Success in the NFL is difficult to achieve. Aside from the New England Patriots, who seem destined to win at least 12 games a year every year, other teams have a harder time enjoying sustained success. Organizations like Cincinnati and Green Bay have found ways to make the playoffs just about every year this decade, but between them, they have just one Super Bowl appearance to show for it.
Getting to the playoffs is one thing. Succeeding once you get there is another. Teams like the Packers, Steelers, Seahawks and Broncos have been able to sustain consistent success over long stretches because they pick a side of the football to invest heavily in and, once they have that side of the ball solidified for the long-term, they attempt to address the other side of the ball to bring it up to speed and give the team more balance.
For the Packers, that obviously has been the offensive side of the ball. When you’ve been able to have two Hall of Fame quarterbacks as your starter over a 25-year stretch, it’s easier to try to fill in the pieces around them. Like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Green Bay has done a good job of using the draft to develop talent and build up both sides of the ball, but with the luxury of having one critical position that doesn’t need replacing every few years.
The Minnesota Vikings are taking a different approach, one that has brought Super Bowl titles home to places like Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Seattle – build a dynamic defense that is loaded with playmakers in an era that has been dominated by rules changes to make it more difficult for defenses to shut down offenses.
It would seem that teams have been forced to pick a side if they want to be dominant. You can take a look at the NFL’s 32 teams and pretty quickly determine where the majority of their playmakers are. New Orleans and Indianapolis have succeeded through offense. Kansas City and Houston have succeeded through defense. Granted, none of them have won a Super Bowl this decade (the Saints won in the 2009 season that bled over into 2010), but they’ve put themselves in the position to get there by loading up one side of the ball.
What the Vikings did during their time in Mankato that spoke to their pushing in their chips had nothing to do with running reps at practice. The team made a point to lock down three of its most dynamic defensive players – cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph – to contract extensions before it came time for those players to potentially hit the free agent market or put the Vikings in the position to sign them to long-term deals when they’re at an age that the back end of those contracts would be difficult to pay off because of declining production.
The Vikings have pushed their chips in the middle – for 2017 and beyond – saying that they’re going to make the most of what they’ve built defensively and hoping to have enough offense to augment the dominance they have on the defensive side of the ball.
In college football, a team can win without individual superstar talent. In the pros, you need those individual players capable of making the game-changing play – a fierce pass rusher, a stout run stuffer, active play-making linebackers, a shutdown cornerback, a ball-hawking safety, etc. The Vikings have all of those and it’s the talent at all three levels that could make them a dangerous out in 2017 and in years to come.
Up front, Rick Spielman would put Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison up against just about any defensive end trio in the league. If there is a better middle-clogging nose tackle in the league than Joseph, it’s a pretty short list.
The team has a pair of young, athletic linebackers in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. In every game they play, they are expected to make the play that kills an opposing drive and gives the ball back to the offense. More times than not, they didn’t disappoint.
In the secondary, it can be argued that Rhodes is the most dominant cornerback the Vikings have had in franchise history. They’ve had some good ones over the years, but never guys that were viewed as Pro Bowlers year after year. If Trae Waynes takes the next step forward in his football maturation, the Vikings could have a pair of bookend corners to move forward with for the next several years. There’s little questioning that Harrison Smith is a dominant safety who can create turnovers in the passing game, create plays-for-a-loss in the run game and light up any player in a different colored jersey if he crosses his path.
The biggest impediment the Vikings had last year was an offense that couldn’t consistently hold up its end of the bargain – something that many expect to be a similar challenge this season. But, with a deeper look, the Minnesota offense has been the weaker unit of the team since 2010 – the only exception being 2012 and that required a 2,000-yard rushing season from Adrian Peterson to get Minnesota to the postseason.
The Vikings have planted their flag with the rest of the league that defense is going to be their calling card. The challenge to their offense is to put up 20 points a game, which isn’t an outrageous request. If the Vikings can consistently score 20 points, they have a defense capable of doing the rest. Minnesota is pot-committed on an oppressive defense in an offensive era of the NFL and they have the talent to make that work.