FanPost

KCSkol's Defense of the Defense (kind of sort of)

Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns was a tough game to watch. Like many, I thought we'd beat them. In fact, I was pretty confident we'd beat them, if only because I thought that the Browns actually wanted us to beat them. They'd traded Trent Richardson just days before, were starting their "3rd string" quarterback for the first time and during the 1st half Billy Cundiff, the Cleveland kicker, pulled a muscle and couldn't kick. Those are several important ingredients when baking a cake walk. But alas, it didn't turn out that way.

Amidst all the agony and gnashing of teeth that followed the loss, the defense was accused of all kinds of terrible things. I'm not about to pretend that our defense is top notch, but I'm not nearly as depressed about the Vikings defensive effort as many seemed to be after the game. The defense wasn't great, but it wasn't all bad either. In fact, overall, I think I could live with the defensive effort the team showed on Sunday if that's what they gave us all season long.

A lot of the vitriol directed at the defense was a variation of this theme: "A team starting a 3rd string QB should not be able to put 31 points on the board. The defense sucks!" 31 points is a lot of points, but I think that number doesn't reflect the good that the defense did nor the impact of a number of failings by the offense and special teams that contributed significantly to that number.

Here's my list of reasons why the Vikings defense should not be blamed for allowing 31 points:

Special Teams: The Vikings Special Teams squad is fully responsible for 7 of the 31 Cleveland points which resulted from two plays. The first play was a fake punt that occurred on 4th and 1 from the Cleveland 38. Cleveland took the fake punt all the way to the Minnesota 28. Cleveland managed only 2 yards on the next three plays before being forced to kick a field goal. The second play was a fake field goal in which Cleveland turned a 3 point opportunity into 7 points. That play was an inexcusable mental lapse on the part of the Vikings. In my opinion, there can be no debate that the defense can only be charged with 24 points. That's still a bunch, but it's not 31.

AJ Jefferson: When Chris Cook pulled his groin and had to come out, he was replaced by AJ Jefferson. I noticed him for all of one play which was enough for him to cost the Vikings defense 7 points. He bit on a double move by Josh Gordon. Gordon was wide open on the remainder of his route to the end zone, and Hoyer rewarded him by hitting him in stride with a near perfect pass. Jefferson was subsequently replaced by Marcus Sherels who actually played pretty darn well. In my opinion, those 7 points are completely on Jefferson who was not expected to be a regular piece of this defense and will likely lose his backup role to Sherels after Sunday's game. I know this is going to be a controversial point, but because I think those 7 points are on Jefferson and not the regulars that lowers the regular defense's contribution to Cleveland's score from 24 to 17.

The Offense's-fault type situations: Christian Ponder's interception on the Vikings 5th offensive series put the Browns at the Vikings 38 yard line. That's pretty awesome starting field position. The Vikings defense held, the Cleveland field goal unit trotted out and then scored a touchdown (as already mentioned). However, my point here is that holding Cleveland to a field goal when the offense pretty much put them at the long end of field goal range in the first place is not a big deal in my book. That means that another 3 points should be charged to the offense and not the defense thus reducing the defense's culpability in the point total from 17 points to 14 points.

A Gift of Plenty (of Turnovers): The Vikings defense managed to cause 3 turnovers during the game. That's pretty dang good. In fact, the Vikings offense was spotted four turnovers if you include the muffed punt. It's fair to say that the Vikings offense did not capitalize on their opportunities.

1. Harrison Smith's interception towards the end of the second half put the Vikings starting field position at the Cleveland 46. That offensive series ended without any points as Ponder was strip sacked at the Cleveland 14 yard line to end the half.

2. Chad Greenway's interception at the start of the second half put the Vikings at midfield (Minnesota 49). Again, that's pretty great starting field position. The Vikings offense stalled two plays later when Adrian Peterson fumbled. Not only did the Vikings not get any points, but the defense also didn't get any rest.

3. The third interception was caused when Sharif Floyd hit Brian Hoyer's arm as he was throwing downfield. The ball was plucked out of the air by Erin Henderson who returned it to the Cleveland 9 yard line. Three plays later the Vikings scored a TD on a quarterback draw.

4. A fourth "quasi turnover" for the defense occurred in the 3rd quarter when the Browns failed to convert on a 4th down play and the ball was turned over on downs. There was no punt or field goal on the play. While technically not a turnover, it was an important situation for the Vikings. The Cleveland Browns had starting field position at the Minnesota 43. Thanks to the defense, four plays later the offense was back on the field with starting field position at the Minnesota 38.

Answering the "3rd string QB" aspect of the accusations: Brian Hoyer didn't play like a 3rd string QB in the 1st half: Brian Hoyer's accuracy was, for the most part, really impressive. In fact, I'd be thrilled if our starter could be even close to as accurate has Hoyer was on Sunday. Hoyer's struggle with interceptions occurred when he stared down receivers and got a bit of tunnel vision (sound familiar?). That was definitely the case on Smith's interception right before half time and again with Greenway's interception on the other side of the half. The 3rd interception occurred when Hoyer's arm was hit as he was throwing. By and large, Hoyer was a very accurate passer and managed to hit his receivers in stride thus allowing them to make significant yardage after the catch. I was impressed with Hoyer for the most part. He certainly didn't play like a 3rd string quarterback.

Overall I think that the Vikings defense that you can expect to show up week in and week out was really only responsible for 14 points (or perhaps even a net of just 11 points if you give the defense credit for getting a turnover at the Cleveland 9 yard line - essentially a chip shot FG if the offense chose not to walk onto the field). That's not bad and a far cry from the "31 points?!! Fire them all!" response that was pretty vocal after the loss.

Okay. So now that I'm done with my optimistic rationalizing, I can move onto the important business of what ails the Vikings defense. I'm mostly going to limit my thoughts to the defensive line and the linebackers, because most of the play in the secondary is off camera on television broadcasts. Here are the main things that worry about me about the Vikings defense:

Pass rush: Coming into the game on Sunday, Cleveland had allowed 11 sacks over the previous 2 games. That isn't good, but from what I saw, the Vikings base pass rushing defense of Allen, Robison, K. Williams and Evans/Guion rarely put pressure the Cleveland quarterback. So that meant that the Vikings had to blitz a linebacker to apply pressure, and generally that required that they disguise from where the blitzing linebacker would be coming. Often the Vikings brought 6 or even 7 players to the line to rush 5 and then 1 or 2 linebackers would drop back into coverage at the snap or just prior to it. The purpose of bringing more people to the line than we going to use to rush the QB was intended to mix up the opponent a bit (both the QB and the O-line), because let's face it, it's easier to block a linebacker than a defensive lineman if you know he's coming. However, the negative side of this "disguise the blitzer" approach is that it required the linebackers to move around a lot pre-snap and immediately after the snap. Rather than being set in their positions, they had to hustle to get into position... and sometimes they didn't get there in time.

A case in point occurred on the second defensive series. It was 3rd and 10 from the Cleveland 42. The Vikings brought 7 to the line and then backed 3 off at the snap. As the linebackers ran back into their pass coverage positions, Cleveland's TE #84 ran a route across the field from right to left about 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. The linebackers' momentum was going back, but the throw from Hoyer to the TE was in front of them. Hoyer hit the TE in stride and the TE was able to get the first down (by the nose of the football).

I think this challenge of getting pressure on the quarterback by bringing a linebacker is going to make things challenging for the linebacker corps on passing downs. The linebackers are being asked to do a lot on many of those plays, and I think sometimes, they are being asked to do just a bit too much. Unfortunately, the alternative is allowing the quarterback to take his time in deciding where to throw the ball, and that's not a prescription for success either. Until our front four can pressure the quarterback, I think we're going to be blaming the linebackers a lot this season.

Run defense: The absence of a stout middle of the line is creating challenges for the Vikings defense. It is causing the Vikings line to take more chances, and it is creating more challenges for the linebackers as well. On a couple of plays I saw Williams rush to the side to help push linemen in order to free up the other defensive tackle. This approach left a sizeable hole on Williams's side of the line which Cleveland was able to exploit on one occasion for big yardage.

However, the main issue with the lack of young beef on the defensive line is that the linebackers are regularly getting pummeled by offensive linemen. Generally speaking, when the Cleveland offensive line double teamed one of our defensive linemen, they tended to knock him back into last week which then allowed one of the double team linemen to disengage and run around the calendar looking for linebackers to hit. Back in the day of the Williams Wall I recall EJ Henderson running around unmolested to make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. His brother, Erin, isn't so lucky. A lot of the time, Erin seems to be dodging lineman traffic two to three yards past the line of scrimmage in his attempts to find the running back.

On balance, I didn't think our linebackers were all that bad. I think our defensive line is the problem with this team. Our Pat Williams type player doesn't exist. Ballard might have been the closest thing we had to a nose tackle type lineman, and he probably looked in the mirror and told himself, "I'm no nose tackle. This is stupid. I'm out of here." We are old and undersized in the interior of the line and getting Floyd to replace Williams next year won't change the "undersized" part of that equation. We need interior help. If we get it, and move on from Allen, I think the rest of our defense will get better next year. That said, I don't think our defense was all that bad on Sunday.

I'll sign off by providing a chart of Cleveland's offense on Sunday:

Starting Field Position

Plays

Yards

Result

Rationalization

Cleveland 20

3

1

Punt

Cleveland 32

6

68

TD

AJ Jefferson "fluke" for 47 yard TD

Cleveland 18

7

82

TD

Cleveland 20

9

60

FG

Vikings held but fake punt gets them 3

Minnesota 38

6

38

TD

Fake FG turns 3 into 7

Cleveland 20

4

13

INT

Cleveland 20

7

31

INT

Cleveland 37

6

16

Punt

Minnesota 43

4

6

Turnover/Downs

Cleveland 16

3

-7

INT

Cleveland 26

3

2

Punt

Cleveland 20

5

9

Punt

Cleveland 26

5

13

Punt

Cleveland 45

11

55

TD

It's Ponder's fault (I'm only half kidding)


This FanPost was created by a registered user of The Daily Norseman, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the site. However, since this is a <em>community</em>, that view is no less important.

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