EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.– Just two years into his first head coaching position, Mike Zimmer's impact on the Vikings defense is indisputable.
When Zimmer took over the Vikings ship last season, the team's defense improved from 31st overall to 14th overall in yards allowed. After his second year, the defense once again improved from 2014, and in almost every statistical category by helping further develop players and refine them in his scheme.
"He's made me better in pretty much every phase of my game," said safety Harrison Smith of Zimmer.
The sentiments of Smith, who was one of five Vikings in the Pro Bowl Sunday, were reflected by the entire unit's performance throughout the season.
The Vikings improved by the widest margin in three categories: points allowed, team tackles and third-down conversions.
Last season, Minnesota finished its season 7-9 and allowed its opponents to score a total of 343 points, averaging 21.4 points per game. The Vikings buckled down and decreased that number this season. They ranked fifth in the NFL, allowing only 302 (18.9 per game) points to be scored against them.
View some of the best images of the linebackers from 2015.
In 2014, the Vikings ranked 14th in the league with 778 tackles. In 2015, they recorded 827 total tackles, good enough for fourth in the NFL. Rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks played a large role on defense his debut year, leading the entire team with 105 tackles (80 solo). Safety Andrew Sendejo followed with 100 tackles (57 solo) on the season.
"I like this group," Zimmer said in his year-end press conference. "I think we have some playmakers, I think we have some competitors, I think we have guys that are starting to really kind of figure out this system and the things that we're looking for defensively."
View some of the best images of the defensive backs from 2015.
Last season, Minnesota's defense tied with Cleveland for 24th place on third-down conversions allowed, with its opponents converting 41.5 percent of their third-down attempts. The Vikings drastically improved in 2015, holding their opponents to only 71 of 206 attempts (34.5 percent). That number vaulted the Vikings all the way up to third in the league behind Houston and Seattle.
Zimmer wants his team to excel in all areas, and even with so much development, there are a handful of areas the Vikings can develop in moving forward.
"I think it's a good starting point for where we're at – we've got a long way to go, though," Zimmer said. "We're not anywhere near where I want us to be."
Zimmer isn't the type of coach to get complacent. He and his staff will look for ways to continue to help the team improve. Here are a couple of stats where the Vikings could continue to get better.
More turnovers wouldn't hurt
Two defensive capacities in which Minnesota ranked low in both 2014 and 2015 were interceptions and forced fumbles. The Vikings snagged 13 interceptions last season and this season, landing them in 18th and 17th place, respectively. Veteran cornerback Terence Newman led the team with three interceptions, while defensive end Justin Trattou, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and Smith added two apiece.
In 2015, the Vikings forced 12 fumbles, two more than 2014, but that total ranked just 25th in the league.
Opponent passer rating
The Vikings lowered opponent passer rating from 92.8 in 2014 (23rd in the NFL) to 90.0 in 2015 (15th in the NFL), but there is still room for improvement in how Minnesota's defense contains its opponents' passing games. Although the Vikings lowered the opponent passer rating in 2015, they allowed more passing yards per game in 2015 (234.9) than in 2014 (223.3). Minnesota reduced the number of passing touchdowns allowed (from 26 to 24) and opponent completion percentage from 66.1 percent to 64.0 percent from 2014 to 2015.