For 41 straight games the Minnesota Vikings had Linval Joseph anchoring the trenches, causing many to fret over how the Vikings run defense would fare against a top-10 rushing unit without their reliable nose tackle, sidelined with a bevy of listed injuries (ankle/knee/shoulder).
Those concerns were quickly quelled as the New York Jets managed just 71 yards on the ground, slightly under 3 yards per carry, in Minnesota’s 37-17 win.
That’s the focus of today’s second look.
Johnson & Johnson
Isaiah Crowell, who emerged in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns under young offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, entered the game averaging 6.1 yards per carry — top five in the league. He finished with 29 yards on just 11 carries, despite taking over for the injured Bilal Powell in the first half.
Jaleel Johnson and Tom Johnson were a big reason why the Jets rushing offense struggled as they combined with Sheldon Richardson to shore up the middle.
“I thought we were strong at the point of attack,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “I thought Jaleel Johnson played well. Sheldon played well inside.”
Seventeen of the Jets’ 24 rushing attempts went for 3 yards or fewer, which included a pair of Darnold fumbles and two Darnold sneaks of 1 yard.
Jets running backs ended the game with 18 carries for 53 yards, and the Vikings tackles were a big part of it. The two Johnsons combined for seven tackles on the day.
Trae Waynes led the NFL in run stops last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s been at it again the last two weeks with four tackles in the run game. Luke Inman detailed Waynes’ prowess in last week’s film review, and the same thing showed up against the Jets as the fourth-year corner sprinted in to halt two Jets runs in the first half.
“So one of the things we talked about all week long was perimeter run force,” Zimmer said, “because a lot of their big runs had come from bounce outs to the perimeter with Crowell. Trae made a couple of really nice tackles coming off the perimeter.”
Zimmer expounded Monday about what’s made Waynes so successful against the run — a skill he wasn’t known for earlier in his career.
“Part of it is reading your keys, that’s part of it,” Zimmer said. “Talking about young corners, if their eyes are in the wrong place, typically wrong things happen. [Trae] still has some issues sometimes where his eyes are in the wrong place, but the majority of the time now in the last couple of years, he’s been really good with looking at his key.”
As the NFL continues to evolve into “a space game,” as Zimmer said Monday, the ability of a team’s linebackers to cover ground quickly — whether in coverage or in run pursuit — is critical. On Sunday, the Vikings linebacking corps continued building on a successful stretch following a shaky start to their year as opposing teams worked to combat Minnesota’s double-A gap look.
“In today’s NFL, the way everybody is playing in space now, if you’re not a good tackler in space it makes it really hard to be a good defensive team,” said Zimmer, “because they don’t bunch everything up anymore.”
Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr — who left the game with a hamstring injury — showed up frequently as they filled run gaps and chased down runners toward the edge.
The Vikings are now eighth in the league in yards allowed and fourth in yards per carry. Opponents are averaging just over 70 yards per game during Minnesota’s three-game winning streak.
The next step: Get Joseph back on the field.