The Minnesota Vikings were the NFL’s seventh-best team per win percentage for the first six seasons under Mike Zimmer and the 13th-worst in his final two seasons.
Vikings fans have spent hours, if not whole days in combined social media time, debating whether the quarterback and offense are to blame. Why? The NFL is trending toward increased offensive emphasis each season as rules have been tightened to protect playmakers. So when teams don’t keep up a breakneck pace on offense, that side of the ball must be to blame — is the idea.
While lackluster stretches beset the Vikings offense in the last two seasons — 2021, especially — the decline of Zimmer’s once-vaunted defense caused the Vikings fall from grace. And the evidence is irrefutable.
From 2014, when Zimmer took over, to the end of the 2019 season, Minnesota produced the league’s best cumulative defense, per Defensive EPA/Play. In 2020 and 2021, the defense efficiency dipped to 23rd (or 10th-worst). Here’s the variance illustrated in a tweet.
You might hear folks spend months after a regular season blaming the Vikings quarterback, who threw 33 touchdowns to seven interceptions with virtually no garbage time in 2021. That’s just the nature of the beast in the “QB Wins” version of the NFL. Yet, instead of pondering the efficacy of Kirk Cousins and his 33 TD-7 INT split, focus on the departure of the Vikings defense from normative behavior from 2014 to 2019. It’s glaring. Defense matters in football no matter how many fantasy football leagues you join.
Why did the defense fall off a cliff? Well, critical personnel left the team after the 2019 season. Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander all left and landed at various destinations over the last two years. Curiously, all of those players are free agents as of early July.
But they did matter to Zimmer’s formula — evidently.
Other stats illuminate the defensive obituary. Via points allowed, the story is the same.
Yards allowed? Not much difference.
Thankfully for the Vikings sake, an action plan is in place to stop the tumble. Minnesota hired a new coaching staff, featuring a shift to a 3-4 defense for the second time in team history. Ed Donatell takes the reins and will implement new defenders like Za’Darius Smith, Jordan Hicks, Harrison Phillips, Chandon Sullivan, Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth, and Brian Asamoah, among others.
Minnesota’s defense won’t feel the same as years past, which is probably a good thing because the product sharply deteriorated in the last two years.
Accordingly, the Vikings finished 15-18 (.454) in 2020 and 2021 and missed the postseason both times.
This is not supernatural. The defensive drop-off was the culprit. And the Vikings offense was not up to the task of dragging the lagging defense to playoff football in either season.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).