When the Vikings traveled to London and faced the Browns on Oct. 29, they brought home a comeback 33-16 win that sent them into the bye week with a comfortable 6-2 record.
Unfortunately, they also brought back something else: A case of plantar fasciitis — a painful foot injury — suffered by premier pass rusher Everson Griffen during the game. Griffen ended up missing just one game, a testament to his recovery regimen, but the injury seemed to have a lingering impact.
Griffen amassed 10 sacks in those first eight games — at least one in every game in the first half of this season, including the Browns game in which he suffered the injury. In the final seven regular season games, after sitting out the Washington game with the injury, Griffen had just three sacks.
The Vikings’ pass rush statistics as a team followed a similar pattern. They had 24 sacks in the first eight games, a pace for 48 (which would have put them in the top five in the NFL this year). But they had just 13 sacks in their final eight regular season games, finishing the year with 37 — tied for 17th in the NFL.
Minnesota survived and even thrived in the second half of the season, compiling a 7-1 record. Numbers from Pro Football Focus suggest Griffen was still having an impact rushing the quarterback, ranking 18th in pass rush productivity in the second half of the season after being 14th in the first half. He was still getting hits and hurries, just not sacks. Add the fact that defensive end partner Danielle Hunter had a better second half than first half, per PFF, and it’s not like the Vikings weren’t getting any rush. Sometimes a hurry is just as good as a sack if it results in an incomplete pass (or, even better, if it leads to an interception).
That said, Griffen showed up on the injury report late in the season, an indication that foot injury was perhaps still lingering. In the postseason, he managed just five total pressures in 72 pass rush snaps combined against the Saints and Eagles. The Vikings had just three sacks combined in those two games — a factor, albeit perhaps not the biggest one, in a defense that allowed 55 opponent offensive points over the final six quarters of the postseason.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has vowed to examine all areas of the team, including the defense, to build on strengths and fix weaknesses heading into 2018. Getting Griffen fully healthy and getting the pass rush back to where it was in the first half of 2017 will certainly be keys next season.