Are We on the Verge of Seeing a Great Vikings Defense to Close 2022?

As I write this, we have had five days to recover from the bouts of high blood pressure, heart palpitations, hyperventilation, hypertension, hyperpanic and hyper-elation that we lived through last Saturday in watching our Minnesota Vikings make their historic 33-point comeback against the Indianapolis Colts. Part of this had to do with their defensive performance, so are we finally in the early stages of seeing a great Vikings defense?

We, of course, have seen variations of this highly entertaining film week after week in 2022. It seemed like they had hit a crescendo with their great comeback against Buffalo, but this was historically and physically amazing in ways that somehow topped that and every drama they’ve presented for our enjoyment before in this remarkable season.

It’s as if the team has been going out of their way to entertain us with each game, deliberately digging themselves into holes purely so they could work their way out of them in the end. At some point they may have become suspicious that we fans had perhaps grown bored with the pedestrian comebacks performed on a near-weekly basis and have now resolved to shock and awe us in incrementally greater ways in the latter stages of the year, toying with our emotions and our control over basic body functions in ways that we had never imagined possible.

If that’s the case, then what is the end-game for this team? How can they keep topping themselves, surprising us in new and ever-more shocking ways?

Here’s one idea: play some truly great defense. If you’re one of the seven people who are documented loyal readers of this writer’s weekly column (at least three of them are related to me) then you may be scratching your head and asking, “Tom, haven’t you been questioning their defense all year?”  

Are We on the Verge of Seeing a Great Vikings Defense to Close 2022?
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) greets cornerback Patrick Peterson (7) after Peterson made an interception in overtime to defeat the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, I have. I and virtually every other pundit out there, locally, regionally, nationally. I groused about them in this space immediately before they marched onto the field and gave up 33 first half points last week (though you can blame both the offense and special teams for much of that) and I felt like a genius.

In the rousing second half, a funny thing happened. Ed Donatell began dialing up blitzes. The “D” showed signs of creativity in their schemes. Veteran stars, unsung players and youngsters all began to play with swagger as they smothered the Colts offense with authoritative, no-nonsense, shut-down defense.

Now mind you, this was not exactly the Kansas City offense the Vikings were manhandling, it was a confused, exhausted squad that is, on it best day, mediocre. And yet. There was something to feel optimistic about. I know I felt it, and it wasn’t just the offensive magic clouding my naturally pessimistic view of the “D”. To quote the great Dr. Seuss in his holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it started in low, then it started to grow. My feeling of cautious optimism grew three times that day.

Dec 11, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams (30) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) during the first quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

And now the Vikings sit at 11-3, NFC North Champions. We’ve been looking at this defense and asking ourselves all along how their team success is even possible, given the way so many opponents seem to eat up yards in huge chunks week after week, refusing to fully believe in the results. How is this success happening and is it sustainable, especially in the post-season? But maybe the real question is: how far could this team go with even small amounts of incremental improvement on the defensive side of the ball?

If the Vikings became even an average defensive team—in all facets of the game—many of the doubts that still exist about their ability to put away top-tier teams, particularly in the playoffs, would fade. But back to the question, how does this team continue to top themselves with progressively greater shocks to our systems– they could flip that invisible switch all the way on, finding a way to close the regular season playing truly great defense, and then sustain it through the post-season.

True believers would say the pieces are already there: several true stars on defense (Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Eric Hendricks, Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter) along with younger / unsung players who could, in theory anyway, amp up their game as they accrue experience. The linebacking has been outstanding all season, the edge rushing is exceptional.

The status quo probably isn’t good enough to achieve a great defense, but there are adjustments there for the taking: more Duke Shelley, less Cameron Dantzler; more Josh Metellus, less Cameron Bynum. More man coverage, less zone. More blitzing—something we began to see in the second half last Sunday; more disguised coverage. It’s on DC Ed Donatell, who just may be a mad genius dressed in a purple sweatshirt and ballcap, to entertain us even more thoroughly by making the changes necessary to bring out the greatness that may be lurking right below the surface.

Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson (7) celebrates his interception for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe I’m one of those new believers? All it took was 30 minutes plus overtime, and another euphoria-induced willingness to overlook all the flaws. I think maybe this defense is just what Donatell said it was–a bend-but-don’t-break machine. Maybe it’s more than good enough. Maybe it’s on the verge of being great?

I wanted to test this newfound optimism and find out if anyone else was starting to break out into an unexpected sense of open-mindedness, if not out-and-out belief, that Donatell’s defense could, in fact, be (gulp) good. My go-to source for such thing is Pro Football Focus, who employs a staff of writers and football aficionados who spend countless hours breaking down film and grading each NFL player and the teams they play for, in the manner of a pro scout. If anybody’s opinion in the sporting press should matter when evaluating such things, it’s PFF.

As it turns out—much to my amazement–the experts at PFF have taken note. They may be the only people besides Donatell’s closest associates who have already fully bought into the Vikings’ bend-don’t-break defense, currently ranking them as sixth-best in the NFL overall. (Note: paywall required). Sixth? Honestly, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that, optimism or no. But there it was: with a grade of 77.4, the Vikings trail only the 49ers (first at 84.3) along with the Jets, Eagles, Broncos and Rams.

This notion that the Viking defense is capable of bigger, better things may not be as far-fetched as we think. They’re starting from a base of capable players, with three weeks of regular season gameplay and up to four more post-season matchups, in football terms an eternity of time to teach, and train, and concoct.

I may be dreaming—ratcheting up from a debatably good defense to undoubtably great defense would be a magic act that would be the difference between early-round playoff disappointment and Super Bowl contender. All I know is, if they can build on what they have defensively and approach greatness during this uniquely amazing season, that would be a bigger shocker and an even more pleasant surprise than the Colts win. But if one can happen, why not the other?