In the Minnesota Vikings’ 26-20 win over the Saints in last season’s NFC Wild Card Game, the Vikings converted 10 of 18 third-down opportunities (55.6 percent) while the Saints finished 4 for 11 (36.4). The following week in the Divisional Round, the Vikings were held to just 2 for 12 (16.6) on third downs while the 49ers went 5 for 12 (41.7).
In fact, in the last four Vikings playoff games (since the 2017 season), the team that won the third-down battle also won the game. That streak might go back further, but I only checked the past three seasons – starting with the Minneapolis Miracle game.
It’s no secret that winning on third down strongly correlates to winning games.
Therefore, when Vikings coaches and executives huddled in the bowels of the TCO Performance Center to conduct the autopsy on the 2019 season, it had to be somewhat upsetting when Mike Zimmer and others noticed that they had slipped to 19th in the NFL in third-down defense during the regular season at 39.7 percent.
That mark represented a substantial dropoff from 2018 (30.5 percent) when they finished first in the league in third-down defense for the second straight season. And it was an even larger cliff dive from 2017 when they set a new NFL record with a 25.2 percent third-down defense rate. By the way, that record didn’t last long. It was eclipsed by last season’s New England Patriots, who posted a 24.1 percent third-down defensive rate. The NFL started tracking third-down defense in 1991.
More alarming is that the Vikings’ 9.2 percent dip in third-down defense was the largest in the NFL from 2018 to 2019.
And even more disturbing than that is the fact that improvement in third-down defense had been a hallmark of Zimmer’s teams since he took over the head coaching gig in Minnesota in 2014. In the four seasons prior to Zimmer, the Vikings finished 26th, 30th, 27th and 30th again in third-down defense, at a composite 42.6 percent from 2010-13. They improved dramatically by Zimmer’s second year in charge.
So, just how predictive is winning the “third-down battle” in terms of winning games?
Let’s look just at Vikings games for a more accurate gauge. Since the start of the 2017 season, the team that finished with the better third-down percentage has gone 30-16-1 in Vikings games. Yep, that’s 47 games, not 48. The Vikings and Packers both went 4 for 15 on third downs in Week 16 of the 2017 season. Add that to the aforementioned 4-0 record by third-down battle winners in Vikings playoff games during that same timeframe and we’re at 34-16-1. That’s a pretty strong correlation.
A few more numbers on which to chew:
- The Vikings have won the third-down battle in 35 of their past 48 regular-season games with one tie.
- That’s a 35-12-1 mark since 2017 when they went 15-0-1.
- The Vikings’ record when winning third-down battle the past three seasons is 24-10-1.
- The Vikings’ record when losing third-down battle the past three seasons is 6-6.
It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason for the Vikings’ precipitous decline in third-down defense effectiveness. While it’s true they had more room to slide given that they had ascended to being the NFL’s premier third-down defense for two straight seasons, the numbers can’t be excused. They dropped all the way to below average last year.
It could be that opposing teams were in better shape on third downs after gaining more yards on first and second down. It could have something to do with a lack of pressure or coverage by corners. Maybe it’s a scheme issue.
It’s probably a combination of all the above.
Whatever the reasons, you can bet Mike Zimmer is consulting virtually via Zoom Chat with his newly fashioned defensive brain trust consisting of Andre Patterson, Adam Zimmer and Dom Capers, looking for answers.
The loss of several veterans on the defensive side of the ball along with the infusion of new young players could complicate the road toward improving on third downs.
It needs to be done, though. Third-down defense will be one of the more important statistics to track in 2020.