EAGAN, Minn. -- When it was suggested in August that the offense might be better than the defense for the first time in his seven seasons as Minnesota Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer wasn’t having it.
“Well, we’ll just have to see if that happens,” said Zimmer, who runs the defense.
Midway through the 2020 season, there’s no question Minnesota is better on offense than defense. Entering Monday night’s game at Chicago, the Vikings are 10th in the NFL in total offense and looking for their first top-10 finish since Brett Favre quarterbacked a No. 5 offense in 2009. They are 29th in total defense after having never finishing lower than No. 14 in Zimmer’s first six seasons.
But some hope has returned to the defense over the past two weeks as Minnesota’s many young players have been showing improvement. The Vikings (3-5) gave up 32 points per game during their 1-5 start before allowing just 20.5 in the past two, a 28-22 win Nov. 1 at Green Bay and a 34-20 win last Sunday over Detroit.
“We’re just happy guys are showing improvement, and that’s part of what happens when you continue to work on the day-to-day grind and continue to help them get better,” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said Friday.
During Zimmer’s first six seasons, a rugged defense often bailed out a sometimes-shaky offense. Now, the reverse might be true.
Regardless, how the defense does during the second half of the season likely will determine if the Vikings are able to make a playoff run. Unless there are injuries, there is no reason to believe the offense will slow down. Running back Dalvin Cook has been NFC Offensive Player of the Week each of the past two weeks, and wide receivers Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson have been key targets when Kirk Cousins has to pass.
In the old days, the Vikings’ defense often had to play great for the team to win. Now, being average on defense could be enough considering the improvement of the offense under coordinator Gary Kubiak.
“We see our offense do it, and our offense is putting points on the board and executing really well,” said defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, a rookie in 2017, when the Vikings were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense and total defense. “That puts the defense in a situation where we need to go out and do the exact same thing.”
The Vikings lost a number of key players on defense after last season and stars Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr are out for the year with injuries. Positives have been linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith continuing to play at a Pro Bowl-level, along with several rookies, led by cornerback Jeff Gladney, becoming more seasoned each week.
Still, there are concerns about the defense. Zimmer remains displeased about all the yards Minnesota has given up.
After allowing 413.7 per game in their first six outings, the Vikings still gave up an average of 410.5 yards in their two recent wins. Their season average is 412.9, a far cry from the 275.9 yards allowed in 2017.
“I said this to some of the defensive coaches (this week), ‘We might be doing our best job coaching we’ve done, and we’re still giving up 400 yards a game,’ ” Zimmer said. “It’s a work in progress, but I think some of these (young) guys are getting better.”
On offense, the Vikings are averaging 382.0 yards per game. The high in Zimmer’s first six seasons was 356.9 in 2017.
If the defense is shaky in the second half of the season, perhaps the Vikings can try to outscore foes, a formula that Zimmer wants to avoid. Thielen hopes that won’t be necessary.
“You want to be in that top 10 on offense and things like that … (but) you don’t just have a solid defense or a solid offense that wins you games in this league,” he said. “You have to play complementary football.”