Words have been written, spoken, and cried through about the Vikings defense. Concerns have run the gamut from communication issues in the secondary, playing too loose to routes, personnel problems, play calling, and predictability. Saturday may have been a turning point for the NFC North champions as the Vikings tallied their highest blitz rate of the season.
After a failed fake punt led to Colts ball in Vikings territory, we witnessed a change. The Vikings played tight to routes, sent pressure, and got a 3rd down stop that led to a field goal. Sure, the Colts were already up 20-0 and hit the three to go up 23 early in the second quarter, but this was a small showing of an increased rate of pressure, tighter coverage, and fighting back against the offense.
On 1st down, the Colts came out in 11 personnel and ran a play action post wheel with Michael Pittman on a slide route. Duke Shelley and Chandon Sullivan took care of the post and wheel routes, Patrick Peterson was glued to the tight end across the field, and Harrison Smith sprinted to the slide route. We are used to seeing play action draw in linebackers while teams run routes right into vacated areas, but the Vikings won this rep:
On 2nd down, the Colts spread it out in an Empty set. The Vikings went to one of the NFL’s favorite “safe” pressures. Jordan Hicks ran free, forced Matt Ryan to escape the pocket, and led to an incompletion:
On 3rd down, the Vikings came out in a familiar double mug look. Last week versus the Lions, double mug looks were largely unsuccessful as the drop outs left open voids that Jared Goff was able to take advantage of. Here, the Vikings had seven on the line, sent six as Harrison Smith dropped out, and played man coverage behind it. Duke Shelley stayed disciplined on the double move and the throw wasn’t ever a threat:
Vikings send pressure from double mug. Had some issues with double mug drop out last week. Playing man and covering well for a 3rd down stop. Also check Harrison Smith rotating from on the line to MOF pic.twitter.com/NXe1rQhSdO— Shawn (@syedschemes) December 19, 2022
After this drive, the Vikings defense let up 0 TDs, 2 FGs, and forced 7 punts, a turnover, and a turnover on downs. The rest of the game was filled with different pressures to manipulate protections, playing tighter to routes, and more frequent safeties in the box to make life a little bit easier on the linebackers fitting the run.
Running backs play a huge role in pass protection. They also spend less of their time blocking than offensive linemen do. Getting running backs into tough situations is a good way to force the offense to only have 4 eligibles out on a play while also increasing the potential for sacks and pressures. On more than one occasion on Saturday, The Vikings were able to get a free rusher. A few of those instances forced the running back to make the “correct” decision in protection:
Vikings sending 4 from a side away from Za'Darius Smith. RB works outside in and Hunter is a free runner pic.twitter.com/6deqgigHzy— Shawn (@syedschemes) December 19, 2022
Aside from the increased pressure rate, some of the coverages we are used to seeing were executed at a higher level. Kevin O’Connell and members of the defense spoke about taking the air out of the coverage before the Colts game and playing tighter to routes led to good fortune for Minnesota:
The Vikings also had success in man coverage against the Colts:
The Vikings showed that they have a long list of pressures and the ability to play tight coverage. Closing space in the secondary, getting extra bodies to the quarterback, and trying to speed up the offense was a huge part of the Vikings’ comeback on Saturday. This type of approach can be a double edged sword, though. If the quarterback is able to avoid free rushers, there is more space to make plays. Defensive backs are challenged directly and a loss in 1 on 1 coverage can be fatal. Offenses will see this tape and know to have man beaters at the ready. However, no defensive call is perfect. Instead, the ability to be multiple on defense and provide different pictures for the quarterback can lead to success. That, combined with solidified fundamentals, may be what the Vikings defense needs as they play out the rest of the season already having acquired the title of NFC North champions.