The 2012 Vikings defense helped the Vikings in the playoff drive. Nevertheless, improvements are needed. With this in mind, the performance of the 2012 Vikings defense gave many reasons for hope and optimism looking ahead to next season.
In yards and points allowed, the Vikings were in the middle of the NFL, allowing 350.0 yards and 21.8 points per game.
The rushing defense continued to slide, falling to 11th in the NFL, and 101.9 yards per game. The passing defense was 24th overall, allowing 244.2 yards per game. The Vikings had 44 team sacks. The defense grabbed 10 interceptions and 12 fumbles. The team's turnover differential was -1.
The defense labored under a number of challenges. Jared Allen announced he was having surgery after this season, implying he had been playing at less than 100%. Chris Cook missed about half of the year with a broken arm. Mistral Raymond missed a number of games with an injury.
What is clear is that a number of key Vikings defensive players are aging. Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, Brian Robison, and Fred Evans will all be 30 or older for part or all of the 2013 season.
Despite all of the challenges, the Vikings defense came up big many times throughout the 2012 season, forcing a number of key three-and-outs from opposing offenses.
Defensive line. Gap control was the main problem for the defensive line in 2012. The Vikings could not consistently stop the run up the middle. It's hard to pin this completely on the defensive line, but clearly, they are part of the equation. In a number of games, the Vikings could not plug the middle.
On passing downs, gap control broke down as the Vikings tended to over-rush the quarterback. All four linemen would charge as hard as they could to the quarterback. This didn't work out too well as the Vikings got only 44 sacks. The opposing linemen would ride the Vikings around the quarterback. This would open up a running lane for the quarterback, or in some cases, the entire defensive line would quickly end up behind the quarterback, giving the quarterback complete visibility of the field, and the entire field to run to. There are many athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, and this year they took advantage of the Vikings. Even Jay Cutler ran for a key first down with the Bears. But they didn't have to run. Opposing quarterbacks could step up, or run off to the flat, buy a huge amount of time, and then fire down the field. Even if the secondary had done a great job covering for six seconds, if the quarterback can keep looking for 10 seconds, no secondary can consistently cover that long.
The defensive line needs to do a much better job of containment. Plug up the middle against the run. Contain the quarterback in the pocket, get hands up to block passes, do not let the quarterback escape, and collapse the pocket.
Jared Allen. Recording 10.5 sacks for the Vikings while fighting off an injury is pretty spectacular. Jared Allen is still the best pass rusher in the NFL. He was hobbled by some kind of physical ailment this year. With luck, and a surgery and rehab that goes right, he will be as good as new for next season.
Kevin Williams. The great Kevin Williams had a forgettable year, despite 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks. While still proving himself to be a valuable player, he just didn't seem like Kevin Williams out there.
Brian Robison. He had 8.5 sacks, but he got shoved around a lot by opposing linemen.
Everson Griffen. Despite limited playing time, Griffen notched 27 tackles and 8 sacks. He also had an interception and return for a touchdown. Griffen's emergence as a future star was a bright spot for the Vikings in 2012.
Letroy Guion. Starting at nose tackle, he was often shoved around on the field.
Fred Evans. He was fine as Guion's backup. He had several splash plays in the year.
Christian Ballard. Despite getting time on the field to make plays, as Kevin Williams's backup, he made only a few.
Linebackers. The linebacking corps did not have a playmaker, although Chad Greenway is a standout tackling linebacker, and decent coverage linebacker.
Chad Greenway. Greenway was a workhorse again in 2012. He made a staggering 147 tackles. He did get three sacks and an interception. Greenway is not a playmaking linebacker, but nevertheless he has been a mainstay of the Vikings defense.
Erin Henderson. He was frequently out of position on the field against the run. He was not great at pass coverage, either.
Jasper Brinkley. He was frequently out of position. He couldn't stay on the field on passing downs, despite being the middle linebacker in the Vikings' Tampa Two defense.
Antoine Winfield. Once again, Winfield had a great year, with 101 tackles, three interceptions, and 1.5 sacks. I don't see him slowing down any time soon.
Chris Cook. Drafted in 2010, he has played in a total of 23 out of a possible 49 games. This year, he got hurt again. When healthy, he is the Vikings' best cover cornerback. He did much to slow the best receivers in the NFL while he was playing, including Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson. He had no interceptions on the year, but his presence was felt. If he had played the entire year, the Vikings would have won the division.
Josh Robinson. In his rookie campaign, Robinson was second among Vikings corners with 55 tackles, 52 of them solo. Robinson notched two interceptions. He was schooled several times, which wasn't surprising for a rookie cornerback. Robinson's rookie campaign in 2012 is underrated and I feel he demonstrated that he has the talent to become a standout cornerback in the NFL.
A.J. Jefferson. He was serviceable as a cornerback in the defensive scheme.
Harrison Smith. He is my candidate for defensive rookie of the year. Recording 103 tackles, 1 sack, and three interceptions, Smith energized the defense. He is the Vikings' top playmaker in the secondary.
Mistral Raymond. Raymond wasn't able to turn the corner this year, at least partially because the injury bug struck him in the middle of the year. He had only 15 tackles.
Jamarca Sanford. While he couldn't beat out Raymond for the starting job at strong safety to begin the 2012 season, Sanford had another solid season with 66 tackles.
Summary: The Vikings defense had a mixed year. The defense did many good things, and had many bright spots. Enough was done to enable the team to reach the playoffs, but no more than that. Clearly, the Vikings lacked "explosive plays" on defense in 2012. The play of the defense gives hope and optimism for the future.