Every Vikings player bears the scar of last year’s season-ending 3-8 skid, even though Mike Zimmer is quick to defend his prideful defense that started the year better than any team in the NFL.
“We had two bad games,” Zimmer said of the defense. “I don’t know about tapered off. We finished third in the league in points scored and every other statistical category.”
In Zimmer’s third season at the helm, the Vikings defense recorded top-10 finishes in five major categories: yards allowed (third), passing yards allowed (third), sacks forced (fifth), points allowed (sixth) and takeaways (seventh).
The NFL took notice when they were the league’s last unbeaten team at 5-0.
“Our team was clicking,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Offense was putting up points. Defensively we were making plays.”
But by October, comparisons to all-time vaunted defenses stopped.
Carrying the weight of an offense that failed to reach 21 points in seven of nine games, the Vikings defense, the team’s backbone, started to break.
Perfectly mediocre made a sour replacement for all-time great. That’s 8-8 for you.
Zimmer knows his defense, which featured five Pro Bowl players last season, is better than the record suggested. That’s why the Vikings extended the contracts of three cornerstones — cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph — this summer.
But Zimmer still tinkered with the unit that brought the Vikings back to relevancy. He made at least three lineup changes. The veteran defensive coach even considered giving up play-calling to better manage game days but quickly took back the play sheet this preseason.
He and his coaches are also encouraging Vikings defenders to generate a little recklessness within their well-oiled, tightly wound machine in the hope of interrupting offenses more at and behind the line of scrimmage.
“Don’t be satisfied with just, ‘Hey, I did my job,’ ” said linebackers coach Adam Zimmer. “Let’s get more hats on the ball.”
Bending until they broke?
The Vikings spent more time near the goal lines of the Winter Park practice fields this summer. A 2-4 record in one-score games last season led Zimmer to install more drills focused on hurry-up and red-zone situations in practices.
“They were critical situations for us that we want to get better at this year,” Robison said.
Not many NFL defenses were put in more “critical situations” last year than the Vikings. Perhaps that led to the worst two-game stretch of Zimmer’s Vikings tenure, surprisingly at the end of his defense’s best statistical season in Minnesota. In those consecutive embarrassing December losses to the Colts and Packers, the Vikings allowed 27 points by halftime for just the second and third times in the Zimmer era.
Leading up to those games, the Vikings went 2-4. The four backbreaking losses were by an average of four points.
In that six-week stretch before the Colts game, only two NFL defenses were forced into more high-stress snaps (leading or trailing by four points or fewer in the second half) than the Vikings, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“Really it was the first half in Green Bay, because we played better in the second half,” Adam Zimmer said. “The Indy game, they schemed us on some things and we didn’t play our best. We can’t have those games, obviously.”
Were the Vikings tired? Perhaps not so much physically. Minnesota’s sputtering offense actually averaged the fifth-longest average drive time, per Football Outsiders. But mentally, Vikings defenders entered games burdened by a close score more often than not.
“We can say a lot of things about having so many injuries early in the season and things like that,” Robison said. “But we still had opportunities to win games and still weren’t able to make the plays we needed to make.”
The Vikings prioritize two skill sets for defenders — the ability to rush the passer and cover the pass. That’s why in 2015 and 2016 they made early draft picks of defensive end Danielle Hunter and cornerback Mackensie Alexander, both expected to be first-year starters this season. Rookie weakside linebacker Ben Gedeon, a fourth-round pick, will start, too.
But to regain full speed, the Vikings need more from last year’s 20th-ranked run defense. Pinning offenses in second-and-long and third-and-long spots is how they can maximize their stable of pass rushers and cover defenders.
In the 3-8 stretch last year, the Vikings allowed seven offenses to top 100 rushing yards. That’s compared to just one 100-yard rushing game in the 5-0 start. A 4- or 5-yard run on first down prevents Vikings ends from attacking the quarterback untethered on the next play.
“It becomes a guessing game,” Robison said, “if we’re allowing them to have shorter sticks and better opportunities of moving the chains.”
Preseason results might be a good sign. Vikings starters allowed just 34 rushing yards on 14 carries against the Seahawks and 49ers.
That has to carry over into the regular season. The defensive system is proven to work, and the Vikings are just two years removed from the NFC North title. Still, the franchise hasn’t had a playoff win since Brett Favre was under center.
After this particular offseason discussing failure, Vikings defenders are eager for something new to talk about other than being crushed by Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck.
“These guys have an awful lot of pride,” Mike Zimmer said.
“They’re good competitors, and actually they’re a lot of fun to be around. Every year is different, so we’ll find out when we go play. But I have a lot of confidence in their ability.”