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3 Defensive Stats that Vikings Improved in 2017; 2 to Target

Posted Feb 14, 2018

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — It’s tough to find many faults with the Vikings defense from the 2017 season.

Minnesota produced the best defense in the league — and one of the best in franchise history.

The Vikings ranked first in points allowed (15.8), the first time they had done so since 1970. Minnesota also allowed the fewest yards per game (275.9), the team’s best mark since 1993.

While the collective talent helped form one of the league’s stingiest units, there were plenty of individual standouts as well.

Safety Harrison Smith, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive end Everson Griffen each were All-Pro selections, and each were named to the Pro Bowl as well.

Linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph were also named to the Pro Bowl, while linebacker Eric Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles for the third straight season.

Minnesota’s menacing defense was a key reason why the Vikings went 13-3 and won the NFC North while also earning a first-round bye on the way to an appearance in the NFC title game.

Here are three stats where the Vikings defense improved significantly in 2017, with two areas the unit could work on for next season:

3 Stats that Improved

Goal-to-Go Situations

The Vikings made the jump from worst to first in this category. In situations where the opposing offense had the ball inside the 10-yard line with a first-and-goal situation, the Vikings allowed touchdowns just 50 percent of the time (nine scores on 18 such possessions).

That was a drastic improvement from 2016, when Minnesota allowed opponents to score touchdowns roughly 90 percent of the time in goal-to-go situations.

The Vikings got off to a hot start in the season opener by stuffing New Orleans on all three goal-to-go situations, and finished with a flourish by denying Chicago both times in that situation in the 2017 regular-season finale.

Opposing Running Backs’ Receiving Yards

Defenses don’t just have to worry about wide receivers and tight ends catching the ball anymore. But Minnesota did a superb job at limiting another option for opposing quarterbacks in the passing game — running backs out of the backfield.

According to the analytics website Football Outsiders, the Vikings ranked first in the NFL by limiting opposing running backs to 30.6 receiving yards per game on 6.9 pass attempts per game. The league average was 44.1 receiving yards allowed per game to running backs on 7.3 pass attempts per game.

That was an improvement from 2016, when the Vikings ranked eighth by allowing 40.0 receiving yards per game on 7.2 pass attempts per game.

Barr and Kendricks has a key role in this stat, as did safeties Smith and Andrew Sendejo.

3rd-Down Defense 

Opponents were flustered, frustrated and flabbergasted against the Vikings defense on third downs in 2017, as Minnesota allowed just 51 conversions on 202 attempts (25.2 percent). 

How good was that?

Not only did that lead the NFL in 2017, but it meant the Vikings had the best third-down defense in NFL history (the stat started being tracked in 1991).

In fact, the Vikings had four games (Tampa Bay, at Atlanta, Cincinnati, at Green Bay) in which they allowed just a single third-down conversion all game.

Minnesota was in the middle of the pack in 2016 when the Vikings defense ranked 14th in the league with a third-down rate of 39.8 percent.

2 Stats to Target

Takeaways

The Vikings finished plus-5 in turnover ratio, marking the third straight season Minnesota had finished on the plus side in the season-long turnover battle.

But the Vikings had just 19 takeaways, their fewest tally in three seasons and the same number as the defense had in 2014 in Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s first year on the job — a season in which the defense ranked 11th in points and 14th in yards allowed per game.

It was usually boom or bust for the Vikings, whose takeaways seemed to come in bunches. Minnesota had six games in which the defense did not have a takeaway, but recorded seven games in which the defense has two or more takeaways. 

Minnesota had 27 takeaways in 2016 and 22 takeaways in 2015.

Sacks on the Road (and in the 2nd Half of the Season)

The Vikings sacks total for 2017 was decent, as Minnesota brought down the opposing quarterback 37 total times. That tied for 17th in the league and was a few takedowns shy of the 41 sacks the defense generated in 2016.

But the Vikings biggest disparities in sacks were on the road, and in the second half of the season.

Minnesota had 24 sacks at U.S. Bank Stadium, as the home-field advantage included a raucous crowd that helped the defense get a better jump off the ball and limited opposing quarterbacks’ ability to communicate with teammates.

The Vikings had four games in which the defense had at least three sacks, and the highest sack total of the season was when Minnesota got to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford six times in Week 4 at home.

The defense only had 13 sacks on the road, however, as opposing quarterbacks played in a controlled and comfortable environment. Minnesota’s top two sack performances away from home came in London and on Thanksgiving against Detroit, as the Vikings notched a trio of sacks in each game.

Ironically, the splits for Minnesota’s home and road sack numbers mirrored the Vikings total in each half of the season.

The Vikings had 24 total sacks in their first eight games of the season — five of which were played at home. And Minnesota had 13 total sacks in their final eight games of the season — five of which were played on the road.