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Vikings Training Camp Outlook and Insights: Defense

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A look at how things are shaping up on defense as training camp begins

NFL: Minnesota Vikings-Training Camp Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Following up on the training camp outlook and insight for the offense, let’s take a look at what may be in store for the defense as training camp begins in earnest.

No Shortage of Talent at CB

Prior to the draft, I don’t think many people would have pointed to the defensive secondary, and particularly the cornerback position, as an area of weakness for the Vikings. Xavier Rhodes is a shut-down corner on his side, while Trae Waynes quietly became a quality corner on the other side. How many times did you hear his name called the last half of the season? He had one of the lowest QB ratings allowed on man coverage in the league last year, while continuing to be excellent in run defense. Lastly, while MacKensie Alexander still wasn’t there yet at nickel corner, based on his comments at the end of the season there wasn’t too much doubt Terence Newman would be back for one more season.

After the draft, the Vikings added two of the top CB talents in the draft in Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. Hughes had been rated as one of the top 3-4 corners in the draft throughout, while Hill may have been in the top half dozen based on talent and his tape at Texas, but went undrafted because of marijuana use and maturity concerns.

Throughout the off-season, Hughes has looked the real deal at corner, and also looks like he could be the return specialist for the Vikings on special teams. The general view was more reserved on Hill during the off-season, more from the standpoint of can he stay clean, and because he didn’t have the visibility of first-round pick Hughes.

But since training camp opened for rookies, both corners are showing that they can not only make the team, but possibly be early contributors as well. Hill has impressed on the field and Mike Zimmer had some positive comments on him as well.

Mike Hughes has earned even more kudos from players and coaches alike, and has also taken over as the Vikings kick returner (and possibly punt returner too).

Hughes and Hill may prove to be a 1-2 punch for Marcus Sherels, as the Vikings normally keep six CBs on the roster, and that increasingly looks like Rhodes, Waynes, Newman, Alexander, Hughes and Hill - probably the deepest CB roster in the NFL.

How Will the Defensive Front Seven be Utilized?

The addition of Sheldon Richardson is certainly the focus upfront on defense, but I’m more intrigued by the Vikings looking to use Anthony Barr more as a pass rusher - and with his hand on the ground.

I’ve speculated during the off-season that the Vikings may have the personnel better suited to a 3-4 defense up-front, even though that change doesn’t seem likely under Mike Zimmer, who has always run a 4-3 except for one year under Bill Parcells, who wanted that formation. Another possibility is that the Vikings could use a hybrid defensive front - sometimes a 4-3, and other times a 3-4, which is a recent trend in the NFL. Our own Eric Thompson reported on Day 2 that the Vikings were using a 4-3 Under formation, which to greatly simplify, would give the Vikings two pass rushers on either side- Barr and Hunter on one side, Richardson and Griffen on the other, with a nose tackle in the middle, by moving Barr up to the line outside of Hunter and sliding the two other LBs over to cover the inside gaps against the run. Like the 3-4, it basically gives the defense 5 guys on the line that can rush the quarterback. In this case Barr and Griffen would be similar to the outside LBs in a 3-4, Hunter and Richardson similar to 3-4 DEs, and Joseph/Johnson/Parry the NT occupying the center and right guard. There are variations.

If you click on the 4-3 Under link, you can see how this formation is used effectively against both run and pass, and various offensive formations. It is true that the Seahawks under Pete Carroll use this formation a lot (and often paired it with a Cover-3 secondary).

This may be insightful into how the Vikings may evolve on defense in several ways.

First, utilizing a 4-3 Under front would make the Vikings less dependent on Everson Griffen to generate pressure on the quarterback. This is a good thing as Griffen is getting older and the Vikings have three other good pass rushers in Richardson, Hunter and Barr. In this formation, even with a double TE set and/or a back in pass protection, at least one of those pass rushers just has to beat one guy to get to the quarterback, but most likely two or three would face just one blocker. It would also create more of a damper on the QB getting out of the pocket. It just so happens that all of those guys (with the possible exception of Barr), are pretty good run defenders as well.

Secondly, with more of a pass rush generated by the 4-3 Under, the Vikings could use more man coverage outside (Cover-1), as Waynes has proven better in man coverage than in zone, and Rhodes does well in both but typically plays more man. At safety, Harrison Smith could continue his free-roaming ways as he reads the play and to confuse the quarterback, while Andrew Sendejo or possibly another corner plays centerfield. That could also change to a Cover-3 or Cover-4 in the red zone.

In any case, this looks to be a better way to utilize the talent on the Vikings defense, while also being potentially more effective against the increasing use of double-TE formations (or un-balanced lines).

More Quality Depth Emerging?

With the Vikings starting lineup on defense about as rock-solid as any team could possibly hope for at literally every position, training camp - outside of possible scheme changes - may be more about the emergence of quality depth. I’ve already written about cornerback depth, but it will also be interesting to see how guys like Jayron Kearse, Anthony Harris, Jaleel Johnson, Tashawn Bower, Eric Wilson, Jayln Holmes and David Parry develop in their pre-season and training camp reps.

I expect Jaleel Johnson to get a lot more playing time this year in rotation, and both safeties to be able to fill-in without too much of a drop in performance. Other guys like Bower and Wilson could see some a little more playing time as well to keep starters fresh.

Overall Outlook on Defense

With the number one defense in the NFL last year returning intact, except for the notable upgrade at 3-Tech in Sheldon Richardson, there is every reason to believe this will continue to be one of, if not the best, defensive units in the NFL again this year - barring injury.

So, in many ways the best thing that can come out of training camp is no injuries.

Knock on wood.

Poll

What do you think about the Vikings utilizing a 4-3 Under front this year?

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    It’s a good thing
    (913 votes)
  • 15%
    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
    (191 votes)
  • 12%
    What the hell is a 4-3 Under front?
    (162 votes)
1266 votes total Vote Now