weight loss ads in which before and after pictures appear photoshopped.

“Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense,” Rhodes said.

Is that goal a bit unrealistic right now? Probably, because their defense still has a few deficiencies and unknowns. But everyone at Winter Park will be disappointed if the defense fails to continue its ascension.

“That’s good improvement,” safety Harrison Smith said, “but that’s still not where we want to be.”

Their ambition reflects the temperament of their head coach. Zimmer projects an air of confidence in himself, his scheme and his ability to develop talent. He knows he’s darn smart at defense.

Most of us assumed the Vikings would improve under his leadership because that’s been his professional hallmark. But only a blind optimist would have predicted such a drastic about-face from his defense in one season.

Those strides felt transformative in nature. Zimmer’s blueprint took shape and became clear. His team will play tough, aggressive defense that’s built around a nucleus of young talent.

Smith has blossomed into a star. Rhodes improved by leaps and bounds in his first season with Zimmer. Anthony Barr looks like a versatile linebacker with unique skills. Sharrif Floyd showed flashes of his first-round talent. Everson Griffen justified the team’s gamble on a big contract.

Their top three draft picks this spring — Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter — are still unknowns, but Zimmer’s track record suggests they’re in good hands in terms of development.

“We might be considered young, but we don’t consider ourselves that,” Smith said. “We see all of ourselves as playmakers.”

Nobody is suggesting that the Vikings are a finished product on defense. They still have legitimate concerns in the secondary and at linebacker. And they must fix a run defense that was leaky at times.

But the marriage of better talent with Zimmer’s scheme creates optimism about the direction they’re headed.

“We want people to know that when the Minnesota Vikings come to town, they’re going to play hard-nosed football on defense,” veteran defensive end Brian Robison said.

That statement would have sounded silly a year ago. We’re not laughing anymore.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com