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On Vikings’ defense, everything that could have gone wrong didn’t

By Matthew Coller

The Minnesota Vikings have been painted nationally as a team that had overcame a bunch of bad breaks.

It’s certainly true that losing QB1 and RB1 were setbacks, but on the Vikings’ No. 1 ranked defense, all the things that could have derailed them instead went their way.

No player is better evidence of the reverse Murphy’s Law than cornerback Trae Waynes.

As we approached the 2017 season, there were reasonable concerns about Waynes’ progress. In 2016, he split reps with Terence Newman, which could have been considered a setback considering his first-round status. And while the overall metrics scored him mid-pack, the last impression for many Vikings fans of Waynes’ 2016 was Packers receiver Jorday Nelson exploding for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota in Week 16.

When Waynes started the season on a bad note – with 9-of-10 passes complete against him in Week 1 and a nightmarish Week 2 against the Steelers – it appeared he might not be able to handle the No. 2 corner spot across from Xavier Rhodes.

Instead, Waynes has thrived since then.

“This second half of the year he’s played really well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “There was a lot of times earlier in the year I was helping him a lot. I’m not doing that very much anymore. So, he’s been out there on his own and I actually think that’s part of the reason why the defensive numbers have come down quite a bit because of the way these corners cover on the back end.”

At season’s end, the Vikings’ starting corner allowed more yards per attempt against than last year, but had a higher success rate. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings were fourth best in the NFL against opponents’ No. 2 receivers. Waynes’ Pro Football Focus grade increased from 59.9 to 79.7.

Under the same reasonable-concerns category was the play of linebacker Anthony Barr.

He was coming off a frustrating ’16 season that had seen him regress and draw criticism from Zimmer. During training camp, Barr and Zimmer insisted they had fixed whatever ailed the Pro Bowl linebacker (which may have been a a wrist injury). Turns out they were right.

Barr finished the 2017 season ranked as the 17th best interior linebacker in the NFL by PFF metrics (out of 90). He was especially improved in coverage, playing a big role in the Vikings ranking by Football Outsiders stats as the No. 3 team against tight ends and No. 2 against running backs.

While he didn’t have many “splash” plays like interceptions, sacks or fumbles forced, Barr set a career high with eight stuffed runs for a total of 22 yards lost by opposing offenses. Last year he had just two stuffed runs. He also set a career high in tackles.

The Vikings entered with questions about their three-technique defensive tackle position and nickel corner. But 32-year-old Tom Johnson rose to the challenge of playing the spot full time. He played a role in the Vikings ranking as a top defense against the run and created 23 QB pressures (per FO), which is similar to excellent DTs like Akiem Hicks and Grady Jarrett.

And Terence Newman proved for about the 10th straight year that age does not matter to him. He allowed just 6.6 yards per attempt into his coverage and ranked 39th of 121 corners by PFF metrics. Mackensie Alexander, who lost the job in camp, was only asked to play 324 total snaps.

History also suggested that the Vikings could see a defensive drop off.

A look into the last 10 years revealed that most teams can’t sustain a top defense for three years in a row, yet Zimmer’s defense got even better from last season to this season.

Health played a major role in that. The Vikings missed Everson Griffen for a game and Andrew Sendejo for three contests, but otherwise got 16 games out of Barr, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Danielle Hunter, Johnson, Waynes and Newman.

Now the Vikings head into the playoffs hoping that they continue good health and a high level of play from those who were once doubted like Waynes, Barr, Johnson and Newman.

The post On Vikings’ defense, everything that could have gone wrong didn’t appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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