StaTuesday: Zimmer’s Vikings defense vs. elite receivers

Since Mike Zimmer took over the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, his defense has been impressive against opposing team's top receiving option.

The Minnesota Vikings have a great coach in Mike Zimmer and an elite cornerback in Xavier Rhodes.

The pair were at their best Sunday, holding Atlanta’s two-time All-Pro Julio Jones to a pair of catches for 24 yards, only the fifth time in Jones’ seven-year career that he finished a game with less than 25 yards receiving.

Zimmer’s defense has been incredible since he was hired as head coach before the 2014 season — especially against top receivers.

More Vikings coverage

Minnesota’s defense was ranked 31st in yards allowed in 2013. Zimmer immediately bumped that up to 14th in his first season at the helm, then 13th in 2015 and all the way up to third last season.

Through 12 games in 2017, the Vikings rank second in the NFL.

Zimmer’s ability to contain top receivers has had a monster impact in the Vikings’ drastic rise to the top of the class. The Vikings have allowed a 100-yard receiver in a measly 13 of 60 games since 2014, which ranks second in the NFL.

Only the Denver Broncos’ “No Fly Zone” defense has been better. For reference, the Philadelphia Eagles rank last in that time span with 34.

Team Games
Broncos 11
Vikings 13
Chargers 15
Lions 16
Cowboys 16

The only receiver to pass the 100-yard milestone against the Vikings this year is Marvin Jones, who caught six passes for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns on Thanksgiving.This season, the Los Angeles Chargers have held every receiver they’ve faced to fewer than 100 yards receiving, while the Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars have each allowed one.

We compiled a list of every team’s top receiver – the WR to finish the season leading his team in receiving yards – that Zimmer has schemed against in Minnesota.

The Vikings have held opposing top receivers to 51 yards or fewer in seven of 12 games thus far, however note that Baltimore’s Mike Wallace was forced to leave the game early with concussion-like symptoms in Week 7.

Vikings vs. top receivers, 2017

Week W/L Opponent Leading receiver Rec. Yards TD
1 W Saints Michael Thomas 5 45 0
2 L Steelers Antonio Brown 5 62 0
3 W Buccaneers Mike Evans 7 67 0
4 L Lions Marvin Jones 2 42 0
5 W Bears Kendall Wright 4 46 0
6 W Packers Davante Adams 5 51 1
7 W Ravens Mike Wallace 1 9 0
8 W Browns Ricardo Louis 2 42 0
10 W Redskins Jamison Crowder 4 76 0
11 W Rams Robert Woods 8 81 0
12 W Lions Marvin Jones 6 109 2
13 W Falcons Julio Jones 2 24 0

In 2016, Zimmer’s best shutdown game was against Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin in Week 3. Benjamin had 199 receiving yards and three touchdowns during the first two weeks of the season. Against Minnesota, Benjamin played the entire game but was erased by Zimmer’s defense, targeted just once that afternoon and held without a catch.

Minnesota kept No. 1 wideouts out of the end zone in 11 of 16 games.

Vikings vs. top receivers, 2016

Week W/L Opponent Leading receiver Rec. Yards TD
1 W Titans Rishard Matthews 3 26 0
2 W Packers Jordy Nelson 5 73 1
3 W Panthers Kelvin Benjamin 0 0 0
4 W Giants Odell Beckham 3 23 0
5 W Texans DeAndre Hopkins 5 56 1
7 L Eagles Jordan Matthews 3 10 0
8 L Bears Cameron Meredith 1 24 0
9 L Lions Golden Tate 11 79 1
10 L Redskins Pierre Garcon 6 81 0
11 W Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald 6 63 0
12 L Lions Golden Tate 5 77 0
13 L Cowboys Dez Bryant 4 84 1
14 W Jaguars Allen Robinson 1 17 0
15 L Colts T.Y. Hilton 3 45 0
16 L Packers Jordy Nelson 9 154 2
17 W Bears Cameron Meredith 4 61 0

Zimmer won his first division title in 2015 behind his defense, a unit that held top receivers to 56 yards or fewer five times, and didn’t let them score in eight matchups.

A note: Odell Beckham, Jr. missed the game for the Giants in Week 16, but Rueben Randle was still effective with 80 yards receiving. Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery got the best of Zimmer in Week 8, but the coach adjusted for the next showdown, allowing just one catch in Week 15.

Vikings vs. top receivers, 2015

Week W/L Opponent Leading receiver Rec. Yards TD
1 L 49ers Anquan Boldin 4 36 0
2 W Lions Calvin Johnson 10 83 1
3 W Chargers Keenan Allen 12 133 2
4 L Broncos Demaryius Thomas 9 93 0
6 W Chiefs Jeremy Maclin 3 48 0
7 W Lions Calvin Johnson 5 86 1
8 W Bears Alshon Jeffery 10 116 1
9 W Rams Kenny Britt 3 87 0
10 W Raiders Amari Cooper 5 79 0
11 L Packers James Jones 6 109 1
12 W Falcons Julio Jones 5 56 0
13 L Seahawks Doug Baldwin 5 94 2
14 L Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald 5 41 0
15 W Bears Alshon Jeffery 1 10 1
16 W Giants Rueben Randle 2 80 1
17 W Packers James Jones 4 102 0

Zimmer’s first year on the job was a little rougher, as expected, but he did prevent Rams top receiver Kenny Britt from catching a pass in Week 1. Future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson of the Lions missed the first game against the Vikings but came back for Week 15, and Zimmer’s scheme shut him down.

Vikings vs. top receivers, 2014

Week W/L Opponent Leading receiver Rec. Yards TD
1 W Rams Kenny Britt 0 0 0
2 L Patriots Julian Edelman 6 81 1
3 L Saints Kenny Stills 4 38 0
4 W Falcons Julio Jones 6 82 0
5 L Packers Jordy Nelson 1 66 1
6 L Lions Golden Tate 7 44 0
7 L Bills Sammy Watkins 9 122 2
8 W Buccaneers Mike Evans 4 78 0
9 W Redskins DeSean Jackson 4 120 1
11 L Bears Alshon Jeffery 11 135 1
12 L Packers Jordy Nelson 8 68 0
13 W Panthers Kelvin Benjamin 5 56 0
14 W Jets Eric Decker 6 89 0
15 L Lions Calvin Johnson 4 53 0
16 L Dolphins Mike Wallace 5 58 2
17 W Bears Alshon Jeffery 2 34 0

Below are blurbs about every receiver who’s dared to reach the century mark against Zimmer and lived to tell about it. Former Packers wide receiver James Jones and Chicago’s Jeffery are the only players to do it twice.

Eight of these players are No. 1 receivers – as recorded above – but a few names will surprise you: a tight end and a current Viking?

WARNING: If you’re Zimmer, stop reading. This list – although short — might keep you up at night.

 

Week 7, 2014

Sammy Watkins — 14 targets, 9 receptions, 122 yards, 2 touchdowns

Watkins scored the game-winning touchdown on a 2-yard strike from Kyle Orton, beating then-second-year corner Xavier Rhodes.

 

Week 9, 2014

DeSean Jackson — 7 targets, 4 receptions, 120 yards, 1 touchdown

Hey, remember Robert Griffin III? His Washington Redskins fell 29-26 to Teddy Bridgewater’s Vikings in this one. Jackson’s touchdown came on a 13-yard pass after he got inside on Captain Munnerlyn.

 

Week 11, 2014

Jeffery — 17 targets, 11 receptions, 135 yards, 1 touchdown

These days it’s hard to believe the Chicago Bears’ offense was once prolific, but with Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett catching passes from Jay Cutler, this group had their moments. Jeffery led the way in this game, but Marshall wasn’t far behind, racking up 90 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.

 

Week 14, 2014

Percy Harvin — 9 targets, 6 receptions, 124 yards, 1 touchdown

Harvin’s second game against the Vikings was a big one. After catching just one pass for 17 yards against his former team as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, Harvin came up big after joining the New York Jets. He played in just nine more games — none of them against the Vikings — over the next two years, as hip and knee problems, as well as migraine headaches, caught up with the speedster.

 

Week 16, 2014

Charles Clay — 10 targets, 6 receptions, 114 yards

This one was a catastrophe for Zimmer’s first Vikings defense. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 396 yards and four touchdowns, posting a 118.8 passer rating. His Miami Dolphins won 37-35 thanks to Clay and future Vikings receiver Mike Wallace, who had 58 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

 

Week 3, 2015

Keenan Allen — 18 targets, 12 receptions, 133 yards, 2 touchdowns

Allen’s season ended after just eight games in 2015 thanks to a lacerated kidney. He dominated in the Chargers’ games against the NFC North though, posting three 100-yard games, one each against the Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

 

Week 8, 2015

Jeffery — 15 targets, 10 receptions, 116 yards, 1 touchdown

Jeffery put up big numbers, but this game was an early example of a Zimmer defense setting the offense up for success. Trailing 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater led an 84-yard drive that ended in a 40-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. The Vikings’ defense then forced a three-and-out, setting up the game-winning drive. Remember when Blair Walsh was clutch? He finished things off, nailing a 36-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Vikings to a 23-20 win.

 

Week 11, 2015

James Jones — 11 targets, 6 receptions, 109 yards, 1 touchdowns

A few days after being cut by the New York Giants, Jones returned to the Packers, who had just lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL. An eight-year NFL veteran who spent six years in Green Bay before departing for the Oakland Raiders, Jones’ chemistry with Aaron Rodgers was as strong as ever. He scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in a game dominated by field goals, as the Packers won 30-13.

 

Week 14, 2015

Michael Floyd — 9 targets, 5 receptions, 102 yards, 1 touchdown

This isn’t exactly the production Minnesota is seeing from Floyd in 2017, but he had a big game in Arizona against his hometown team in 2015. Most of his damage was done on a 42-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to give the Cardinals a 17-10 lead. Arizona went on to win, 23-20.

 

Week 17, 2015

James Jones — 13 targets, 4 receptions, 102 yards

The Vikings won this game 20-13 to clinch the NFC North at Lambeau Field, so allowing Jones and his hoodie to rack up 102 yards was a decent compromise. Three of Jones’ four receptions went for over 25 yards, but, hey, the Vikings won.

 

Week 14, 2016

Marqise Lee — 8 targets, 5 receptions, 113 yards

This wasn’t the best game for Zimmer, as his defense allowed a career-high 113 yards to Lee. Luckily, no other Jaguars player had over 31 yards receiving, so Minnesota was able to sneak away with a 25-16 win.

 

Week 16, 2016

Nelson — 11 targets, 9 receptions, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns

Nelson’s been known to be a Vikings killer in the past – after all, he’s caught 10 career touchdowns against Minnesota, his highest total against any team. This game, however, will be remembered for a different reason: Adam Thielen. The Detroit Lakes native racked up 206 total yards and a pair of touchdowns to best Nelson. Ha!

 

Week 12, 2017

Marvin Jones — 9 targets, 6 receptions, 109 yards, 2 touchdowns

Maybe Zimmer was distracted by the turkey? Jones was responsible for 39 percent of Detroit’s total offense with 109 yards through the air, barely eclipsing the century mark. But Minnesota limited the Lions to 53 rushing yards and won 30-23 on Thanksgiving.