Why the Minnesota Vikings are Set up for Success in 2017
The 2017 NFL season has been an odd one so far. As unpredictable as ever, there have been many twists and turns already. Injuries to players such as JJ Watt, Odell Beckham Jr, and Aaron Rodgers has hampered the star power and overall play of the league. Mediocre play has held back the league as many former superpowers, such as New England, Dallas, and Seattle, have been a disappointment thus far. However, one thing has stayed the same: the Minnesota Vikings are 5-2 for the third straight season. This season feels different from those in the past for the NFC North division leaders. This is a roster that is built to go the distance. There are several reasons for Vikings fans to feel this way and why this season is different from the last two.
Experience with Adversity
Mike Zimmer has experienced more adversity in four seasons as the Minnesota Vikings head coach than most coaches experience in ten seasons. Since being hired in 2014, Mike Zimmer has only had one full season having both his quarterback of choice and running back of choice. In his rookie season, Zimmer lost his star running back Adrian Peterson after just the first game of the season to the commissioner’s exempt list, while he was dealing with off the field issues. Then in the third game of the season, against New Orleans, his starting quarterback Matt Cassel broke his foot and was head for the injured reserve. Teddy Bridgewater took over and led the team to a 7-9 record, but the team was filled with hope. The next season, armed with an up and coming Bridgewater and a returning Peterson, Zimmer led the team to an 11-5 record, division title and a missed chip shot field goal away from beating the reigning NFC champion Seahawks in the playoffs. Then in 2016, tragedy struck the team yet again, when, just two weeks before the start of the season, Teddy Bridgewater went down in practice on a non-contact drill with a dislocated knee. Zimmer and the front office tried to salvage the season by trading for the Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback Sam Bradford. However, the injury bug had already infested the Vikings locker room and was set on doing its damage to the team. In Week 2, Adrian Peterson was lost for the majority of the season with a torn meniscus. But it didn’t stop there for the tormented team. Matt Kalil, the starting left tackle, was put on the injured reserve in the same game with a knee injury. Starting right tackle Andre Smith joined the growing IR list with an elbow injury just a few weeks later. The team tried to patch up the struggling offensive line by signing free agent Jake Long, however he too was lost for the season with a torn Achilles just four weeks after signing. With nine different starting line ups during the season, the devastated O-Line couldn’t keep newly acquired Bradford on his feet long enough to sustain drives. This resulted in the dominant defense getting worn out and the team falling from 5-0 to 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Injuries were not the only thing Zimmer had to deal with during the 2016 season though. After a Monday night loss in Chicago, Zimmer’s long-time friend and offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned. He also had problems with his retina and required several eye procedures even having to miss a game for it, with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer fill in for him. Zimmer pledged to learn from these experiences though, and so far, it seems he has. After an otherworldly performance by Sam Bradford in week 1 against the Saints, he as only appeared once in a hobbled performance against the Bears on Monday Night Football since. However, unlike falling apart in past seasons, backup Case Keenum has stepped in admirably and led the team to the 5-2 mark. Even after losing stand out rookie Dalvin Cook, the one-two punch of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have led one of the league’s best ground attacks in his absence. While most teams losing their star players have fallen apart, this team has expertly adapted to Zimmer’s next man up mentality and been able to keep pace with the tops of the league.
Continuity of the Defense
While the offense has been mixed and matched, Zimmer has gotten one thing inarguably right since taken over as head coach: the defense. When Mike Zimmer was hired, the Vikings had the worst defense in the NFL and the worst defense in team history. Zimmer set out to fix a unit that ranked last in points allowed during the 2013 season. The first thing that Zimmer did when he took over as head coach was resign defensive end Everson Griffen and let All-Pro Jared Allen walk in free agency. Zimmer has helped Griffen to maximize his potential along the defensive line and become a dominant threat that opponents must account for on every snap. So far, Griffen has notched nine sacks in 2017 and at least one sack in each game. He has the speed, power and awareness to not only get to the quarterback, but also set the edge and make plays in the run game. Zimmer then went out on the first day of free agency in 2014 and signed nose tackle Linval Joseph from the New York Giants. Joseph has provided a presence the Vikings haven’t had since Pat Williams was clogging up the middle. Referred to by his teammates as the “strongest man in the world,” Joseph certainly has stepped up in his role. Demanding offenses to allocate several linemen to blocking him, he has led a run defense that has only allowed 7 runs of ten yards or more so far in 2017, best in the NFL. Joseph consistently clogs up wholes and stops the run forcing opposing offenses to become one dimensional. Zimmer followed this great signing up by using his first ever draft pick to take Anthony Barr 9th overall. Many questioned picking the linebacker because of the 4-3 defensive scheme Mike Zimmer had employed. Barr was viewed as a 3-4 edge rushing linebacker, but Zimmer saw his size and speed and turned him into a prototypical player that can both rush the passer and drop into coverage. This versatility has been key to the Vikings defense and has allowed them to show many different looks confusing offenses. Zimmer followed up this draft the next year by taking Trae Waynes in the first round, Eric Kendricks in the second round and Danielle Hunter in the third round. All three are now starters and contributing mightily. Danielle Hunter is a budding star at defensive end filled with potential. Eric Kendricks has been a solid starter using his speed and sure tackling to fly around the field and make plays. Trae Waynes has been a bit of a disappointment, but is still contributing and making a few plays here and there. He also signed the ageless wonder, Terrance Newman, during that offseason, who, at 39 years old, is still holding his own at the cornerback position. While he did go out and get ton of great defensive talent, Zimmer also inherited a few young players. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes were already on the team when Zimmer took over. However, they were nowhere near the caliber of players that they are today. He took their potential and, much like Everson Griffen, turned them into absolute studs. Xavier Rhodes is now one of the best shut down corners in the league, erasing big names like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr, Antonio Brown, and Mike Evans over the last three years. And Harrison Smith is perhaps the best safety in the NFL right now, playing in the box and over the top and make game changing plays seemingly every time he hits the field. Combine these players with other solid starters like Tom Johnson and Andrew Sendejo and you have one of the most formidable defenses in the league over the last three seasons. All eleven starters have been with the team for the last three years. This is a big part of why they are playing so well right now and is something that most teams can’t do in back to back seasons.
The Resurgence of Anthony Barr
Anthony Barr has been one of the best linebackers in the league since being drafted in 2014. He made an impact on the Vikings right away when he joined. He made his first big splash when he ripped the ball out of Austin Sefarian-Jenkins’s hands in an overtime game against Tampa Bay and returned it all the way back for a game winning touchdown. Then in 2015 he elevated his play even more. He became the ultimate wild card for Mike Zimmer’s defense, capable of absolutely taking over football games. Look at performances like the one he put on against Atlanta that season. Chasing breakaway runs 60 yards down the yard to force a fumble, blitzing and sacking the quarterback on fourth down, going stride for strides with the receiver down the field to knock away big passes, all examples of what he can do when he is at his best. However, this is not the Anthony Barr we saw in 2016. He would miss tackles and was awful in pass coverage. He showed little burst in his pass rush and pursuit. Mike Zimmer called out Barr towards the end of the season claiming that he wasn’t showing enough effort on the field. Whether this was the case or perhaps he was playing through an injury, we may never know. What we do know is that the Anthony Barr of 2014 and 2015 is back and as good as ever. He is flying all over the field and making plays again. This was evident in this last game against the Ravens where he notched up 10 tackles, a sack, a pass defense, and 2 tackles for loss. If he keeps this pace up, opposing offenses will be having nightmares for weeks.
Pat Shurmer and the Offensive Line
While Mike Zimmer has managed to construct one of the best defenses in the league, he hasn’t had as much luck with his offenses. When he was hired, he brought over Norv Turner to be his offensive coordinator. Norv Turner was thought to be the quarterback whisperer. He was a decorated offensive mind in the league for a very long time. When they drafted Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, he tried to fit him into his scheme, which didn’t always go so well. Bridgewater played the best he could, but a lot of the time the scheme didn’t really fit his play style. Turner could also not get the offensive line right. The biggest knock on the Vikings during this period has been the poor offensive line play. Then Turner resigned and Pat Shurmer took over as offensive coordinator. During the offseason, Shurmer started fixing the offensive scheme based on his players, adjusting it to best suit the players he had, something that Zimmer is well known for. The first thing Shurmer had to do though was fix the offensive line. The team went out and paid a whole lot of money to free agent offensive tackles Riley Rieff and Mike Remmers. The team was not praised for these signing, especially Remmers. However, both have performed admirably and provided stability along the edges of the line. Then the team took center Pat Elflien in the third round of the 2017 draft and he has played like a stud. He has provided some athleticism to the offensive line with his ability to get out in front of runners and hand out big blocks. With veteran Joe Berger, the only good piece from the offensive line of last year, moving to right guard and Nick Easton out performing Alex Boone for the starting left guard spot, the offensive line was set and has outperformed all expectations to this point. With this stability, the offense was better equipped to deal with injuries. Sam Bradford went down after week one and Case Keenum has been able to win for this team because he as time to sit back and make throws. Dalvin Cook was lost for the season and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have been able to slice through defenses because the line has opened up massive wholes. And Shurmer has done a great job of adapting the scheme to whoever is on the field. Something he will have to do for the rest of the season.
The Return of Teddy Bridgewater
Case Keenum has played to the best of his ability is the absence of Sam Bradford, but the reality is the team will not be able to make a substantial run with a backup quarterback. Enter Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater went down just before the start of the 2016 season with a devastating knee injury. Reports claimed that he could have lost his leg it was so bad. Now, just 14 months after the injury occurred, Bridgewater has been cleared to practice and is poised to make his return to the field. This is perhaps the biggest question mark for the Vikings going forward and maybe the deciding factor as to where they go from here. No one knows how good he will be when we finally see him back on the field. He could be terrible or he could pick up right where he left off. Whatever Bridgewater provides on the field tangibly is nothing compared to what he provides for the team intangibly: hope. Hope that this team can finally get past all the bad luck it has had over the last couple of years. If he can overcome this injury, then this team can overcome anything. That is something worth playing for and can lift this team to new levels. Maybe he does get out there and just can’t play or move around the same way he used to, but after seeing him fight his way back on the practice field, there is nothing in my mind that can stop him from getting on the playing field. And once he gets there, what is possibly going to stand in his way from reaching his goals? Like Bridgewater said immediately following his injury, his “purpose will not be denied.”