Yesterday, we took a look at a few of the questions that I had an opportunity to ask Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders about the Minnesota Vikings and their prospects in 2016. While yesterday’s questions focused on the Minnesota offense, today we shift our focus to the defensive side of the ball. Many of us are expecting the Vikings to have an outstanding defense in 2016, but the Football Outsiders Almanac is not nearly as high on them.
Much like yesterday, the question I asked of Vincent Verhei will be in bold, his answer will be in block-quoted form, and some additional commentary from me will follow that.
The Vikings’ defense is loaded with talent, as Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman have really turned things around on that side of the ball. With all the film you’ve watched on the Vikings, who do you feel is the most indispensible member of the defense?
This is a hard question to answer, because there's no one defensive player in the league who can make the kind of impact most quarterbacks can. I mean, J.J. Watt has quite clearly been the best individual player in the NFL on either side of the ball over the past four years. And even with that Hall of Fame dominance, the Texans defense has finished third, 18th, sixth, and eighth in Football Outsiders' rankings the past four seasons. To be a great defense in the NFL, you certainly need star players, but it's more important to have good players at every position, and depth everywhere too. If I must name one guy, then I will say that pass-rushers are the most important position on any defense in the NFL in 2016, and the Vikings' best pass-rusher remains Everson Griffen. So we'll go with him.
I think I can understand where Vincent is going with this. As he pointed out, the most dominant defensive player in the league hasn’t been able to carry his team’s defense to the top of the league. The biggest strength of the Vikings’ defense, as we saw from the awesome video that Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog put out a couple of weeks ago, is the ability of the Minnesota defense to do a lot of different things out of the same basic look. That goes to the ability of the coaching staff and the ability of the players to execute the scheme the way they’re asked.
Having said that, he mentions the Vikings’ depth as well, and the Vikings have quality depth at pretty much every defensive position. Guys like Danielle Hunter (who, yes, is not technically a starter yet) and the young linebackers this team has can keep the Vikings’ defense playing at a high level without a lot of drop off. We saw that in the game at Arizona last season when Harrison Smith, Linval Joseph, and Anthony Barr were all sidelined with injuries, but the Vikings were still able to trade punches with one of the NFL’s best teams right down to the final play.
But it’s nice to have stars, too. . .I mean, seriously, there aren’t many defenses in the NFL that have a guy the caliber of Everson Griffen as, in all likelihood, their fourth-best player, are there?
While a lot of folks seem to be pretty high on Minnesota’s defense, the FOA says that there’s a decent chance that this defense will get worse before it gets better. Can you explain the reasoning behind that sort of thinking?
To start with, we weren't blown away with what their defense did in 2015, when they finished just 14th in our rankings. Yes, Minnesota was fifth in scoring defense last year, but that's mostly because they faced only 170 drives, the fewest of any defense in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Broncos were fourth in scoring defense, but they faced 195 drives, the most in the league. If you look at points per drive instead of just points, the Vikings fall to 12th, while the Broncos move up to first. On top of that, Minnesota's defense enjoyed excellent field position in the league, as opponents' drives started 74.9 yards away from the goal line, one of the five best such numbers in the league. The Vikings weren't really particularly good at stopping opponents from moving the ball (14th in yards allowed per play), and they didn't force a lot of takeaways (16th in turnovers per drive). The one thing they did do very well was keep teams out of the end zone, finishing fourth by Football Outsiders' numbers in red zone defense. However, that's the kind of thing that can change drastically from one year to the next. The top five red zone defenses in 2014 were Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, and Jacksonville. In 2015, those same defenses ranked 14th, 10th, fifth, 17th, and 30th. That's an average drop of 12.2 spots in the rankings.
So we can expect the Vikings will be worse in the red zone this year. Why else would the defense decline? Injuries and age. Minnesota's defense had great luck with injuries last year, seventh-fewest in football, and they are likely to see worse health this year. And they were the fourth-oldest defense in football last year, a ranking that is likely to rise as every expected starter is back, and now one year older. At 38, Terence Newman is obviously skewing some of those numbers, but Chad Greenway, Brian Robison, and Tom Johnson (who played more snaps than either Sharrif Floyd or Linval Joseph last year) will all be 33 or older this year. As a group, players that age do not get better, they get worse.
See, this is the part where Vincent kind of loses me. I can understand that the defense is a year older and all of that. (And I totally didn’t realize that Tom Johnson played more snaps last year than Floyd or Joseph. . .that’s mind-blowing.) But the defense still isn’t very old. With Newman, Robison, and Greenway likely seeing reduced roles this year, Everson Griffen suddenly becomes the old man on defense at the ripe old age of 29. This is also only Griffen’s third season as a starter, so he’s a low-mileage 29 at that.
As far as the number of drives this team sees is concerned. . .well, that’s just the way the Vikings play football, and I don’t really expect that to change. In 2015, the Vikings turned the ball over 17 times. Only three NFL teams had fewer turnovers last season: The New England Patriots (14), the Kansas City Chiefs (15), and the Seattle Seahawks (16). The Seahawks and Chiefs were 1st and 3rd, respectively, in scoring defense in 2015, while the Patriots were 10th. If you don’t give your opponent a bunch of extra opportunities to score, they don’t score as much. It sounds Madden-esque, but it’s true.
With Teddy Bridgewater at the helm of this offense, I would expect that trend to continue. Bridgewater just doesn’t make a lot of decisions with the football that lead to turnovers. Yes, there was the bone-headed left-hand pass in the season finale last season that got picked off, but we’ve seen that much more the exception than the rule when it comes to Bridgewater’s game. Bridgewater may end up taking more chances this season, but I don’t expect them to be wild or crazy chances or anything like that. He’s still going to make solid decisions with the football and not kill his offense or make his defense put in extra work. As a result, I’d expect the number of drives the Minnesota defense sees to remain pretty low compared to most teams, and I still feel that they’re only going to continue to trend upwards from here.
That concludes our two-part look at the Vikings, courtesy of Football Outsiders. If you want to order the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac, you can order it in PDF form right here for the low price of $15.