Not only do Mike Zimmer’s secondaries know how to cover, but they’re not bad at wrapping up ball-carriers either.
Once again, the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backs have been one of the sturdiest-tackling units in football — a norm in the five years under Zimmer.
Consider this: the Vikings secondary missed 71 tackles in 2013, per Pro Football Focus, one of the top figures in the NFL. The following year after Zimmer entered the picture, the DBs cut that total down by more than half, missing just 33 tackles in the coach’s first season.
The Vikings defensive backs missed an average of 38 tackles in Zimmer’s first four seasons. They’ve whiffed on just 28 in 2018, the third-lowest total in the league, on track for 32 on the season.
“It’s pretty much the players,” Zimmer said, implying that tackling is more about instinct than anything else. “When you’re coaching, it’s about angles and getting in the proper position, things like that. When it comes down to it, you can do all those things and still miss a tackle. If you know where your help is a lot of times, that helps to minimize the space that you have to tackle a guy in.”
Only the Patriots’ (24 missed) and Jaguars’ (26) secondaries have missed fewer tackles than the Vikings this season.
“I think we just put an emphasis on how important it is,” said safety Anthony Harris. “It’s not something we ask people to do, it’s something that Coach demands. You’ve got to have good tackling, especially nowadays with how much people are trying to get the ball in space.”
Mackensie Alexander has been pinned with a team-leading six misses, while rookie Mike Hughes missed four before hurting his knee. Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith both have four, corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have three, and rookie Holton Hill has two. Marcus Sherels and Harris round out the total with one each. George Iloka and Jayron Kearse haven’t missed a tackle in limited action all season.
Nine of the 10 worst tackling secondaries belong to team’s with .500 or worse records. Houston (56 misses) is the only exception. The New York Giants presently lead the league with 70 misses from DBs.
Minnesota’s tackling discipline has kept its defense from giving up many explosive plays. They’ve allowed tied for the second-fewest rushing plays of 20 yards or more (5) and the ninth-fewest passing plays of 20 yards or more (40).
“I think it always starts with coaching,” said Smith, “and then it’s having the right guys, the guys that want to go get dirty. Not every corner that covers as well as our guys cover want to get there and make physical tackles on backs bouncing on the edge. And our guys just have that mentality going into games and have great technique doing it. They all kind of tackle in different ways, but working well and knowing where your help is at, knowing where the sideline’s at — all those things come into it.”
Smith and Waynes were both in the top 20 in run-stop percentage last year, a Pro Football Focus metric that calculates the percentage of tackles that constitute a negative play for the offense.
And it’s been another tremendous year for Smith, who PFF considers the top safety against the run in 2018. His new counterpart, Harris, is ranked eighth.
“I think [Harris] has increased his physicality this year,” said Zimmer, “but I also feel like one of the things he does well, he anticipates and he’s got good vision. Back there at that position that’s usually a good thing.”
“It’s definitely a mentality type of thing,” said Harris. “I think I pride myself as being an aggressive type of guy, so that’s not shying away from contact.”
The opponent on Sunday also has a sure-tackling secondary. The Detroit Lions are immediately behind the Vikings with 30 missed tackles on the season. Safety Quandre Diggs and corner Nevin Lawson have both been graded in the top 10 against the run, and the Lions have held four of their last six opponents to 61 yards or fewer on the ground.
“I think they have a lot of guys that are flying around and are playing with a lot of confidence,” said receiver Adam Thielen of Detroit’s defense.
There may not be many yards after contact in Sunday’s critical matchup. Minnesota could clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Lions and some help from other outcomes.
“They don’t want to lose at home, especially,” said Thielen, “so we’re going to get a team that’s going to give their full effort all game.”