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Well, Maybe the Defense Matured Overnight

When a football team, such as the Minnesota Vikings, begins a season with elevated expectations, the general idea is that a fast start is on the menu. The Vikings were tapped by Vegas oddsmakers to win between nine and ten games as the 2020 season began. The team decided to clumsily arrive at a 1-5 start, so finger-pointing was rampant. Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson were the only two undisputed high points of the 53-man roster, although others like Brian O’Neill, Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen, and Eric Kendricks were quietly playing well.

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The lightning rods for “blame” were Kirk Cousins, Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman, and most of the defense. Minnesota is sans it starting defensive end, starting strongside linebacker, and starting nose tackle – all lost to injury or coronavirus precautions. In spots, it felt like “of course they’re going to be bad – they lost tons of starters.” On a few occasions (most notably at Seattle in the first half), the defense brandished glimpses of competence. Those did not usually last, though, for longer than a couple of quarters at a time.  Minnesota was stuck with a defense that was deprived of the necessary building blocks to achieve a winning record in 2020. 

Then Mike Zimmer fixed it. Or, at the very least, forced its maturity to accelerate. 

All of Vikings orbit – players, coaches, management, fans, pundits – bottomed out with this team on October 18th. Minnesota was insufferably drubbed at home by the Atlanta Falcons, a winless team (0-5) with a brand new coach. Fans sped to profootballnetwork.com to gorge their appetites with 2021 mock drafts. The trade deadline was mere weeks away, and all players in purple and gold were going to find a new home by Election Day. The bye week would usher in an era of change – one that would probably not involve Mike Zimmer or Kirk Cousins for the long haul.

Few considered the season would abruptly turnaround. Those that did are now vindicated. The Vikings offense is ticking and the defense is rapidly developing.  

7th in Points Allowed since the Bye Week

The bye week occurred one month ago. Since then, the Vikings are undefeated. This what the Vikings do after bye weeks under Mike Zimmer. They come out and immediately lose a game (that’s happened four times) or they win a game that precipitates a long winning streak (2015 and 2017).

This year is more akin to 2015 or 2017 than it is the other four campaigns. In the last three contests, Minnesota has allowed 18 points per game to opponents (Packers, Lions, Bears). This ranks seventh in the NFL. For perspective, the Super Bowl runner-up 49ers have allowed 32 points per game in the same timeframe. 

All facets of football assist in winning games. That is self-evident. But when a defense is as porous as the Vikingsperformed thru six weeks, only a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes or Russell Wilson can make a win-loss record look pretty. Kirk Cousins is capable of hot streaks, but he is not in the realm of Mahomes or Wilson on most Sunday afternoons.

Therefore, when the defense began looking more like a Zimmer defense of old from a points-allowed standpoint, wins began flocking to Mike Zimmer’s ledger.

10th in Yards Allowed since the Bye Week

It’s not only points allowed that underwent an about-face. It’s the yards allowed, too. Minnesota has surrendered 323 yards per game in the last three contests – 10th best in the NFL during the period. The tendency is to believe the defensive side of things has been “bend but don’t break” over the last few games, but it’s closer to “don’t bend.”

It’s worth noting that the Vikings competition has not been too ominous since the beginning of November. Collectively, the Packers, Lions, and Bears are not a trio from hell to faceoffensively. Nonetheless, stifling division foes – no matter theteam’s offensive personnel – should be commended. And, two of those showdowns took place on the road. 

Veteran players have made the best of their fill-in assignments. Hercules Mata’afa was wonderful against the Bears. Shamar Stephen has been a pleasant surprise at nose tackle. Cornerbacks signed off the street to substitute for injured players have held their own. Eric Wilson is turning Pro Bowl-voting heads. Kris Boyd is emerging. Even Armon Watts can be seen in the mix on some plays. 

Rookie Playmaking

Which leads us to the rookies. Jeff Gladney ranks second in Pro Football Focus’ run-stopping metric for cornerbacks. That’s all cornerbacks, not just rookies. If Zimmer ever needed a man to fill in at the safety position in a pinch, Gladney is the guy. Frankly, he doesn’t miss tackles, and he’s scrappier than a wolverine. 

Defensive end D.J. Wonnum – who’s seen playing time since Yannick Ngakoue was traded – has made momentous plays. He punctuated a Vikings win at Green Bay with a sack that could be felt in Norway. He’s tallied three sacks in his first eight career games – more than Daniele Hunter and Aaron Donald in their first eight games. 

Gladney and Wonnum, like the rest of the Vikings defense, are an abridgment to the future. We just did not expect to see them develop this soon. 

They’re doing just that, and the Vikings are on the cusp of a 5-5 record because of it.  

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