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Vikings Working a Different Formula on Defense

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As the Vikings have begun stacking wins at the expense of their NFC North rivals, sweeping a three game division stretch, a formula has emerged on defense that’s allowing them to be more effective.

With the losses of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Yannick Ngakoue, Anthony Barr, and going with a bunch of either rookies or young players on defense, many of them on and off the active list, the Vikings have had to figure out a way to be more competitive on defense. It looks like that formula has taken a different shape than Mike Zimmer defenses of old. It’s not ideal, but it seems to be more effective than anything else they’ve tried, and is now starting to bring down their points allowed per game to something a little more manageable for the Vikings offense to overcome.

Let’s take a look.

Part One: Two Deep Safeties

With all the young players at the cornerback position, Mike Zimmer is looking to help them out as much as he can. That means having two deep safeties back to help the young cornerbacks over the top. Having both Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris back deep takes away the deep balls, particularly outside the numbers, as the corners can focus on the underneath routes knowing they have help on deeper routes. It also allows the corners to play tighter coverage, knowing that help is there.

For opposing QBs, it’s tough to throw it up against Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, knowing they’ve both had plenty of INTs the past few years, and even though Harris isn’t having his best year, he’s still got plenty of street cred so QBs are gonna hesitate before throwing it his way, hoping his guy will come down with it.

For opposing outside receivers, it’s tough to get open against double coverage. The best option is to run four verticals or some other Cover-2 beater, but not every team has the horses to make that work.

The other thing that seems to be working with this scheme is that between Jeff Gladney in the slot, and Eric Wilson and Eric Kendricks covering underneath at the linebacker spots, the underneath/middle routes are not gimmes for opposing offenses either. That means opposing QBs may end up holding the ball a little longer, and makes execution that much more difficult.

Part Two: Run Focused Seven Man Front

Usually playing two deep safeties leaves a defense more vulnerable against the run, with only seven men in the box. The Vikings are fortunate in that both Eric Kendricks and Jeff Gladney have been good against the run, as are both safeties.

Up Front, the Vikings play basically four defensive tackles, which helps defend the run. When you think about it, nearly all the Vikings defensive ends have spent at least a year at the defensive tackle spot, and have more like defensive tackle size, and sadly pass rush moves. Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jalyn Holmes, and Hercules Mata’afa have all played defensive tackle, and are all around 280 pounds or so, give or take. Collectively, they can force an offense to convert on third down, and not give up too many easy plays. They can also make a play or two to get off the field.

Part Three: Blitz on Passing Downs

What the front four cannot do so well is get to the QB quickly. With more limited skill sets, they can crash down on the pocket and eventually pressure the QB, but they don’t make a lot of offensive lineman miss. They battle and eventually get there, but seldom in 2.5 seconds or less, which is the benchmark for a QB to deliver the ball.

That being the case, Zimmer has chosen to augment his pass rush on clear passing downs by sending one or more linebackers or defensive backs to speed it up. So far that’s been mostly effective as the Vikings have become one of the best defenses on third down- often a passing down.

Part Four: Mixing It Up

Having experienced linebackers and safeties that can do a lot of things well helps Zimmer disguise what his coverage or blitz may be on any given play, and there are also variations of the Cover-2 safety depth and other coverages depending on down and distance and field position that come into play, which can make it more effective, but can also create some opportunities for opposing offenses as well.

What’s Not Ideal

Not having an effective pass rush without blitzing can create problems for the Vikings defense for offenses with an effective screen game, or top TEs or slot receivers that can get open and move the chains against the Vikings underneath coverage. Or if a QB is able to extend the play and connect with wide receivers. So far the Vikings have been effective on third downs and in the red zone over their three game win streak, but against more versatile offenses, they could struggle.

The Vikings defense has also been helped by playing with a lead or at least not falling behind much over their three game win streak. If the offense gets off to a slow start, and the Vikings get into a two-score deficit, opposing offenses could choose to go with heavy formations and grind out drives, taking up time of possession and forcing the Vikings offense into a passing, catch-up mode which hasn’t been a winning formula.

Bottom Line

The Vikings defense has played well enough, particularly in the red zone and on third down, to allow the offense to win three games in a row. But it’s not infallible, and it could get out-matched against offenses with multiple weapons and versatile play callers.

What is encouraging, however, is that just about every player on defense seems to be slowly improving as the season progresses. What’s also helpful is the play of the Vikings offense. There aren’t a lot of teams that have the defense to shut down the Vikings offense, which seems to be getting stronger as the season progresses as well. That puts the defense in a better position to use this formula successfully.


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