Vikings

The Vikings Defense Is Broken. Is It the Players Or the Coaching?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like everyone who plays the Minnesota Vikings suddenly has a resurgence at the quarterback position, whether it’s a good QB or not. Mike White‘s offense put up 486 yards on the Vikings. The week before, Mac Jones laid down a season-high 382 yards. I don’t need to remind you what happened to the Vikings’ defense the week before that. So what’s going wrong here? Is this a fundamental problem with Ed Donatell’s scheme, or is it just that the Vikings don’t have the horses?

The New York Jets game gives us a convenient test case to determine this. Over half of New York’s yards came on explosive plays (defined as gains of 15 or more). Maxing out at a 60-yard Garrett Wilson catastrophe, the Vikings just kept giving the Jets an easy path most of the way down the field. Things slowed down in the red zone, but this high volume of explosive plays is alarming. It’s convenient because it gives us a digestible sample of mistakes to look at.

So, let’s do that. Let’s look at a few of those explosives and try to determine what has gone wrong and what needs to be fixed to stop this from happening against Jared Goff, Daniel Jones, and whatever scraps are left of Matt Ryan.

Q3 12:27 | 2nd & 9 | Mike White pass complete deep middle to Garrett Wilson for 23 yards

On this rep, the Vikings get caught blitzing. The blitz doesn’t get home, and it leaves everyone one-on-one. That can work out, but it’s hard mode for the cornerbacks. It’s tough enough to cover Garrett Wilson when you’re Akayleb Evans, a backup. Wilson leans his route stem outside, baiting Evans to open his hips to the outside, and the in-break is there for the taking. Ideally, the Vikings wouldn’t want Evans singled up on Wilson, but the blitz left them there.

So why didn’t that blitz get home? The Vikings were trying to attack the widest split in the Jets’ protection. Typically, protections split a “wall” side (there are lots of terms for this, don’t worry about them) and a “man” side between the center and a guard. Any adjustment to that is called a “protection slide,” and it’s what the Jets do here. The Vikings expected the split to be between the center and right guard. But, thanks to the slide, it ends up between the tackle and tight end. Now the blitzer, Jordan Hicks, is running straight into the teeth of a guard instead of an open gap.

So the Vikings’ blitz couldn’t defeat a protection slide, and it exposed a personnel mismatch. Does that count as scheme or execution? I’d hear arguments for both, but I’m going with scheme. It’s not reasonable to expect a team to have reserve corners that can keep up with breakout rookies like Wilson. It is plenty reasonable to expect a blitz to get home. If you disagree, no worries, keep your own score and follow along.

Q3 4:53 | 2nd & 8 | Mike White pass complete deep right to C.J. Uzomah for 31 yards

This looks like busted coverage at first, but I can’t say that for sure. If it’s a coverage like Stump, Danielle Hunter‘s job would be to play man-to-man on the No. 2, who turns out to be Uzomah in this case. If it’s a coverage like Seahawk, Hunter’s job may be to pass Uzomah off to Patrick Peterson or Harrison Smith. Hunter is rarely asked to carry anything vertically, and if he is, that’s a massive scheme issue. He’s an edge rusher. This conflict is exactly what the Jets are exploiting.

That’s why I can’t say for sure — nobody, save Vikings players and coaches themselves, know if Hunter got a directive to pass everything off or play Seahawk against play action (and RPOs) the way most teams do (picture below taken from Cameron Soran’s Pass Coverage Glossary). Either way, the Jets run a deep route that occupies both Patrick Peterson (playing man-to-man) and Harrison Smith (playing top-down or deepest first). That means Hunter either has to run with a tight end or let the tight end go. Neither option is good. The Jets called a perfect counter to Minnesota’s coverage. That’s on the scheme.

Q4 14:46 | 1st & 10 | Mike White pass complete short middle to Garrett Wilson for 60 yards

This is the worst gain the Vikings ceded by a long shot. They’ve had debacles like this far too often this year. So what happened on this one? It’s pretty simple: Chandon Sullivan missed a tackle he should have made. But even without that, this play is a mess of execution. Eric Kendricks widens too much on his zone drop, lured way to the outside by Mike White’s eyes. Evans can’t cover that up by keeping up with Wilson. But Sullivan simply has to make this tackle. There’s no excuse for bouncing off like this on a direct collision. Easy play to answer, difficult pill to swallow. Execution.

Q4 3:48 | 4th & 10 | Mike White pass complete deep middle to Corey Davis for 31 yards

This one probably had you tearing your hair out. At fourth-and-10, with a chance to win the game, the Vikings give up a 31-yard catastrophe. The Jets are running one of their favorite gotta-have-it concepts, which includes a dig and a deep over. It worked well for the Jets (they called the same play on the next fourth-and-10 but to a much worse result). Below is a variant from an old Kyle Shanahan playbook, but all you need to know is that there is a deep in-breaking route that occupies any lurking safeties, leaving Duke Shelley alone with Corey Davis on a dig (or basic) route.

Shelley does an admirable job in this situation. Breaking on this in-breaker requires a lot of confidence, but Shelley actually gets himself into position to go for an interception. He misses the ball and Davis catches it with nobody stopping him from running free for even more yards after the catch. This is particularly frustrating on fourth down when a pass breakup would be even better — and easier — than a pick. What’s worse, his dive for the ball removes Sullivan from the play.

On fourth down, it’s understandable for a defensive back to intercept the ball instead of thinking about the minutiae of field position, but making the greedy play and risking a catch is less understandable. With Kevin O’Connell‘s emphasis on situational mastery, Shelley made an error here. He didn’t seem overmatched, and the scheme put Peterson on Wilson this time. Shelley just got greedy and got punished. Execution.

That’s an even 2-2 for these four plays. If you expected this to end with some kind of 4-0 blowout, you’ve underestimated how symbiotic football can be. Instead of asking for a more specific pie chart of blame, instead examine how scheme affected execution and vice versa in these plays. The scheme left Evans one-on-one with Wilson, which was too tough for the rookie corner. But when that’s Peterson, it’s a boon to the scheme. The two things interact to create good and bad outcomes. It’s never one or the other.

If you’re not convinced, and want to see a full score, check out the sister post on my Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/LukeBraunNFL. That video explains all nine plays, including these four, for a more comprehensive example.

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