When the Minnesota Vikings gathered for offseason workouts this past April, three key members of the defense – Captain Munnerlyn, Harrison Smith and Brian Robison – brought up a desire for the team to improve in its two-minute defense.
The first reaction one might have is: Really?
This might have been Topic No. 1 after a brutal 2013 season that was filled with late-game devastation, or evenafter Zimmer’s first year as coach when the Vikings lost several tight games down the stretch. But after an 11-5 campaign that culminated in a playoff berth, nobody expected to hear the echoes of previous years’ critiques.
As it turns out, there’s more validity to their claims than meets the naked eye. The Vikings were especially poor near the end of the first half last season, allowing a field goal or touchdown in the final two minutes of the half eight times in 2015. “Sometimes in the second quarter of games we allowed people to score,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Sunday, “which was disappointing and you can’t do that.”
We’ve got to cover a little bit better, and the defensive line’s got to get to the quarterback a little faster
It makes sense that pre-halftime lapses would annoy Zimmer, since he explained last year his desire to defer the coin flip and set up 2-for-1 situations where his offense could score going into and coming out of halftime. Ultimately, it often worked in reverse of how Zimmer envisioned.
Robison remembered the San Diego game where the Vikings led 10-0 late in the first half, only to surrender a 90-yard touchdown drive that closed the gap to a field goal heading into the break. On that drive the Vikings allowed a third-and-18 conversion of 39 yards to Keenan Allen, as well as Allen’s 34-yard touchdown grab. “Yeah, we’ve got to find a way to get to the quarterback,” Robison told Cold Omaha. “It’s one of the deals where rush and coverage works together, so there was some opportunities last year. We’ve got to cover a little bit better, and the defensive line’s got to get to the quarterback a little faster.”
The Vikings’ first matchup against the Packers also had a dreadful end to the first half. Green Bay drove 80 yards for a touchdown thanks to two critical defensive penalties on third down. A third-and-15 pass interference call against Terence Newman and a third-and-9 illegal contact penalty against Anthony Barr gave Aaron Rodgers second and third lives. He eventually converted on third-and-goal to give the Packers a 16-6 lead at half. “We can’t have the penalties that we’ve had in the past,” said Robison. “Probably most importantly, when we have an opportunity to make a play we’ve got to make it.”
Final scores, of course, aren’t determined at halftime, and the Vikings were able to rebound to win many games in which they struggled in the second quarter, but they also failed in several key spots late in regulation. Their losses to Denver and Arizona – both by identical 23-20 scores – were a result of allowing field-goal drives in the waning minutes – both drives going 55 yards.
If you’re not good at it, it’s gonna be a big portion of why you lose
One man who’s previously taken heat for a late-game mistake is veteran Chad Greenway. The linebacker was a split second late in coverage on tight end Scott Chandler during a 2014 game at Buffalo, which enabled the Bills to convert a fourth-and-20 and go on to win the game.
“I think that [two-minute defense] is such a critical part of our game now in the NFL with how these games are played,” Greenway told Cold Omaha. “If you’re not good at it, it’s gonna be a big portion of why you lose. These games come down to three or four points. If you’re not good in those situations it’s usually the reason why you lost. It could be momentum killers before the half and obviously game enders are so critical.”
As a team, the Vikings recorded just 11 fourth quarter sacks last season, which is lower than their second (15) and third quarter (14) totals. On one hand, while a prevent defense may be wise to have conservative rush calls when leading late in a game, opposing quarterbacks were also dropping back more often in the final quarter than any other time against the Vikings last year with 192 pass attempts. That number should be higher than 11, especially with the pass-rushers the Vikings employ.
Robison’s indication that the squad needs to reach the quarterback more in two-minute situations may be a part of what Zimmer and Co. are planning on implementing. And yes, they are definitely making some changes schematically in those situations. Robison confirmed as much with Cold Omaha, and Zimmer repeated the same thing in his Sunday presser. Both, however, were reluctant to talk specifics. “As we get into camp a little bit more we’ll get into some of that,” said Zimmer. “I think there’s some things we can do.”