Well this Minnesota Vikings season certainly pivoted quickly, huh?! One week the Vikings are the kings of the NFC (and the NFL for that matter) with a defense that appeared poised to rival the 1985 Chicago Bears. The next week the wheels have fallen completely off the bus and Minnesota is staring at a four-game losing streak which could easily swell to seven if it doesn’t figure things out quickly!
There is plenty of blame to pass around for the Vikings floundering performances from the decision to keep Blair Walsh on the roster, to the Norv Turner firing (er, resignation) to a neglected offensive line. The defense isn’t forcing turnovers at the same rate it was early in the year and there is currently an amber alert issued for the Vikings pass rush. The Twitter vultures are circling over Sam Bradford and the running game is such a joke it is comical watching Minnesota try to convert in short-yardage situations.
The Vikings need to be marginally better in all the above facets if they’re going to navigate a stretch of games that includes Arizona, Detroit and Dallas but none might be more important than one particular area: third-down defense.
During this four-game slide, Minnesota has uncharacteristically failed to get off the field on third down. Opposing teams have found success in the running game, controlling the clock and wearing out the Vikings defensive unit. Nothing better illustrates this point better than Sunday’s loss in Washington where Minnesota was limited to four (that’s right, freaking four) offensive plays in the third quarter. Kirk Cousins and the Redskins methodically worked up the field, thriving with the short-passing game neutralizing the Vikings pass rush. To be fair the Vikings offensive play calling deserves to shoulder some the blame for the third-quarter woes. After Bradford torched the Washington defense in the second quarter, explain to me how three straight Matt Asiata runs is a sound attack? Don’t worry—I’ll wait.
Forcing the Minnesota offense to stay planted on the bench has stripped the unit of finding consistent rhythm under new coordinator Pat Shurmur. The defense’s fundamentals have crumbled led by Anthony Barr who already has as many missed tackles through nine games as he did all of last season.
Take a look at the third-down numbers.
During the five-game winning streak: Opponents needed an average of 7.3 yards on third down, only netting 4.5 yards per third-down play—converting at 33 percent. The Vikings had five sacks and five interceptions on said plays.
During the four-game losing streak: Opponents needed an average of 6.5 yards on third down, netting 6.8 yards per third-down play—converting at 47 percent. The Vikings have recorded just one sack and interception, allowing three touchdowns.
Looking at those numbers it would appear Minnesota is doing fairly well on first and second down even during the recent slide. But allowing nearly every other third down to get converted is like a boxer taking body shots. They may not be knockout punches but they wear on you over time.
How the Vikings turn this around is a question for someone smarter than me. However, they’re a couple obvious adjustments that the opposition is making. First teams are targeting Barr and Harrison Smith in coverage. Pro Football Focus coverage grade for Barr is 49.9, the 62nd-ranked linebacker in the NFL. Smith coverage grade has remained strong at 83.6, ninth-best in the league. While Smith’s numbers are still impressive if you listed his strengths, coverage wouldn’t be near the top. Smith is at his best making plays at the line of scrimmage and wrecking havoc in the secondary, not in pure one-on-one coverage.
Head coach Mike Zimmer’s double-A-gap scheme doesn’t seem to be getting home or confusing quarterbacks the way it had in early in the year or in previous seasons. The missed tackles have been an issue which have led to a lot of the previously mentioned problems on third down. Injuries to Andrew Sendejo, Eric Kendricks, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn have all contributed to the the defense’s less-than-ideal returns however there should be enough talent left over to overcome.
Zimmer is the defensive guru and the Vikings need him to show his prowess now. Minnesota allowed seven touchdowns during their hot start—but have allowed eight in the last four games. This team’s deficiencies are many but its one fallback was supposed to be the Zimmer-led defense. Right now not even they can be relied on in key situations to come up with big-time plays. That has to change.