Something that you might have missed amidst the bevy of “cat on the field” memes and calls for Kiko Alonso and Ndamukong Suh to be suspended from last night’s game was Baltimore running back Alex Collins rushing for a ho-hum (for him) 113 yards on just 18 carries.
That’s a healthy 6.3 yards a clip, which is surprisingly Collins’ third-highest yards per carry of the season. He has twice averaged more than nine yards a carry, rushing for 82 yards on nine carries in Baltimore’s consecutive losses to the Jags and the Steelers earlier this season.
Why am I starting this piece about the Vikings off with information about Baltimore’s new leading running back? Because he currently leads the NFL, small sample size though it may be, in yards per carry. Through seven games this season (he wasn’t active Week 1), Collins is averaging 6 yards a carry. That’s right, six. He currently leads Kareem Hunt for the NFL yards per carry mark, with Hunt averaging an impressive 5.8 YPC himself.
And the Vikings shut Collins down. Stopped him stone-cold. In 70 rushes against non-Vikings opponents, Collins has earned 448 yards, a 6.4 yards per carry pace. Against the Vikings? 10 carries, 30 yards. 3.0 yards a carry.
So far in 2017, the Vikings have allowed just two teams to rush for more than 100 yards against them, the Pittsburgh Steelers (102 yards) and the Chicago Bears (115 yards). Everyone else? Under 100. Only allowed 97 yards to the Lions. 72 to the Packers. 64 to the Ravens. 60 to the Saints. And a paltry 26 to the Bucs.
According to the always-helpful Pro Football Reference, the Vikings find themselves ranked thusly in run defense categories through seven games (low numbers are good for rankings, in case it wasn’t clear): 5th in attempts against (166), 3rd in yards against (536 yards), 2nd in rushing touchdowns allowed (1), and 3rd in yards per carry against (3.2). The two teams currently in front of the Vikings, the Browns and Broncos, either face the Vikings this weekend (the Browns, duh) or have played one fewer game due to having an early bye (the Broncos). So, in theory, depending on game flow against the Browns and how well the Broncos handle Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs, the Vikings could easily be atop both the rushing yards allowed and yards per carry charts by this time next week.
Anyway, it’s not just the cumulative stats that are showing the Vikings with a good run defense. DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is a method the website Football Outsiders uses to evaluate teams. They describe its definition as thus:
DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
Basically it’s an efficiency metric that evaluates how good a team’s offense is at successfully moving the ball and how good defenses are at stopping an offense from getting the job done.
The Vikings currently score a -24.9% in run defense DVOA, which ranks fourth in the league. This stat, in case you are wondering, measures how well the Vikings do against all runners, not just running backs. In case the definition flew over your head (and I can understand why it might), this means that the Vikings have caused opponents to be nearly 25% less successful at running the ball then your generic average NFL team. The Vikings last season ranked 16th in run defense DVOA, coming in at -11.7%. In case you were wondering, last season’s top-ranked run defense, the New York Jets, came in at -28.1% DVOA.
Going back to 2009, the Vikings have ranked 16th (2016), 18th (2015, -8.2%), 25th (2014, -.8%), 16th (2013, -6.2%), 7th (2012, -14%), 9th (2011, -10.5%), 8th (2010, -13.1%), and 1st (2009, -19.3%). So what exactly has the Vikings finally defending the run at a level even better than when they last topped the rankings in 2009? A number of things, as it happens.
As one might expect, it starts up front with our big man in the middle, Linval Joseph.
Big day up front for Linval Joseph pic.twitter.com/IGxWbPNnpI— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 22, 2017
A run “stop” as used by Pro Football Focus is a play where a defensive player makes a solo tackle that results in the defense ‘winning’ the play. ‘Winning’ means where the offense gets less than half of the necessary yardage needed for a first down. That means that runs of four yards or less on first down count as a stop and you go from there depending on how many yards your team needs for a first down after that.
PFF’s run stop percentage is calculated by dividing the total number of stops the player has made by the number of run snaps played. Before the Ravens game, Joseph had played 112 snaps in run defense and tallied 18 stops, tied for most among all interior defensive linemen, for a run stop percentage of 16.1%. His three run stops on 18 snaps against the Ravens made his percentage tick upwards ever so slightly to 16.2%. (Coincidentally, the Vikings will face off against the second- and fifth-best run defenders in the NFL according to this metric this week and faced the fourth-best run defender in Davis last week.)
This may come as a bit of a shock, but the Vikings have arguably the best cover corner AND the best run stopping corner in the NFL on their team right now. And no, the best run-stopping corner is NOT Xavier Rhodes. It’s Trae Waynes.
Waynes’ abilities on the outside and sure tackling ability have given the Vikings an additional boost to their run defense. And that’s not all.
Football Outsiders has more about how well the Vikings have been playing as an entire defense. Minnesota’s ranked ninth in their adjusted line yards stat (3.88), a stat that is best explained by trying to read the page that explains it. Minnesota ranks fourth in running back yards per carry (3.25), behind Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Denver. Minnesota also ranks third in second level yards (.8; yards earned by opposing running backs between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage divided by the total number of carries by opposing running backs) and first in open field yards (.18; yards earned by running backs 10 yards past the LOS divided by the total running back carries by opposing teams). As Football Outsiders says themselves:
A team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in Open Field Yards has a strong defensive line but its linebackers and secondary have difficulty in pursuit and tackling. A team with a low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a high ranking in Open Field Yards generally allows runners to get past the defensive line but the linebackers and secondary are good at pursuit and tackling. A low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards with a high ranking in Open Field Yards is often an indicator of a 3-4 defensive scheme, though there are exceptions.
The Vikings have been very good at both, a sign that the defensive line has been very good and the linebackers/defensive backs have been incredible at pursuit and tackling. The only cloud coming from this article is that the Vikings find themselves ranked 21st and 27th (67% & 18%), respectively, in power success and stuff percentage. Power success is the percentage of runs on third and fourth down with two yards or fewer to go that attained a first down or touchdown. Stuff percentage is the number of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The power success statistic is INCREDIBLY deceiving. The first instance of a team trying to run on the Vikings in the situations defined above didn’t come until second play of the 4th quarter of the Bears game, a rushing attempt by Tarik Cohen that was negated by a Griffen offsides penalty. The first such play to actually count was an Aaron Jones rushing attempt halfway through the third quarter of the Packers game, a 3rd and 1 the Vikings stopped. The second was a 7-yard Buck Allen run at the end of the half against the Ravens. The third was a 2-yard run by Allen halfway through the third quarter. That’s it. There have been four rushing attempts in those situations all season against the Vikings, with two succeeding, one failing and one failing but having an offsides penalty called.
The run stuff percentage carries a little more weight because of the obviously raised sample size, but when comparing it to the Vikings rankings in second level and open field yards, it’s pretty clear that when a running back isn’t stopped behind the line of a Vikings defensive player, they are getting stopped within five yards of the line.
The Vikings, due to Defensive Player of the Year-worthy play from players at all three levels of their defense, have become a top-five defense against the run. The Vikings have faced two of the top three running backs in yards per carry in Aaron Jones and Alex Collins and have held them to 3.15 and 3 yards per carry, respectively.
They face just two more top-10 running games through the remainder of the season, the Rams (the 5th-ranked running game) and the Bears (7th-ranked), and the Vikings get both of them at home.
Look for the Vikings to continue to dominate defenses, especially with their performance against the second-rated running game (the Ravens), the Bears, and the 13th-ranked Saints. Health of the players will obviously matter, but as long as any absences are limited throughout the remainder of the season, the Vikings will continue to feature one of the best run defenses of the NFL this season.