The Vikings defense has plenty of playmakers, as evident by the fact the unit lead the league in both points (15.8) and yards (275.9) allowed per game.
But the play this season of cornerback Trae Waynes and linebacker Anthony Barr has taken the defense to new heights.
Matthew Coller of 1500ESPN.com recently wrote that Waynes and Barr have been key pieces on the NFL's top defense because their play has allowed the rest of the unit to thrive.
As we approached the 2017 season, there were reasonable concerns about Waynes' progress. In 2016, he split reps with Terence Newman, which could have been considered a setback considering his first-round status. And while the overall metrics scored his mid-pack, the last impression for many Vikings fans of Waynes' 2016 was Packers receiver Jordy Nelson exploding for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota in Week 16.
When Waynes started the season on a bad note — with 9-of-10 passes complete against him in Week 1 and a nightmarish Week 2 against the Steelers — it appeared he might not be able to handle the No. 2 corner spot across from Xavier Rhodes.
Instead, Waynes has thrived since then.
"This second half of the year he's played really well," head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. "There was a lot of times earlier in the year I was helping him a lot. I'm not doing that very much anymore. So, he's been out there on his own, and I actually think that's part of the reason why the defensive numbers have come down quite a bit. Because of the way these corners cover on the back end."
Barr, meanwhile, ended the regular season with a bang. He was credited with eight total tackles by Vikings coaches, including five solo stops and an impressive tackle for loss.
Coller noted that the Pro Bowl selection has helped the Vikings defense in both the run and the pass game.
Barr finished the 2017 season ranked as the 17th best interior linebacker in the NFL by PFF metrics (out of 90). He was especially improved in coverage, playing a big role in the Vikings ranking by Football Outsiders stats as the No. 3 team against tight ends and No. 2 against running backs.* *
While he didn't have many "splash" plays like interceptions, sacks or fumbles forced, Barr set a career high with eight stuffed runs for a total of 22 yards lost by opposing offenses. Last year, he had just two stuffed runs. He also set a career high in tackles.
Barr was selected to the Pro Bowl this season for the third consecutive year.
Collins sees extended playing time in heavy packages
The Vikings rushed for 159 yards on Sunday, their third-highest total in a season that saw them hit the 100-yard mark in all but three games.
Minnesota's success in the regular-season finale came with a little help from Aviante Collins, who had been inactive for more than half of the Vikings games this season.
The rookie offensive lineman played in his fourth game in 2017 by being an extra blocker in heavy packages when Minnesota was looking to establish the run.
Tim Yotter of Viking Update chatted with Collins, who played 28 offensive snaps Sunday after only being used on special teams in prior games.
It didn't happen because of injuries that required Collins to be part of a five-man offensive line, but rather the Vikings' desire to get a bigger look in for many of their running situations. Collins, a 6-foot-4, 292-pound offensive tackle, was used as an eligible receiver for more than one-third of the offensive plays, although he never caught a pass.
"Just trying new things. We haven't done that formation a whole lot this year, and we were trying to see how it goes," Collins said, beaming with a sense of accomplishment after Sunday's win.
On the Vikings' third drive, the undrafted rookie was used four more times, including [Latavius] Murray's second 1-yard touchdown run of the game as Minnesota took a 14-0 lead. Murray finished with one of his most productive games of the season, rushing 20 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
"We prepared all week, and I knew I was going to do some jumbo stuff and go in and play some tight end. I prepared all week for this," Collins said. "I felt prepared enough what we had to do, and it worked out for us."