The Vikings have put up two clunkers to start the 2020 season, allowing 876 yards (29th in the NFL) and 71 points (31st in the NFL) over the first two games. It doesn’t take a lot of work to determine that the defense is bad, but for the team it will be important to figure out exactly what is going wrong and where they can improve. After all, Mike Zimmer has never had a bad defense, ever:
If Zimmer wants to turn it around, the team will need to make several improvements. I took a look at the tape to see what was happened, and what can be done about it.
Off Coverage Leads to Consistent Gains
When playing the Packers, the Vikings often faced condensed splits which forced off coverage. Even when the Packers didn’t tighten their splits, the Vikings corners were often playing off of the line of scrimmage. Aaron Rodgers exploited this often, running quick outs or similar routes to get solid gains. I’ve made a compilation video below:
This is a big issue because the Packers were consistently gaining small chunks of yards that were either getting them first downs or easier conversions, which will be discussed later. This is also something we’ve seen in the past, and the Vikings have said publicly that they allow their corners the leeway to choose how far off the ball they want to play. Moving forward, the team may want to have the CBs play closer to the line of scrimmage. They also need to be quicker to recognize these short routes and click and close on the ball.
To the team’s credit, they did a better job discouraging these types of routes in Week 2 against the Colts. See the example below, where Mike Hughes drives on a route in the flat and limits the gain.
Off coverage has hurt the Vikings in other ways. In the example below, Cam Dantzler is playing off coverage and simply can’t keep up with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who ran in the 4.3s. After the game, Dantzler admitted that he should have been more physical with MVS, potentially aligning closer to the line of scrimmage and pressing him.
Speaking of Cam Dantzler, the Vikings’ rookie 3rd round pick, brings me to my next point:
The Young Corners are Underperforming
This past offseason, the team clearly made the decision to get younger at the CB position, allowing all three of their starting CBs last year (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander) to leave the team. After all, the CB group played poorly last year, so it can’t get any worse this year, right?
To replace Rhodes, Waynes, and Alexander, the Vikings chose to rely on third year players Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, as well as rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler. Historically, it has taken a while for corners to learn and adjust to Mike Zimmer’s defense, and unfortunately the team was given even less time to learn this year in a pandemic-shortened offseason. The results on the field have been devastating. Take a look at the compilation below:
Issues for the CBs are numerous including penalties, getting roasted deep, and losing contested catch situations. The stats have looked bad as well:
In addition to Hill, Dantzler struggled in week 1, allowing 6 receptions for 78 yards and a TD. In week 2 against the Colts, Dantzler was injured and Jeff Gladney played most of the game. He allowed 6 receptions for 76 yards and a TD. All stats are per PFF.
The CBs need to improve significantly, but that will only happen with time. One area I have hope that the CBs can improve relatively quickly is with ball skills. All of the young corners had the ability to make a play on the ball in contested catch situations as a positive on their scouting report. Right now, it looks like they’re playing behind, and frantically trying to catch up. As they get more experience, hopefully the game will slow down and their natural ball skills will take over. It should also be noted that Mike Hughes played rather well against the Colts last week.
The Defensive Tackles are Bad
This past offseason, the Vikings decided to cut NT Linval Joseph. To replace him, they signed Michael Pierce, formerly of the Ravens. I liked the signing quite a bit, but unfortunately for the team Pierce decided to protect his health by opting out of the season. This left a void at NT, and the Vikings moved Shamar Stephen to fill it, having former 4th round pick Jaleel Johnson replace him at 3T. Armon Watts has also seen significant snaps as a part of the DT rotation through two games.
Shamar Stephen is primarily a run-stuffing DT, and has already played at NT previously, so in theory moving him over makes sense. The problem is Shamar is considered a run-stuffing DT because he’s abysmal at pass rushing, and is simply less bad against the run rather than good. Johnson and Watts similarly have 3T and NT flexibility, but both have also failed to impress to start the season. Despite the Vikings’ DTs all purportedly being better against the run than the pass, they consistently got blown off the ball against the Colts, leading to a very successful rushing day:
The Vikings have also lost Anthony Barr for the season, which is a problem because they now don’t have a player who can consistently take on blocks from offensive linemen. While Eric Kendricks is great, he is not built to take on direct blocks from linemen due to his size. Take a look below at what happens when he’s not kept clean:
When kept clean, his instincts allow him to knife into the backfield and make plays in the run game. This is what that looks like:
The above simply isn’t happening enough. The DTs need to hold longer against double teams. Right now they can’t.
Another problem with the Vikings’ current DT room is that they don’t trust Stephen or Johnson to get pressure on the QB. This means they need to get creative on 3rd down, in some cases bringing DE Ifeadi Odenigbo inside to rush the passer on third down. The Colts recognized this and used this against them in Week 2. In the series of plays below, the Colts ran the ball on 3rd and 6, gaining 5 yards and a 4th and 1 situation. Recognizing the Vikings’ light personnel, they hurried up to the line, preventing the Vikings from substituting, and crushed the Vikings’ DL to convert for a first down.
If the Vikings had a starting quality DT, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. The unfortunate part of this situation is that I don’t know if there’s a way for the Vikings to improve here. We’ve known Shamar Stephen is bad, but the Vikings seem to trust him. Jaleel Johnson hasn’t lived up to my expectations of him, where I thought we got a steal of a fourth round pick. The team will continue to struggle against teams with good offensive lines running the ball.
Failure to Contain Against Jet Sweeps
Another place the Vikings have consistently struggled is edge contain against Jet Sweeps and other end around plays. The team has been fine against regular outside runs, but the backside ends need to do a better job of containing many of the plays below:
The plays above allowed opponents to keep ahead of the chains and move the ball. The defense needs to shore this up.
Star Players are Making Mistakes
It hasn’t just been the rookies and role players that have had issues throughout the first two games. While Danielle Hunter has been hurt and Anthony Barr was just lost for the season, Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, and Eric Kendricks have all made their share of mistakes through the first two games:
It starts with coverage. In the first play above, you can see Smith and Harris mix up on a deep route. They should be bracketing this route, but Smith tries to peel off and it gives the Packers a deep shot that they fortunately don’t convert. In the second play, Harris and Kendricks get confused and allow a player to run wide open deep. In the third play, Smith gets caught by Rivers’ eyes and allows TY Hilton to get open deep, another drop. In the fourth play, Kendricks should be covering the corner route as if it was man, but hesitates and lets the TE get open on a sail concept. The last play is a similar issue for Eric Wilson.
These players have been playing together for a while, and should know their assignments. I’m not sure what’s going on, but hopefully it can get fixed.
Outside of the communication issues above, Kendricks has also had some problems in the run game. There are times where he’s missed his gap assignments in the run game, which happened a few times against the Colts. Against the Packers, they were able to use misdirection in the form of split zone to get Kendricks to follow the TE and abandon his gap. As highlighted above, he also struggles when asked to directly take on offensive linemen:
Anthony Harris has played particularly poorly through two weeks:
Harris is on the franchise tag and the team needs him to play better to justify his cap hit. Really, he needs to play better if he hopes to get a big payday next offseason.
The Team Can’t Get Off the Field
Over the course of the first two weeks, Vikings’ opponents possessed the ball for 71:41 of 120:00 possible minutes. That’s 66.4% of the time (almost two thirds!). They allowed the Packers to keep the ball for 41:16 in Week 1, setting the franchise record for the lowest time of possession in a game. Week 2 wasn’t much better, as they allowed the Colts to possess the ball for 38:25. They have by far the worst net TOP per drive, allowing 4:07 per drive on defense and keeping the ball for just 2:01 on offense, a net of -2:06. All of these marks are last in the NFL. Some of that is on the offense, but the defense also deserves blame.
A big part of the reason for their failures is third down performance. The defense allowed the Packers to convert 6 of 11 third downs, and while the Colts were just 3 of 11, that number is misleading. First, it does not include penalties. The Vikings allowed two first downs by penalty against the Colts. It also doesn’t account for the Colts’ 4th down conversion. Also, one of the “failed” third down conversions was a kneel on the last play of the game.
It gets even worse if you look at the 3rd downs outside scoring position. With the penalty and 4th down conversion, the Colts were functionally 5/7 on third down outside scoring position. It’s inside scoring position where the team improved, allowing just 1 of 5 first downs to be converted (the confusing illegal contact penalty on Jeff Gladney). Still, all four of those failures led to FGs for the Colts (ironically, the one success led to an interception).
The same analysis can be applied to the Packers game, and makes that 6 of 11 number look even worse. The Packers were helped by penalty twice outside scoring position (and even would have converted a third due to penalty if they didn’t get a larger gain on the play), and also converted a 4th down attempt. Functionally, they went 9/10 outside scoring position. In scoring position, they ended up 0/3, with one of the drives ending in a failed 4th down conversion on the one yard line (the other two were FGs).
Looking at plays outside scoring position, the Vikings have allowed their opponents to convert 14 of 17 third down opportunities. They have forced just 3 punts in 18 opponent drives. They’ve also forced an interception and a turnover on downs, but allowing your opponent to score on 13 of 18 drives is unacceptable.
A big area they need to improve is from the fringe of FG range, their 30 to the 50 yard line. In these situations, the Vikings have had 7 opportunities on 3rd down. They allowed 4 outright conversions, 2 fourth down conversions, and have forced just one punt. That needs to get better.
Losing early in the down is impacting the Vikings as well. Opponents have had 5 or fewer yards to go on 13 of 27 third down attempts. They’ve only faced a handful of these opportunities with 10 or more yards to go. Allowing the consistent gains discussed in the sections above has hurt their ability to stop third down attempts.
If there’s a positive to take from this, it’s that the red zone defense has been stout. The team needs to figure out a way to make this apply to the rest of the field. They’re going to have a harder time doing that moving forward because:
Anthony Barr’s Injury Leaves a Void
Anthony Barr played really well against the Packers in week 1. He made a number of impact plays. Check them out below:
Barr is a smart player who is in charge of communication on the defense. The Vikings have had issues lining up with all of their young players, and that may continue to be a problem. Barr can also sniff out plays before they happen. This was particularly noticeable against screens. The two plays below are TE screens. In the first one, Barr recognizes it and is able to kill the play, while the second one, with Barr out of the game, leads to a first down:
Finally, as I mentioned above, Kendricks cannot take on OL blocks all that well. Neither can Eric Wilson, who is a smaller player, and so is rookie Troy Dye. This is something Barr was great at with his 6’5″, 250lb frame. The team just signed Todd Davis for a boost against the run, but he won’t replace Barr.
Things look bleak for the Vikings’ defense right now, but there is hope for improvement. The young corners need to get better, which can only happen with time and experience. In the meantime, the team’s star players need to help fill that void. Danielle Hunter will hopefully return soon, but Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Harris all need to step up and prove their worth.