So it seems I've taken a break after having taken a break, and the defense article comes just in time for the Vikings to play another game. What a bye week! After what may be the most exciting slate of Thanksgiving games in my lifetime, it might be important to remember that there are players on the other side of the ball who actually try to prevent scores, and we're going to talk about them.
The Vikings defense performed admirably against the most prolific passing team in the country—although this is more because of the number of their passing attempts (most in the NFL) than any particularly unusual success passing the ball (16th in yards per attempt).
In a game whose final 34-24 score doesn't tell the whole story about how well the Vikings performed, the defense performed an admirable job limiting a Lions offense that against other teams looked to score at will.
The Vikings play a very simple defense, which isn't a knock on them by any means. Rob Ryan runs a very complex defense in Dallas, and it too often gets exposed on big plays. On the other hand, Chicago's extremely simple defense ranks amongst the top in the country, while San Francisco does just as well with an defensive philosophy that is much more balanced in its complexity than either Chicago or Dallas.
Instead of confusing opposing quarterbacks, the Vikings are focusing on execution and fundamentals. This simplifies the keys and makes it easier for the Minnesota players to fly to the ball when need be. The injury to Mistral Raymond coincided with a lot more Cover-2 and Tampa-2 looks, but the defensive gameplanning has remained simple throughout the season.
Minnesota remains committed and confident in their zones, lining up players regardless of matchup. This looked a bit extreme at times, with Chad Greenway lining up in the slot over Calvin Johnson on occasion, but the Vikings didn't expose themselves too often.
The Vikings knew going in that they would need to sell out against the pass, and played in a nickel package on 46 of their 64 meaningful defensive snaps. They've historically been more successful in this package, and the game against the Lions was no different—an offensive success rate of 50% in the base package compares poorly to the 41% offensive success rate the Lions had against the Vikings' nickel.
Once again, Minnesota was committed to playing an intermediate zone when in zone coverage, allowing shorter passes in order to prevent big plays. More interestingly, the Vikings were much more likely to play zones to landmarks than they were to engage in matchup zones in this game, something they did from time-to-time against the Lions when playing in Detroit.
Matchup zones are extremely effective when cornerbacks and linebackers are trained in the routes that receivers will often run out of certain formations, and the coverage guys need to be able to recognize how a receiver will break based on those patterns. They require a lot more study than either man coverage or zone coverage, and will require that backs and backers shift their focus from reading a quarterback to reading the receiver. The checklist that a defender has to mentally go through is much more difficult and longer, but will need to be executed in the same amount of time that you would expect a defender to go through any number of other keys.
There are a few reasons the Vikings might decide to forgo the matchup zone in this instance. The first reason is that Chris Cook was out of the game, and his ability to read receivers might have been the difference in pregame planning. AJ Jefferson still clearly has trouble with that, and planning a defense without your best matchup corner really changes the nature of the game. Beyond that, the heavier rotation of Ryan Broyles and potentially Mike Thomas created a few unknowns who the Vikings didn't have a lot of film on (Thomas didn't end up making a difference on the field, but it was still a worry), encouraging them to play safer on zones.
Even more intriguing was that the Vikings didn't end up covering Calvin Johnson the same way they did in Week 10 as they did in Week 4. It's not just that they were willing to more explicitly double Johnson in Week 4, they were more likely to mix in man and zone concepts, willing to play wider zones in order to put at least one defensive back on Johnson at all times—including 3-3 zones normally reserved for zone blitzes.
The Lions prior to Week 4 threw the ball to Calvin Johnson much more than any other receiver, but changed their tune immediately after the Vikings game, spreading the ball around. This shift in offensive philosophy, along with the Lions' increased use of the run likely encouraged the Vikings to move on from a defensive gameplan that worked on both Johnson and Fitzgerald. Don't be surprised to see this again if the Vikings see Brandon Marshall in Chicago or when they go up against Andre Johnson in Houston.
While it would be incorrect to say that the Vikings have abandoned the Cover-3, they have played it significantly less in the past few weeks, letting Sanford and Smith cover the back end on their own. The Vikings play the Cover-2 or Tampa-2 significantly more than any other coverage, but still play a Cover-1 defense a good number of times. What surprised me was that we saw a set with three deep defensive backs presnap at least once, with A.J. Jefferson playing as a third safety on the left, which was the weakside. Harrison acted as if he was going to jump into the box and play as if it were a Cover-2, but the play finished out exactly like it looked: a zone Cover-3.
Stafford ended up checking down on the play, throwing to Antoine Winfield for 5 yards on 3rd and 19, so it looked like it might have worked. Calvin Johnson was uncovered in the slot at the snap, but couldn't find open space once the play started.
When in man coverage, the Vikings would be content to drop either one or two safeties back, but would usually stick with two. Alan Williams likes to use man coverage concepts that fit within the philosophies of the Tampa-2, which may allow receptions, but not a lot of yards. Generally speaking, defensive backs played on the outside, and over the top of their receivers, but wouldn't play off coverage all too often when assigned to one-on-one coverage. The Vikings play a lot of press in zone and in man, and rerouting receivers to disrupt timing is a critical feature of the defense.
In the absence of Chris Cook, but with three starting-caliber safeties, the Vikings may want to take a look at the Big Nickel concept that the New York Giants made famous, where instead of substituting a cornerback for a linebacker, the Vikings would substitute a safety.
These folks will mostly play in zone coverage, but carry the advantage of being much better against the run than a typical defensive back. For a team like the Vikings, one that will play in a nickel package quite a bit against pass-heavy teams, this might be a good way to check against constraint plays like draws.
Invented by Fritz Shurmur during his time with the Los Angeles Rams, Shurmur was first credited as making it a base defense with the Phoenix Cardinals in 1992 when two linebackers went down with injury. Typically, this is designed as a compromise between the nickel formation's weakness to the run and a base formation that might not be able to cover well. It also provides the ability to disguise coverages, because the safety in the box is likely harder to read than a typical outside linebacker.
More than that, the typical keys that come from a linebacker don't apply to the big nickel, and the big nickel doesn't act like a strong safety, making it difficult to effectively read without seeing a lot of game tape. A linebacker split out to cover the slot won't usually signal man coverage by the defense, but the big nickel might. He might be covering a gap, which often signals a blitz from a safety, but could just be fundamental run defense in the big nickel package.
The Big Nickel has been in vogue recently as a response to the proliferation of big, pass-catching tight ends, like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. The problem of small defensive backs getting outmuscled or being unable to cover the large catch radius has encouraged some teams—like the Oakland Raiders or the New York Jets—to play a safety man-to-man. This way, they have the coverage capabilities to prevent a big play if the formation (which could be a "12 package, with two tight ends and two wide receivers) ends up playing three or four receivers into pass routes and stop the run if the tight ends stay in to block—not usually an issue if there are simply three or four receivers on the field.
The development of players who can just as easily run block as lead blockers or inline as well as play deep and intermediate routes like receivers need a versatile player who can answer just as well. Linebackers (especially those on the Vikings defense) may be able to overcome the run blocking abilities of many of these tight ends, but might burned in coverage when the tight ends go out into a route. A good, hard-hitting safety might resolve these problems.
With the talent the Vikings have at safety, they may want to consider reducing the number of snaps that A.J. Jefferson or Josh Robinson get in order to put Mistral Raymond on the field. Big nickels are generally 210+ pounds and 6'1" or over (think Bryan Scott, Deon Grant, or Ryan Mundy) and Harrison Smith (6'2," 214 pounds) fits the bill, although he would need to wrap up a bit better before being completely reliable in the run game.
Jamarca Sanford (5'10" 200 pounds) is an extremely good run stopper, with no missed tackles when playing as a strong safety and a high number of defensive "stops" in the run game. The problem with playing him as a big nickel is his size, making it very unlikely he could take on the lead blockers or second level offensive linemen that he usually doesn't have to deal with. Mistral Raymond (6'2" 198 pounds) is even more ill-suited for the role.
Given the Vikings' general success in the vanilla nickel package, they might not want to experiment with it. I think it's a good bet that Mistral Raymond is a better cover guy than Josh Robinson, so they could potentially play Raymond instead of Robinson in the Big Nickel, with Harrison in the slot or the weakside linebacker spot. In this case, I would prefer to take Jasper Brinkley off the field and move Erin Henderson to the middle linebacker.
I don't expect to see it, but it is some minor experimentation that is worth a thought.
The defensive line is a big part of the philosophy of the defense—one that blitzes very rarely (and only blitzed 6 or so times against the Lions)—and the Vikings need them to perform at a high level very consistently in order for the rest of the defense to execute well. It was unfortunately not a great performance from the line, but the defense still held on to the win, even with the Lions' typical 4th quarter surge.
The headliner of the defense is undoubtedly Jared Allen, who was nearly blanked. Without any sacks and with very few pressures, Allen's presence was missed against an offensive line that he typically dominates. He wasn't doubled as often as one would expect for a performance that didn't generate a lot of stats and he was pushed around a lot more in the run game than is typical for him. He had some phenomenal individual plays, including a pressure against a double team at the beginning of the third quarter, or the unbelievable tackle for loss on the play right before that, but he was mostly handled well. It wasn't just a subpar performance for the All-Pro defensive end, it was a below average performance in general.
With him was Kevin Williams who, aside from a fantastic sack for 11 yards in the second quarter, couldn't make a huge impact. He was the unfortunate victim of an offense that could occasionally double team him because Evans wasn't always commanding attention. Still, Williams found himself in the position to make plays and still did, just not at an elite level. When he was double teamed, the Lions' line had a difficult time moving him around, but they did make it difficult for Williams to stop runners. He had a hand in one tackle and was able to reroute running backs on occasion, but it seemed a typical game for an undertackle.
While a poor nose tackle is often to blame for poor line play, Fred Evans' should probably not be put under too scrutinous a microscope. Yes, he didn't force the Lions to double him as often as would have been effective, but he did find ways to punish the Lions when faced with a single blocker, and it balanced out by the end of the game. As always, it's fairly clear that he's a better athlete than Letroy Guion, but he's not as disciplined a player—he has fewer pass rushing moves than Guion and is not as reactive, especially in the run game. In a single game, I might want to take Evans on the off chance he'll put in an explosive performance, but I would take Guion over the course of the season.
He didn't generate too many quick pressures, but he was able to punish Stafford for holding on to the ball for too long by threatening to make plays late (after 2.8 seconds). He was best in the beginning of the game, exhibiting fantastic burst off the line, some lateral agility and the ability to beat opposing linemen to get into the backfield. Later on, it becomes easier and easier to handle him, which is why the Lions decided not to continuously cover him with two players in the middle of the game. While he was able to take advantage of this until they recovered and played two men against him as the game closed out, it does speak to his reliability in such a critical role. His ability to penetrate through double teams earned him a tackle for loss and two other good tackles. At other times he was swallowed up and rendered invisible.
Evans had an OK game, and that's something I'll take from a backup.
Generally, the play of Brian Robison has been exceedingly pleasant, but he was pretty silent against the Lions. To his credit, he once again added to his batted pass total, which now stands at six on the year—most in the league among 4-3 defensive ends and second most among all defensive linemen (just behind J.J. Watt, dwarfing him with 12). Beyond that, his number wasn't called much, as he finished with one solo tackle and no sacks. He was more effective than his statistics indicate, having clogged passing lanes well a number of times, but it's still not saying much for his performance. Robison was disruptive in the passing game in a way defensive ends usually aren't, so it isn't easy to evaluate his impact. But being blocked out of running plays combines poorly with only a few of those pass disruptions I just mentioned means he generally had a poor game.
Everson Griffen, the subject of much debate because of his athleticism, was on the field for 40 snaps. He did grab a sack, but it's honestly more of a coverage sack than anything else. With that, he also missed two tackles and couldn't generate consistent pressure regardless of where he was lined up. It was an unusual game for the situational rusher, who usually racks up more pressures and hits. He took bad angles on some plays, but never took any plays off, to his credit. The offsides penalty was big, and his inability to beat run blocking linemen put him at a huge disadvantage. While still a backup, he almost put in starters numbers (and more than Fred Evans), and as such can be safely called the worst performing member of the defensive line.
Replacing Evans on occasion was Christian Ballard, who was neither good nor bad. His additional weight works with him well, but he's not going to be busting down any doors soon. In his 22 snaps, I didn't notice a lot. He was moved around by run blockers on occasion, but not nearly as much as Everson Griffen or (sad to say) Jared Allen. He could pursue fairly effectively and still has a talent for shedding blockers when rushers try to meet him at the point of attack. I don't have an extraordinary number of notes on him, which means he was quiet as well, but at least was never embarrassed. He recorded one hit on the quarterback.
Chad Greenway turned around a three game slump, and performed admirably once more. In all of his snaps (64 of them), I only saw three plays that were ever concerning, and none were repeated mistakes. He once bit on play action (on the second drive) and exposed his zone, missed a tackle after expertly shedding a blocker (at the top of the second quarter) and misreading a play later on.
For Greenway, the name of the game was discipline. His gap discipline was fantastic, and his ability to affect the run game even without making tackles (and he had five) cannot be understated. More importantly, he excelled in coverage, a big turnaround from last year. His interception and pass deflection are great and should be noted (his first INT in three years), but just as impressive was his ability to range across the field and force Stafford to look off of him on several plays. When targeted (6 times), Greenway allowed a passer rating of 36.1. Despite his low interception count this year, he still is in the top half of all outside linebackers in coverage, and seems to be thriving in Alan Williams' defense.
Disappointingly, Jasper Brinkley didn't follow suit. He couldn't sustain his fantastic first half performance later into the game, and it could have cost the Vikings. He's not known for his ability to prevent passes, but his coverage early on was great. He got burned on one big play later in the game (by Calvin Johnson in zone coverage... not much to do there), but manned his assignments well in the beginning. He didn't deflect a pass, but he helped close down the middle with Chad Greenway. I'm beginning to suspect that Brinkley loves attacking inside zone runs about as much as Peterson loves running them, because he's fired up whenever he sees zone run alerts. He crashed down into gaps and helped blow up some run plays while making sure to read the play. Overall, he was quick and reactive in the first half.
Later on in the game, it took Brinkley longer to read the flow of the play or get to the right spot, and he missed several open field tackles. He looks to have messed up an assignment, rotating poorly in response to A.J. Jefferson's reaction to Calvin Johnson on the third drive of the third quarter, and couldn't prevent the Lions from picking on him. The penalty on his seemed a little harsh, but he needs to play smarter, too. The net result of his performance was poor.
Erin Henderson, who looks more fit to play in the nickel package than Brinkley, hasn't really been following his limited but stellar 2011 campaign with similar performances, but neither has he been bad. He played in 47 snaps, 29 of which were in the nickel package. The other 17 nickel snaps went to Brinkley, and Henderson is frankly better off with them. What stood out to me in this game was his closing speed, critical for any linebacker, but especially in this system. It was quick, both a result of his natural talent and his ability to read plays. He doesn't hesitate, which is great because he's usually right.
While not the type of coverage guy who can prevent the pass from getting to the target, Henderson is absolutely the type of linebacker who can prevent yards after the catch or knock it out of receivers' hands. In five targets, he allowed three receptions and five total yards after the catch, limiting his liability to 18 total yards in coverage. As a run stuffer, Henderson was aggressive, and took the wrong angle perhaps once. He wasn't easy to block out of plays and accounted for himself on five tackles (despite the box score crediting him with three). So while he doesn't look to make any Pro Bowl teams, he's still a reliable person to have as a weakside linebacker.
The Vikings had six defensive backs take significant snaps, one more than usual. Allowing a passer rating of 104.2 (and honestly higher, considering that Stafford's interception came against a linebacker) isn't typically good for a defense, but the secondary actually did alright. Wide receivers not named Calvin Johnson went off for five total receptions, with tight ends accounting for three more, giving receivers 41 yards and tight ends 32 more.
Antoine Winfield remains our best corner, and he once again led the team in tackles, generally impossible for a cornerback. His vastly underrated coverage skills were put to the test against the Lions, and he unfortunately didn't perform to the standard he set for himself, like in his games against Washington or Indianapolis. As a tackler, Winfield's form is perfect and was so once again in this game. He can find space and make plays in the open field or when forced to get rid of blockers. Receivers rarely have the blocking ability needed to control Winfield, and his ability to blow up running plays is invaluable.
In coverage, he wasn't as great as he should expect, and was burned on two plays early on. While he recovered and generally played a solid game after that, his miscues were pretty bad. On the third Lions play of their first drive he was beat on a bail technique, which usually gives him a solid head start against receivers. Calvin Johnson is admittedly hard to stop, but Winfield's age is showing. To his credit, Johnson also has some of the savviest receiver moves in the game, but they didn't really work on Antoine. Instead, he just got beat.
Later in the first quarter he gets beat in man coverage again, and sort of makes up for it on the next play with a great move against the run. Still, it could have foreshadowed a bad day. The veteran cornerback tightened up (although was off his spot on at least two zone plays) and continued to play his forte—press coverage. Aside from those two (big) mistakes, he only allowed one more reception and stayed close enough to the line of scrimmage to cause real damage. An up and down game from Winfield, but better than it was worse.
Asked to pick up the slack for an absent Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson has been a fine backup. Without having too much responsibility to cover Johnson, though, Jefferson wasn't really tested much against the Lions' best receiver. He generally had good coverage, but a hard slant on a goal line play beat him when it really shouldn't have. It may have been the worst play by a member in the secondary, and it was really too bad. Other than that, there were some rotation problems and issues with zone markers, but nothing too serious. Jefferson has picked up on the system well, and looks to be a smart trade for the conditional pick that he went for. He also does well in run defense, something I did not expect.
The young rookie, Josh Robinson, was in a lot more trouble than anyone else, having been targeted consistently and often by the end of the day for lots of yards. While he wasn't really a factor for better or worse in the first half, aside from being embarrassed by Calvin Johnson on one play where Johnson changes the look of his route stem an absurd three times and Robinson couldn't recover. After the second half, Robinson was targeted constantly and gave up a number of big receptions as well as a touchdown, giving Stafford a 133.9 passer rating when throwing to him.
That's not to say he was devoid of value. He added a pass deflection to his name, and his closing speed was unsurprisingly remarkable. Keeping up with players will never be a problem for Robinson, but he'll need to do more in order to stay on point. I never noticed him drifting out of his landmarks, but keeping leverage and playing the ball may be his weakness. He dropped an interception. It speaks well to his placement on the play, but players in a system that discourages ball-hawking need to be more on-point when their rare opportunities for an interception come.
Harrison Smith played more snaps than either of the other two safeties, and the Vikings seem committed to making sure he gets as much playing time as possible on the field. There's no question that Smith is one of the hardest hitters on the team, but concerns about him wrapping up have materialized, and he missed yet another tackle this week. He did serve as a good safety net on several plays, making sure that runs didn't go very far, along with Raymond and Sanford. On the other hand, his missed play was a really bad miss on an open field tackle, and there's not much to say there.
For the most part, his coverage was actually fairly solid, but the big play attached to his name was a really bad touchdown. Rushing down from beyond the box, Smith lines up with less than half a second before the snap to press Brandon Pettigrew, who avoids the attempt at rerouting. Smith couldn't recover in his man assignment and it was an easy touchdown for Stafford. If this was an attempt to disguise coverage, it obviously worked out poorly. More worrisome is that this might have been an example of a playcall that Smith didn't realize until it was almost too late. Winfield has jawed at Smith before for blown coverages, so this is a possibility. Given that Smith may not have cheated down properly in response to receivers hitting the seam, there are potentially some questions as to his fit in the scheme, but there's nothing too big or obvious to worry about yet.
Jamarca Sanford may have been the biggest surprise for Vikings entering this season, with his strong play more than making up for Mistral Raymond's absence due to injury. In this game, Sanford was his usual intuitive self, only being targeted once (for a 50 yard gain) and generally picked his spots well. In the lone reception, he put himself in a very bad situation against a very good receiver, playing too far outside on an inbreaking Calvin Johnson. He may have bit on play action, but that's unlikely given his position relative to Johnson. More than likely, he didn't expect the big receiver to move as quickly as he did. But his positioning on other plays has been fantastic and Stafford had to look off of him more than once.
As a run defender, Sanford forced yet another fumble to go with his three tackles on only 8 run attempts with him on the field. He moved well and read the flow of the play very well. There are still occasional communication issues between him and the rest of the secondary, but these have only manifested on a few plays over the course of several weeks.
Mistral Raymond's return to the starting lineup should have been celebrated, but was largely quiet. While it's good for a safety to be quiet, his time on the camera wasn't fantastic either. He was targeted twice, and he let both passes be caught by receivers and added to his woes by adding a penalty that while a bit touchy, was also correct. He didn't look impressive when put on the spotlight, and he may need more time on the field before he's fully ready to contribute as a full time starter. He was similarly silent in the run game, recording two tackles in clean-up duty and not much else. This is obviously not Raymond's ceiling, but for now it seems like Sanford is the better option. Raymond does get credit for helping prevent a touchdown with a tackle, but it's not enough to call his performance good.
Defensive MVP: Chad Greenway
Unseen Player of the Game: Jamarca Sanford
Defensive "Underclassman" of the Game: Christian Ballard (There's a good argument that no one gets this one)
Defensive Honorable Mention: Antoine Winfield