A crazy theory about the imminent demise of the Minnesota Vikings defense
The Minnesota Vikings are a bit of a hot pick heading into the regular season and their Week 1 clash with the Green Bay Packers. This off-season, Luke Kuechly said they could have the best secondary in the leagueand one few top analysts have named Kirk Cousins as the dark horse’s MVP candidate.
I somewhat understand the optimism. Mike Zimmer ran an old-school offense and was, apparently not great for clubhouse chemistry. It’s easy to imagine new head coach Kevin O’Connell, formerly of the Rams, transforming the Vikings’ offense (which includes a Stafford-level quarterback in Cousins and a Kupp-level receiver in Justin Jefferson) into something like the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning offense a year ago. It’s also not a stretch to imagine a healthy Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks as well as an angry Za’Darius Smith forming a very good defense. To reinforce all this, the Vikings were comically bad at the end of the halves, as Arif Hasan recounts in The Athletic:
The Vikings are worse late in the first half than they are in the second, enough to make their late-half defense the worst the NFL has seen in 21 years, according to Trumedia . Allowing six ppg in the 29th and 30th minutes of the game, the Vikings defense in this situation managed to outperform the second-worst 2018 Bengals by an extraordinary margin.
Basically, the Vikings became by far the worst defense in the league at the end of the first half, although they weren’t big upsets at the end of the game either. And with such a poor performance, it stands to reason that regression will set in and they will bounce back at least a little.
Let’s go to the crazy theory
It’s the first week, and we honestly don’t have a lot of data on any team. If that particular prediction blows up in my face and the Vikings throw the smackdown on an inexperienced Packer receiving body, perhaps without Allen Lazard, I won’t be so surprised. But something about the overall profile of the Vikings defense from a year ago still bothers me, and it has to do with their half-check ending. Arif dug into the reasons for the Vikings’ struggles and you should read it all, but this is what stood out to me the most:
But they change things schematically; the Vikings play with a less complex defense in the last two minutes – as most teams do – than in the first 28. The problem is, it seems that’s what they thrived on. When the defense does such a good job of creating confusing looks, dropping linebackers and cornerbacks in unusual places, and forcing creative blitz looks and tough protection calls, abandoning this approach can seem like a relief to the players. opposing quarterbacks.
Surely there is some randomness involved; Arif notes that Viking’s breakdowns in these scenarios run the gamut and often involve a weird bounce or a weird bad break. However, I think it’s worth noting that the biggest likely candidate for this specific issue was the Vikings’ inability to perform the standard Zimmer pattern at these times.
When a new coordinator takes over, it is always difficult to predict the extent of the impact. Talent is always the most important factor in any given unit, but the blueprint matters more than we usually acknowledge. When the Packers went from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur, that mattered. When the Bears moved from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano on defense, that mattered, too. What Arif did was analyze a natural experiment within the Vikings of 2021 quantifying exactly this problem: how important is Zimmer’s scheme to the defense of the Vikings? The answer was, apparently, a lot.
In 2022, the Vikings defense will be led by Ed Donatell, the former Packers defensive coordinator and disciple of Vic Fangio. While Donatell has had success in the past, it should immediately be noted that this will be a huge philosophical shift. Zimmer typically runs a 4-3 base while Donatell and School Fangio run a 3-4 base, but more importantly, Zimmer’s defense relies heavily on deep cover. On any given play, a Zimmer defense will wait until the last second to drop players into coverage, and the mix is generally unpredictable, relying on Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith to head into weaker passing defenders who could be chosen in case of confusion and pressure. not go home.
The Fangio/Donatell school is much more of a “what you see is what you get” operation, and if you’re looking for an archetype, it’s likely to resemble some recent Packer defenses. There’s a reason the Vikings also employ Mike Pettine (and Za’Darius Smith and Chandon Sullivan) after all. Reflecting on these changes, one can see the problem immediately: it seems likely that this program did a lot of work for Minnesota last year, and when quarterbacks got to see what was to come, they were plenty benefited. Donatell has his own scheme and the Vikings have a lot of talent on defense, but they also have their weak points, and without that pre-snap confusion, I wonder if their personnel are up to snuff, especially in the secondary.
Harrison Smith is amazing when it comes to security and I really like Cameron Bynum and Lewis Cine too, but around the corner that’s another story. Patrick Peterson was once a phenomenal athlete (and he’s still very good) but this is his season at 32, I think he’s clearly lost a step. He also missed 4 games last year. As for Cameron Dantzler, well, here is his RAS:
Dantzler ranked 17th PFFe best CB last year, but look at his run blocking rating versus his pass coverage rating. That’s a weird profile! His cover rating was only 39th!
We all know Chandon Sullivan, who will take the place of the late Xavier Woods (safety) or possibly the late Mackensie Alexander (corner) depending on the day. Chandon won’t really be an improvement for anyone. The Vikings also spent a high pick on Andrew Booth, but he wasn’t a Clemson burner, relying more on his size for effectiveness. He hasn’t been tested due to a hernia and suffered a minor ankle injury during pre-season, although he looks set to go. Still, they’re an uncertain group, and without the disguised pressures, which sometimes succeeded against Aaron Rodgers, and questionable cornering talents (especially in the roster), I think there’s a chance the Vikings have major coverage issues.
The Packers are a bit unhappy to have them in Week 1, as age (Za’Darius at 30, Kendricks at 30, Peterson at 32, Smith at 33 and Hunter at 28 after injury-ridden season) and injuries are likely to become a factor as the season progresses. It’s almost certainly as healthy as the Vikings will be, and I still suspect they’ll have some issues transitioning to Donatell’s defense without the high school horses to make it happen.
You probably remember 75-yard MVS touchdown since last year. It wasn’t enough to win the game and it happened just outside the final two minutes, but it’s emblematic of how the Vikings struggled when stretched to the corner and when the quarterback- back can see the rush coming.
It’s Adams at the bottom of the screen with Patrick Peterson in the press and Josiah Deguara at the top, with a 7-yard cushion for some reason. MVS is in the slot with Randall Cobb, and everyone but Adams gets a clean version. It’s extremely easy for Rodgers to diagnose because the Vikings bring in six and the Packers do a great job picking everyone up.
If you watch Patrick Peterson closely, you can see exactly when he realizes they screwed up. Mackensie Alexander goes down on Randall Cobb. Adams and Deguara run into mesh, and seeing Adams open up in front of him, Harrison Smith jumps forward to help. That leaves MVS, head full of steam, one-on-one with safety Xavier Woods, who is fast, but not fast enough.
Woods is gone, and Camryn Bynum is a security upgrade, but he’s not a burner either.
And now you can see how much of an issue speed will be for this team. Allen Lazard may not play in this match, but it might not be the worst thing in the world to have representatives of Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson in this one.
The Vikings are a hot pick, but everything screams at me that the defense will get a little worse, not better. Donatell is a huge downgrade from Zimmer, while the age and recent injury history of Minnesota’s leading defensemen puts them at major risk of meltdown. I think most teams, including the Packers, know exactly how to attack their staff’s weaknesses, and Mike Zimmer has made it harder with creative pattern building. This construct is likely gone and the defense has a history of failing in its absence.
Unless Ed Donatell and Mike Pettine have developed a few more tricks, Sunday can be a rude awakening.