Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes Atop Defensive Play Rankings

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Keeping the positive energy going with our second installment in a series recapping the greatest moments of the Minnesota Vikings’ tumultuous 2016 season. 

It goes without saying that Minnesota’s season did not end the way fans would have hoped, but the Vikings still managed to produce their finest defensive year since 1995. During the team’s five-game win streak to open the season, Mike Zimmer’s defense was essentially impenetrable, posting a long list of ridiculous statistics:

Over the course of the entire year, the Vikings defense came in at No. 3 in yards allowed (5,038), No. 6 in points allowed (307) and No. 9 in Football Outsiders‘ efficiency-measuring statistic, DVOA, which is determined by a collection of situational details. And if it weren’t for a couple of stinkers against the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers (ew) late in the year, these rankings would have been even higher.

Naturally, Minnesota’s star-studded, Super Bowl-caliber defense produced an endless supply of highlight-reel moments, which we collected and attributed rankings to below.

Be sure to check out our offensive play rankings as well, and keep an eye out for the remaining articles in our series highlighting the most thrilling Vikings moments from the 2016 season.

Basic Criteria: 1. Level of Difficulty 2. Game and/or Situational Importance 3. Entertainment Value

HM. DE EVERSON GRIFFEN 20-YARD TD VS. CHI (W17)

The Vikings may not have reached the postseason, but they certainly went out with a bang. Turning on the U.S. Bank Stadium scoreboard may not have been necessary for Minnesota’s Week 17 matchup with the Chicago Bears, but it certainly had plenty of miles put on it.

Everson Griffen put the icing on the cake of the Vikings’ 38-10 romp of the Bears with a 20-yard touchdown. With defensive end Danielle Hunter harassing quarterback Matt Barkley, nose tackle Linval Joseph shed his block, punched the ball loose from the hands of the Bears signal-caller and the Vikings’ hulking two-time Pro Bowl defensive end swooped in to collect the loose ball and return it where it to where it belongs — Chicago’s end zone.

5. DE DANIELLE HUNTER 24-YARD TD VS. TEN

There were a number of outstanding individual seasons by Vikings defensive players, and the 22-year-old Hunter produced a year that is in the conversation for the top spot. He didn’t waste any time setting the tone for a highlight-reel sophomore campaign either, posting his first sack of the year and later the first touchdown of his (very) young career.

Minnesota’s defense did not need any extra help creating turnovers, but Tennessee gave it some anyways. A fumbled exchange between quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray put the ball on the ground, and the Vikings’ sack artist-in-the-making made the Titans pay.

With veteran Shaun Hill opening the year at quarterback with Sam Bradford still learning the playbook, Hunter and the Vikings defense produced a pair of touchdowns en route to a 25-16 Week 1 victory.

4. DE DANIELLE HUNTER SACK-SAFETY VS. CAR

It should come as no surprise that Hunter played catalyst on the highest percentage of this ranking of Vikings defensive plays. I frequently wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares centered around the former LSU pass-rusher slowly gaining ground while I perpetually run for my life screaming like the sexy teenaged girl in pretty every horror film ever made.

Carolina Panthers human tank quarterback Cam Newton knows exactly what I’m talking about. As detailed in a December article analyzing Hunter’s ascension to greatness, the Vikings defensive end makes a mockery out of left tackle Michael Oher before exploding into the Carolina signal-caller whilst standing in his end zone for a two-point sack.

Minnesota, which quickly fell behind 10-0 against the 2015 NFC Champion Panthers, kicked it into high gear following Hunter’s game-altering sack-safety of Newton, as the Vikings moved to 2-0 with a 22-10 win.

3. LB ERIC KENDRICKS 77-YARD PICK-SIX VS. TEN

Tennessee (9-7) actually finished its season with a better record than Minnesota (8-8), which nobody would have ever guessed after watching the punishment the Vikings defense imposed. Half of the Vikings’ defensive touchdowns in 2016 came against the Titans, as linebacker Eric Kendricks preceded Hunter’s aforementioned scoop-and-score with a game-altering pick-six of Mariota.

With Hill and the offense struggling to find the end zone, the second-year playmaker out of UCLA took matters into his own hands. Mariota’s play-action fake to rookie running back Derrick Henry went south real quick, as Griffen got into the backfield in a hurry to force a poor decision by the Tennessee quarterback.Kendricks hopped

Kendricks jumped in front of a wobbling Mariota pass intended for veteran slot receiver Harry Douglas, intercepting the pass near the line of scrimmage and going 77 yards untouched to the end zone for a game-defining touchdown. The Week 1 NFC Defensive Player of the Week award winner’s score opened up a three-point lead for the Vikings with roughly a minute remaining in the third quarter, effectively setting the stage for the team’s first victory of the year.

2. CB XAVIER RHODES 100-YARD PICK-SIX VS. ARZ

Kendricks’ 77-yard score would have been the longest interception return for just about every team in the NFL this season, but on the Vikings, it’s merely a strong No. 2. After missing the first two games of the year due to injury, cornerback Xavier Rhodes went on to post a career-defining season. The former first-round pick not only asserted himself as a shutdown cornerback and earned himself a monstrous second contract, he also traded in his stone hands for a fresh pair of the same model that most professional wide receivers use.

Rhodes, who led the Vikings with a career-high five interceptions, ruined Carson Palmer’s tour of U.S. Bank Stadium with an interception during each half of play. Had the Vikings carried the momentum gained from their 30-24 victory over the Arizona Cardinals through the remainder of the season, the fourth-year cornerback’s 100-yard pick-six would have marked the turning point.

With Minnesota leading by only a field goal and Arizona closing in on the end zone late in the second quarter, Rhodes snatched an errant Palmer pass intended for wide receiver John Brown, fired up the jets and took off for the Cardinals end zone like he was shot out of a cannon.

The television broadcast would later reveal that Rhodes’ top speed on his game-breaking touchdown would have earned him a hefty fine had the game been played in a school zone. But, since it occurred on a professional football field, Rhodes was instead the recipient of the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

1. CB TRAE WAYNES GAME-SEALING INT VS. GB (W2)

Ranking lists of just about any variety are almost always debatable, and it’s borderline impossible to please everybody. As far as the top spot on this list goes, however, Trae Waynes’ game-sealing interception of Aaron Rodgers during the fourth quarter of Minnesota’s Week 2 matchup with Green Bay (ew) is a definitive lock.

Waynes, who had been abused by the Packers (ew) quarterback all night long, decided enough was enough during the game’s most critical juncture. Coming out of the two-minute warning trailing Minnesota by only three points, Rodgers dropped back to pass near midfield. With a feeling of dread beginning to become tangible within a sold-out U.S. Bank Stadium, the former MVP fired a spiral earmarked for wide receiver Davante Adams and a Packers (ew) first down, but Waynes wasn’t having it.

In a flash, the 2015 first-round pick silenced his critics with an unforgettable interception, sending the crowd into an absolute frenzy and lifting the Vikings to a 17-14 victory over their most bitter rival. On a night that featured an emotional halftime tribute to the recently-deceased Prince, Waynes’ meteorology report called for a 100-percent chance of Purple Rain in Minneapolis.

Others Considered: LB Chad Greenway INT vs. Detroit (W9); LB Anthony Barr Obliterates TE Larry Donnell vs. NYG; S Andrew Sendejo INT vs. PHI; CB Xavier Rhodes INT vs. PHI; S Harrison Smith Crushes QB Dak Prescott vs. DAL; DE Brian Robison Strip-Sack vs. DAL.

Comment Below with the 2016 Vikings defensive plays that left you wondering what we as fans did to deserve Mike Zimmer’s genius defensive mind. And, let us know if we got this list right.

 

NFL Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game Pass.