EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Zimmer is not used to having a middle-of-the-pack defense.
His Minnesota Vikings rank 16th in the 32-team NFL in total defense. If they don’t improve, it would be the lowest-ranked defense Zimmer has had in 12 years.
In 2007, during Zimmer’s one-season stint as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator, the Falcons were 29th in total defense. Then Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator from 2008-13, and the Bengals’ worst showing was No. 15 in 2010.
In his first five seasons as the Vikings’ head coach, his defense’s worst ranking was 14th in 2014. Over the past three seasons, Minnesota has been among the best in the league — No. 3 in 2016, No. 1 in 2017 and No. 4 in 2018.
So how does Zimmer feel about being No. 16?
“We’re not done yet,” he said Thursday. “Ask me at the end of the year.”
The Vikings’ defensive slippage has been significant in recent weeks. Over the past four games, they’ve allowed an average of 414.5 yards per game, dropping their season average to 347.4. During that stretch, they’ve allowed an average of 27.5 points per game to fall to 11th in the league in scoring defense (20.2).
In Monday’s 37-30 loss at Seattle, the Vikings (8-4) gave up a season-high 444 yards. They allowed 218 on the ground, the second-most in Zimmer’s six seasons as Minnesota coach.
“We’ve got to play better than we’re playing right now,” said George Edwards, the defensive coordinator since Zimmer arrived although the head coach calls the plays. “That’s our main focus.”
The Vikings have gone 2-2 in their past four games, but it could have been worse. They needed late defensive stands in a 28-24 win at Dallas in Week 10 and a 27-23 victory over Denver in Week 11.
The good news for the Vikings is they are eighth in the NFL in total offense.
“It’s kind of the offense has been bailing us out for a couple games, so the biggest thing that the coaches are emphasizing is no one needs to be Superman,” defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo said. “A lot of times on film, 10 guys are doing things right, and then one guy will try to do something, and that’s when teams are able to gash us.”
Zimmer said Wednesday that players were “doing things on their own” against the Seahawks.
“We need to cover better on the back end and then on earlier downs we’ve got to stop the run better,” safety Harrison Smith said. “We’ve just got to execute better and get off the field on third down.”
The Seahawks throttled the Vikings running and passing. Russell Wilson threw for 240 yards and picked on cornerback Xavier Rhodes all night.
Even before the recent four-game stretch, the Vikings were having issues on defense, but it didn’t cost them any games. They allowed 400 yards in a 38-20 win over Philadelphia in Week 6 and 433 in a 42-30 victory at Detroit in Week 7.
Former Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman, brother of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, was the Fox analyst for that game against the Lions. Spielman also will be analyst for Sunday’s game against Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“(The Vikings) have really good (defensive) players that have been playing together for a very long time, and so I do think they’re not playing to the standard they set for themselves or that Zim has for them and the players have for themselves,” Spielman said. “But they’re in the playoff hunt … If I’m on that defense, I’m saying, ‘OK, guys, we haven’t played to what our standard has been, but we’re still 8-4 and in control of our own destiny as far as the playoffs go, so let’s start playing to the standard we know we have.’ ”
Defensive end Stephen Weatherly agrees.
“We’ve got to get back to the signature brand of defense that Coach Zim instilled in us,” he said. “Historically, we’ve been good. … It’s about getting back to our fundamentals, getting back to our basics.”