Not only have the Minnesota Vikings been spoiled with Pro Bowl-caliber pass rushers for the better part of the last 10 years, they’ve had edge rushers that were well-disciplined against the run.
Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter were both top 30 in the league in run-stop percentage in 2019, and top 15 the year before that. The Vikings’ newest piece, Yannick Ngakoue, has the pass-rushing chops to match his predecessors, but his run defense has seemingly left something to be desired.
Through five games, Ngakoue has four run stops out of 87 possible plays, a 4.6% rate that ranks tied for 38th out of 56 qualified defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Out of 70 defensive ends that have played 50% or more of snaps, Ngakoue ranks 68th in run defense with a 38.2 rating.
Run defense has always been a knock on Ngakoue back to his days in Jacksonville. He ranked 61st of 62 in 2019, 52nd of 67 in 2018 and 43rd of 57 in 2017. That shouldn’t diminish his impact as a pass-rusher, which could make him one of the league’s most coveted free agents next March unless the Vikings lock him into a long-term deal. Ngakoue has the No. 13 pass-rushing grade, per PFF, thanks to five sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in his first five games as a Viking.
“He’s obviously added a little bit of juice to the pass rush,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday.
It’s evident that playing the run isn’t necessarily a strength of Ngakoue’s, but is it as big a weakness as the numbers indicate?
Before Ngakoue played a game in Minnesota, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson was asked about Ngakoue’s potential deficiencies against the run. He thought the 25-year-old might have gained a negative reputation because of his scheme in Jacksonville, which was much different than the Vikings’.
“I think sometimes, too, it’s your style of play,” Patterson said. “If your defense has width and [you] don’t line up close to guys and your job is to get off blocks as quick as possible and gain as much penetration, sometimes it can make you look that way. We get our bodies on people around here and we try to move offensive linemen around here. So far in practice he hasn’t had a problem with that. I haven’t seen any deficiencies with that.”
Early on, it looked like the Vikings were going to try and alter Ngakoue’s tendencies to match the Vikings’ system — hand in the ground, pushing tackles into the pocket, etc. — but starting in Week 2 he reverted back to his preferred stand-up stance that he used in Jacksonville.
“Sometimes the offensive formation will dictate that he has to have his hand in the ground,” Patterson explained. “If it does not, then he has the choice whether he wants to put his hand in the ground or go from the 2-point stance.”
Ngakoue is at his best when he’s rushing wide, and the Vikings have enabled him to do that with his patented “cross-chop” move that few pass-rushers can pull off, but those wide stances occasionally open gaping cutback lanes for running backs. On this fourth quarter carry by Derrick Henry in Week 3, Ngakoue tries to set the edge against tackle Ty Sambrailo, but the Titans did a nice job blocking linebackers Eric Kendricks and Hardy Nickerson to set up a 12-yard run. Ngakoue isn’t guilty here of not making the tackle, but he doesn’t do much to narrow the gap or offer support once Henry steams by.
Ngakoue has only been dinged for one missed tackle in the run game, but that’s largely because he hasn’t found a way to get his arms around ball-carriers. Only four defensive ends with at least 50% of snaps have fewer tackles than Ngakoue. But as we’ve discovered with the Vikings defensive tackles, raw tackling production isn’t always the goal for Patterson. Shamar Stephen has routinely been praised for his ability to fill the correct gaps and occupy blockers while linebackers make plays around him.
With Ngakoue not being an eager tackler, per se, his responsibilities have likely been changed to put him in positions that allow others to make plays.
“We’ve found a way to mix what makes him comfortable into what we want to do, too,” Patterson said. “That’s helped him become more comfortable faster, and you’re seeing his ability to make plays throughout the course of the game. He’s shown his strength at the point of attack also.”
The Vikings had Ngakoue on the field for a key third down at Seattle, where Patterson credited his presence as a big reason why Kendricks was able to shoot through for a tackle at the line of scrimmage. “[W]e checked and made him play the inside gap on the tackle, and he did an outstanding job,” Patterson said. “He hadn’t been in that position ever in his career, so for him to be able to do that and play that I think is building more confidence for him.”
It hasn’t been frequent, but Ngakoue will periodical show the strength to get the running back himself. Perhaps his finest play of the year came against the Colts where he took on two tight ends at the snap, cast aside Noah Togiai and brought down Jonathan Taylor in the backfield.
One could fairly conclude that the team understands Ngakoue’s limitations as a tackler and has altered his assignments accordingly. Sometimes with veteran acquisitions, you have to accept the asset you’ve been given compared to rookies that are more easily molded.
Ngakoue is still an elite pass-rusher, which should outweigh his lack of splash plays in the run game.