The Good, The Bad, The 2022 Vikings Defense

October 9, 2022
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The way the defense has performed through (roughly) the first quarter of the season has drawn the ire of a significant portion of the Vikings fanbase. We can all be prisoners of our own expectations – especially earlier in the season – but wins are wins.. right? Who is to blame for defensive shortcomings? At 3-1, leading the division, is there even much blame to be assigned? Let’s check the tape.

What’s The Beef?

So, the eye test is not good. Watching the games live paints a picture of fearful passiveness and cautious play-calling. These are quickly identified by the viewer pre-snap as one often observes the cornerbacks at six-to-nine yards off the line of scrimmage and the safeties showing “Two-High”, splitting the field deep. This rarely tells the whole story of post-snap coverage, but it narrows it down.

After the snap any fan can spot a four-man rush which is what we’ve seen the most. With many of these plays leading to plenty of time for the opposing quarterbacks, it’s become an easy hole to poke in Donatell’s gameplan.

The Good

Big Picture

A positive turn-of-phrase to describe this type of defense is “bend, don’t break”, and true-to-form, the Vikings have rarely broken. Despite allowing gaudy counting stats, this unit is tied for 11th in fewest points allowed (20.0 per game) and when able to get teams into 3rd Down situations, allow the 12th lowest conversion rate (35.4%).

When they’ve been able to get pressure with four and force an early decision, the results have been favorable.

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Additionally, the off-coverage gives the cornerbacks something of a runway in defending the run or closing on short routes. Cam Dantzler in particular has been an aggressive tackler out of these looks as you can see here .

Eric Kendricks has been another early standout, and predictably so. His headiness at the second level of the defense is of utmost importance to the current scheme. Just ask Ed Donatell: he loves is “mike” linebackers. Kendricks’ ability to cover in space has bailed the Vikings out multiple times on late downs this season.

As many complaints as there have been about the coverage, there are also plenty of deceptive looks like this pre-snap. Harrison Smith up to some of his old antics rolling into the overhang, Za’Darius and Kendricks mugging an A-gap apiece, Wonnum in a two-point stance in the B-gap and Dalvin Tomlinson and Danielle Hunter in 9 technique well outside the tackles.

The thing is we want to see more of these looks to create some pressure and help the coverage on the back end. More defenders in coverage sounds great in theory but most NFL quarterbacks will punish defenses when given too much time. This look on 3rd and 15 is something you can get away with against Andy Dalton, a backup at this point in his career, but not most starters.

The Bad

Big Picture

See Week Two. The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts was given an eternity to find members of the best receiving groups the Vikings have faced thus far. The likes of A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith, who often beat tight coverage, were given their choice of soft spot against porous zone coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say it was easy; Hurts made some tight-window throws at times, but rarely under any duress.

Through four games the team has allowed 607 passing air yards (not including yards after catch), good for 7th most. As the corners backpedal from depth passes are routinely thrown and caught underneath at 8-12 yards as many of the short completions the scheme intends to concede have turned into medium ones.

A way to combat coverage deficiencies is dialing up pressure. We saw Zimmer do it the last couple of years as his defenses ranked respectably in sacks and pressure even with some below-average secondaries and, last season, below-average pass rushers as well.

Donatell, however, seems to be playing it safe. The Vikings rank 27th in blitz rate and correlatedly 25th in pressure rate. Without a little more creativity from the defensive front, this will likely continue. Sean McDermott and the Buffalo Bills seem to have figured out what Ed wants to figure out. They rank 32nd in Blitz rate, but still 6th in pressure rate!

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When this style really doesn’t seem worth it is plays like this with a blown deep assignment. An Ed Donatell staple, Cover 6 (which features 3 deep defenders but it’s simply a Cover 4 call to one side of the field, and Cover 2 to the other side) falls apart to the quarters side as Cam Bynum does not pick up Quez Watkins blowing past him. Bynum has had a few blunders but none as impactful as this one.

Showing a base look to counter Philly’s bunch 12 personnel, five d-lineman patrol the line of scrimmage necessitating one of the edge rushers to drop into coverage to complete the zone concept. As the Vikings send four, no one gets close to home as three lumbering interior defensive linemen hand-fight the best O-line in football.

So What Should We Expect?

This is a product of the evident philosophy – play solid run defense, (hopefully) get pressure with four maybe five, and don’t get beat deep.

The run defense has been solid, at best. 16th in yards per carry allowed, 22nd in yards allowed per game. It just needs to help get teams to third down.

I’d like to see more stunts and disguises with the pressures Donatell sends as he combs through this same data; but frankly, I expect more of the same. This staff of course likes the results, and the team is leading the division. Weirdly, it’s working.

As communication continues to sharpen in the secondary, fewer mistakes will be made. Just as water finds its level, guys like Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith are going to get theirs. Many expectations were much higher looking at the pedigree of the defensive staff but through a four-game sample-size, the panic button should be collecting dust.

How do you think Sunday’s game will go? What are your keys to the game? Let me know @JohnBBoyd12 on Twitter and be sure to stay with The Daily Skol for other great Vikings content!

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