If the Vikings Defense Struggles Against Philip Rivers, It May be Time to Panic

Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro (USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has solidified himself as one of the best defensive minds in the game of football. His resume speaks for itself, succeeding in seemingly every job he’s had dating back to his first position in the NFL as a defensive assistant with the Dallas Cowboys in 1994.

His legacy has been cemented by his success in building an elite defense out of practically nothing during his tenure in Minnesota. Statistically, the Vikings have not ranked outside the Top 14 in points allowed or yards allowed since Zimmer took over in 2014, and they led both categories in 2017.

Over the years, clear tendencies have manifested as a result of Zimmer’s success. One of them is that his defenses tend to thrive against quarterbacks who aren’t super mobile but possess the gunslinger mentality.

Philip Rivers is the prime example of this, and he happens to be Minnesota’s opponent in Week 2 as the starting quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.

Most Vikings fans remember the beatdown from Week 15 last season when Rivers was still a member of the Los Angeles Chargers. Minnesota won the game 39-10 as a result of seven turnovers committed by the Chargers offense. Four of those turnovers were committed by Rivers — three interceptions and one fumble lost — and he recorded 4.92 adjusted yards per attempt (similar to the yards per attempt statistic, but with touchdowns and interceptions also weighted).

It’s not the first time Zimmer has gotten the best of Rivers. In fact, that blowout win was the fifth consecutive win for Zimmer against Rivers dating back to his tenure as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator. This isn’t just about his team getting the best of Rivers’ team, however. In each game, Zimmer has limited Rivers’ efficiency as a passer, and it has had a direct impact on the result of the game.

In Week 3 of 2015 the then-San Diego Chargers traveled to Minneapolis to take on the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota won with ease by a score of 31-14 and sacked Rivers four times. Ultimately, Rivers finished with 246 yards, one touchdown, one interception, a passer rating of 81.2 and just 6.5 adjusted yards per attempt.

Zimmer’s final three meetings with Rivers as the Bengals defensive coordinator followed the same blueprint. In 2013, Zimmer held the Chargers offense to 10 points in a 17-10 win as Rivers limped to a passer rating of 80.0 with a single touchdown, one interception and just 6.14 adjusted yards per attempt.

In 2012, Zimmer held Rivers’ offense to just 13 points in a 20-13 win. Rivers took four sacks, lost a fumble and threw for no touchdowns and one interception while notching an abysmal 4.9 adjusted yards per attempt. And in 2010, the Bengals defeated the Chargers 34-20 as Zimmer’s defense held Rivers to 5.7 adjusted yards per attempt and a passer rating of 82.9, which is actually the highest passer rating from Rivers in these past five matchups against Zimmer.

You have to go back all the way to 2009 for the last time Rivers won against Zimmer, a 27-24 thriller. Even in that game, Rivers tossed two interceptions to Zimmer’s defense.

Rivers has not recorded a passer rating better than 82.9 in his past five meetings with Zimmer. Meanwhile, Rivers’ teams have not scored more than 20 points against Zimmer since that 2009 matchup, when the Chargers scored 24. More recently, Rivers’ teams have scored, in chronological order from most recent, 10, 14, 10, 13 and 20 points against Zimmer teams.

This brings us to this week’s matchup. Minnesota’s defense is coming off perhaps its worst performance ever in the Zimmer era. Meanwhile, Rivers is now playing for a new organization and a new coaching staff. Will the same trends continue?

At any rate, this matchup with the Colts (who lost to Jacksonville last week, by the way) presents a much softer challenge than Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay did last week.

There might not be a better quarterback for a Zimmer defense to bounce back against than Rivers, given the aforementioned history of their matchups. If Rivers lights up the Vikings secondary in a similar fashion to Rodgers’ display in Week 1, then it might be time for Vikings fans to hit the panic button.

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Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro (USA TODAY Sports)


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