EAGAN, Minn. -- The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging its existence.
The problem facing the Minnesota Vikings is a perplexing yet easily identifiable flaw in the makeup of this team. The defense, which has ranked in the top five in each of the past three seasons, including a No. 1 finish in 2017, is nowhere near where it used to be.
This is new territory for the Vikings (8-4) in coach Mike Zimmer's six-year tenure. Unlike in years past, it's been the offense, led by Kirk Cousins and a dominant run game, that has had to bail out Zimmer's defense on many occasions. And when the defense's struggles are too much to overcome, as in a 37-30 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday, not even late-game comebacks are enough to make up for the Vikings' weakest link.
Over the final quarter of the season, Zimmer and his defense are on the spot with a shot at the playoffs on the line. As the offense carries its weight, the same will be expected of a defense that will be scrutinized and dissected.
The Vikings' defense has one last shot to prove it will not be the team's hindrance come January. For Zimmer, these final four games could either cement or put a damper on his outlook in Minnesota.
His defense is hovering around the average mark. It's not abysmal, but it's certainly nowhere near where it used to be. Fourteen weeks into the season, Minnesota ranks 16th in yards (347.4), 21st in yards per play (5.4) and 22nd in points allowed (20.2). The Vikings' 33 sacks are tied for 13th and their 18 takeaways (11 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries) rank seventh.
Despite wins in five of their past seven games, the Vikings' defense has allowed 169 points and 17 touchdowns. In each of the past four games against Seattle, Denver, Dallas and Kansas City, the Minnesota defense has given up at least 400 yards of offense.
Minnesota's pass defense (ranked 20th, 242.9 yards per game) was an issue well before it let Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson carve up its secondary on Monday. Zimmer said before the bye week that he would focus heavily on improving that area.
However, the most jarring factor in Monday's loss was how the Seahawks ran up and down on a run defense that was ranked in the top five at the time. The 218 rushing yards allowed in Week 13 were the most by the Vikings in four seasons.
"We got to play better defensively than we did the other night," Zimmer said. "For us to have the ball run on us like that was kind of a misnomer; it hasn't been like that in quite awhile. We got to do a better job really all the way around. Perimeter run force, being in the right place, being in the right gaps, being more disciplined. We probably panicked a little bit the other night."
How did the Vikings get here? A number of factors have contributed, from the play of cornerbacks (namely the struggles of Xavier Rhodes) to a lack of interior push from the defensive line that has allowed quarterbacks to step into the pocket and attack a vulnerable secondary.
The collective sum of these problems is a liability, and Zimmer and his staff know it.
"It's not just one thing, and so that's collectively what we're trying to do as a group is go out and improve each and every group as far as what we're bringing to it for that down-and-distance situation," Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said.
Zimmer's loyalty to the players he has developed and drafted is never in question. But down the final stretch of the season, it could end up coming back to haunt the Vikings.
Rhodes' struggles this season have been well-documented. He is no longer the shutdown, "Rhodes Closed" version of himself, and the numbers do not lie. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Rhodes has allowed the highest percent of completions in the NFL when he is the nearest defender this season. He's allowing a 131.4 quarterback rating into his coverage, a far cry from his days as a Pro Bowler just two years ago.
There's a litany of reasons for the drop-off. The injuries Rhodes, 29, has played through over the past few seasons have likely taken a toll. His 4.43 speed has leveled off. As a bigger corner (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) whose physicality leads him to play the position "like a power forward," according to Zimmer, Rhodes has racked up penalties. His eight (including four flags for defensive pass interference) are tied for the most among all NFL corners, and his 139 penalty yards lead all NFL defensive backs.
Rhodes has enough self-awareness to know that his play is hurting his team. He said as much this week when he apologized for his sideline outburst in Seattle after giving up a 60-yard touchdown.
"It's a hard season," Rhodes said. "Y'all ask me time after time, 'Hey Xavier, how do you think you played this week?' Y'all know. It's just that. Me being the guy that I am, each and every day working on my craft and not getting the results I want, of course you're going to be down on yourself. You ask any player that puts so much work and time into their craft, that's how they're going to feel. Like I said, I tell my guys, each and every guy, 'I'm never going to give up. I'm always a fighter, and that day is going to turn, that switch is going to flip, and when it does, it's over.' I'm just waiting on that moment."
But if that moment doesn't come over the next four games and Rhodes' struggles continue to hurt his team, he won't be the only one receiving blame.
Things aren't all bad. Minnesota's red zone defense continues to shine in the biggest moments, including helping secure back-to-back wins on the final plays of the game in Dallas and against Denver. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Vikings are allowing the fewest rushing yards in the red zone this season (69 total rush yards, 5.8 per game). Minnesota is ninth in pass yards allowed in the red zone, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Vikings are allowing the fourth-lowest Total QBR in the red zone (18.6 out of 100).
In recent weeks the bad parts of this defense have been hard to ignore -- even in wins -- and seem to foreshadow issues that could doom the Vikings on their quest for a long playoff run.
It's not too late for Zimmer and his staff to find ways to fix the Vikings' biggest question mark. But if they don't act quickly, beginning Sunday against the Detroit Lions, the pride of Zimmer's teams may end up being Minnesota's downfall when the games matter most.