For half a decade, the Minnesota Vikings were arguably the gold standard for defensive consistency. From 2015-19, no other NFC defense gave up fewer points. No other NFC defense allowed fewer yards. And a defense doesn’t put up numbers that stingy without an aptitude for preventing explosive plays.
The Vikings’ inability to squelch those plays has one of the many jarring elements of their nightmarish start. Opponents have scored 102 points against Minnesota (well, 98 if you discount safeties), and they’ve converted the highest number of 30-plus-yard passing plays — eight of them against the Vikings through three games.
In the previous five seasons, the Vikings allowed the ninth-fewest passing plays of 30 yards or more: 91 of them. At their current pace, they’ll give up 43 this season alone. It’s not hard to imagine head coach Mike Zimmer toiling in his office as he attempts to decipher what’s gone wrong and what buttons he needs to push to make it right. There’s hardly been a common thread the first three games as Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill have punished the Vikings secondary. They’ve beaten them with and without play-action, against press or off coverage, while exploiting corners, safeties and linebackers.
The latest fiasco against Tennessee featured three passing plays allowed of at least 38 yards, and the Titans scored 16 points off those three possessions.
“We gave up three catches for 143 yards,” Zimmer said, calculating correctly. “One was a double move and a couple of them were shots down the field. So that’s kind of been the Achilles heel the last three weeks.”
The Packers had four explosive plays in Week 1, taking advantage of some cheating safeties. Rodgers didn’t need to use play-action on a single one of those throws, beating Cameron Dantzler, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill on separate tosses while identifying a coverage bust on another.
On Sunday, Tannehill used play-action early and often with great success, except for an interception to Harrison Smith in the second quarter. He finished 10 of 14 for 241 yards off play-action, a league high, with almost two-thirds of those yards coming on three big throws. The first came on the second play from scrimmage: Kalif Raymond, getting extended reps with A.J. Brown hurt, put a double-move on Hill for a 44-yard gain. The play-action wasn’t all that important to the result here, Raymond simply beat Hill while safety Anthony Harris was preoccupied with Corey Davis across the middle of the field.
Defensive backs aren’t supposed to get beat over the top when they’re playing off coverage, as Hill was against Raymond, which may have been an adjustment after Week 1 when most of Green Bay’s explosive plays came against a bump and run. But all of Tennessee’s long passes occurred against off coverage last Sunday because the Vikings failed to bring safety help. Teams have been savvy so far this year in their play design to keep the ball away from Minnesota’s excellent safety tandem — Harrison Smith’s interception is evidence why — but the Vikings have also made their own mistakes.
Anthony Harris, in particular, has been caught chasing a number of big plays this season, including a pair of Green Bay’s long passes where Harris chose to help on underneath routes as Rodgers passed the ball over his head. He was also involved on both of Tennessee’s explosive plays in the third quarter.
On the slant below to Corey Davis, Kris Boyd (bottom of the screen) is counting on Harris’s help since he lines up with outside leverage, but Harris breaks a split second late after his backpedal and gets picked out of the play by the crossing receiver.
It’s unclear which safety is at fault on the next drive, but it’s clear there was a miscommunication. Both Smith and Harris assist on the underneath receiver, and neither help Jeff Gladney deep against Raymond, who catches a 61-yard bomb to set up a touchdown. Smith may have been in the best position to help, since his momentum was already going backwards after a faux blitz.
“Sometimes guys try to make plays that they shouldn’t be trying to make,” Zimmer said after the game. “On the bomb on Gladney, we had two safeties bite. These guys have to got to do what they’re supposed to do, too.”
Through three games, each of the Vikings’ top five corners have been on the wrong end of a play for over 30 yards: Dantzler, Hill, Hughes, Boyd and Gladney. Eric Kendricks was also beaten in coverage against the Colts. And it appears as if the safeties are still figuring out their own responsibilities now that the cornerback group is less self-sufficient.
They’ve never been challenged like this.
“I don’t think necessarily think it’s guys trying to go out of their way and forcefully do things,” said Harris. “I just think it’s guys going out and just trying to play. We just have to be aware of our personnel, who’s in the game, where guys are, and just go out and play from there.”
Houston’s Deshaun Watson has struggled to work the ball deep this season without DeAndre Hopkins, going just 4 for 12 on passes over 20 yards. Perhaps Week 4 presents an opportunity for the Vikings secondary to get right.