The Vikings have had a top 10 defense since Mike Zimmer came to town five years ago, and such was the case last year as well.
But last year represented the first year that the defense suffered a bit of a regression in overall rankings, slipping to #3 in yards allowed and #9 in points allowed. Of course there was no where to go but down after the 2017 season, when they finished #1 in both metrics.
Most of the Vikings older core players - Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith included, didn’t play as well in 2018 as they did in 2017. In some cases it may have been more injury-related, in another (Smith) it may have been a bit of a slide from elite level - he was the highest rated player by PFF in 2017.
That was off-set some by younger players that either stepped-up or continued to play well. Anthony Harris, MacKensie Alexander and Stephen Weatherly among the former, and Danielle Hunter among the latter. Holton Hill and Mike Hughes also showed promise, if not always elevating the overall defensive performance last season.
But overall, even with the addition of Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle, the Vikings defense gave up 4 more points per game last season compared to 2017, slipping from #1 to #9 in the process. In terms of yards, the Vikings gave up 5.0 yards per play last season (4th best), up from 4.8 (best) in 2017. Similarly, yards per game went up by 19 (290.5 to 309.7), going from first to fourth in the process.
Zimmer’s Evolving Defense
One of the reasons for the Vikings defensive slide last season was a slow start. Mike Zimmer had installed some changes during the off-season which proved to be too complicated, according to Zimmer, and were being exploited. The Vikings had been playing a fair amount of mixed zone coverage (Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6 shells), which is good at preventing deep passes, but often leaves it up to linebackers to cover the underneath routes. There also appeared to be some confusion when it came to assignments, particularly early on in Cover 6. Here is a link to a good primer on coverages.
By the end of September, the Vikings defense ranked #22 in points allowed, at 27.5 per game - ten more than their 2017-18 average. They were also giving up 6.1 yards per play - 27th in the league.
Zimmer was able to straighten some things out scheme-wise after the Rams game (38 points, 556 yards allowed), but teams did have continued success with some plays against the Vikings pretty much the whole season. Perhaps the most successful play involved having a receiver, whether WR, TE or RB, cross the formation (either in front or behind), and get open for a nice gain.
As you can see from the video above, most teams the Vikings played last season (the Bears being a notable exception), where able to have some success with this type of play. There were other similar concept plays, some screens most notably, that also had repeated success over the course of the season - the Patriots in particular had good success with screen passes. Most of these plays were not game-breakers, but they were successful in moving the chains and getting some chunk plays in the course of a scoring drive.
What you see happen on most of these plays, is the opposing offense sending their outside receivers deep to clear the CBs, often with two high safeties, or a safety on the line-of-scrimmage threatening blitz, which leaves the short middle of the field to the Vikings linebackers to defend. The receiver crossing the formation often leaves the linebackers off-guard and/or out of position to make a play, and the result is an easy completion followed by a lot of yards after the catch (YAC).
It is somewhat telling that the linebacker group, despite covering generally shallower routes than either CBs or safeties, gave up the most yards per target for the Vikings last season. They also had the highest passer ratings allowed when targeted among starters on defense.
Here is a coverage breakdown per player and position group.
The numbers are: coverage snaps / targets / target % / passer rating allowed / rec. yards allowed / yards allowed per coverage snap
Anthony Harris: 340 / 13 / 3.8% / 24.0 / 52 / 0.15
Harrison Smith: 561 / 36 / 6.4% / 71.1 / 336 / 0.60
Andrew Sendejo: 207 / 7 / 3.4% / 83.6 / 57 / 0.28
56 total targets, 5.1% target rate, 445 yards, 7.9 avg. per target, 0.40 yards per coverage snap.
MacKensie Alexander: 360 / 59 / 16.4% / 85.4 / 383 / 1.06
Jayron Kearse: 124 / 15 / 12.1% / 89.8 / 89.0 / 0.72
74 total targets, 15.3% target rate, 472 yards, 6.6 avg. per target, 0.98 yards per coverage snap.
Holton Hill: 213 / 31 / 14.6% / 67.0 / 183 / 0.86
Xavier Rhodes: 455 / 69 / 15.2% / 88.4 / 470 / 1.03
Trae Waynes: 432 / 54 / 12.5% / 95.4 / 429 / 0.99
Mike Hughes: 159 / 28 / 17.6% / 112.4 / 261 / 1.64
182 total targets, 14.5% target rate, 1343 yards, 7.4 avg. per target, 1.07 yards per coverage snap.
Eric Wilson: 179 / 26 / 14.5% / 87.5 / 133 / 0.74
Ben Gedeon: 114 / 18 / 15.8% / 100.0 / 183 / 1.61
Eric Kendricks: 463 / 67 / 14.5% / 104.7 / 630 / 1.36
Anthony Barr: 374 / 30 / 8.0% / 125.3 / 207 / 0.55
141 total targets, 12.5% target rate, 1153 total yards, 8.2 avg. per target, 1.02 yards per coverage snap.
So - How To Fix The Problem ?
During the off-season, Mike Zimmer said he was looking at plays opponents ran (with some regularity and success) against the Vikings and looking at adjustments to counter these plays. It was part of a commentary on the cat-and-mouse, copy-cat league, where Zimmer said he didn’t use his signature double-A gap blitz look as much last season because others had copied it and teams had seen it enough to develop effective counters to it.
Now the onus is on Zimmer to develop counters to these plays designed to isolate and exploit Vikings linebackers in coverage.
One of the problems in defending the short routes with the receiver crossing the formation is that often Eric Kendricks was responsible for the coverage from his middle linebacker position. But with the receiver crossing the formation, and Kendricks reacting after he crosses the middle of the formation, Kendricks was often caught out of position or at least a couple steps behind the receiver in his route.
One solution to this problem Zimmer began to implement some last season was to move Kendricks to an outside linebacker in base (3 LB) defense so he was in better position to cover this route. But there are others that can be implemented as well.
The first is to do a better job in pre-snap disguise of the coverage shell, making it more difficult for a QB to correctly identify any type of 2-deep safety coverage, whether Cover-2, Cover-4, or Cover-6. The reason is that when there is a safety in the box (and also not as a blitzer), this type of play is not as successful as the safety can help in underneath coverage.
Another fix for this type of play is who plays base linebacker. Traditionally that is an old-school type linebacker - Ben Gedeon for the Vikings - who is more of a run-stopper than coverage guy. But as the league has changed, passing becoming more prolific while running, and run-blocking,has become more finesse than power, substituting a guy like Jayron Kearse for Gedeon - whether you call him a linebacker, safety or big slot corner, makes some sense. That certainly can be part of a weekly game plan, or an in-game adjustment, depending on the opponent, their scheme and game plan. Most of Kearse’s snaps last year were at slot corner, although he only played 203 snaps on defense all season. Ben Gedeon had 311 snaps on defense. Kearse is a decent run defender and tackler - 11 stops and no missed tackles last season, on 16 tackles and 2 assists. He’s also better in coverage than Gedeon, and most likely more so defending against running backs and tight ends, as opposed to the wide receivers he’s covered in the past.
Mike Zimmer has spoken on a few occasions in the past about possibly having three safeties on the field in certain situations, although he’s never actually done it much. Perhaps this is the year he implements that idea. It would be interesting to see how opposing offenses react to it, as while there would be smaller bodies in the box, which may tempt them to run more, there would also be seven or more defenders in the box, which usually leads to passes on option plays.
Having effectively a third safety in Jayron Kearse also gives the Vikings defense flexibility as Kearse can also play slot corner, should a receiver shift to the slot, or even deep safety. The trend in the league for hybrid/multi-position players such as Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Tarik Cohen, and rookie TEs like Irv Smith Jr. and Noah Fant creates a need for more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive back to better match-up against these players.
This may also create more opportunities for Anthony Barr to move forward, as opposed to moving back into coverage- which is his weakest skill set. Mike Zimmer has talked a bit about possibly giving Barr more opportunities to rush the passer, and Barr is also good as a tackler and run defender.
Lastly, it will be interesting to see what Mike Zimmer does this year on the back-end given changing strengths and skill sets of his players.
Anthony Harris has emerged as a very good free safety playing center field, eclipsing Harrison Smith in coverage, while Smith continues to be elite in run defense and tackling. Meanwhile, Anthony Barr has proven a better pass rusher and run defender than coverage guy.
All that could lead Barr to playing more middle linebacker in base defense situations, with Kendricks and perhaps Jayron Kearse outside. It could also lead to more Harrison Smith as a box defender against run and pass. In passing situations it could be Smith in underneath coverage and Barr rushing off the edge or blitzing a gap inside.
Smith has been more deadly in zone coverage, and his ability to read and react underneath could make those passes a lot more dangerous for opposing QBs this season.
I wouldn't expect as much change outside in coverage, with Rhodes, Waynes (for now) continuing to man the outside CB spots and Alexander in the slot in 3WR sets. Rhodes most often travels with the opposing offense’s best wide receiver, and I don’t see that changing this season. Waynes has done notably better in man coverage than zone in recent years, so hopefully he will be used more in this capacity. Alexander had a breakout year last season at slot corner, and was the highest rated Vikings cornerback last season according to PFF.
The hope is that with improved CB depth in Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, both of whom I would expect to rotate with the starters when available, the Vikings corners will be fresher throughout the game without much of a drop off in performance when the backups are on the field. Hopefully that will lead to fewer minor injuries over the course of the season like hamstrings, ankles, bumps and bruises as well.
Beyond that, it will be interesting to see if Zimmer makes any changes up front schematically with the defensive line. Having a healthy Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen should help the defensive line be more consistent and dominant than last season. If a good 3-tech can emerge from the pre-season competition that would really help. Shamar Stephen can be a place holder at 3-tech who knows the system, but he isn’t likely to be much of a pass rushing threat. A guy like Hercules Mata’afa, if he can deliver the goods and be competent with his assignments, could be a real bonus this year.
Overall, with more consistent pressure upfront, the Vikings and Mike Zimmer may be able to use more simplified schemes more often this season - like Cover-1 - because they have the players to simply man-up and win. The Vikings are one of the few teams in the NFL that have the personnel, particularly on the back-end, to run a man coverage (Cover-1) scheme successfully. And they have.
But this is the NFL and coaches spend a lot of time designing and developing match-up advantages and counters to every known defensive scheme.
And so Mike Zimmer’s work is never done. But he does have a considerable advantage over most offenses: almost all his players have been in his scheme for several years, and are well beyond the basics in terms of knowledge and variations they know how to run. They also have all the chemistry that goes with working together for several years. The back-end has run pretty much every coverage shell from Cover-0 to Cover-6, tailored to their needs and purposes. The defensive front communicate well and can jump around and make pre-snap position adjustments on the fly without problems. Core linebackers Barr and Kendricks have played together for almost ten years now, going back to their UCLA days, and are fluent in Zimmer’s defense and signal calls - often knowing in advance adjustments or calls Zimmer may make in a given situation.
This gives them a big knowledge base advantage, as there are few things they haven’t seen or done before. But in the NFL, if you’re not evolving, you’re falling behind. And having pretty solid veterans at pretty much every position allows Mike Zimmer to install some new things on defense without the heavy lifting that often goes along with it.
He needs to make full use of that advantage, by continuing to tailor what is already a full arsenal of options to put his players in the best position to succeed each and every play.
And that’s what he’ll be doing for the next six weeks as training camp opens.