As bad as Christian Ponder has been over this season, I think many people would be right to say that the Vikings D requires a large amount of blame for how the season has been transpiring. It has been exposed in so many different ways that I honestly have no idea how and where to start on improving it, but I am going to give it a shot. I will start by explaining the basic concept behind the Vikings defense and going from there.
As it has been well documented, the Vikings base defense is the Tampa-2, a wrinkle off the Cover-2 developed by Tony Dungy. This is the analysis of the Cover-2 defense from fantasyguru.com:
Anyway, "Cover-2" might seem like the most ubiquitous of cover shells, and it tends to have some of the more popular tweaks as well. There's "Cover-2 Man," in which the CBs play man defense on the outside receivers with help over the top and the LBs in coverage match up with the remaining eligible receivers. There's "Cover-2 Zone," in which the CBs and LBs occupy specific zones and then pass off receivers once they leave the zones. If run properly, the Cover-2 can be a frustrating defense to play against, with teams being forced to settle for short gains and long drives, which can increase the chance for a turnover.
This is the basis for the Vikings D, and I would say that the Vikings are doing a fairly good job at making teams settle for long drives; the problem is, is that whenever the opposing team gets backed up, the Vikings have been allowing them to make up large chunks of yards with relative ease.
But it's also rare to see teams run Cover-2 consistently as a base package (the Bears might be the most prevalent today) because the players are so difficult to find. The issue with Cover-2 as a five-under (CBs and LBs), two-deep coverage (safeties) is that it relies on the strength of a four-man rush to be effective. And earlier in the article, we detailed how difficult an ideal four-man rush is to find. In general, it also relies on bigger, run-stopping CBs, although an advantage is that Cover-2 teams typically do not need shutdown man ability on the perimeter because the corners have help over the top.
This has been one of the biggest issues with the Vikings D this season. There has been such an inconsistent lack of a pass rush that QB's are able to use said lack of a pass rush against the Vikings over and over again. Vikings defensive backs have also had problems with tackling (Andrew Sendejo in particular), and this has led to long gains by whichever team has a runner who can break tackles and get into the secondary.
If the rush is not effective, the defense has a lot of holes. If the QB is forced to deliver the ball from a three- or five-step drop, it can be very effective and frustrating for an offense. But if the QB can be given time in the seven-step drop phase, the coverage can be picked apart, especially down the middle between the safeties if a safety is forced to decide between covering a streaking TE in the seam or a WR bolting down the sideline. And if a team blitzes from a Cover-2 shell, openings in the intermediate area of the field can be huge. The Cover-2 system also leaves seven men in the box; at most, meaning a strong running team can continually chip away at the defense.
As has been frustrating Vikings fans for much of the last few years, QB's have been perfectly willing to take those three-to-five step drops over longer ones, knowing that the Viking defense hasn't been good enough to stop them from finding an open man anyway. On a seven-step drop, the defense would, according to this article, be even more prone to giving up the big play, because they haven't been able to generate that push to take the QB down.
Now, here's the analysis of the same site of the Tampa-2 variation of the Cover-2 scheme:
Speed is the biggest element of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2 system, which attempts to utilize quicker players to plug up the holes in the traditional Cover-2.
While the Tampa-2 still relies on a four-man rush, the biggest variation of the Tampa-2 comes on the second and third levels. In the Tampa-2, the middle linebacker drops into the hole between the safeties, defending against perhaps the biggest weakness in the traditional Cover-2.
Here's another problem with running the Tampa-2. Doing so requires quick players to cover up the coverage holes in the Cover-2, which the Vikings haven't had this year. Much has been made of the seeming slowdown of players like Chad Greenway and the rest of the LB corps, and their issues are definitely giving the Vikings fits when trying to run their base defensive package.
Meanwhile, quick LBs and strong, tough CBs are expected to help stuff the run, tackle, and make plays. The safeties also have distinct roles. The strong safety (Mistral Raymond/Jamarca Sanford), one of the two deep safeties, protects against slot receivers and backs slipping out of the backfield, while the free safety (Harrison Smith) is expected to have better coverage skills and be more of the Wild Card. He can blitz or compensate for a blitzing defender by covering a larger area of the field.
Thus far in the season, we really have had very little of this. Our linebacker corps is slow and getting older, and our cornerbacks are breaking down seemingly every game. Chris Cook hasn't even made it through a full NFL season without having to sit out multiple games because of injury/personal issues. Jamarca Sanford has had issues in coverage, though he makes up for it somewhat in being an above-average run defender. Harrison Smith has been doing a fair job in coverage, but it has really hurt the Vikings this season that he was injured.
The idea behind Tampa-2 coverage is the "spot defender" system. In Dungy's system, he expects his defenders to drop to a "spot," then read and match up with their receivers at that point. It requires smart, quick, decisive players, and the Bucs had the perfect formula for success with guys like Lynch and Brooks.
Our defenders may be smart, but they are seemingly not quick, and their decisions have often cost the Vikings. The Vikings also don't exactly have that lockdown corner that can be counted on for a pick; they really don't even have a leader in that backfield right now with Antoine Winfield gone and Smith on the sidelines.
Like in the basic Cover-2, the Tampa-2 can be exploited with a talented TE down the seam or an effective slot receiver creating a mismatch in a LB's zone. Teams might attempt to "overload" a zone with multiple receivers to force the defender's hand. A good play-action can also bait the MLB into making a mistake. But even if the MLB is taken out of the equation, there are fewer holes in the Tampa-2 to exploit. It basically takes the idea behind the basic Cover-2 to extremes. It plays mental games with teams that have to execute long, almost perfect drives to score.
With the Vikings this year, teams have been able to go on long drives. They don't even have to be perfect on them, because the Vikings have a terrible knack for screwing up whenever they help themselves out, either with a stupid penalty or a mental mistake that costs them a large chunk of yardage.
And here's the analysis of the ever-popular Cover-4 D or "prevent D":
To break it down in the most basic terms, we typically hear Cover-4 referred to as "prevent defense." Each of the four DBs takes a fourth of the deep area (why we might hear this also referred to as "quarters" defense, not to be confused with a "quarter package").
The prevent defense is incredibly susceptible to underneath throws, so we typically will see it only toward the end of a half with time running down or on third-and-forever situations when a team has to gain a big chunk of yards for a first down. But Cover-4 concepts can also be used to creep up to nine men in the box against a run-first team.
The Vikings have been entirely too willing to run this defense out and it has often cost them. Though many teams are able to do a fair amount of damage to a team's prevent coverage, the Vikings have been especially bad at keeping teams from shellacking it (due mostly to the fact that it has been somewhat difficult for people to tell whether or not the Vikings are running a coverage D or a prevent D).
While this has explained what is wrong with the Vikings D, it doesn't entirely explain how to fix it. There are two scenarios that I can see happening after this season.
1st. The Vikings hire an entirely new coaching staff that is willing to work with the pieces that are already in place and won't require much tinkering
2nd.The Vikings hire a new coaching staff that doesn't believe the players currently starting have what it takes, retain a few veterans, and start building an entirely new staff.
I will start with option 1. I honestly enjoy watching individual players on the Vikings defense more than a lot of things. Harrison Smith is one of the most dynamic playmaking safeties in the NFL right now, and it is my joy to watch him light opposing receivers up in a way that sometimes requires him to shell out some money. He gets how the game is played, and he is a defensive cornerstone to build around.
There are certain players that I could definitely see staying around to help with the rebuild of the Vikings defense (and no matter what happens it does need upgrading from its current condition). These players are: Harrison Smith, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Fred Evans, Xavier Rhodes, Michael Mauti, Sharrif Floyd, Robert Blanton, Gerald Hodges, and maybe Chris Cook. That's it. Nine, maybe ten players on the defense are worth keeping in my eyes at the moment. Everyone else can go. Of course, this big of a rebuild probably isn't going to happen. A few more role players are probably going to stick around. I could maybe see Marcus Sherels sticking it out if they want a reliable punt-return man.
1st. And foremost on the Vikings wish-list for this upcoming offseason is a Phat-Pat-type nose tackle. If the Vikings want to keep running with the 4-3 Tampa-2 Defense, they have got to upgrade their run defense. There is a reason why it has gone to hell with Pat Williams gone; that big lump (I use the term affectionately) clogged up a lot of holes and made the rest of the line better. If we can find another one of him, that would be amazing. Hell, I would be willing to keep Kevin Williams around longer if he was willing to slide over to nose tackle, as he has definitely performed better there than he has at the under-tackle. Cloning a younger version of Pat Williams should almost instantly jump the Vikings run defense up a number of spots.
2nd.Find a defensive end capable of stopping the run. I love me some B-Rob, Jared Allen and Everson Griffen, but they are all known as pass-rushing DE's, not so much run-stoppers (especially JA69; I can't remember the last time he has made a tackle in the run game). That will also improve the line, which will improve the rest of the team.
3rd. Build up above-average cornerback depth. The best CB on this team right now is Chris Cook, and he has been injured more games than he has played in. The second-best CB on the Vikings right now might just be Xavier Rhodes, and he is a rookie. I think the Vikings, even with their issues at CB, might just let Cook walk this offseason, as he has in no way proved that he can stay healthy for a full season (not that many players can, but with how important he is to this D, he has to avoid those nagging injuries. I can't imagine that the Vikings don't spend at least one pick in the draft as well as a nice chunk of change on a few CB's this offseason, because Josh Robinson, AJ Jefferson, and Marcus Sherels are just not getting it done out there.
That is where I would start with that choice #1 rebuilding plan. Now, onto rebuilding plan #2, which I suppose also involves keeping those players that I listed above.
1st. Find a defensive coordinator with an altered scheme. Switching to a 3-4 seems unlikely, but I suppose anything is possible. Theoretically sticking with a 4-3 means that the Vikings will keep the players I listed above. If they move to a 3-4, most of the players will likely be released as they are players who are used to playing in a 4-3.
2nd.If sticking with a 4-3, become more aggressive. Our D has (if I remember correctly) done better when the Vikings have been blitzing more, so going with a more aggressive scheme should benefit our team immensely. The least that should be done is to get more physical corners like Cook and Rhodes, as having better cover corners would really help with our pass rush as well.
3rd. Work on technique. One of the reasons that Antoine Winfield did so well, despite the fact that he was an undersized CB was that he was physical and tackled extremely well. The Vikings have been having issues with tackling recently, and going back to basics should also help the team on D.
4th. Get the players mentioned above in idea #1 if sticking with a 4-3.
Doing all of these things should help the Vikings return the dominant defensive team that was present from 2007~2010. Feel free to comment about what you think will help the Vikings out defensively.