Who Is To Blame For Minnesota's Run-Defense Issues?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have a run-defense issue. Considering that the Los Angeles Rams exposed it, and Aaron Jones and the similarly constructed Green Bay Packers are next on the docket, they have to address the issue — and fast. Whenever there is a problem to diagnose, it’s easy to jump to the simplest conclusion. The Vikings signed Dalvin Tomlinson in the offseason and got Michael Pierce back from the 2020 offseason. Wasn’t that supposed to shore up the middle?

The first logical place to look is at the performance of those defensive tackles. What you find is not disappointing at all. On the contrary, Pierce and Tomlinson regularly dominate the linemen in front of them. Pierce, in particular, is a purveyor of violence. Tomlinson is more controlled but impacts the game plenty.

When Pierce and Tomlinson are on the field, their gravity warps the entire structure of the offense. The problem is keeping them on the field. Pierce’s size is vital to his job, but he only plays 30-40 snaps per game. That means that, for a sizeable chunk of every game, the Vikings have to rely on weaker depth pieces. Tomlinson’s snap share isn’t much higher. But even beyond that, the depth tackles haven’t been that problematic. Minnesota has been giving up rushing yards anyways. What gives?

To fully understand this, we have to come to a greater understanding of run defense. Blocking math is the first step to this, and it’s relatively straightforward. Count the gaps in between blockers the offense has on the line of scrimmage. Then count the number of players who threaten those gaps. If the defense is plus-one, minus-one, or neutral, it greatly affects the way they play.

There are ways to combat this problem of being outnumbered without sacrificing efficacy in the passing game. One common favorite is to play “gap and a half,” where a player is primarily responsible for one gap but half-covers the other by moving into that space if the runner chooses it. It’s difficult to do, and here, Patrick Jones II doesn’t make his move fast enough.

To some degree, the Vikings can get caught prioritizing pass defense in their play calls. That might be worth it on the whole since deep passes hurt you a lot more than nine-yard runs. But the Vikings’ issues don’t end there. They’ve had plenty of trouble when the blocking math lines up as well.

A crucial part of run defense is setting the edge. You can sign Marvel’s Avengers to play defensive tackle, and it won’t matter if the running back can just bounce every run away from them or cut back toward undisciplined edge rushers. That was incredibly visible in the Vikings’ loss to the Rams, where poor play from edge rushers completely erased the contributions of the defensive tackles. But first, a quick example of what edge setting is supposed to look like:

Breaking it down further, D.J. Wonnum has had many issues with spacing himself. He attacks far too aggressively on the backside of zone runs, leaving himself vulnerable to an overrun. That also makes it easier for smaller players like tight ends or even wide receivers to block him. He’s already going the way they want him to go; they just need to nudge him along a little further.

This is a recurring problem for Wonnum. Here are some examples over the last couple of games:

In general, poor spacing from the edge rushers has plagued Minnesota’s run defense. It’s not just Wonnum. Since losing Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, the Vikings have trotted out a parade of struggling youngsters. Spacing is very difficult to get down as a player. It requires veteran awareness and a feel for the game. Imagine closing your eyes and walking in a perfect square of 10 feet on each side. If you can do so safely, try it, and see how far off you end up. Then compare that to the precision required to execute good run defense. It’s difficult, and youngsters who don’t have that instinct are dragging the team down.

To summarize, the problem isn’t the beefy interior the Vikings so carefully crafted. That has worked as intended. The problem is their simultaneous negligence of the edge of the defensive line. It’s a problem I highlighted back when they could do something about it. Edge was their biggest need in the 2021 draft, and they didn’t address it until pick 90 (Patrick Jones), long after the big names were gone.

Hunter returned but didn’t stay healthy. Griffen was not a responsible answer to the problem. Even though he worked out, relying on the 34-year-old to return to starting form was as irresponsible as depending on Wonnum to progress to starting form. It made matters worse to lose Griffen to mental health complications, but the on-field process is worth critiquing anyways. The Vikings simply failed to build depth. That’s not news to anyone.

And so a team relying on young, inexperienced players must now show discipline in their RPO reads against the 12-3 Green Bay Packers. Aaron Jones missed the last game, but he won’t miss this one. With the Vikings’ lives on the line, can their young players step up and prevent a beating on the ground?

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