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3 Defensive Stats that were Solid in 2019; 2 to Improve in 2020

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings 2019 defense continued to show signatures of its identity under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, first who took the helm in Minnesota in 2014.

Defensive end Danielle Hunter and safety Harrison Smith were again voted to the Pro Bowl in recognition of their stalwart performances, while other Vikings defenders – ahem, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Harris – made excellent cases for themselves but were snubbed from the all-star game. Kendricks was added Tuesday as an alternate, along with fellow defenders Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes.

Occasional problem areas that haven't been seen in a while, however, popped up during the campaign. Minnesota, for instance, allowed 341.6 yards per game in 2019, which was more than 30 yards a game than in 2018 and 65.7 more per game than 2017 when the Vikings led the NFL.

As part of our season recap, we took a look at three defensive stats that were good in 2019 and two that need to improve in 2020.

Here are three defensive stats that were good in 2019:

1. Harris led team with 6 interceptions

Vikings fans have trusted Harris for quite some time, but when he got his shot at being a Week 1 starter in 2019, Harris showed the rest of the league how tenacious he can be.

Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Harris has quickly risen to the top. He started opposite of Harrison Smith throughout the season and came up with takeaways at crucial moments.

Harris' six regular-season interceptions led the Vikings and tied with Stephon Gilmore (Patriots) and Tre'Davious White (Bills) for top in the NFL.

He wasn't the only Viking snagging picks, though. Minnesota's defense as a whole improved its interception rate, jumping from 15th-best in 2018 (2.39 percent) to fourth-best (2.83) in 2019.

The Vikings totaled 17 interceptions during the regular season, which tied with the Packers for third in the NFL. They added two more in the playoffs – Harris picked off Saints QB Drew Brees in the Wild Card round, and Kendricks intercepted 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo in the Divisional round.

2. Vikings tied for 5th in sacks

Once again, the Vikings wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Minnesota racked up 48 sacks in 2019, which tied with San Francisco for fifth-best in the NFL.

The group was led by Hunter (14.5) and Griffen (8.0), who have become a pass-rush duo feared around the league. Since Minnesota drafted Hunter 88th overall in 2015, he and Griffen have combined for 99.5 total sacks. The duo has combined for more sacks for the Vikings than any other pair of current teammates in the NFL in that time span.

In Week 14 against the Lions, Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks when he took down rookie QB David Blough.

One under-the-radar standout was defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, whom the Vikings implemented both on the outside and on the interior. In addition to breaking out with 7.0 sacks (and a signature "sword" celebration) in his first full season on the active roster, Odenigbo made the highlight reel with a scoop-and-score of a Chargers fumble in Week 15.

3. Shutting down in the red zone

Teams had a little easier time moving the ball against Minnesota than in recent seasons, but the Vikings flexed their muscles in the red zone.

Opponents were often shut down inside the Vikings 20-yard line, with Minnesota allowing a red zone percentage (touchdowns per possession) of just 43.8 percent, which ranked No. 2 in the NFL behind Denver.

The Vikings also ranked second in goal-to-go situations, limiting opposing teams to a 54.6-percent touchdown rate in those situations.

Here are two stats that need to improve in 2020:

1. Run defense could use a boost

Minnesota's run defense had an up-and-down season in 2019. The Vikings by no means were terrible against the run – and they actually improved slightly from the previous season – allowing 108 rushing yards per game (13th in the NFL).

But the defense seemed to lack consistency, being stout one week and getting gouged on the ground the next.

The Vikings allowed opponents to rush for more than 100 yards seven times during the regular season; on five of those occasions, teams surpassed 140 rushing yards. Individual players racked up more than 100 yards five times, including Packers RB Aaron Jones in Weeks 2 and 16.

Minnesota preaches to "stop the run" first, which allows its pass rush to kick in and affect the quarterback.

The link between the two was demonstrated during the postseason. During the Vikings-Saints Wild Card game, in which the Vikings went on to win in overtime, Minnesota limited New Orleans to 97 yards on the ground and was able to put pressure on Drew Brees.

At San Francisco in the Divisional round, however, the Vikings allowed the 49ers to run at will, piling up 186 yards on the ground.

An emphasis on tightening up the run defense in 2020 could help the Vikings be more successful.

2. Struggles in the secondary

Under the tutelage of Zimmer, the Vikings traditionally have garnered a reputation for a lock-down defense and secondary of steel.

But in 2019, some holes popped up in Minnesota's pass defense throughout the season.

Through the first 11 games of the regular season, the Vikings allowed 19 completions in which the ball traveled at least 20 yards through the air, which tied for seventh-most in the NFL. For receptions that gained 20-plus yards, the Vikings tied for fourth-most with 42. They allowed the second-most 30-plus yard receptions (19).

Following the bye week, the team improved.

The Vikings allowed just six completions of 20-plus airs yards over the final five games of the regular season, which tied for eighth-best in the NFL, and they allowed 11 receptions that gained 20-plus yards (fourth).

Expect Zimmer to focus on a continued upswing in the pass defense for 2020.