EAGAN, Minn. — The first nine games of the 2018 Vikings season have had stark contrasts between September and October-into-November.
The Vikings have reached their bye week at 5-3-1 and 1-0-1 in the NFC North, which is behind the 7-2 mark that Minnesota posted in 2017 thanks to a five-game win streak.
Minnesota has rebounded from a 1-2-1 opening quarter to win four of the past five games by improving in several key areas.
Vikings.com did a deep comparison of the Vikings stats, noticing several differences between the first four games and the past five. The gap included a mini-bye after visiting the Los Angeles Rams for Thursday Night Football in Week 4 that allowed for some self-scouting opportunities before Minnesota won at Philadelphia in Week 5.
This piece will take a look at three areas on defense where the Vikings are seeing an uptick in 2018 and three areas where they can still improve. The series will conclude with special teams on Friday. Click here for a breakdown of the offense.
1. Red-zone defense
The Vikings have been stout and sturdy once opponents have gotten the ball inside Minnesota’s 20-yard line.
Minnesota ranks second in the league in red zone defense.
Offenses have scored touchdowns just 39.4 percent of the time they have entered the red zone against the Vikings, who trail only the Titans (31.8 percent) in that category.
And the Vikings have been relentless when opposing offenses get even closer to the end zone.
Minnesota is tied for second in the NFL with a goal-to-go percentage of 50 percent. That means that the Vikings are allowing touchdowns only half of the time when opponents get a first-and-goal situation.
This might be too easy, given the Vikings just posted a franchise-record 10 sacks against the Lions, but that type of performance doesn’t come around too often.
Led by defensive end Danielle Hunter and his league-leading total of 11.5 sacks, which is one off his career high, Minnesota’s defense leads the NFL with 31 total sacks.
Even if you chop Sunday’s total in half and just give the Vikings five sacks, the unit would still be tied for fourth in the league with 26 sacks.
It’s been a team effort as 10 different Vikings have recorded at least one sack this season, while two others [Jaleel Johnson and Jayron Kearse] have 0.5 sacks apiece. The Vikings are on pace for 55 total sacks, which would be the second-most in a single-season in team history.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer constantly preaches his team should win the turnover battle, and the Vikings defense is doing their part.
Minnesota has 14 takeaways [eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries], a number that is tied for 10th in the NFL. The Vikings had just 19 takeaways in 2017, so the team is on pace to top that mark.
Even better, the Vikings have already scored three defensive touchdowns so far, as Mike Hughes (interception), Linval Joseph (fumble recovery) and Hunter (fumble recovery) have each found the end zone. Minnesota had just one defensive score in 2017.
Another defensive touchdown or two over the final seven weeks would greatly help the Vikings playoff chances.
Here are three areas where Minnesota has room for improvement.
1. So-so on 4th downs
Teams around the NFL are going for it more on fourth down than seemingly ever before, as there have already been 266 fourth-down tries so far this season.
The Vikings are around the middle of the pack in that area, as Minnesota has given up six of 10 tries on fourth downs. Minnesota is tied for sixth with 10 fourth-down tries against them along with six other teams.
Minnesota is tied for 21st in the league with an opponents’ success rate of 60 percent.
2. Points per game
The Vikings weren’t themselves in the first month of the season as they gave up an average of 27.5 points per game. The 49ers scored 16 in the season opener before a three-game stretch saw the Packers score 29, the Bills hang 27 at U.S. Bank Stadium and the Rams put up 38 (Los Angeles’ second-highest total of the season so far) in a Week 4 loss on national television.
The past five games have been better as Minnesota is giving up an average of 18.4 points per game, holding the likes of the Eagles, Cardinals, Jets and Lions to 21 or fewer points. New Orleans scored 30 in the Vikings Week 8 loss.
Minnesota is 14th in points allowed per game (22.7). The Vikings have allowed an average of 18.8 points per game in the past four seasons under Zimmer.
The Vikings play three of their final seven games against offenses who are currently in the top five of points per game. They have two games against Chicago (29.4) and one against New England (30.0).
Minnesota is 5-0 in 2018 when allowing 21 or fewer points, a number that been a strong indicator of success under Zimmer. Since the start of the 2015 season, the Vikings are 35-5 in the regular season when allowing 21 or fewer points.
3. Chunk plays
The Vikings have Pro Bowlers at every level of the defense and players who have been in Zimmer’s system for multiple seasons, so it’s a bit puzzling that the Vikings are among the league’s worst teams in terms of giving up big plays through the air.
Minnesota has allowed eight passing plays of 40 or more yards, which is the fifth-most of any defense in the league. (The Rams have given up 11 such plays while the Dolphins, Saints and Raiders have allowed nine plays of 40-plus yards).
The good news for Minnesota is that most of those plays happened early in the season when the defense was struggling a bit.
In Weeks 1-4, the Vikings allowed five plays of 40-plus yards. Minnesota has allowed three plays of 40-plus yards in the five games since, including just one over the past three games.