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Can the Vikings Defense Get There This Year?

How long until the Vikings defense is good again?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Vikings’ offense is the strength of the team this season, and they’ve needed that unit to score a lot of points to have a chance to win. The defense, in contrast to just about every year in the Zimmer era, has been the weak link (special teams a close 2nd). This season, the Vikings defense has given up an average of 27.7 points per game - 27th in the league. And while the median team per game scoring is up about 15% over last year, the Vikings defense is on pace to give up 43% more points per game than they did last year. That’s a significant increase.

There are a host of stats that pretty much paint the same picture: the Vikings defense isn’t as good as it was last year, or any year in the Mike Zimmer era. They also confirm what our eyes show us as well: the Vikings defense is giving up too many big plays, allowing scores on too many drives, and just isn’t as dominant in any phase of defense compared to previous years.

We also know why that is: player turnover. Pretty much all the starting cornerbacks are new and inexperienced, and the defensive line has lost its star power off the edge and stoutness in the middle.

The question that remains is how soon until the defense can get back to how it used to be- one of the top defenses in both yards and points allowed. Do we have to wait until next year? Or maybe the year after? Or should we be expecting more progress down the stretch this year?

Let’s take a look at the problems, progress and trends to get a better of idea of how far off things are for the defense.


Pass coverage has been an issue for the Vikings all season, particularly the first part of the season. The problems weren’t limited to the new cornerbacks either. Seasoned vets like Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and even Eric Kendricks did not start the season well in coverage. All three ended last season with elite coverage grades from PFF, but so far this season, only Kendricks has returned to his elite grade, slowly regaining it after a slow start.

But for Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, they still have a ways to go. Smith’s grade is currently only 73.5, while Harris is at 58.9. Near 90 and above is considered elite. The good news with Smith is that while his grade remains around average, his passer rating when targeted (48.4) has declined, meaning he hasn’t given up many big plays when he’s targeted - and has made a few of his own. That’s good for 7th best in the league among safeties with at least 250 coverage snaps this season. He’s given up a total of 47 receiving yards and no TDs over the last four games, which is next to nothing.

For Anthony Harris, he’s given up just 29 receiving yards and 1 TD over the last four games, but may have been fortunate in that a couple times he was beat but the receiver dropped the ball or the pass was inaccurate. Nevertheless, Harris is 15th in the league among safeties in yards/coverage snap allowed, at 0.36, just ahead of Smith at 0.39, for the season.

Meanwhile, the Vikings two primary coverage linebackers, Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson, are ranked 3rd and 4th in the league, respectively, in passer rating allowed when targeted among linebackers with at least 100 coverage snaps. They’re a little further down in yards/coverage snap allowed (19th and 21st), but overall they’re a strength in coverage, and arguably the best covering LB duo in the league right now.

And so among veteran defenders, things are beginning to look up as the season progresses. But among rookie and new cornerbacks, it’s still a work in progress.

Part of the problem with the young cornerbacks is not just that they’re inexperienced, but there’s also been a lot of shuffle among them as players have missed time with injuries. The good news here is that Cameron Dantzler, in the last three games he’s played in, has quietly improved - allowing just a 81.8 passer rating when targeted over that stretch. That compares with a 134.5 passer rating allowed over the first six weeks of the season.

Similarly, newcomer Chris Jones, after having a poor first game with the Vikings against Detroit week 9, has settled down and now has a 74.0 passer rating allowed over his last three games, and ranks 15th among cornerbacks with at least 50 coverage snaps in yard/coverage snap allowed over that stretch. He had an 87.0 PFF coverage grade against Carolina last Sunday, as well. Together, Dantzler and Jones have kinda split one starting cornerback spot over the past few weeks, and have begun to solidify one side of the field in coverage.

Jeff Gladney has seen the most action among the new cornerbacks, and has given up the most receiving yards (649) and touchdowns (7), by a large margin, among any Vikings defender this season. He has about 20% of opponent’s targets and receptions on the season, and is clearly a weak link in coverage. The reason is two-fold. First, he’s been asked to do a lot as a rookie, playing both slot and outside cornerback spots, moving to the slot in nickel situations. Kris Boyd generally takes over outside in nickel situations. Secondly, as a slot cornerback, Gladney doesn’t have the help outside cornerbacks get at times, and so his job can be more difficult. He also doesn’t have the boundary help in the slot, which can give him a lot of ground, and route options, to cover.

And so it’s not that surprising that Gladney has struggled in coverage. The good news is that he is showing some progress. His yards/coverage snap has declined to 1.35 since week 8, compared to 2.05 in the first seven weeks of the season. That’s a significant improvement. Additionally, his passer rating when targeted has declined from 143.8 the first seven weeks, to 115.3 since week 8 - once again significant improvement.

Lastly, Kris Boyd continues to get significant snaps at outside cornerback, but has made only modest progress between the first seven weeks of the season and these last four, going from a 118.8/1.93 passer rating allowed/yards per coverage snap allowed to 116.5/1.53.

Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, both of whom figured prominently in the CB rotation at the beginning of the season, have been on IR for most of it. Hughes is likely out for the season, and it’s unclear if Hill will be back.

Overall, there is some signs of hope and progress for the Vikings in coverage, but the biggest bonus down the stretch would come if Jeff Gladney could continue his pace of improvement.


Tackling is perhaps the most unheralded aspect of defense, maybe because it’s so basic. But against modern offenses- often built around getting players in space and maximizing yards-after-catch - tackling well is imperative.

The Vikings under Mike Zimmer have been the best tackling team in the NFL the last two seasons, according to PFF. But this year, like most other aspects on defense, they’ve fallen off a cliff. Now graded just 22nd in the league, the Vikings are on pace to have about 135 missed tackles this season - 30 more than last season.

Not surprisingly, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith lead the team in tackling grades (87.4 & 83.4) as tackling well is key for safeties as the last line of defense. But beyond that, it goes down quickly. Among starters, Jeff Gladney and Eric Kendricks are next in the mid and low 70s, with most others below 60. Eric Wilson leads the team with 15 missed tackles, and only Jayln Holmes and Anthony Harris are among the top 100 (just) in tackling efficiency, or how many tackle attempts per missed tackle, according to PFF.

There has been some, but not a lot, of improvement over the past five weeks compared to the first seven, but mostly the better tacklers listed above getting better. For the team overall, there hasn’t been any sign of progress, and in fact the last three games have been the worst 3-game stretch of the season in terms of overall team PFF tackling grade. Last week against the Panthers was the worst of the season.

At a glance, there is a general correlation in PFF tackling grade and NFL experience, which isn’t particularly surprising. But without much sign of progress among younger guys so far this season, it would seem unlikely they’d show much improvement over the last five games.

Pass Rush

The worst aspect of the Vikings defense this season has been their pass rush. Their PFF team grade of 59.1 is 2nd worst in the league. There hasn’t been any trend suggesting improvement over the course of the season either. The Carolina game was their 3rd worst pass rushing grade, and they’ve yet to have a strong outing rushing the passer.

The issue with the pass rush is that the Vikings, outside of an emerging D.J. Wonnum possibly, really don’t have the talent along the defensive line to rush the passer well. Obviously missing Danielle Hunter is huge in that regard, and even Yannick Ngakoue didn’t add all that much. But the rest of the Vikings pass rushers, including their edge rushers, are basically defensive tackles, in build and/or experience, and lack both the tools and length to be effective pass rushers. It’s not uncommon to see the Vikings basically have four bull rushers muscling to get off their block, giving the QB plenty of time to make a play. Most of the sacks the Vikings have managed without blitzing have been coverage-sacks, happening well after 2.5 seconds - the benchmark for a QB to get rid of the ball. A couple others have happened due to a blown blocking assignment. But true sacks where a Vikings’ defensive lineman beats his guy quickly and sacks the quarterback have been few and far between. I’m not sure any current Vikings defensive linemen have had one of those.

But pass rush isn’t just about sacks. It’s also about pressuring the quarterback - getting him off his spot and/or forcing him to throw the ball before he wants to. The Vikings haven’t been good here either.

So far this season, the Vikings have a total of 149 pressures, on pace for 217 for the season. Last year, the Vikings had 304. That’s a massive decline, largely due to the absence of Danielle Hunter, who had 97 pressures last season.

Only Hercules Mata’afa (5.9%), D.J. Wonnum (5.6%), and Ifeadi Odenigbo (5.3%) have pass rush productivity rates (pressures per pass rush weighted toward sacks) higher than 5%, which is a minimal threshold to make it into the top 100 pass rushers. The very best pass rushers have rates twice that high.

But the bottom line here is that the Vikings don’t have the pass rushers, outside of D.J. Wonnum perhaps, with enough talent and tools to become top pass rushers, and probably not even improve much from current levels. That makes pass coverage all the more difficult, as either they need to cover longer, or with fewer defenders if they blitz. But in all likelihood, the Vikings pass rush isn’t likely to improve much this season.

Run Defense

The Vikings run defense PFF grade of 50.1 is currently ranked 25th in the league, and has been on the downslide since 2017, when it was ranked 2nd at 91.4. Their PFF grade ranking this season is lower than their yards per rush allowed, which ranks 13th at 4.3.

The Vikings leading run defenders this season, in terms of PFF run defense grade, are Jeff Gladney (82.7), Kris Boyd (79.8), Anthony Harris (73.2) and Harrison Smith (71.4). Gladney is second only to Eric Kendricks in both tackles and defensive “stops” - plays where the offense failed (i.e. getting 4 yards on 3rd and 5 or 1 yard on 1st & 10).

It’s a bit of a mixed bag between rookie and veteran players when it comes to run defense. Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand are in the top 10 Vikings run defenders, along with Eric Kendricks, Shamar Stephen, and Jalyn Holmes. On the other hand, Eric Wilson, Chris Jones, James Lynch, and Jaleel Johnson are near the bottom.

Perhaps a benefit of having what amounts to four defensive tackles along the defensive line often times (and without D.J. Wonnum against the Jags, all the time), is that you’d expect a bit better run defense. That may not always be the case, but Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa are both among the Vikings better run defenders at the moment. Additionally, the current starting lineup at cornerback all happen to be among the Vikings best run defenders as well - Jeff Gladney, Kris Boyd, and Cameron Dantzler - which makes up a bit for Eric Wilson not being as good against the run, particularly outside the tackles.

Overall, the Vikings run defense has been kind of a bell-shaped curve over the season - starting low, peaking mid-way, and then declining. Last week against the Panthers was their worst overall team grade in run defense since week 2. That sort of progression doesn’t suggest much improvement the rest of the season. But 13th in yards per rush allowed is manageable.

Situational Football

Although breaking down the Vikings defense into the core elements - coverage, tackling, pass rush and run defense - reveals a host of shortcomings, some of which don’t appear poised for much improvement, there are some positives that could prove to be important down the stretch this season.

The most important is red zone defense. Despite all the rookies and lost players on defense, the Vikings have still managed to rank 3rd in red zone defense this season, allowing 51.3% of opponent red zone opportunities to be converted into touchdowns. That percentage is higher than in recent years, but the ranking is about the same.

The other area of strength that has also been a hallmark of Zimmer’s defense is on 3rd down. The Vikings rank 6th on 3rd down, allowing a conversion rate of 36.9%. That’s actually a bit better than last season.

The key to maximizing those situational football strengths is to not let them be circumvented. Sometimes the Vikings defense can allow so many yards on first and second down that their opponent doesn’t face many third downs, and when they do they’re of the third-and-short variety that are more difficult to defend. And sometimes they allow them to convert on 4th down after making a nice play on 3rd down.

Similarly, while the Vikings can be tough in the red zone, they’ve given up a fair number of big plays outside the red zone, but on their side of the field. The little crossing pattern route against the Panthers last week that went for a 41-yard touchdown is an example.

And so while the Vikings are one of the best defenses on 3rd down, and in the red zone, they’ve also allowed 47.8% of opponent’s drives to score - either field goal or touchdown - which is 4th worst in the league. To the extent those scores are field goals, that stat is manageable given the productivity of the offense, but it also suggests what the eye also confirms: opposing offenses are often successful moving the ball on the Vikings defense.


It’s taken awhile for Mike Zimmer and company to adjust their scheme to accommodate the skill sets of their players this year. Obviously with a lot of turnover, there is a need for adjustments, along with finding out exactly what each of the new players does best. Unfortunately that took a month or two to figure out, and in the meantime the defense lost a lot of games for the Vikings.

But really since the Vikings bye-week, Zimmer has been more consistent in going with 2-deep safeties to provide over-the-top help for the Vikings young cornerbacks. That’s helped reduce some of the big plays allowed, and along with the linebackers and safeties improving their coverage, has helped the Vikings pass coverage improve generally since week 7.

The pass rush hasn’t been there all season, but it seems that Zimmer is effectively electing to play coverage most of the time, and with four defensive tackles up front to help in run defense, along with safeties and cornerbacks too - especially outside. Occasionally, and perhaps a bit more than in recent years, Zimmer is also electing to blitz - sending either a linebacker or defensive back or two to help out the pass rush. That’s always a situational call, which can depend not only on down and distance, but the QB he’s facing as well. It’s always a bit of a gamble, and one that can bite you when you get it wrong or don’t execute it well, so it’s not ideal. But it can work well when it’s well timed.

Bottom Line

It’s no secret that the Vikings defense isn’t what it was in recent years. Losing star players, and replacing aging core players with rookies without much time to coach them up before they hit the field isn’t an ideal situation by any means. But that’s the situation, like it or not. The key is to make the overall defense greater than the sum of their individual parts by performing well when it matters, and scheming to get the most of what you got.

Since week 8, the Vikings defense has given up just under 20 points a game on average (not including opposing defensive scores), as opposed to the 32 points a game they gave up over the first six games. That’s a significant improvement. It’s also a more manageable hurdle for the Vikings’ offense to jump.

Looking ahead, it’s reasonable to expect the Vikings’ defense to be better than the first month or so of the year, as they’ve begun to figure some things out. On the other hand, outside of the Packers, they haven’t played any top QBs in recent weeks, so some of what they’ve achieved more recently can be discounted on that basis. But all things considered, it’s a reasonable expectation that the Vikings defense down the stretch will more closely resemble the post-bye-week defense, rather than the pre-bye-week defense, simply because they’ve had time to figure some things out, and rookies have several more games under their belt.

Hopefully that translates into a defense that can hold the Jaguars, Bears and Lions to around 20 points, and the Bucs and Saints to around 25 or so. This isn’t a defense that is going to win games for the Vikings this season - the much better offense needs to do that. But hopefully the defense (and special teams), can make that job a bit easier than the first part of the season.


How many points per game, on average, will the Vikings defense give up over the last five games of the season?

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  • 2%
    (16 votes)
  • 10%
    (76 votes)
  • 29%
    (212 votes)
  • 38%
    (274 votes)
  • 13%
    (98 votes)
  • 3%
    (22 votes)
  • 2%
    (16 votes)
714 votes total Vote Now