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The Vikings' march to the top of the NFC North has been marked by an effective defense, although it wasn't perfect. We'll see how the defense performed so well in the Vikings' 20-13 drubbing of the Lions.
The Minnesota Vikings' offense has been relatively anemic, but the Vikings' defense has been a cast improvement from the year before, particularly in the last two games against two of the more favored teams int he league—the Lions and the 49ers.
Yes, these notes come a little late, but the defensive effort of the last two weeks deserves some extra scrutiny, despite the fact that the Vikings will have played against the Titans by the time many of you read this.
As of the beginning of Week 5, the Vikings have moved up team efficiency and ranking charts, generally as a result of their defense, which is ranked tenth in defensive efficiency and eleventh in DVOA (both adjusted for offensive strength of opponent). Specifically, against the run, Minnesota ranks sixth in yards per carry allowed, fourth in defensive rush DVOA, and tenth in defensive run success rate. And in passing situations, they rank third in defensive efficiency, eighteenth in passing DVOA and sixth in yards per attempt allowed and third in net yards per attempt (which includes sack yardage). This has culminated in having a defense that is third in the league in yards allowed per play and is fourth in opponent offensive success rate.
Undoubtedly, the Minnesota defense was a big part of their win against Detroit. But how did they do it? Extremely simple playcalling and execution.
Philosophy and Strategy
The Vikings defense has increased in simplicity as the weeks have progressed. This isn't just true for the defensive line, which has vastly simplified its line calls, but for the secondary as well. That's not to say the line doesn't have variety—they'll twist and stunt while also making sure to attack nontraditional gap assignments. While I didn't count the number of stunts or how often the Vikings attacked the unassigned gaps, I did notice it occur against a variety of formations, with good effect.
What's interesting is that this change in line calls didn't result in bigger gains for offenses against the rush, despite the increased emphasis on pass rushing. Instead, gap control for linebackers has meshed well with the line adjustments, and has maintained its excellent run defense.
What's even more extraordinary is that the Vikings have been able to maintain this excellent run defense despite increasing the number of nickel snaps in the game—I only counted eight 4-3 snaps in the entire game, with 58 4-2-5 nickels snaps to complement it.
While the defensive line's schemes tend to be more complex, the safeties have had a simple job, without many different coverage schemes. In fact, the introduction of Jamarca Sanford seems to have led to an increase in the use of the Cover 2 (two deep safeties in zone coverage), something I've noticed since his introduction. That's not necessarily definitive—I only have data for this game, but the data has fit my observations. The Vikings ran the Cover 2 (or variations on the Tampa-2) 39 times out of 60 passing snaps. An alternate possibility, of course, is that the Cover 2 was run more often against Detroit because it is the most explosive offense the Vikings have faced so far.
They ran a Cover 1 around eight or so snaps, and never on third down. The ran a Cover 3 a little less often, and generally on third downs with a distance of greater than five. On several of the Cover 1 snaps, they played the strong safety as a Robber who would read the play or the quarterback and react. On only three or so snaps did they rush linebackers or defensive backs, including a seven-man blitz on fourth down. On prevent snaps, they played two high safeties, one cover linebacker and four man-to-man cover players, leaving the fifth eligible receiver to take a delayed route up the middle.
As far as I could tell, the Vikings only ran the Tampa-2 twice in the base 4-3 package, which means that their other Tampa-2 snaps (which are difficult to suss out on film, due to the quickness of the game, changing linebacker depth and rotation) occurred in the nickel package, with Antoine Winfield operating as the strongside linebacker, Jasper Brinkley as the middle linebacker and Chad Greenway as the weakside linebacker.
The distinction between weakside and strongside wasn't very relevant, however, as their responsibilities don't differ in the passing game, and Winfield operated too close to the line on running plays to really play as the true Sam (that is, taking on the lead blockers)—instead, Winfield just happened to line up on the strongside as a result of lining up over the slot receiver. The run assignments are different in the nickel than they are in the Tampa-2, and the linebackers have played the run differently on different plays.
Sometimes, the linebackers will shoot the gaps on run recognition, with the cornerbacks making sure to keep the alleys safe from outside runs. On other plays, the linebackers will read the flow of the play and allow the defensive line to funnel the running back to them. This first assignment is much more aggressive than the Vikings have traditionally been, and is responsible for many of the tackles for loss the Vikings have had (12 total, accounting for 94 negative yards).
This aggressive gap assignment usually incurs the risk of long runs, but the Vikings are 2nd in the NFL for the longest run they've allowed—15 yards. The tackling of the cornerbacks, along with the lateral movement of almost all of the defenders, have been critical to this success. Runners are having a difficult time finding open gaps, simply because the Vikings have been able to close gaps quickly.
In the passing game, the Vikings continue to mix up zone and man coverage. They were in full man coverage on around a third of their passing snaps (including the prevent/deep zone snaps at the end of the game), and peppered their zone snaps with occasional instances of matchup zones, but the majority of the time, the Vikings played their defenders in spot drop zones. On occasion, Calvin Johnson has been subject to man coverage while the Vikings ran 3-3 zones or 2-4 zones, which are the traditional zones for zone blitzes.
The difference between a spot drop zone and a matchup zone is significant, but not extraordinary. The Vikings (and nearly every team that runs the Tampa-2) plays in a spot drop zone, where a defender will drop to an assigned area and react to the quarterback's eyes in relation to any receivers in the area. They'll lightly shadow any receivers that enter the zone (using a pre-delegated priority—generally paying more attention to receivers on the outside of the zone, then moving inwards). Most important is that they react to the ball thrown in the air. This system is easy to teach and allows "players to play" insofar as it relies on simple reads and instinct.
Matchup zones, on the other hand, are often compared to the "matchup zone" in basketball, where defenders will have an aiming point, but are not committed to staying at an assigned spot. They will play man-to-man to receivers entering their zone, using—just like in spot drop zones—a priority system. The priorities are more difficult to check through, and rely on anticipated routes. Because of this, all defenders are trained in receiver route concepts, and game planning ahead of time will focus on the most common pass concepts that the offense has run.
These priorities depend on where they are in coverage—for example, defenders whose aiming point is in the curl/flat zone (outside, underneath zone)—will prioritize any receivers running a route that will enter the seam, then those running curls (where they drop underneath), and finally receivers entering the flat. Usually, at this point in the "progression," the quarterback will have thrown to the receiver in the flat and the defender should be closing in.
Given the youth of the team and the demands of matchup coverage (especially for linebackers, who need to focus on the schemes in the run game), it's a little surprising that the Vikings would do this, but it seemed to have been effective. Every matchup zone had the same zone assignments as the Tampa-2. This is the first time I've noticed a matchup zone, but is by no means evidence that this was the first instance of a matchup zone this year.
The Vikings have stuck with the same basic philosophies of the Tampa-2, even if they've varied the specific coverage assignments. They've kept receivers under them, and have focused on limiting yards after the catch more than gambling for the ball. Safeties don't just act as security blankets for deep passes, but also as the ball-hawkers who can jump routes. Vikings cornerbacks don't match up with specific receivers, but instead line up on assigned sides.
There aren't a lot of specific plays to analyze, but I did love the bold call to rush seven men on fourth-and-five, leaving only four men in man-to-man coverage. The Lions kept seven men to protect, meaning they could only send three receivers out. Everson Griffen grabbed the sack for a loss of ten yards. It was a smart move, because the Vikings had only blitzed once up to that point, and the Lions could not assign blockers. Everson Griffen went through unblocked because the left tackle picked up Harrison Smith and the running back read the blitz assignment incorrectly, without the ability to pick up on which rushers may go through unprotected.
The biggest improvement in playcalling was that, on third down, the spot zones we much more cognizant of the down markers than before. It made a big difference.
Jared Allen had a good game, even if it wasn't great. With one sack, two hits and several hurries, he was a presence in the pass rushing game. He was able to get more pressures in this game despite being given more attention than other games, having been chipped or double on a number of downs. He was a good pass rusher and took tight ends away from routes, even when he didn't exhibit pressure. His sack was a fantastic play, He had more total pressures than anyone else.
Better than his pass rushing skills, however, was his play against the run. At least twice, Allen shed two separate run blockers to make a play in the backfield, with a tackle for loss. One of the best run defending plays I've seen by a defensive end, the amount of strength and technique he exhibited against Mikel Leshoure with 6:04 left in the second quarter was extraordinary, and he did this while reading the run. It's a gem, and it's a pity that the announcers didn't give it the credit it deserved. Here it is:
He consistently redirected runners, even twice when the run was off the right tackle (on the opposite side of the field from him). His ability to read plays, operate as a containing defensive end and make tackles in the backfield made him perhaps the most impressive run defender on the field that day.
Some might be concerned that Kevin Williams has lost a step, but it's not too much of a concern—at least for this season. It's clear that Williams is not physically up to his previous standards, but his field intelligence and technique has made up for it for now. He had two quarterback hurries by my count and a hit, and had a clear effect on Stafford on both of his hurries, perhaps indirectly responsible for his incompletions on those plays. Williams was a bit of a nonentity in the run game, but that has more to do with his assignment as an undertackle and less with his ability to play. The Lions clearly would have liked to double him, but could not for a majority of the play.
His record on the stat sheet isn't impressive, but his play was effective. Williams didn't have a bad game and clearly affected play. Suffice to say that the Lions kept trying to find was to take him out of the game, which should say that his performance was at least OK.
The Vikings fandom hasn't treated Letroy Guion well, but he did well against the Lions. He had two sacks, but that wasn't his only contribution. Unlike last year, Guion regularly commanded double teams, allowing the rest of the line to generate pressure. He could be getting gassed easily, which is one potential reason why he was only on the field for less than 30 of the 79 defensive snaps they had. Whatever the reason, he did more to occupy the line than his backups did. The Lions didn't devote very many snaps to single coverage on Guion, and this is how one of his sacks occurred.
More importantly, Guion still found a way to be effective despite being double teamed and didn't get pushed around in the run game like he was last year. He's staying lower off the snap and making sure to fill up gaps. Out of 16 rush attempts, only three went through an A gap, and that is in large part due to Guion. By comparison, 18 of the 34 attempts the Lionsr an against the Titans did the same.
I discounted the sacks a bit to make a larger point, but they shouldn't be ignored. Guion's sacks had a huge impact on the game—one came at the end of the game to help seal the victory and the other helped end a drive by pushing the offense back six yards to create a third-and-nineteen situation. It's rare stuff for a nose tackle, and it's good to see.
Brian Robison, by contrast, didn't have as great of a game. He was virtually silent in the pass rush, and was OK in the run game. While all three of his tackles were effective and important, he missed too many opportunities otherwise to really be considered solid as a run defender. He was sealed out easily in the run game and couldn't be counted on to prevent rushes in the right alley, of which there were four. More than that, he didn't have the lateral agility the other Minnesota defenders exhibited that made Minnesota effective in run defense. He wasn't terrible, but it's safe to say he was pretty bad. To his credit, a number of his impact plays came in the fourth quarter, when people value it the most.
In relief of Guion, Fred Evans had a pretty good game. Evans is clearly more physically gifted than Guion, and also has a better burst off the line, but doesn't draw or command the kind of attention Guion seems to have done consistently. Evans' snaps on the field coincided with Williams' least effective plays. Even though Evans was effective in his own right, he had his performance largely against a single defender. The Lions evidently determined that leaving Evans alone was evidently worth the risk in order to double up against Williams or Allen.
He's still a powerful player, however, and did well to laterally shed blocks to make stops in the run game. He didn't ever generate a pressure as a pass rusher, however, and his theoretical advantage against a single lineman didn't really give him the effect he needed. His batted pass was a heads-up play, and also happened to be one of the few plays the Lions invested two linemen into blocking him. If Evans could consistently create pressure upfield and disrupt the passing game, he would be a dynamo. As it is, he's been inconsistent in his career, and this happened to be a better game than usual.
Christian Ballard did very well in relief of Williams, and looks to be using his added weight well. He's rumored to weigh over 300 pounds now, which would be a significant improvement over his pre-draft measurables—he weighed 283 pounds at the combine and his pro day. He doesn't have all the speed he used to have, but has clearly meshed the added strength with his athleticism.
In his 27 snaps, I recorded one quarterback hit and two pressures. While he wasn't the most consistent run stopper, he still had an effect on the run game, assisting well with a tackle to finish off what Everson Griffen started to make a tackle in the backfield. He took good angles with his pursuit, but didn't always finish the job. When he does make contact, he wraps up well.
More important than the number of pressures or tackles he had was his ability to change the flow of traffic. While his duties as a 3-technique tackle don't usually call on him to funnel runners, he moved them into unfavorable running lanes.
The most interesting substitute on the defensive line was Everson Griffen, who recorded two sacks, a hit and a hurry despite only playing on 39 snaps. He also recorded a tackle in the run game, as well. He's back in a similar role to his "joker" role, where he'll either threaten to rush from the line or drop back into coverage. he only spent about two snaps in coverage, but confusing passing lanes always has value. Griffen had a couple of "wow" plays where he penetrated the backfield, and he didn't always do it as a defensive end. Once again, he played across the line, although he (correctly) didn't play as a nose tackle.
His versatility is appealing for the Vikings and it is clearly paying off. While one of his sacks was mostly a result of a poor blocking scheme, his athleticism played a significant role in the Vikings' victory over the Lions. He's been wrapping up his tackles well, and his impact was felt throughout the game, from pressure on the eleventh offensive snap to the 56th snap.
Naturally, increasing his snaps will likely decrease the likelihood of passer disruption on a specific play, but his development is coming along nicely enough that people might reasonably demand he not only get more snaps but replace Robison entirely. I don't think it's at that point quite yet, but he is certainly a talent that deserves to see the field. He is, at any rate, moving into a position to either be excellent trade value or a starter in the future if he keeps this up.
Only two linebackers took significant snaps, as the Vikings played nearly every snap in the nickel package. The Vikings defense has performed significantly better in the last two weeks, so there is reason to believe that there might be a relation between the two. I doubt it, however. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that Erin Henderson has less value to add than Josh Robinson on a regular basis—at least as of right now. More likely it has to do with the changes in scheme (more Cover 2, fewer defensive line calls) the Vikings have seen in the last two games as well as the addition of Jamarca Sanford in place of Mistral Raymond. At any rate, it's difficult to tell, and the Vikings should be happy that Erin Henderson is returning to the lineup.
Chad Greenway is playing at a level we didn't see last year, and it's evident once again this game. It wasn't as good as his performance in the Indianapolis or Jacksonville game, or even the San Francisco game, but it was very good nevertheless.
Greenway generally took good angles in pursuit and once again characteristically shed blockers. That said, he's not as comfortable in the nickel package as he is in the base package, and didn't have as strong of a game. He once again led the team in solo and total tackles with 11 overall and seven on his own. He had at least three impressive plays in the run game, and was still decent as a cover linebacker. His job, generally, wasn't to deflect passes, but prevent yards after the catch. To that effect, he was OK, but not great. His zone spots were either not favorable or he didn't execute them very well. He reacted faster to a thrown ball in the air than anyone else, but that usually didn't translate into much because he was often reacting to throws outside of his coverage assignment (allowing him to make effective tackles and limit gains).
At any rate, Greenway isn't playing coverage like he was last year, and that's a good thing. No player in his coverage could gain more than 16 yards in his coverage assignment, and he was only outrun twice by receivers. He was more effective in the run game, but wasn't perfect either. In addition to missing a tackle, he placed himself poorly at least twice more.
Hits like the one he was fined for help him in coverage more than they hurt—or at least, I like to think so. Greenway made a percentage
The biggest worry the Vikings have had at linebacker was Jasper Brinkley, who started off looking strong. Surprisingly effective in coverage at the beginning of the game, Brinkley fell off as the game continued. He did a decent job picking up players on delayed routes or out of the backfield, but couldn't stay with many players.
he looked good on the first play of the third drive, the last play of the same drive, and on third and six on the next drive. After that, it became clear that his backpedal speed wasn't up to muster and could be exposed. The Lions couldn't exactly pick on him, because both he and Greenway are good tacklers, but they could reliably hit a target against him.
He was an effective run defender, flowing to the ball quickly. Unfortunately, he did miss a few tackles and could be handled by blockers better than one hopes. His high missed tackle numbers are discouraging, but they are not just the product of bad form—he simply had more opportunities than anyone else, which is valuable—a missed tackle still slows runners down. Nevertheless, this is his calling card. He needs to shore up here first if he wants to avoid being replaced by the next draft class.
The five members of the secondary who took significant snaps helped ensure that Matt Stafford was limited to zero touchdowns and 6.9 yards per attempt—low yardage for the Lions' high-powered offense. While they weren't perfect, they limited the league's best receiver to five catches of 54 yards. In some ways, they were helped out by fortuitous drops, but they created their own luck as well.
Aging, but still a punishing tackler, Antoine Winfield has led the Vikings secondary for years now. Once again, he was one of the team leaders in tackling, partially because he could take better advantage of his field positioning in nickel snaps, but also because he has a good nose for the ball. He's been surprisingly strong even at 35, and showcased it on the field.
Not only did Winfield jam receivers off their routes (including Calvin Johnson), he read routes excellently and deflected two passes. Rerouting receivers is what he lives off of, and it's been fairly effective. Receivers were targeted 12 times coming out of the slot, but only caught 7 passes.
There are clear concerns, however. While Winfield was able to prevent targets with press coverage, he also lost players at least twice due to speed concerns. Calvin Johnson did it in the first drive of the third quarter with both a good shake move and strong speed. Later, Burleson blazes by him on the next drive. Johnson dropped the pass, but Burleson didn't. It was a gain of 26 yards.
Winfield is the best player for the matchup zone concept, although the Vikings didn't run it too often. His familiarity with most wide receiver moves and with routes that are run allow him to undercut routes and deflect attention away to other targets.
The only other issue I noticed with Winfield involved communication issues between him and the safeties. This was an issue for one pass on Week 1 (a drop in the end zone) and an issue here on two routes that were ultimately not targeted. I'm not sure who this is on, but because this seems to happen with him more often than other CBs (and it does happen to many CBs), I'm willing to bet it's on him. The receiver transfer from him to the deep zone could use more work and could have been exploited—once for a touchdown. Luckily, it was on the backside of the play.
Ultimately, the fact that age is catching up with him is my biggest worry. He's simply a better fit for underneath zones than he is in man coverage, and the team's reliance on man coverage for receivers who are at risk of running deep routes is a bit worrisome.
On the other side, Chris Cook performed admirably. He was only targeted four times, and maintained great positioning on both man and zone routes. Still, his coverage was good, not Hall-of-Fame worthy. His low targets may have been because the Lions could look away from him not because of his excellent coverage but because of their plan. There's a good chance that the Lions preferred the uncertain coverage of Brinkley and Greenway (8 targets each), the inexperience of Josh Robinson (10 targets) or the potential mismatches of Winfield (10 targets).
At any rate, Cook played his coverage well, and his receivers only achieved 3 total yards after the catch. His closing speed is great, a good function of his reaction time and actual movement capability. Unlike earlier, cook had very little trouble staying on top of receivers in order to prevent targets or yards.
Still, Cook was relatively silent in the run game. He didn't shed the receivers blocking him often enough, or was downfield too often to make a play. If there's anything he needs to work on, it's choosing spots on his zones. Early in the game, his zones were too far away from the sidelines, a potentially dangerous error. He had a near interception go through his hands, but it would have been called back, if not for Sanford's penalty. Instead, he had what looked to be a pretty good pass deflection.
He had an extremely good performance in the game, and didn't make too many mistakes.
Josh Robinson has been pleasing fans as of late as well, but his performance was not nearly as good as many might remember. Robinson turned in an OK performance, with some miscues early in the game made up for by some good coverage later.
His biggest issue has been tackling, although there have been some memorably good instances of his takedowns. There were at least three or four instances of either a missed tackle (one where Mikel Leshoure leaps over him) or he puts himself out of position to make a play, including with Nate Burleson. Both of these instances occurred early in the second quarter.
Robinson needs to learn his zone assignments a little better, because he has most of the technical or physical skills he needs. Robinson's ability to react to the ball in the air is one of his better abilities, but his speed is obviously the best of his talents. He'll drift in his spots a little bit and is still vulnerable to receiver moves, which is part of the reason he was targeted so often. The most obvious issue with this is that receivers were allowed outside when they should have been funneled inside.
He seemed to resolve his tackling issue sometime around the end of the second quarter and performed extremely well from then on. Naturally, his penalty was an incorrect call.
The defensive back that people have been talking about, however, was not Winfield or Robinson—it was Harrison Smith. Highlighted with a great hit in the end zone to Calvin Johnson, Smith electrified fans. The Vikings haven't had an effective, hard-hitting safety in quite a while, so it's refreshing to see.
He wasn't targeted often where he was the sole defensive back, but he worked in tandem well with the other members of the secondary. His instincts have been great for Vikings fans, and he was excellent in coverage. His decisions broke up at least two passes, and he was an effective tackler, too.
While only credited with three tackles, Smith flew around the ball, and I don't recall any mistakes by him, save for that potential miscommunication early in the game with Antoine Winfield. It's rare for a defensive back to not make any mistakes, but Smith played extremely well. Saving a deep pass is great, and preventing the touchdown is even better.
For the most part, action was kept away from him, so it's difficult to find a specific play where he could have improved. Still, he had wonderful overall play.
When Mistral Raymond went down, fans were worried about Jamarca Sanford's ability to produce in his stead. Part of a sorry pass defense in 2011, Sanford was the only safety to remain on the roster for the 2012 season. He outperformed expectations in the past two games, and despite some early inconsistencies, particularly with a harmful penalty to open the game, still flashed serious talent.
His penalty was stupid, true, but he still made a hugely positive impact. With good plays late in the second quarter and early in the third, Sanford has proven to be a valuable safety. Not only has he shown a clear progression in field awareness, he's done a better job against the ball in the air—a difficult skill to improve at the NFL level.
In many cases, zone discipline is one of the most important things a young safety can learn, and one of the most difficult thing to master. Here, in his fourth year (an impressive feat for a seventh round pick), Sanford has shown the ability to be flexible, making good decisions about when to be disciplined in the zone and when to attack outside of it. The tension between attacking football and disciplined football is often difficult to resolve, but Sanford seems to be on his way to negotiating that divide.
Of course, Sanford's had a good run of causing fumbles. That commitment to a complete play is going to be big for the Vikings as they patiently await Mistral Raymond's return... even if Raymond finds himself returning as a backup.
Most Valuable Defensive Player: Harrison Smith
Unseen Player of the Game: Letroy Guion
Defensive "Underclassman" of the Game: Josh Robinson
Honorable Mention: Everson Griffen