In his two years as head coach, Mike Zimmer has crafted a top-10 defense that still feels as if it has room to rise further up the ranks. Whether the defense can continue its ascension may be dependent on its ability to create more turnovers.
The Vikings recorded 19 takeaways in Zimmer’s first year – tied for 25th in the league — then 22 a year ago, which put them in a tie for 18th. While their plus-5 in the take-give column was quite good, it was largely a result of the offense’s conservative nature, which reduced turnovers. There is still plenty of room for the defense to be more opportunistic.
Greater success in turnover creation would vault them into elite territory.
“That’s one of Coach Zimmer’s messages to the defense: ‘Create more turnovers,’” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said on Thursday. “Those guys are definitely trying to create turnovers, disrupt passing lanes and be physical on the outside with the wide receivers.”
The Vikings had 13 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries in 2015 – both below the league average. Only one playoff team last season had fewer takeaways than the Vikings’ 22 – New England with 21. For perspective, the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers led the league with 39 takeaways, while the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos notched 27, tying them for seventh in the NFL.
Improving in this facet is an enticing prospect for the Vikings, who were fifth in scoring defense last season. Greater success in turnover creation would vault them into elite territory.
So how do they go about it? Obviously teams can take the ball away via interceptions or fumbles, but the latter may be more easily implemented than the former.
Firstly, Zimmer’s defenses have not been great at hauling in interceptions in the past, likely because the coach, a defensive backs specialist, is not fond of his corners and safeties gambling on too many plays. His Cincinnati teams averaged 15th in the league in interceptions over Zimmer’s six-year tenure, while the Cowboys averaged out as the 20th-ranked team for interceptions in Zimmer’s seven years as defensive coordinator in Dallas.
This shouldn’t be reason for alarm, though, considering many of these pass defenses under Zimmer were still superb. In 2001, the Cowboys had the second-fewest interceptions in the league (9) yet ranked third in fewest pass yards against. In fact, Zimmer had a three-year run at the front-end of his coordinator stint in Dallas when his pass defenses were top-three in the NFL.
Zimmer’s defenses have not been great at hauling in interceptions in the past
He also had a top-three pass defense in Cincinnati back in 2008 despite being in the lower third of the league in picks.
Basically, interceptions aren’t all that strongly correlated with being a shutdown pass defense. They are also more difficult to attain unless a coach is willing to take more chances defensively. Safety Harrison Smith spoke Monday about the need to remain disciplined. “Not doing crazy things to create turnovers, not just jumping routes,” Smith said. “Play within the scheme of the defense and get to the ball.”
For an example of what the Vikings don’t want, take a look at the season of Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters from Kansas City. Yes, he was a fine player who remarkably co-led the NFL in interceptions with eight, but he also allowed the fourth-most touchdowns in the league and the second-most yards among corners. Peters made plenty of intuitive plays in his first year, including an interception in the Chiefs’ game at Minnesota, but he also took too many ill-advised chances.
Zimmer asserted on Wednesday that if his defense can create more passing situations on second and third downs, it will lead to more unfavorable scenarios for the opposing offense and more opportunities to create turnovers. But he echoed Smith by saying there was no room for freelancing. “I don’t ever want it to be in expense to fundamentals,” said Zimmer.
While interceptions often require a poor throw or juggled ball – factors not always in a defense’s control – forcing fumbles is a learned skill that is possible on virtually every snap. Check out Chris Harry’s Sports Illustrated piece from 2012 to get an idea of how intentional fumble-forcing is.
“We have to relentlessly just run to the football.”
The Bengals had a decent amount of success with recovering fumbles during Zimmer’s time, ranking 12th on average from 2008-13. Last year, you may have heard of the Vikings’ alleged ‘fumble luck,’ where they recovered nine of the 12 fumbles they forced, a fairly high percentage for a play that is oftentimes 50/50. Give the Vikings credit for pouncing on loose balls, but their 12 forced fumbles ranked seventh-lowest total in the NFL.
“We have to relentlessly just run to the football,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “Go to the football with a purpose. Somebody gets him stopped, next guy comes in there and boom, we’re all swiping to try to get the football out.”
The coach’s description seems to match a play that burned the Vikings in their Wild Card loss to Seattle. Leading 9-7 in the fourth quarter, Adrian Peterson got held up by linebacker K.J. Wright, allowing Kam Chancellor to swoop in and rip the ball away from Peterson, allowing Seattle to eventually take the lead on a field goal.
Edwards’ method described above may be the best way for the defense to spike their takeaway totals. No Vikings starter besides Anthony Barr had more than one forced fumble last season. There is certainly room to grow in this regard.