As the Vikings work through training camp, I put together one article on expectations for the Vikings offense under the new regime, but now let’s take a look at expectations for the Vikings defense.
In many ways, given where the offense and defense finished last season, the fate of the Vikings 2022-23 season hinges on the performance of the defense. And with less continuity than the offense, there is a wider range of outcomes this season for the defense. There are also more questions as key defensive players are either new to the team, post-prime, coming back from injury, or young and unproven. There is a lot of talent, but assembling this assortment of players into a cohesive unit in a new scheme and under a new coaching staff will be quite an undertaking for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, becoming a bona fide defensive coordinator again at age 65.
About Ed Donatell
Donatell has previously been defensive coordinator for the Packers (2000-2004) and Falcons (2004-2006), before later hitching up with Vic Fangio in 2011 in San Francisco as defensive backs coach, with Fangio as defensive coordinator and Jim Harbaugh as head coach. He followed Fangio to Chicago in 2014, and then to Denver in 2019 as defensive coordinator with Fangio calling the plays as head coach. With Fangio being fired after last season, Donatell was reported to be taking a senior defensive coaching job under Pete Carroll in Seattle but opted instead to become the next defensive coordinator for the Vikings. Wherever he’s gone, Donatell has done a good job, gradually improving the Packers defense, coaching in a top five 49ers defense, and helping the Bears defense go from worst to first over four seasons. The Broncos had a top ten defense in two of the three years he was there, the exception being an injury-riddled 2020 season. Last season the Broncos finished third in points allowed. How much credit Donatell gets during his years under Fangio is a question mark, however.
Although 65, Donatell seems to bring a lot of upbeat energy to the job- more of a Pete Carroll personality than a Vic Fangio or Mike Zimmer in that respect. And with Fangio not coaching this season, Donatell became the go-to coach for teams wanting to install Fangio’s highly successful scheme. In eight of those eleven seasons with Fangio, they produced a top ten defense. Donatell was secondary coach during the 49ers and Bears years, during which they had a top 7 pass defense in yards allowed in 7 of those 8 seasons. In all eleven seasons, they never finished worse than 16th in pass defense.
Kevin O’Connell and the Fangio Scheme
It wasn’t surprising that O’Connell wanted a defensive coordinator to install Fangio’s scheme. The year Fangio was promoted to head coach of the Broncos (2019), Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Matt LaFleur were all asked which defensive scheme was the hardest to run against. They all said Fangio’s. The next year McVay hired Brandon Staley off of Fangio’s staff to implement Fangio’s scheme in LA as defensive coordinator opposite Kevin O’Connell as offensive coordinator. The Rams defense went from middle-of-the-pack to number one in one season. Raheem Morris succeeded Staley after he was promoted to head coach of the Chargers in 2020, but McVay had Morris keep Fangio’s scheme. The Rams returned to middle-of-the-pack on defense, but still managed to win the Super Bowl.
And so when O’Connell was hired as Vikings’ head coach, he wanted Fangio’s scheme too. With Fangio himself not coaching, Ed Donatell became the logical choice.
O’Connell has said he isn’t going to be a head coach on one side of the ball, however, as Zimmer was on the defensive side, and plans to be involved on the defensive side as well. O’Connell isn’t likely to contribute much initially, except the offensive perspective on defensive scheme/game plan, and weighing in on those, leaving the details and nuances to Donatell.
One thing O’Connell has weighed in on, at least in his public comments, is his version of being aggressive- on our terms- on the defensive side of the ball. Defensively, O’Connell wants the defense to focus on getting to the ball and generating turnovers. That’s not something Donatell’s defense in Denver did exceptionally well- ranking near the bottom of the league over that three-year span- but it is something the Rams defense did well while O’Connell was there- ranking 9th or 10th in takeaways each season. Donatell’s defense was much better at generating takeaways in Chicago and San Francisco, and when he was defensive coordinator in Green Bay. In those years, his defense was often in the top ten, and occasionally in the top three in generating takeaways. The Vikings have been pretty good at generating takeaways in recent years, so hopefully that is something Donatell can build on.
Beyond that, O’Connell may want Donatell to employ some of the things the Rams-Fangio scheme did more than the original Fangio scheme did. We’ll see. A good deal of that comes down to matching the scheme to player strengths.
So What is the Vic Fangio Scheme?
Vic Fangio’s scheme is a 3-4 base scheme, with the defensive lineman operating with gap-and-a-half principles, and the secondary working from a two high safety look. Normally pre-snap it looks like Cover-2 or Cover-4, but from there it can roll into the full gamut of coverages- anything from Cover-1 man to Cover-2 man or zone, Cover-3, Cover-4, or Cover-6, and variations on each.
What makes it so difficult for opposing quarterbacks is the level of disguise combined with the fact that the coverage could change to just about anything. Fangio coaches his defensive personnel to position themselves pre-snap in ways that take away some of the reads a quarterback uses to identify the coverage (for example the position of the weakside safety) and then to be a bit slower in moving to their called coverage post-snap so the quarterback has less time to throw once the coverage is revealed.
Up front, the gap-and-a-half principles- where each defensive lineman covers one primary gap against the run, along with a secondary gap they can move to cover if the running back targets that gap- allows the defense to devote fewer players toward defending the run and fewer players in the box - the 5-yard or so deep zone between the length of the offensive line on the defensive side of the ball. Fangio defenses typically lead the league in the number of ‘light’ boxes (6 or fewer players). This does create more demands on linebackers and safeties to be aggressive in defending the run.
Philosophically, the Fangio run defense is designed with the intent of clogging up the running lanes between the tackles rather than having defensive tackles penetrate, thereby forcing the ball carrier to bump outside, and allowing linebackers and defensive backs to pursue outside and make the tackle for little or no gain.
In pass defense, Fangio’s defense aims to take away the big play, and force opposing quarterbacks to dink-and-dunk all game. The theory is that at some point the opposing quarterback will grow impatient and make a mistake (INT) trying to throw downfield.
Against a team with a top receiver, a Fangio defense may employ a cloud coverage on that receiver, essentially having a cornerback play man or the underneath zone against the target receiver, and having a safety cover him over the top.
Fangio himself wasn’t a big blitzer, but he does use a number of twists and alignments to create one-on-one matchups for his best pass rushers.
The Vikings/Donatell Version of Fangio’s Scheme
Of course it remains to be seen how Ed Donatell and Kevin O’Connell may adjust Fangio’s scheme to suit them and the Vikings’ defensive personnel. But there are some hints here and there.
Focused on Takeaways
As mentioned above, a key focus for this defense will be on generating takeaways. Pretty much every time Ed Donatell is asked about his defense, he talks about getting the football. Kevin O’Connell had the same focus in his first press conference. That’s not so much a scheme thing or a personnel thing as a mentality and technique Donatell is looking to instill in every player on his defensive roster. In his press conference this week, he talked about ‘influencing the football’ and how that is a science he’s been working on since he first came into the league under Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin. He said he’s always been looking to develop an edge in generating takeaways, which includes “every little thing we can teach, motivate, and encourage- this is the behavior we want.”
In the first padded practice that I watched in person, I could see nearly every guy that came second to the ball carrier was looking to dislodge the ball, one way or another. In terms of interceptions, there have been a fair number of those so far in training camp, but unsure whether more than in the past. But it does appear that generating takeaways is something Donatell is coaching with every position group to encourage players to look for those opportunities and take advantage of them.
The Vikings have been in the top half of the league in generating takeaways the past few seasons, so hopefully Ed Donatell can help them build on that.
More Zone Coverage
In the past, Fangio’s defenses have played more zone coverage- roughly 75% of the time- and Patrick Peterson mentioned that it would likely be more of a zone-heavy scheme- which may work better for the former press-man corner as he gets older. But while more zone-heavy, Fangio’s defenses haven’t emphasized a particular zone coverage, like Pete Carroll’s did with his Cover-3 scheme in the Legion of Boom years. Donatell is likely to run a mix between Cover-2 zone, Cover-3, Cover-4 and Cover-6, and all from a two-high safety look pre-snap, along with some Cover-1 man. I expect Donatell, like Fangio, to run a number of variations of these zone coverages as well- along with some man coverage too at times- that could include some zone pattern-match concepts as well. All the various disguises, coverages, and variations puts a premium on communication in the defensive secondary and with linebackers. Fortunately, the Vikings have some guys in Harrison Smith, Patrick Peterson, and both Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks who have a lot of experience and are all good communicators, which should help the younger players avoid some mistakes and be more assignment sound as they get up-to-speed on the new scheme.
Every coverage has its pros and cons, and is better in some situations or against some routes than others, but one aspect of zone coverage compared to man coverage is that defenders are looking back at the quarterback to see where he may go with the ball, rather than looking at the receiver they’re covering man on man. That can give defenders better awareness when it comes to making a play on the ball in certain situations. In man coverage, and once a player is locked on his receiver in zone, the technique usually taught is to watch the receiver’s eyes and hands for clues when to look back for the ball. In zone coverage, defenders are often taught to look at the quarterback drop- is it 3-step, 5-step, or shotgun- as a clue to timing of the pass as well as the quarterback’s eyes and route patterns as a clue to where the ball may be thrown.
As much as anything, Fangio’s defenses have been distinctive for their light boxes, meaning 6 or fewer players in the box- that 5-yard or so deep space on the defensive side of the ball that runs the width of the offensive line. That invites teams to run, hoping to take advantage of a numerical advantage, and places a lot of faith in the defensive linemen to execute their gap-and-a-half run assignments, clogging up the middle and forcing ball carriers to bounce to the outside giving time for the cavalry - linebackers and defensive backs- to move up and make the tackle for little or no gain. It also places a lot of faith in safeties and linebackers to be able to get off blocks, through traffic and take good angles to make the tackle.
But having the defensive line, and interior linemen in particular, that can stuff the inside runs between the tackles is key. In 2020, Brandon Staley was the Rams defensive coordinator who came from Fangio’s staff and ran a version of his scheme, which produced the best defense in the league that year, including 3rd best in yards allowed per rush. A year later, as head coach of the Chargers, he ran the same scheme but ranked 29th- including 28th in rushing yards allowed per attempt- because he didn’t have the guys up-front to stop the run, which defeated his whole scheme.
The Vikings have Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson as key run defenders, and Danielle Hunter has also been good against the run, but beyond that there are question marks and unproven run defenders, including Armon Watts.
A good sign for the Vikings’ run defense will be runners bouncing outside and getting tackled while going east-west. A bad sign will be seams opening inside that allow backs to test linebackers and safeties in open space.
One variation the Vikings have experimented with in training camp so far has been using three safeties, replacing the slot corner with a safety in a nickel formation. The third safety would be first-round pick Lewis Cine, who would function as a hybrid linebacker/slot corner/strong safety. At 6’2”, 200 pounds, highly athletic with 4.37” speed, and an excellent and hard-hitting run defender, Cine has the perfect skill set for this role- one he played in college as well.
This three-safety personnel package (Harrison Smith, Cam Bynum, Lewis Cine) could be combined with a 5-1 or a 4-2 front, to be a highly versatile package that could be used in a lot of situations from first-and-10 to red zone. It could also be part of a 5-0 or 4-1 front dime package in clear passing situations. We’ll have to wait and see how often it is used in Donatell’s defense, which may hinge on Cine’s development, but it would seem it is something he wants to incorporate into his scheme based on what we’ve seen in training camp.
Eric Kendricks Likely to Have the Green Dot
Lastly, Anthony Barr has called the plays on-field defensively for the Vikings for several years- when he was healthy- wearing the green dot and the in-helmet audio hook-up to receive the defensive signal from the sideline. But now that Barr is a member of the Dallas Cowboys, a new defensive on-field play caller will need to be chosen. It appears that duty will go to Barr’s long-time teammate Eric Kendricks, based on what we’ve seen in training camp. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, as on-field play calling duties typically fall to a player who’s on the field all the time, and often a linebacker at the center of the defense. Harrison Smith would’ve been another possibility, but really no surprise Kendricks gets that job.
Perhaps the biggest visual difference initially between the Vikings’ Zimmer defense and the new one this year under Ed Donatell is seeing Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith standing up on either side of the defensive line as outside linebackers/edge rushers. Smith should move inside though in passing situations as he did in Green Bay, to take advantage of matchups. I haven’t seen enough to say definitively, but it may be that Hunter and Patrick Peterson will play on the opposite side of where they did last year as well. It appears that is the plan from what I’ve seen so far in training camp.
Donatell’s defense will also have more light boxes (6 or fewer players in the box) than Mike Zimmer’s defense. Fangio’s defense runs light boxes around 80% of the time, whereas Zimmer did so just over half the time. Donatell will also likely show a 2-high safety look pre-snap roughly 80% of the time, whereas Zimmer showed that look maybe half the time.
Beyond that, there are some similarities and carry-over from Zimmer’s defense as well. First, while not strictly using gap-and-a-half principles, Andre Patterson’s philosophy for the interior lineman was to clog the running lanes rather than penetrate as defensive tackles. And in coverage Mike Zimmer used a lot of coverage shells, just as Vic Fangio has done in his scheme. I wouldn’t expect a noticeable shift in coverage shells (Cover-1, Cover-2, Cover-3, Cover-4, Cover-6) overall compared to what Zimmer ran last year, although there may be more variance from week to week. Both Zimmer and Fangio have been around league average when it comes to blitzing.
The methods of disguise may also be a bit different between Zimmer and Donatell. While both coaches will attempt to disguise and confuse quarterbacks pre-snap, and both like to do different things from the same look, Zimmer may have used more pre-snap movement while the typical Fangio defense may use more post-snap movement, and even be a beat longer to make that movement, than Zimmer’s defense in the past.
We probably won’t see as many double-A gap blitz looks as we did in the Zimmer years, and we may see more of a focus on interceptions than was the case under Zimmer. But the last couple years Zimmer’s defense has done well in practicing strips, and has been top half in generating takeaways, and that appears something Donatell looks to build on.
Last season the Vikings defense ranked 24th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed. Where will it rank in those metrics this season?
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