Let’s face it—Vikings’ fans aren’t accustomed to being the best at anything. The Randall Cunningham-Randy Moss fueled 1998 campaign aside, the Purple and Gold have gotten quite comfortable in its inevitable mediocrity, ever-so lightly peppered with the occasional outlier (read: 2004 with Dante Culpepper; 2009 with Brett Favre; 2012 Adrian Peterson’s alien knee). However, the omnipresent dark cloud of gut-wrenching disappointment continues to loom over the Vikings (read: Gary Anderson, 1998; 2000 NFC Championship game; 2009 NFC Championship game; Joe Webb starting in the playoffs in 2013).
But after Minnesota’s 22-10 beat down (and that’s what it was for the final 50 minutes) of defending NFC champion Carolina on Sunday could it be possible—gasp—the Vikings are trending towards not only a team headlined by the league’s best defense but the team to beat in the conference? Thirty-one years of fandom intuition scoffs at the reach for optimism yet here we are three weeks into the season and the Vikings have two road wins, one over the reigning MVP and a divisional win over Aaron Rodgers. And that’s with an offense that has been understandably suspect without Teddy Bridgewater, Peterson and Matt Kalil (eye roll).
But that defense doe—got the Berserker Viking all hot and bothered. The 2016 version of the Purple People Eaters boast the third-ranked scoring defense (13.3), tops in the league in turnover differential (+8) and sacks (15) and sixth-best in total yardage (885). Two of their takeaways went for scores, another for a safety and if it weren’t for some bad fumble luck against the Packers, the turnover differential would be skewed even greater.
Want to call the Vikings the best defense in the NFL? Go ahead, its not a scorching take. There is an argument to be made against them but only two other defensive units—Denver and Seattle—are even in the conversation.
There is a deep dive that could be done unearthing all the different layers that have made this unit so dominant. From Tom Johnson to Captain Munnerlyn, Minnesota is loaded with talented depth at all three levels but its football season and what do we love more than a Sunday spent rotting our waistlines and livers away on the couch? POWER RANKINGS! So with that in mind, let’s rank the top-five cogs of the league’s nastiest defense.
- Head coach, Mike Zimmer. It wasn’t long ago the Vikings rolled out a historically dismal defensive attack week in and week out. What has Zimmer done in his two-plus years since taking over the reigns? Oh just turn that unit with a few holdovers (Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison) into one of the league’s most dominant. Promising first-round picks (Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd and Trae Waynes) have blossomed into impact players under his tutelage. Later-round picks like Danielle Hunter look destined for stardom while Griffen has evolved from a good player to an elite-level player. The transformation has been tangible for the last two seasons and three weeks into this year, the defense built in Zimmer’s imagine is living up to its creator’s billing.
- Defensive end, Everson Griffen. With boatloads of talent all over the place, it is certainly debatable if Griffen is the most important on-field piece for the Vikings. But power rankings are all “what have you done for me lately” and the way Griffen dominated the Carolina offensive line gives him the nod. Named the NFC Defensive Player of the week, Griffen’s edge pressure allowed Zimmer to dial up three and four-man pressures, dropping extra coverage into the secondary. The result: Newton held the ball too long waiting for receivers to get separation, and the Vikings had a party in the backfield. Griffen’s three sacks and nine quarterback hurries shows exactly why he is indispensible on the front seven.
- Safety, Harrison Smith. Smith’s talent has been evident since day one. But now Zimmer has taken the restrictor plate off the leader of the secondary. Smith plays in the box, at the line and ball hawks down field. While he hasn’t been responsible for any of the Vikings’ nine takeaways he made a heads-up play to recover the Tom Johnson fumble following his pick and had another interception called back. Smith’s ability to help out in the run game (ask the Packers about that), apply pressure on the quarterback and roam effectively in the secondary is the main reason why Pro Football Focus has routinely graded him as one of the best safeties in the league. Minnesota is deep at corner and can withstand an injury there as they did in weeks one and two without Rhodes, but an extended loss of Smith would be a devastating blow to the defense.
- Linebacker, Anthony Barr. Barr embodies the versatility and talent this defense is predicated on. Barr’s ability to cover the flat, spy the quarterback and be a force in the backfield make him an invaluable member of the front seven. Like Smith, he grades out very well with PFF and it seems like we’ve only scratched the surface with Barr’s potential. After two straight matchups against QBs who like to move in and out of the pocket, Barr should have a field day teeing off on the stationary Eli Manning on Monday night.
- Nose tackle, Linval Joseph. Just as a friendly reminder: the Giants let this big man walk in free agency—think No. 98 remembers that? New York’s trash is Zimmer’s all-pro caliber man in the middle. While the natural assumption is Joseph is a space eater occupying blockers to free up the likes Barr, Smith and Griffen—he is so much more. Joseph is impressive athlete for his novelty size, recording a sack in each of the first three games. While the Vikings have a plethora of talent at defensive tackle, few are as dominant and require as much attention from opposing offenses as Joseph.