Friday, April 3, 2020

The Value of a Nose Tackle in Mike Zimmer's Defense

Photo: NFL Gamepass
The nose tackle position is extremely valuable in Mike Zimmer's defense. Daniel House explored last season's trends and discussed why nose tackle Michael Pierce fits the scheme.

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

While evaluating Mike Zimmer’s defense, it is easy to see how much he values the nose tackle position. This was especially apparent after he quickly addressed the position in 2020 free agency.

In the Vikings' system, it is necessary to have an interior player who can take on blocks and double teams. After Zimmer was hired, he quickly signed Linval Joseph to solidify the middle of his defense. Joseph was entering the prime of his career and became a cornerstone of the defensive unit. In 2017, Joseph led the way as Minnesota allowed the second-fewest rushing yards in football. His size, strength and above average athleticism made him a disruptive presence against the run. Not only that, but defensive line coach Andre Patterson unlocked his potential as a pass rusher.

Under Zimmer, the Vikings’ defense thrives in third-and-long situations. When Minnesota is stopping the run, opponents are backed up behind the sticks. As a result, Zimmer’s entire defensive playbook opens up. Creative blitzes, sub-packages and fronts can be deployed if teams are consistently in predictable passing situations.

In order to illustrate last year's "third-and-long road map," I hand-charted and plotted the success rates on third-and-6 or longer. I marked all of the third down situations and also included plays where a penalty resulted in a first down. During the first portion of the year, the Vikings' defense was effectively getting off the field on third down. In fact, after a slow start against the Packers, Minnesota forced Green Bay into long-down situations, put pressure on Aaron Rodgers and quickly returned to the sideline. However, as the year progressed, the Vikings' third-and-long defense became inconsistent, specifically against Dallas, Detroit and Los Angeles.

When looking at the graph below, you can see the team's third-and-long frequencies in 2019. Minnesota started the season strong, but lost consistency as the year progressed. A few things stood out when I compared the two graphs. First, the Vikings' third-and-long defense kept them within striking distance during losses at Green Bay, Chicago and Seattle. The biggest difference in those losses was the frequency and success rates within third-and-short situations.

Why is that? 

Green Bay and Seattle each accumulated more than 140 rushing yards and eclipsed a 4.4 yards per carry average. As a result, opponents were notching more first downs (less third down situations) or had shorter down-and-distance obstacles to overcome.

During a loss against Kansas City, the Vikings had just four total third-and-long situations. Again, opponent rushing success played a role. The Chiefs rushed for 147 yards (8.2 yards per carry), including a 91-yard touchdown.

On the other side of the coin, third-and-long success was a key variable in a thrilling comeback win against Denver. The Vikings frequently placed the Broncos in third down situations and posted impressive success rates within both down-and-distance categories. In this matchup, Minnesota also allowed under four yards per carry and limited the Broncos to 124 rushing yards.

Within third-and-5 or shorter situations, if the Vikings held an opponent under the 44% success rate threshold, they were 4-1. Conversely, if an opponent's success rate eclipsed 55%, the team was 4-4. The Vikings also finished 2-1 when an opponent posted a 50% success rate. Of course, the goal should be to limit these opportunties as much as possible.

Minnesota should strive to hold opponents under seven third-and-short attempts per game. When the other team is frequently placed in favorable situations, the entire playbook opens up. Not only that, but the defense is less aggressive because the offense may run or pass. When Zimmer can blitz and move his versatile players around, the entire defensive landscape shifts. Stopping the run is at the center of everything Minnesota does. When this area is leaky, we notice a significant difference.

Recently, Linval Joseph battled injuries and the Vikings' run defense tapered off. Several factors were at play, including Joseph's health and the need for a versatile 3-technique defensive tackle. In fact, Minnesota may use one of its first three 2020 draft picks on a dominant 3-technique. (South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw would be a dream scenario).

For example, when looking at the run defense collectively, opponents occasionally accumulated five or six yards on early downs. This ultimately limited the amount of third-and-long situations the Vikings were placed in. Those small gains added up and impacted the frequency of Zimmer’s aggressive packages.

In March, the Vikings released Joseph and prioritized the nose tackle position through free agency. Minnesota signed Baltimore nose tackle Michael Pierce to a three-year, $27 million deal, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. Pierce, a 27-year-old run-stuffer, will become one of the most important players in Zimmer’s defense. With the Ravens, he made an impact by taking on double teams and creating interior penetration. In Minnesota, he will be tasked with shooting his gap and commanding attention. When he starts muscling up against interior offensive linemen, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will have more room to flow freely. It's critical to create downhill lanes for linebackers who are defending the run. Pierce, a powerful presence, is entering the prime of his career. He isn't a major threat when rushing the passer, but his above average strength puts a strain on interior offensive line units. After he was signed, I pulled out clips and shared analysis in this Twitter thread:

When analyzing the past trends of Zimmer's defense, we know it's critical to stop the run and place opponents in long-down situations. The Vikings' current personnel allows the coaches to be creative with fronts and various blitz looks. Many fans have been asking whether the team could switch to a base 3-4 defense. Due to the team's current personnel and Pierce's two-gap ability, this is certainly possible. However, I'm not anticipating a change. If anything, Zimmer will just continue expanding his sub-packages and hybrid fronts. Perhaps senior defensive assistant Dom Capers can find ways to maximize linebacker Anthony Barr's versatility. Last year, Zimmer already deployed a variety of third down sub-packages to get after the quarterback.

Everson Griffen is set to depart in free agency, so the Vikings may invest a draft pick into a pass rusher. I actually wouldn't be surprised if the personnel staff selected one defensive end in the first four rounds.

The Vikings clearly understood patching the run defense was a top offseason priority. Pierce is entering his prime and brings much-needed strength to the interior. With additional development under Andre Patterson, he could be the centerpiece of Minnesota's run defense for years to come.

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