Minnesota is five games above .500 with a tough schedule looming ahead. With the Packers and Lions under-performing though, it looks like they are poised to grab the NFC North by the horns a little earlier than expected.
Sound familiar? There was a similar sentiment a season ago when the Vikings got off to a red-hot 5-0 start only to drop four straight out of the bye and finish 8-8 and out of the postseason. That squad, while immensely talented in some areas were equally limited in others and it cost them big down the stretch.
The 2017 Vikings do not appear to share those weaknesses. They have maintained a high level of play throughout, putting up over 30 points in back-to-back games and are tied for the second seed in the NFC. While retaining a lot of the same players from a year ago, the Vikings have managed to somehow look like a completely different ball club.
How have they pulled that off?
Let’s start with what has not changed.
Obviously, the defense is still one of the league’s best, ranking near the top in yards per play, net yards per passing attempt and points allowed. They are a disciplined unit with one of the lowest numbers of penalties and penalty yardage. They take the ball away a decent amount but not at an elite level, instead relying on stopping their opponents in their tracks.
The quarterback situation is similar with someone above-average, playing efficiently with a yards per attempt around 7.0 and a rating in the 90s. The stellar one-two receiving punch is the same, the weapon at tight end is the same.
These are the strengths that, like last year, has put the Vikings in position for a potential first-round bye. So then, what is different? What makes this team better suited to maintain their success in a way last year’s team could not?
The Offensive Line
The biggest change, the most important change. Sam Bradford was on the run every other snap a year ago, sacked 37 times and hit dozens more. Rick Spielman clearly made improving this unit his number one priority, completely overhauling it with free agent acquisitions, draft picks and reassignments. Left tackle Riley Reiff has been the biggest change, bringing some much-needed stability to the most important position. The pick of Pat Elflein, though it showed mixed immediate results, has proven to be a good one as he gets better every week. Even the depth is impressive with Rashod Hill, Jeremiah Sirles and Danny Isidora all filling in at points and doing so admirably.
Nothing is a greater indicator of the improved line play than the rushing attack. Minnesota ranked dead-last in the league a year ago in rushing yards and yards per attempt. This year they are 20th in yards per attempt and 11th in yards per game. Sure, they do not yet have one of the best in the league, but the improved line play has put them in a position to have a balanced offensive attack. Their pass-to-run ratio is pretty close to one-to-one and it has allowed them to take full advantage of the play action game.
To put it simply, this team’s ability to sustain success has and will continue to hinge on the offensive line.
This may come as a bit of a surprise but the Vikings were somewhat of a middle-of-the-road run-stopping team a year ago. They were 17th in the league in yards per attempt allowed and 20th in rushing yards. Even with Linval Joseph making his first Pro Bowl, this was not the area of strength it is now.
In 2017 the Vikings are second in both total rushing yards and yards per attempt allowed. Joseph has emerged as one of the league’s premier run-stuffers and a healthy Tom Johnson looks to be a more reliable option to start than Shamar Stephen.
Part of this uptick is the improved play of Anthony Barr. Though he made the Pro Bowl last season, it was really a down year for him. The Barr fans know has been everywhere in 2017, flying to the ball from sideline-to-sideline. Eric Kendricks has also taken great strides in his third season and leads the team in tackles by a wide margin.
Complement a stout run defense with an excellent pass rush and an elite secondary and you have a complete defense that can win anywhere. With games in Atlanta, Carolina and Detroit looming, that is going to factor big into their success.
The 2016 Vikings, like this year, had one of the better return units in the league, largely because of Marcus Sherels. But they were a mediocre group in the kick game. Blair Walsh spent nine games trying to shake off the cobwebs of his missed kick in the previous postseason but he could not do it and was ultimately cut. Kai Forbath made every field goal but, like this year, missed some PATs.
This year Kai Forbath has arguably been one of the two best kickers in football. He has made all five of his kicks from 50-plus and has missed just one of 23 attempts. His PAT yips still upset fans but that can be forgiven if he keeps making the long ones. Ryan Quigley, though his totals are lackluster, is a definite improvement from Jeff Locke a year ago due to Quigley’s ability to pin opponents inside the 20 when drives stall.
But the biggest improvement is in the coverage unit. At the midway point, Pro Football Focus put the Vikings at the very top of the league in special teams due in large part to their exceptional coverage team. Two players, Kentrell Brothers and C.J. Ham, have seven tackles in kick coverage and the unit as a whole has missed just two tackles all season. It seems like a small thing but the ability to limit good field position gives the defense an incredible advantage.
There are other things that have changed: Pat Shurmur has gotten more comfortable with creative play-calling and route combinations, Trae Waynes has taken a massive step and the specters of both a missed opportunity in the postseason and a gruesome injury to the starting quarterback are well in the rearview mirror.
But the three improvements above are the basis for why the Vikings have and should remain one of the true contenders in the NFC.