As the Vikings close in on the division title and postseason berth, perhaps the biggest area of concern is their defense. While they’ve faced some top offenses over the course of the season, they’ve also yielded at least 22 points in 7 of their 11 games, and rank 31st or 32nd in yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and net yards per pass attempt allowed. They’ve also been trending downward in the percentage of scoring drives allowed. At one point they were in the top ten in that metric, but now they’ve gradually slipped down to 22nd, allowing 40% of opponent drives to result in either a touchdown or a field goal.
The general trend in defensive metrics has been downward as well after giving up an average of 30 points and 450 yards over the last three games. Granted two of those games were against top offenses, but these are the type of teams they’ll face in the playoffs. It’s tough to win when allowing 30 points or more. And giving up 26 points and over 400 yards to the Patriots bottom-third ranked offense wasn’t a great outing either.
So what seems to be driving this poor performance? Let’s take a look.
Pass Coverage the Weak Point
While the Vikings run defense has yielded some bigger runs on occasion, overall they rank just above league average in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed, and rank 2nd in team run defense grade according to PFF. They also rank 4th in tackling. So overall this isn’t really a problem for the Vikings’ defense- or at least why they rank so low overall.
The weak link is pass coverage.
While pass rush is a key component of effective pass defense, the Vikings edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter rank 3rd and 12th in the league in pass rush win rate. Dalvin Tomlinson, while he’s missed four games, ranks 6th among defensive interior linemen in pass rush win rate (just above Jonathan Allen). As a team, only the Cowboys and Titans have more QB pressures on the season than the Vikings. So you can’t really say the pass rush is the problem.
And when it comes to pass coverage, Patrick Peterson isn’t the problem either. He’s allowed an average of 35 receiving yards per game in his coverage this season and ranks 5th in PFF grade among all cornerbacks in the league. He’s also tied for 2nd in interceptions among cornerbacks, tied for 3rd in pass breakups, and tied for 4th in coverage snaps per reception allowed.
Cam Dantzler had a couple not great games early in the season against the Eagles and Lions but take away the Lions game (94 receiving yards allowed) and he’s only allowing 40 receiving yards per game in the 7 other games he’s played.
And while Cam Bynum hasn’t been as good overall this year as last, he’s only given up 160 receiving yards all season and has the fewest targets of any starter according to PFF. Harrison Smith also hasn’t been as good overall this season but is only giving up 30 receiving yards per game in his coverage- and has four interceptions- so it’s not really him either.
That leaves Jordan Hicks, Eric Kendricks, and Chandon Sullivan. These three are the problem. Together they’ve allowed nearly half of all the receiving yards allowed this season. The replacements for Cam Dantzler have also been part of the problem, but Akayleb Evans has been okay. If Evans and Dantzler can return and stay healthy, that will mostly solve the recent problem on that side too.
That gets us down to Hicks, Kendricks and Sullivan. I’ll start with Hicks and Kendricks first.
Play Action Passes are the Problem
Alex Lewis with The Athletic did a nice piece ($) recently isolating the problems the Vikings linebackers, and the defense in general, have had with play action passes this season. The Vikings are the worst team in the NFL when it comes to defending play action passes. They allow a league-high 9.17 yards per play against play action passes and first downs on 53.3% of them- also a league high.
Both Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks have been biting on play action fakes which has led to the above results. This is unusual for Kendricks, who as recently as last season was one of the best linebackers in the league when it came to biting on play action fakes:
among players that faced 100 or more play-action passes in a linebacker role in 2021, here were the players who bit the least hard on play action:— Eric Eager (@ericeager_) March 26, 2022
Kendricks provided some color on his approach to reading play action fakes, which included down and distance situation, research on team tendencies, and offensive line splits as keys.
For whatever reason, either that approach isn’t working as much this season, or Kendricks is taking a different approach. One logical reason may be that he is being coached differently given different coaches and scheme. Jordan Hicks may be following that same approach as well. It would be understandable, given the light boxes the Vikings lead the league in using, that more emphasis on run defense would be given to linebackers. This in turn may cause them to be more susceptible to play action fakes.
In this context, it’s worth noting that Eric Kendricks’ run defense grade is significantly higher this year compared to last year, but his coverage grade is significantly lower. A different emphasis from a coaching and/or scheme perspective may be a significant contributing factor to those changes. Hicks’ grades from last year have changed the same as Kendricks’, but only slightly.
This appears an area in need of adjustment and may be as much a coaching issue as a player issue. This week Kevin O’Connell was asked more generally about the defensive struggles, and responded this way:
We’ve got eleven games of inventory now, we’re to the point in the season where you really need to take a long look at what you put on tape schematically, tendencies, how can we tweak and adjust our schemes to take advantage of some of the things we put on tape and maybe teams are game planning against us, while still staying true to who we want to be at our core and really highlighting and positioning some of our playmakers to have critical impacts on some of the games on critical downs. I thought our defense’s ability to force an 0 for 3 in the red zone the other night was really important as well as they were able to get off the field on some third downs in the second half that were critical for us as an offense to respond and go get the lead back in kind of a back-and-forth type game like it was. So, we’ve got to continue to improve and take a look at all the little things we can do as a coaching staff to put our guys in the best possible situations and give our guys clear plans so they can go out and play fast on those critical downs.
Hopefully that means making some adjustments in how linebackers are coached to better react to play action passes.
Chandon Sullivan and Slot Corner
Beyond that, there is the issue of Chandon Sullivan in coverage. Slot corner may be the most difficult position to play defensively, as you don’t have the boundary to aid you and have to defend a full range of route options that puts a premium on agility and quickness. As a result, there just aren’t as many good slot corners in the league. That said, Sullivan isn’t among the best of slot corners this season.
One reason is that he’s given up the most yards-after-catch (YAC) of any slot corner. It’s one thing to give up a reception, but another to give up a long gain after the catch. He’s also given up the most receiving yards as well, although he’s also had the most coverage snaps of any slot corner too. Overall, he’s 4th highest in yards per coverage snap allowed.
The good news about Sullivan is that his last two games were his best of the season, and he’s generally been on the uptick since week 8. Hopefully that continues.
Man vs. Zone Coverage
Through week eleven, the Vikings have played the second lowest amount of man coverage in the league and haven’t really varied much from their 13.4% average from game to game either. And when they have increased their man coverage, it hasn’t always yielded better results. The Vikings’ safeties and cornerbacks all grade better in zone compared to man coverage, which isn’t surprising. Chandon Sullivan grades roughly the same in both.
However, both Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks grade noticeably better (about 10 points higher in PFF grading) in man coverage compared to zone. Such was the case with both linebackers last season as well. Last season both played about 22% man coverage, while this season they both have played less than 10% in man coverage. Perhaps scheming to give both linebackers more man coverage assignments would be beneficial for the Vikings pass defense in certain situations, particularly as they are the weak link at this point.
For a defense that’s struggled this season, there is a surprising number of players that are playing well for the Vikings this season. Getting back Cam Dantzler and Dalvin Tomlinson will be helpful and allow for more scheme variation.
But the challenge for the rest of the season will be to shore up the weak spots in coverage, as outlined above, and work on some new looks that haven’t been shown as much on tape.
The solutions don’t need to be perfect- the Vikings offense has a lot of weapons. Stalling a drive or two more each game would likely be enough in most games to get the Vikings to a win over good teams and set them up for greater success in the postseason.
Will the Vikings defense improve in a meaningful way before the playoffs?
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