The Vikings’ Defense Is Pliable By Design

Photo credit: Jamie Germano-Democrat and Chronicle via USA TODAY Sports

Ed Donatell has often been criticized by Minnesota Vikings fans this season, and a big reason is the sheer amount of yardage his unit has allowed.

I can’t blame Chris Tomasson for feeling a bit flabbergasted trying to contextualize how the Vikings are 9-2. When the defense is ranked 31st in the league in yards allowed, your first instinct is to assume something is wrong. Yet, the Vikings are 9-2, and you have to give credit where credit is due at some point. You don’t win that many football games with a bottom-10 defense unless you have an elite offense.

As much as I love Kevin O’Connell and the good vibes he’s brought to this team, the Vikings’ offense is not elite. Sure they’re above average and have the talent to score over 30 points a game, but they don’t strike fear the same way the Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, or Buffalo Bills do. Yet, this is the same team that beat Buffalo on the road. While it’s true that the defense allowed 30 points and 486 net yards, the Vikings don’t win that game without the defense forcing two interceptions and recovering a fumbled snap at the goal line.

Not only has the defense done its job, but they are starting to show signs of becoming a quality bend-but-don’t-break unit. In their last three games, Minnesota ranked sixth in red-zone defense. Additionally, the Vikings defense ranks third in the league in turnover differential.

Donatell’s scheme is likely why the Vikings are forcing more turnovers. By playing shell coverage and having more safety help over the top, Donatell is testing the patience of opposing quarterbacks. The downside? The Vikings allow more yards underneath. The upside? There will be more situations where the opposing quarterback is tempted to force the ball downfield, which creates more opportunities for interceptions for the safeties downfield.

It isn’t a coincidence that Minnesota drafted Lewis Cine when safety wasn’t an urgent need. In the offseason, Donatell expressed interest in playing dime sub-packages with three safeties on the field. Cine’s injury derailed these plans, but there’s no question that Donatell loves drafting safeties that can hit like linebackers and linebackers that can run like safeties à la Brian Asamoah.

Not only is Donatell’s scheme designed to generate turnovers, it’s easier for younger or less talented corners to succeed. The Vikings were down three corners on a short week against the New England Patriots, yet the defense could still show up when it mattered most.

Duke Shelley had a decent game for a practice squad player, breaking up a pass in the end zone for the second week in a row. Chandon Sullivan also had one of his better games with the Vikings, finishing the game with a 74.3 PFF grade, which puts him in the top-five performers on defense this week for the Vikings. Even though the Patriots averaged 7.4 yards per play on offense last week, they only converted three of 10 times on third down.

Fans shouldn’t expect Donatell to work miracles in his first year as defensive coordinator. This is the first year the Vikings have been in a 3-4 defense since the 1980s. When Mike Zimmer transformed Minnesota’s defense in his first year, he had the benefit of being able to keep personnel the same since Leslie Frazier also ran a 4-3 defense. It’s gonna take two to three years for this defense to reach its full potential.

In the meantime, Vikings fans can take solace in knowing that the team’s identity revolves around the offense. O’Connell’s teams are better suited to win shootouts than they were previously, which means it matters less if the Vikings defense gives up 26 points if the offense scores 33. That doesn’t mean fans should accept the defense underperforming, but it does mean there is more room for error.

The Vikings’ defense has been far from perfect this season. They give up a ton of yards, and some games have been much closer than they should’ve been. Yet, the same thing that has been said about Kirk Cousins this season can be said about the Vikings’ defense. The stats haven’t been great, but they have shown up when it matters most. It’s a welcome change from when the Vikings were better at stat padding than winning close games.

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