What has allowed the Vikings' pass defense to quietly catch stride? Daniel House takes a look at the numbers and tendencies.
After a slow start to the season, the Vikings’ pass defense has quietly returned to form.
In the past nine games, the Vikings’ defense has allowed only two quarterbacks accumulate more than 200 passing yards. Sam Darnold (206 yards) and Tom Brady (311 yards) were the only two quarterbacks to exceed this benchmark. The Vikings’ pass defense has quietly covered extremely well in the backend. After struggling earlier this year, the tide has quickly shifted.
Entering November, the Vikings’ defense was allowing 24.4 points per game and the secondary was gashed throughout September. Rams quarterback Jared Goff tossed for 465 yards and five touchdowns, while Carson Wentz passed for 311 yards and a pair of scores. Following the Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Rams, head coach Mike Zimmer was critical of his pass defense.
"Probably, anywhere I've ever been, I've never been this poor in pass coverage, so we're going to have to look at everything we're doing at get back to doing things correctly,” Zimmer said.
Following the game, Minnesota ranked No. 26 in pass defense and allowed 9.2 yards per play over the first four games. Zimmer certainly made some adjustments to stop the bleeding. He started playing more Cover-3 and occasionally sent aggressive pressure packages. He trusted his players to cover on the outside and get after the quarterback with a blend of four-man rushes and pressure. Zimmer figured defenses would eventually catch up to the early season offensive surge -- he was right.
The timely use of pressure has helped the Vikings cover well and create chaos. The usage of Cover-0 blitzes, nickel pressure and zone looks have kept quarterbacks on their heels. Minnesota became the second team since 1990 and the seventh since the 1970 merger to post at least nine sacks in multiple regular season games. The combination of sound coverage in the backend and a steady pass rush has helped the defense settle in. They now rank No. 3 in pass defense and No. 11 against the run. The Vikings also lead the league in sacks with 50.
Zimmer and the staff have found a way to adjust the scheme by blending between Cover-0, Cover-3 and Cover-4 concepts. The rise in performance from cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Anthony Harris has provided a major lift to the pass defense, too. According to Nick Olson, Anthony Harris has a 20.1 passer rating when targeted this season. It’s the lowest rating recorded in the NFL this season. His coverage skills and physical presence in the box has helped bring versatility to the Vikings’ defense.
Not only that, but Mackensie Alexander has been one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the league over final half of the season. His technique has improved and he’s been in the correct position to make plays on the ball. Not only that, he has been helpful as a downhill nickel blitzer. When the Vikings bring Harrison Smith into the box, offensive line units have to respect him with their protection calls. It left plenty of opportunities for Alexander to pick up four sacks this season. Top cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been battling injuries for a large portion of the season, which has thrust undrafted rookie Holton Hill into action. Hill has been playing a high volume of off coverage earlier in his career. In this type of coverage, he has shown the ability to break on the football and get into passing lanes. Those skills, combined with his tackling, were a couple areas that stood out on his prospect film at Texas. He will continue to improve with the additional experience he gained this season. The defensive back room has performed very well, despite occasional injuries to Rhodes, Trae Waynes and the season-ending ACL tear sustained by first-round pick Mike Hughes.
Young players have stepped up in larger roles and it’s a credit to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. The technique of these players has improved across the board. In addition to Gray, former Vikings cornerback Terence Newman has clearly been a positive mentor to the Vikings’ defensive backs. After deciding to retire before the season, Newman has been coaching members of the secondary. His expertise has paid off for players like Mackensie Alexander and Holton Hill this season. Growth in the technical components, combined with scheme adjustments, has helped the Vikings’ defense return to form.
They also have continued to perform well on third down. When the defense slows opposing rushing attacks, they set themselves up for success. The Vikings are allowing opponent third down conversions at a league-best 28.41% clip. This number shifts to 25.61% (No. 1 in league) when Minnesota plays at home. In fact, many of the defensive statistics improve when the Vikings are playing at U.S. Bank Stadium.
They rank No. 1 in total yards (259 YPG), passing yards (162 YPG) and sack percentage (14.29%) at home. Minnesota has also allowed just four touchdown passes in seven games at U.S. Bank Stadium. This includes performances against Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Brees passed for just 120 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while Rodgers tossed for 198 yards and one touchdown. The Vikings are allowing 162 passing yards per game and opponents are averaging just 19 points per game (No. 7 in NFL). Not only that, but teams have mustered just 4.5 yards per play and 16.1 first downs per game (No. 2 in NFL) within the hostile confines of U.S. Bank Stadium.
With the Vikings needing a win over the Bears to earn a spot in the playoffs, there is arguably no better place for them to play. The defense has been solid on the road, but has accomplished significant and impressive feats at home.
Chicago averages just 4.9 yards per play on the road, which is the sixth worst mark in the NFL. They have also posted 319.9 yards per game away from Solider Field, which is the tenth lowest mark in the league. The key on the road has been the Bears’ ability to dictate the game’s tempo. In road games, they are fourth in time of possession and control 52% of the clock. They are also +.6 in road turnover differential, which is the third-best mark in football. Chicago nearly has a +.8 overall turnover margin, which ranks third behind only Seattle and Houston, according to Team Rankings.
The key for Minnesota is to take care of the football and take advantage of takeaways they may receive if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky makes a mistake. A large portion of his blunders have been the result of overthrows or errant downfield passes. Chicago will try to get the Vikings’ defense moving laterally to create explosive plays through misdirection and deception. If Minnesota can stop the rushing attack and remain disciplined in early downs, it will put the Bears in less than desirable late down situations. When placed in third down situations with 8-10 yards to go, the Chicago offense has completed just 10 of their 25 attempts (40%) this year. This is an area the Vikings' defense has thrived within, too.
If the Vikings want to win this game, they must find a way sustain drives and limit Chicago’s defensive attack. Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman have been playing at an extremely high level and the Vikings will need to account for their presence. In last month’s matchup, the Vikings were without tight end David Morgan and he’ll likely be tasked with chipping Mack throughout the day. You can expect Minnesota to get the ball out quickly and use heavy personnel sets to give Kirk Cousins additional time.
If the offense can score more than 20 points, the Vikings will have a chance to win the game. If they do, it will likely set up the same matchup in Chicago for the Wild Card round. Minnesota’s defense will allow them to compete, but like many instances this season, it will come down to whether the offense can find any rhythm or identity.