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Vikings Off-Season: Time for a 3-4?

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Is a 3-4 scheme a better fit for the Vikings defense?

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings Practice
One of the best DL coaches in the league- Andre Patterson
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings owned the best defense in the NFL last season, allowing both the fewest points, and fewest yards of any team. They allowed the 2nd fewest passing yards, and 2nd fewest rushing yards. They were historically good on 3rd down. Statistically it was the best defense Mike Zimmer has coached, and he’s coached some good ones. So, given the great success, using a 4-3 base defense, why not continue with what’s worked in the past? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

There’s a lot to be said for that. The Vikings have a solid and talented front seven, and they’ve been in the scheme a few years now, so why throw out something new?

Well, because one of the areas the Vikings defense struggled in last year was sacks. They were below average- 21st to be exact- in sack % despite having one of the best defensive fronts in the league. That was down from 6th in 2016. Everson Griffen was the only Viking to have double-digit sacks, with 13.

Part of the drop in sack % may have been somewhat by design, as one of the off-season focuses last year was improving run defense, which along with more of a QB contain philosophy, may have contributed to the decline in QB pressures and sacks. But nevertheless, with talent like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on the ends, Linval Joseph inside, and even Tom Johnson having one of his better seasons, and guys who can blitz well like Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith, you’d expect more pressure.

Toward the end of the season, the pressure from the Vikings defensive line seemed to wane as well, as Everson Griffen struggled with a foot injury, and whether by scheme or otherwise, nobody else was able to step up.

Which leads to the question: is the 4-3 the best scheme for this Vikings front seven?

Maybe not.

Why a 4-3 Alignment May Not be the Best for the Vikings Now

Last year, the Vikings seemed more dependent on Everson Griffen to generate pressure off his right end spot, while left end Danielle Hunter was more engaged setting the edge- containing the runner inside, including the quarterback on a passing play, which is a traditional function of a left-end in a 4-3 alignment. But that is also limiting in terms of pass rush ability. Danielle Hunter doesn’t have the freedom to pursue a full range of rush attacks/moves, or he’ll risk losing the edge and allowing a runner or QB outside for a big run, or potentially more time to throw and compromising the pass rush plan.

But is that what the highly athletic Danielle Hunter is best suited for? Maybe not.

Moving across to Linval Joseph, he is a prototypical nose tackle, who can play a variety of techniques from that spot, which typically involves taking on double-teams from the center and guard, allowing other linemen to make plays. The primary function of the NT is to stop the run, and on passing plays push up the middle to force the QB off his spot. All this is what Joseph does very well.

At the other defensive tackle position, known as the 3-technique, the Vikings had Tom Johnson. He did alright last year, but he’s never been a top defensive tackle, and that spot is key in generating pressure in the 4-3 alignment. The 3-technique is the interior lineman that has a one-on-one situation with typically the offensive guard, and it is his job to beat him and either help stop the run or generate inside pressure on the quarterback on passing plays. That didn’t happen much last year. Improving that spot is probably the biggest priority for the Vikings this off-season, and is why they are rumored to be pursuing Sheldon Richardson as a top free-agent.

Lastly, at right-end, the Vikings have Everson Griffen, who has performed well over a number of seasons. But Griffen turned 30 late last year, and was may have been somewhat hobbled with a foot injury the last part of the season, generating only 2 sacks over the last seven games. Injuries happen, but the problem is that in the Vikings scheme, they are really dependent on quarterback pressure off the right-end, and if it’s not there, quarterbacks will have more time to throw, and receivers more time to get open. It may also be that Griffen is not a quick around the corner as he once was, and more dependent on his bull rush (or threat of it) to generate pressure.

Behind the Vikings front four, they have Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and occasionally Ben Gedeon when they are not playing nickel defense. Both Kendricks and Barr are very athletic linebackers with great range, Barr being the better pass rusher, and Kendricks better in coverage. Neither have been as good recently in run defense, which is Gedeon’s forte as a more traditional two-down-thumper type linebacker. Barr is a sound tackler, but sometimes can get juked in space or take a bad angle, but has good size compared to the smaller Kendricks.

What I’m getting at here is that some of both Barr’s and Kendricks’ talents could be under-utilized in their current assignments in run support and coverage. Barr in particular seems to be less effective at times dropping into zone coverage.

Maximizing the talent of guys like Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Eric Kendricks, while being less dependent on one player (Everson Griffen) to generate pressure, would seem like a good move.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 3-4 alignment.

Why a 3-4 Alignment May be Better Suited to the Vikings Front Seven

Looking at a 3-4 base defense compared to a 4-3, it’s not just the alignment that is different, it is also the responsibilities and skill sets required at each position.

Below is a graphic of one-type of 3-4 alignment:

In this alignment, Linval Joseph would be the ‘N’ or nose tackle, lining up across from center, and I’ll project at this point that Jaleel Johnson would play one of the E positions, and (for now) say that Everson Griffen would play the other E spot. The S spot would be played by Anthony Barr, the W by Danielle Hunter, the M by Eric Kendricks, and the J by Ben Gedeon.

These would changes allow:

1) Danielle Hunter to be more of a pass rush specialist;

2) Anthony Barr to also have more of a pass rush role;

3) Linval Joseph to continue his role of anchoring the interior;

4) Provide better run stop ability with an extra interior defender, and a linebacker (Gedeon) who’s better against the run;

5) Give Kendricks less run support responsibility (and more coverage / flow) and also more protection up front.

6) In obvious passing downs, one of the rookie DEs last year- Bower or Odenigbo- could come in for Barr, and he could take Gedeon’s spot as he’s better in coverage while also a more effective blitzer.

It remains to be seen whether Everson Griffen would be as effective as a DE in a 3-4 alignment, or, maybe a change is made and a guy like Sheldon Richardson, who’s visiting with the Vikings today, would be worth signing and replacing the older Griffen, who presumably could be traded.

At the moment, the Vikings seem to have more talent waiting at the edge-rusher spots than the interior line spots, so essentially trading Griffen for Richardson makes some sense on that score as well. But who knows.

Another possibility within the 4-3 alignment, that could be a little better than last year, is to have Griffen and Hunter switch DE spots, and adding Richardson. But that would be a lot more expensive, and may still under-utilize the linebacker talents of Barr, Kendricks and Gedeon.

But a 3-4 alignment may be the most efficient use of talent, and other a different set of twist and blitz options that could be well executed by the Vikings currently on the roster.

Hybrid is a Possibility as Well

One of the newest developments in the NFL these days is the use of hybrid alignments, or basically using both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments at times, and other varied alignments to better adapt to situational football. Andre Patterson has always experimented with different techniques and alignments up front, utilizing different players and positions, to try to find what will be most effective in a given situation, and for the players involved.

Mike Zimmer has almost always gone with a 4-3 alignment (except one year when Bill Parcells wanted a 3-4), but he has also said it not so much about scheme or alignment, but fitting those things to best utilize players abilities. A 3-4 alignment would not preclude any coverage scheme that works best for the back end, and potentially may be more helpful if it generates more pressure up front.

But whatever the case, it may be worthwhile to consider a 3-4 alignment as possibly the best fit for this Vikings front seven.

Poll

Is a 3-4 alignment worth exploring this off-season?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Yes- could be a better fit
    (730 votes)
  • 60%
    No- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
    (1108 votes)
1838 votes total Vote Now