EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — As the Vikings reach their Week 10 bye, the break allows an opportunity to see how Minnesota has fared on defense and special teams statistically and in the eyes of GM Rick Spielman, who held his annual session with reporters this week.
Spielman and the Vikings are generally pleased with the body of work by the defense in the first year of Head Coach Mike Zimmer's system.
The Vikings (4-5) have held opponents to 26 points or less six times this season and in each of the past four games. They'll look to continue that when they return next week with a Nov. 16 trip to Chicago in a noon (CT) game that will be cross-flexed to air on CBS.
The remaining schedule includes seven games against opponents that are a combined 26-33-1 and four games against NFC North foes.
"I do believe that we are building what I envisioned this football team to look like," Zimmer said this week. "We've still got a long way to go, but the mindset of being able to overcome any kind of obstacle and continue to play hard and, obviously, we have got to play smarter in a lot of situations. I've always said, I like how this team works and how they continue to compete in practice and I think it's starting to show up a little bit at the end of games."
Defensive Stats/Rankings: 326.3 yards allowed per game (ninth in the NFL); 112.8 rushing yards allowed per game (15th), 213.6 net yards passing allowed per game (fourth); 22.1 points allowed per game (13th); sacks 30 (first)
The cohesion between defensive linemen, improvements in run defense and in rushing the passer as a unit have helped Minnesota post the third-most sacks through nine games of a season in franchise history.
Defensive end Everson Griffen has led the charge in his first year as a starter. Griffen has notched 9.0 sacks (ranks second in the NFL), already moving past his career high of 8.0 in 2012, but has also performed well against the run and made some incredible plays on running backs after they caught passes in the flat. Defensive tackles Tom Johnson (5.5) and Sharrif Floyd (3.5) have already set new career highs in the category, and DT Linval Joseph and DE Brian Robison have each added 2.5 sacks.
Defensive line stats (based on coaches tallies): Griffen (42 tackles, 34 QB hurries, 13 tackles for loss, one forced fumble); Joseph (41 tackles, 19 QBH, four TFL); Floyd (36 tackles, 25 QBH, six TFL); Shamar Stephen (23 tackles, two QBH); Robison (22 tackles, 23 QBH, four TFL); Corey Wootton (15 tackles, three QBH); Johnson (13 tackles, 17 QBH, six TFL); Scott Crichton (two tackles, three QBH, one TFL)
Spielman's take on Griffen's growth: "Everson got his opportunity to be the starting right end, and he's really embraced that role. I think he's matured tremendously from where he was at as a rookie to where he's at now and he wants to be good. Even though he's a great athlete, they have to want to be good, want to be coached and want to learn. I think Everson is a prime example that finally got his opportunity to be the starter and he's done everything he can to make himself the player he's showing he can be at this point."
This position group has been highlighted by the debut of rookie Anthony Barr, the return to Minnesota by Jasper Brinkley and the work put in to overcome injuries that sidelined Chad Greenway for three games and Gerald Hodges for two games.
Barr, the ninth-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, has had an instant impact. He's leading the team in tackles and has peppered consistent play with some dazzling moments that include his forced fumble, recovery and return of the ball 27 yards for a touchdown on the first play of overtime at Tampa Bay.
Linebackers stats: Barr (82 tackles, 11 QBH, four TFL, four sacks, three passes defensed, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries); Greenway (57 tackles, three QBH, two TFL, one sack, one pass defended and one forced fumble); Jasper Brinkley (50 tackles, two QBH, one TFL, one sack, one forced fumble); Hodges (31 tackles, three QBH, three TFL, two passes defended)
Spielman's take on Barr: "Anthony was, like a lot of our guys, a pretty unique athlete. When I talked to you guys after the draft and Coach 'Zim' is up there drawing Xs and Os and how he's going to utilize the skills he saw on tape and how he's going to fit in the scheme, they're doing a lot more things with him now than maybe they were in the earlier part of the season and he's continued to grow as well, but he's made some impact plays for us so far and I think that will continue to progress."
The secondary has helped Minnesota's defense reduce its passing yards per game from 287.4 to 213.6 this season, and has been able to deliver some momentum-swaying plays. The Vikings brought in Captain Munnerlyn via free agency and have him move inside to play most of the slot in their nickel defense, which has allowed Josh Robinson to grow one the outside at corner opposite Xavier Rhodes. Safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton, both in their third seasons have helped solidify the back end of the defense.
Secondary stats: Smith (68 tackles, three QBH, one TFL, one sack, three interceptions, six passes defended, one forced fumble); Blanton (62 tackles, one QBH, one INT, one pass defended); Munnerlyn (40 tackles, one TFL, two INT, four passes defended); Rhodes (28 tackles, one TFL, eight passes defended), Robinson (19 tackles, two INT, seven passes defended); Jabari Price (six tackles), Antone Exum, Jr. (one tackle)
Spielman's take: "Harrison has had a really good year. I'm excited about how Harrison has played. Xavier has really taken a step forward this year. Captain has made some big plays for us, but has also gotten beat a few times, and Josh has also made some significant progress.
"That secondary, that's Coach 'Zim's' forte a little bit, is all new to those guys. I can't tell you when you sit down and put on tape from Week 1 and then all of a sudden seeing some of the things we're doing now is totally different from a technical standpoint, but those guys are starting to understand what he's asking them to do in the schemes. If I'm not mistaken, we're fourth in the league right now in pass defense, but a lot of that has to do with the way we're rushing the quarterback, too, because I think that goes hand-in-hand."
Kicking stats: Blair Walsh is 16-for-19 on field goals this season (84.2 percent) and hasn't missed from 39 yards or less. Walsh has added three more field goals of 50 or more yards to his franchise record for a total of 15 in his career.
Walsh has also done well on kickoffs, where he's had 30 of 39 qualifying kickoffs result in touchbacks (the 76.9 percent rate is fifth highest in the NFL). All but three of his kickoffs have made it to the end zone. The average starting yard line (20.6) for opponents' possessions after kickoffs ranks 11th in the league.
Kickoff returns: Cordarrelle Patterson is averaging 24.5 yards per return (540 yards on 22 attempts) with a season-long of 49 yards. Marcus Sherels has two returns for 75 yards (37.5 per attempt). Jerome Felton has two returns for 23 yards, Rhett Ellison and MarQueis Gray each have one for 14 yards and Adam Thielen has one for 12 yards.
The Vikings are averaging 23.4 yards per kickoff return, and opponents have averaged 23.0 yards on the 10 kickoffs they've returned.
Punting: Jeff Locke is averaging 44.3 yards per punt with a net of 38.6. He has five touchbacks and has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 11 times. Locke's long on the season is 62 yards.
Punt returns: Sherels has 20 returns for 169 yards (8.5 per return) on the season with a long of 24 yards and 16 fair catches. Opponents have averaged 7.2 per punt return (188 yards on 26 returns) and made 12 fair catches.