Can the Vikings Avoid Another 2013 (Part II)?

Photo credit: Cumulus Media

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I queried whether the Minnesota Vikings were susceptible to a repeat of the team’s disastrous 2013 season in which they went 5-10-1 a year after making the playoffs. The conclusion was no; that the 2016 collection was far better positioned for a season of double-digit wins than it was for a colossal failure.

For one, the team’s 2012 playoff appearance that heightened expectations was likely an anomaly – an unexpected ascent followed by a predictable downturn. On the other hand, the 2015 Vikings were the product of two years of improvement under new leadership and a fresh crop of talent that was drafted with different philosophical goals.

Consider, too, that the 2012 Vikings went a pedestrian 8-8-1 against the spread, while last year’s team went a league-best 14-3 against the betting lines — the best percentage since the 2004 San Diego Chargers (13-2-2). That shouldn’t be overlooked.

Like the Chargers, the Vikings did well against the spread last year. (Photo credit: Cumulus Media)
Like the 2004 Chargers, the Vikings did well against the spread last year. (Photo credit: Cumulus Media)

In short, the peripherals for 2016 look more promising than they did three years ago.

It’s already been established in Part 1 how different the quarterback situation looks now than it did in 2013 with Teddy Bridgewater showing more durability and potential for growth in Year 3 than did Christian Ponder. But the most important juxtaposition between these two rosters is the defense, which failed the Vikings’ miserably during Leslie Frazier’s tenure, oftentimes in the fourth quarter.

The defense under Frazier was adequate against the run but lax against the pass, finishing no higher than 24th in pass yards allowed and as low as 31st in his tenure. According to colleague Arif Hasan, who collaborated with bucsnation.com back in 2014 to preview what Frazier’s defense might look like in Tampa Bay (not good, as it turned out), “Frazier … seeks to limit damage and keep plays in front of his defense, rather than going with an aggressive approach.” This conservative approach, combined with subpar personnel, led to a unit that rarely created turnovers, surrendered high completion percentages and didn’t know how to tighten up late in games.

The Vikings were seventh and 12th against the pass in Zimmer’s first two years and are aiming for more improvement in Year 3

In the pass-happy NFL, secondary strength is more important than ever, and Mike Zimmer has turned the Vikings into a formidable defensive unit that shuts down the passing game with a well-disguised pass rush along with a tight, zone-man hybrid coverage that dares quarterbacks to fire into small windows. Zimmer runs a more aggressive style than Frazier that makes life more difficult on opposing quarterbacks. “I don’t ever want to consider us a patient defense,” Zimmer said last September.

The Vikings were seventh and 12th against the pass in Zimmer’s first two years and are aiming for more improvement in Year 3. “We can get a whole lot better, a whole lot better,” emphasized nickelback Captain Munnerlyn. “I think we finished 12th overall [against the pass]. We want to be in the Top 5 defense. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the pieces in place, we’ve just got to go out there and execute the gameplan.”

“We weren’t number one,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes. “There’s a lot of improvement we need to work on as a defense, working towards that this year, being the best defense in the NFL.”

Zimmer’s defenses are not identical from place to place; rather, they adjust based on personnel, and the 60-year-old coach is blessed with a motherlode of talented defensive players.

The defense is loaded with players that went high in the draft like Smith, Barr and Kendricks. (Photo credit: Cumulus Media)
The defense is loaded with players that went high in the draft like Smith, Barr and Kendricks. (Photo credit: Cumulus Media)

The Vikings could conceivably trot out a starting defensive lineup with seven former first-round picks: Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes, Sharrif Floyd, Harrison Smith (newly extended), Rhodes, Chad Greenway and Michael Griffin. Linval Joseph and Eric Kendricks are both second-round picks. Everson Griffen and Brian Robison are both fourth-round picks.

Certainly, there’s never a guarantee that being taken in the early rounds leads to a successful career, but when great prospects with considerable talent are put in a favorable situation and molded the right way, the results can be tremendously good. That’s what Minnesota has. Consider the ages of the Vikings’ defensive core. Barr, Waynes, Floyd and Kendricks are all 25 and under and have received the majority of their professional coaching from Zimmer. Rhodes, Smith, Joseph and Griffen are still in their 20s and malleable enough to learn new skills. The older veterans like Robison and Greenway were quick studies of Zimmer’s system and ostensibly are willing teachers. “There’s no animosity,” said Zimmer last month. “I see guys at the same position helping younger guys all the time, and so it’s really good, but the good part about this for the young guys is we get a chance to teach them what we believe in technique-wise, the way we do things here, the way we work.”

Most of the Vikings’ defensive stars are entering their prime years under a coach who’s proven to be an artist at transforming defenses. That bodes well for the Vikings. On the other hand, it’s not surprising Frazier and Co. weren’t able to get as much out of lower-ceiling prospects like Marvin Mitchell, Jamarca Sanford, Letroy Guion and Erin Henderson. The Vikings’ defense of three years ago featured just three former first-round picks. Two were 30 or above (Kevin Williams, Greenway) and the other missed half the season with injury (Harrison Smith). Sometimes it’s tough to grow a defense without young, foundational building blocks. Zimmer has those; Frazier didn’t.

The Vikings could readily aspire to be the next version of the Denver Broncos

Having a defense with so much promise nearly ensures competitiveness. While it can’t clinch victories week in and week out, it can keep a game close if the offense is stagnant, as it was many times last year when the Vikings nonetheless bested the spread 14 of 17 times. The Vikings could readily aspire to be the next version of the Denver Broncos, who won six games last year scoring 20 points or less, including an AFC Championship Game over high-powered New England, and went on to capture a Super Bowl.

The Vikings are less susceptible to a drastic collapse when their best quality is a deep and talented defense. Injuries to key players on offense become less crippling because games are lower-scoring, and the defense can withstand several injuries itself since it’s not being held up by one or two stalwarts, as evidenced by last season’s valiant Week 14 performance at the Arizona Cardinals without Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr or Linval Joseph.

That said, it wouldn’t be impossible for the Vikings to regress in a minor way in 2016 simply by way of bad luck. In a league that only plays 16 games in a season, several bad bounces can greatly influence a season and take a team from 11 wins to nine and knock them out of contention. Is Minnesota a candidate for this? Of course. Nobody is immune. But thanks to an improving offense and a sturdy defense, the Vikings’ floor for 2016 should be much higher than it was back in 2013.

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