EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings are 5-1 to start a season for the ninth time in franchise history.
Several of the previous seasons (1969-71 come to mind, as well as 2016) were fire-started by a smothering, swarming defense.
Minnesota won its division in 1969-71 (going 12-2 in the first two of those seasons and then 11-3) and 1992 (going 11-5), but the Vikings stumbled to a 9-7 mark in 1996 and 8-8 finishes in 2004 and 2016.
The 2022 Vikings defense isn't in the upper echelon of most statistical rankings through six games, but Head Coach Kevin O'Connell referred to the group as the team's "backbone" shortly after Sunday's 24-16 win at Miami.
The group was on the field for more than 35 minutes but totaled six sacks, eight passes defensed and three takeaways. Sure, the group again yielded yardage, but Minnesota's special teams and field position enabled the Vikings to bend without breaking against a Miami squad with explosive weapons at the skill positions.
"To force the turnovers and be responsible for a lot of game-winning plays even in times where it seemed like we were giving up some yards here and there, that's a tough, tough team to play against with those skill players that they have, and certainly we didn't do enough to help them on offense," O'Connell said. "So with them being able to respond the way they did, I felt really strongly about that and even more so, a lot of teams in this league, when things are going that way for one side or the other, sometimes you can see some friction start to build, but not one time did I ever feel like that between the sides of the ball or even guys on one side of the ball."
Reminder: Minnesota's six games this season are its first from a 3-4 base since 1985, so some developmental time should be expected.
There are signs that the defense is jelling more and more, increasing its effectiveness against the run against Chicago and at Miami compared to the first four weeks of the season.
Wins are the bottom line in the business, and Minnesota's defense has made key plays at opportune times during the Vikings four-game win streak.
"We've had a few of those now, and we've had to dig down deep and continue to fight, continue to battle," linebacker Jordan Hicks said.
2 defensive stats that explain why the Vikings are 5-1
1. 10 takeaways
In his first days on the job, O'Connell said he wanted the Vikings defense to be "about the ball."
So far, so good.
The Vikings have recorded 10 takeaways (five interceptions and five fumble recoveries) so far this season, which is tied for fifth in the NFL.
That, combined with Minnesota's six turnovers, equates to a margin of plus-4 that is tied for the second-best in the league behind Philadelphia's whopping plus-12 in the category (14 takeaways, two giveaways).
Harrison Smith secured his 31st career interception late in the first half to set up a field goal by Minnesota as time expired and forced a fumble by Jaylen Waddle that Camryn Bynum recovered with a 16-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Two plays later, Dalvin Cook broke free for a 53-yard touchdown for a 24-10 edge with 3:15 remaining.
"It's kind of a terrifying scenario with [Waddle] running and just me there, just going to make a tackle," Smith said. "One thing we touch on daily, and it started with [Defensive Coordinator] Ed Donatell down to [defensive backs coach Daronte Jones] … is getting the ball and taking a shot when you can.
"I don't know if that was exactly the time to take it, but as you're tackling, if you're tackling at the ball level, sometimes good things happen," Smith added.
2. 6 penalties for 45 yards
The Vikings defense has played cleanly, committing just six penalties for a total of 45 yards.
That's a game's worth for some squads, but Minnesota has gone three separate games without a single penalty on the defense (Green Bay, New Orleans and Miami), according to nflpenalties.com.
That avoidance of infractions has generally extended throughout the team.
Including offense and special teams, Minnesota has been flagged just 25 times, the second-lowest team total in 2022 behind the Los Angeles Rams (24), for a league low 185 yards. Opponents have been flagged 43 times for 368 yards, a net difference of plus-183 for the Vikings that is the best differential in the NFL.
Teams have had to earn almost every tick of yardage when going against Minnesota's defense.
2 stats that illustrate why the Vikings say they have room to improve
1. Location, location
The Vikings would like to become stingier when an opponent has a goal-to-go scenario or even enters the red zone.
The Vikings have allowed touchdowns on eight of nine goal-to-go situations they've faced, including all eight over the past five games, and on 12 of 15 trips by opponents inside Minnesota's 20-yard line.
The allowance rates of 88.9 percent in goal-to-go (29th in NFL) and 80-percent in the red zone (31st in NFL) well exceed the league averages of 69.3 and 56.3, respectively.
2. A chance to tighten the umbrella?
The Vikings have used a shell defense in their secondary most of the time.
Quarterbacks have been able to find receivers who have found openings in zones, so I'll cluster three stats that explain one point.
The results have been allowances of 272 passing yards per game (29th in NFL), 7.88 net yards per pass attempt (31st) and a completion percentage of 68.6 that ranks 29th.
Those figures exceed the league averages by 47 passing yards per game, 1.33 net yards per attempt and 4.6 percent on the completion rate.
Tightening the throwing windows when possible while continuing to limit plays over the top could help the Vikings nudge forward in the rankings.