Film Room: Vikings Defense

Film Room: Vikings Defense
Film Room: Vikings Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

After a second-place finish in defensive DVOA a year ago, the Minnesota Vikings defense has failed to maintain their strength in 2018. Each layer of the defense has experienced its own downfall, ranging from Everson Griffen's absence at defensive end to miscommunications in coverage. This is not the elite unit that was supposed to carry the Vikings to and through the playoffs.

A 27-6 blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills sticks out among the rest of their schedule, but Minnesota played poor defense for a month. The Vikings currently hold the 16th-placed defense per DVOA, including a 19th-ranked pass defense. They may look a little better to the naked eye, but that's because they've faced the weakest slate of offenses in the league. Though the past two weeks have looked more encouraging and boosted their DVOA standing, allowing 17 points to the offenses of the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets is nothing to hang their hats on. The past two weeks are not enough evidence to suggest the Vikings' defense is "back."

Rather, the defense was allowed a reprieve before facing a juggernaut this week in the New Orleans Saints. With quarterback Drew Brees headed toward a possible MVP award, the Saints offense ranks fourth in overall offensive DVOA and fourth in passing DVOA, neither of which bode well for a Vikings defense that has struggled for much of this season.

More than a mismatch in effectiveness, though, is how the Saints' offense in particular is geared to re-expose the Vikings defense.

Starting up front, the Vikings will have their toughest task to date. Head coach Mike Zimmer traditionally constructs his defense to rush the passer with four players and cover with seven, complemented by creative blitzes on some clear passing downs. This season, the Vikings defense ranks 14th with a 29 percent pressure rate, which is plenty fine (subscription required). The dilemma is that the Saints' offensive line has allowed the least amount of pressure in the league, measuring in with just a 17.6 percent pressure rate (subscription required). Masking issues in the back end through pressure up front is not a realistic approach to take for this game. With that in mind, there is an abundance of reasons to worry about how the Vikings' pass defense will hold up.

One of the primary mismatches for this game is how effectively the Saints play through running back Alvin Kamara as a pass-catcher. Not only is Kamara a threat to catch checkdown passes and work in space, but he can line up as a legitimate wideout and force defenses to adjust to him. Kamara's 362 receiving yards are the third-most among all running backs and the second-most among Saints' pass-catchers, trailing only wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Once revered for their ability in coverage, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have not been reliable this season. In turn, the Vikings have been the worst team versus running backs in the passing game this season, per DVOA. A few weeks ago on Thursday Night Football, Todd Gurley and the Rams laid down the blueprint on how exploitable Minnesota's linebackers are versus running backs.

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In this coverage design, the strong side (right) of the formation is overloaded by the defense. The Vikings play four-over-three to the trips set with a single high safety shaded toward that side of the field. The other two pass-catching threats -- a lone wide receiver to the left and Gurley in the backfield -- are left one-on-one. Barr, responsible for Gurley on this play, may have been more consistently capable of running with Gurley in previous seasons, but the Rams' superstar got the best of him here. Gurley simply widened to the seam and burst up the field toward the back of the end zone, leaving a hesitant Barr in the dust. As athletic and skilled as Kamara is, he should be able to replicate Gurley's success.

The Vikings' defense also struggles with leaving running backs and tight ends alone underneath. An occasional botched pickup of a late-releasing running back or shallow crosser is bound to happen to any defense, but it is all too common for the Vikings.

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In both of these examples, a linebacker trails off into the intermediate area of the field without the proper awareness to find underneath receivers to match. The first play is the fault of Barr for not accounting for the running back leaking out of the backfield, while Kendricks can be faulted in the second play for not catching the tight end crossing underneath. Regardless of who is the culprit on a given play, miscommunications such as these lend to the Vikings being the team most susceptible to giving up first downs on first and second down, when teams are most likely to target short routes such as these. Having this problem severely waters down their prowess on third down -- one of the few areas in which the Vikings defense still performs well.

A final point of contention in this game is the Vikings' execution in two-high coverage shells and how that often leads to big plays that should not happen. True to Zimmer's m.o., the Vikings run a fair amount of Cover-2, Cover-4, and other two-high shells, but the execution has been unpredictable from play to play and from game to game. More specifically, safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo have often struggled to read and react to deep crossers or intermediate in-breaking routes the way you might expect from a talented duo.

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Smith, the safety over the left hash to start the play, gets put on spin cycle here. The Cardinals motion Larry Fitzgerald (left), then ask him to cut across the field at about a 10-yard depth. Smith initially creeps down to follow Fitzgerald, but slot receiver Christian Kirk (right) cuts across opposite of Fitzgerald at a deeper depth. By the time Smith realizes Kirk is moving the other way, he has already given up the deep area between the numbers and the sideline. Given the cornerback initially trailed Fitzgerald, he is still relatively shallow when Kirk is making his way to the deep sideline, allowing Kirk more than enough room to catch a pass from Josh Rosen.

Mistakes of this nature, as well as other coverage busts such as Barr being forced to cover Cooper Kupp and conceding a deep touchdown, are why the Vikings are one of the worst teams in preventing explosive passing plays. According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, the Vikings are the 31st-ranked defense in passing marginal explosiveness, which is a measure of how often a team is giving up explosive plays relative to their down-and-distance and field position. Compare that to the Saints' offense, which ranks 13th in passing marginal explosiveness and has the fourth-most passing plays of 25 or more yards, tied with the Packers, Rams, and Chargers.

In every way, the Saints' offense is crafted to give the Vikings' defense fits. Considering the Vikings' defense has struggled versus lesser competition, facing a Saints offense that harps on their biggest issues -- pass-catching running backs and explosive plays in the passing game -- is the perfect storm to set the Vikings back after two solid performances versus the Cardinals and Jets.

It may be the case that Zimmer irons out the defense's kinks down the line. With as much talent is on the roster, there is reason to believe things can be turned around as the team fights through the playoff race. Unfortunately for the Vikings, this is likely not the week when the turnaround starts. For now, their defense is a movable object that does not appear prepared to contend with the unstoppable force that is the Saints' offense.


12 comments, Last at 25 Oct 2018, 5:30pm

#1 by justanothersteve // Oct 25, 2018 - 12:57pm

I think the key may be how quickly and strongly Everson Griffen comes back. Griffen is one of the best 4-3 DEs in the NFL. He creates a lot of havoc in the pass rush and should shorten the average time QBs have in the pocket or when rolling out to his side. This is especially important against QBs like Brees who aren't known for their scrambling. There should also be a cascade effect helping the LBs and especially the secondary, who will benefit from the shorter times QBs have to pass.

Points: 0

#2 by Will Allen // Oct 25, 2018 - 1:43pm

The Vikings defense started to significantly decline last year around Thanksgiving, when Griffen lost his burst due to a nasty case of plantar fasciitis. Not having him healthy at all this year has had significant affect. The guy has received accolades and pretty darned good cash, but I do think he has been a bit underrated by the general football fanbase.

Points: 0

#4 by Krauser // Oct 25, 2018 - 3:48pm

Griffen's foot injury happened at the end of the Browns game in London.

The Vikings defensive DVOA improved last year as the season went on. They were 10th in week 7 last year (currently 16th in week 7 this year), 9th in week 9 on their bye, 6th after the Thanksgiving game with the Lions, 4th after the week 15 blowout of the Bengals, and 2nd after the end of the regular season.

Points: 0

#7 by Will Allen // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:31pm

The initial injury happened at the end of October, but plantar fasciitis is an injury that worsens absent rest, and it certainly was my impression that by late November Griffen was significantly more hobbled, and by January he was a pretty ordinary player. The stats improved throughout the regular season but I said before the playoffs started that Griffen not having his usual burst was likely to prove costly. I thought it interesting to hear Zimmer, a few weeks ago, say that the pass rush had fallen off at the end of last year. Obviously, if a well rested, physically, and a mentally recovered Griffen gets back in the lineup, it will be a significant benefit.

Points: 0

#8 by Krauser // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:37pm

OK but you said the defense "started to significantly decline last year around Thanksgiving", which it didn't. They were better in the second half of the regular season than the first.

Points: 0

#10 by Will Allen // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:43pm

ok I'll restate. By December their edge pass rush was notably less dynamic, which had negative implications when facing playoff opponents.

Points: 0

#3 by Krauser // Oct 25, 2018 - 3:43pm

Though the past two weeks have looked more encouraging and boosted their DVOA standing, allowing 17 points to the offenses of the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets is nothing to hang their hats on.

Vikings defense allowed 10 points to the Cards offense. Arizona also scored a fumble return TD.

The Jets offense scored 17 points, but that was on 16 (!) drives, with 3 points coming on a 9 yard FG drive that started in Vikings territory after a long kickoff return.

All told, the Vikings defense the last 2 weeks allowed 5 scores for 27 points on 28 drives. Allowing less than 1 point per drive is excellent; the Ravens currently lead the league at 1.26 points/drive against for the full season.

Of course the quality of opposition was low, but even adjusting for that, the Vikings defensive DVOA ranking jumped from 26th after week 5 to 16th after week 7.


The Vikings defense has clearly dropped off this year, but their stats are worse almost entirely because of the Rams game.

LA scored 5 TDs on 11 drives. The Vikings otherwise have allowed 10 TDs on 76 drives (13.2%), which would be a better TD% than the league leading Ravens (13.8%).

Ignoring the Rams 556 yards, the Vikings defense has otherwise allowed 1847 yards on 76 drives, an average of 24.30 yards/drive, which would be 2nd in the league behind the Ravens (22.73) but well above the current 2nd place Texans (27.12).

Excluding the Rams 38 points, the Vikings defense has otherwise allowed 113 points on 76 drives, an average of 1.49 points/drive, which would be 2nd in the league behind the Ravens (1.26), and ahead of the current 2nd place Cowboys (1.58).

Obviously we shouldn't exclude the Rams game, but there are were some mitigating factors (short week on TNF across 2 time zones, after the loss of their defensive captain indefinitely for mental health reasons) that might not make it diagnostic of the way the rest of their season will go.

Points: 0

#5 by andrew // Oct 25, 2018 - 3:59pm

DVOA-wise I wonder if the Buffalo game hurt them more simply because of how historcally bad Buffalo has been. And that's eve with shutting them out in the second half. They let Buffalo score 27 in the first half (albeit on repeated short fields), but the same symptoms described in the article still apply, they let a TE (Croom) roam free uncovered for a TD, and they allowed several other explosive plays as well.

It definitely is a troubling concern, even before losing Hughes.

Could Newman have been the missing piece? He's still there, just not on the field...

Points: 0

#11 by Krauser // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:45pm

The Bills only had 2 big plays on offense, the TD to Croom and the 55 yard YAC play. The Vikings took 3 big defensive penalties and dropped an INT (Waynes).

They otherwise played pretty well by DVOA standards. Two scores came on short fields, they shut the Bills out in the 2nd half and only allowed 5 first downs in their last 6 drives, all punts. They were unlucky (by DVOA) not to recover any of the Bills' 3 fumbles.

The Vikings lost that game mainly because of the offense turning the ball over 3 times, including twice deep in their own end in the 1st quarter, and being completely unable to sustain a drive until garbage time.

Even though the Rams are an elite offense, the TNF game was a complete fiasco for the Vikings defense: 10+ yards per play allowed, 6 scoring drives for 38 points, no turnovers forced, and only 2 out of 11 drives that gained less than 39 yards.

I'll be stunned if the Rams game isn't by far their worst DVOA performance of the year so far. The Vikings defensive DVOA ballooned from -13.4 (10th) after the Bills game in week 3, to +7.2% (25th) after the Rams game, suggesting the one game total was well over +50% against for that one week.

Points: 0

#6 by mehllageman56 // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:21pm

As you pointed out, the Vikings defense did well enough to have pulled away earlier; the Jets defense and special teams allowed them to hang with the Vikings until midway through the third quarter. I would refer you to this Gang Green Nation article, particularly the second play they dissect:

If the Vikings linebackers cover Kamara as lackadaisically as they did Crowell on that play, the Vikings will be in for a long day. The first play is instructive, in that the receiver who turned Darnold's pass into an interception usually only plays on special teams. The Jets have lost two of their top four receivers and their second best running back, so their offense last Sunday may be even worse than the DVOA results so far.

Another thing to point out is that the Jets and Cardinals have above average defenses. The Saints run defense is good, according to DVOA, but their pass defense is 30th in DVOA at 33.2&, a far cry from the Cardinals at - 0.6% (10th), and the Jets at -6.1% (8th). Cousins should be able to make plays against the Saints that he couldn't make against the last two opponents, and that might make all the difference. Still, those linebackers better watch for Kamara out of the backfield.

Points: 0

#12 by andrew // Oct 25, 2018 - 5:30pm

The Saints have added Eli Apple, he may help shore up their pass defense though not sure how involved he will be this early.

They also have Teddy Bridgewater available, but given the amount of changes (especially with Shurmur gone) I don't know how much impact that will have.

Thus far this week Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo are not practicing, so this could be something that gets ugly fast. Holton Hill did alright in his chance (the pass sailed right to him but at least he caught it) and Eric Wilson also was okay in spot duty. I'm not worried about Iloka.

Another area the vikings have been awful at is containing QB runs and I would not be surprised to see Taysum Hill spring a long run.

My gut tells me the Vikings are gonna get destroyed.

Points: 0

#9 by Will Allen // Oct 25, 2018 - 4:37pm

I do think it likely that the mental deterioration of Griffen, which is reported to have become visible as early as the opening of training camp, likely affected preparation for both the Bills and Rams games. I also think the Bills game convinced the Vikings offensive coaches to limit their expectations with regard to pass blocking.

Points: 0

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