MINNEAPOLIS — In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings fashioned a surprising 6-0 start thanks to an underwhelming defense that made its living off turnovers. That team, with such luminaries as Brian Williams, Brian Russell, Corey Chavous and Ken Irvin in the secondary, finished second in the league with 28 interceptions and rode a plus-11 turnover margin to the brink of the playoffs before a calamitous finish. (Those of you who are well-versed in Vikings history know what’s on the other side of that link. We included the Tecmo Super Bowl version to reduce the sting.)
Since then, while NFL defenses have used takeaways as a life preserver in a league awash in robust passing games, the Vikings missed out somehow. They’ve only finished in the top 10 in turnover margin twice since 2003 (eighth in 2009 and tied for 10th in 2006), and in the last 10 seasons they’re 22nd in the league with a net turnover margin of minus-18. The top five teams on that list, meanwhile, have all hosted a conference title game in the last eight years, and five of the top 10 have reached a Super Bowl.
Early in 2015, though, there are signs the Vikings are reversing a long trend of tepid turnover margins. They’re tied for seventh in the league this season with eight takeaways, and their plus-4 turnover margin has them tied for sixth. What’s more, the Vikings have cashed in on the turnovers; they’ve scored 23 points off their takeaways while giving up just a field goal off their four turnovers. Their plus-20 points off turnover margin is fifth in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Coach Mike Zimmer often discusses turnovers with the disclaimer that he doesn’t want defenders who prioritize them and shirk responsibility to their role in the defense, but his teams posted solid takeaway numbers in Cincinnati. The Bengals were 14th in the NFL in takeaways when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator from 2008-13 (the Vikings were 20th in that stretch), and the group was ninth in fumble recoveries.
Now, in Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith especially, the Vikings have fearsome defenders in the back two levels of their defense who seem to have a nose for the ball. Barr had forced three fumbles before getting injured last year. Smith intercepted five passes. Both have a forced fumble and an interception this year.
The Vikings’ defense is still not filled with ball hawks; none of their four interceptions have come from a corner, and Xavier Rhodes still has just one in 33 NFL games. But in a system in which turnovers are a byproduct of sound fundamentals, the Vikings have created some while holding opponents to the sixth-fewest points in the league and taking reasonably good care of the ball on offense. Teddy Bridgewater has thrown only two interceptions, and his lost fumble on the Vikings’ final play last week was just the Vikings’ second of the year.