Who's the Vikings’ Biggest X-Factor This Season?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Bolstered by the dismissal of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, excitement for the Vikings hasn’t been this high in years. The franchise has two new decision-makers to lead them into the 21st century of football — an era that was quickly passing by the previous regime. Expectations are starting to set in for Year 1 of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell‘s tenure.

Essentially the entire offense from last season returns under O’Connell’s tutelage, whereas the defense experienced an offseason makeover. Enter Za’Darius Smith, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, Chandon Sullivan, Lewis Cine, and Andrew Booth as reinforcements that will look to provide an immediate — and much-needed — impact for a Minnesota defense that spent the past two years as basement-dwellers.

We already know by now that the Vikings were godawful in basically every facet of the game on the defensive end last season. With so many areas in need of improvement, where can the Vikings even begin to turn their defense into a winning unit in 2022?

If your North Star tells you that the biggest need is revamping the secondary, since Adofo-Mensah prioritized that group with his top two picks in the draft, you’re not necessarily wrong.

But the biggest X-factor this season is the man Adofo-Mensah made his first-ever free-agency signing: Harrison Phillips. After spending his first four seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Phillips comes to Minnesota with a shiny gold star courtesy of our friends at Pro Football Focus. PFF graded Phillips as the sixth-best interior defensive lineman against the run last season. And, since the Vikings ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed and 29th in yards per carry allowed, Phillips is being tasked with elevating Minnesota’s efforts against the run.

Since our pals at PFF think so highly of Phillips against the ground game, that means we’re as good as gold, right?!

Not so fast, my fellow Skoldiers.

Before Week 10 of last year, Phillips had previously started just three games throughout his entire tenure in Buffalo. And if you look at Buffalo’s run defense from the moment Phillips entered the fray as a starter, it certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

Obviously, Phillips is just one of 11 defenders, but this sort of propensity for getting gashed up front is cause for concern.

One could argue that opposing offenses schemed against Phillips and instead opted to test Buffalo against the edges last season, right?

Welp. According to Football Outsiders, Buffalo’s opponents ran 63.5% of their rushing attempts right at Phillips and the middle of Buffalo’s front last year. This was the fourth-highest rate of rushing attempts into the teeth of opposing defenses throughout the NFL.

Were Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings hoodwinked on Phillips’ prowess against the run? After all, it’s tough to argue that Buffalo was anything but a trainwreck against the run after surrendering an average of 132 rushing yards per game over the final 11 games of the season, with Phillips playing a prominent role for the Bills’ defensive front. And, speaking of trainwrecks, if you exclude both games against the New York Jets last season, Buffalo allowed an average of 148 rushing yards per game with Phillips manning the middle from Week 10 on.

If teams didn’t hesitate to attack Phillips and Buffalo’s interior defensive line en route to 137-plus rushing yards in six of 11 games with him in the starting lineup, how impactful was he in his primary role for the team?

An even better question might be: What is PFF seeing with Phillips as a run-stopper that the data/numbers clearly don’t?

Let’s dive a little deeper into the six least-flattering occurrences for Buffalo’s run defense to close last season. Below we’ll identify where each team had success by assessing their Rushing by Direction data, courtesy of PFF.

Week 11 vs. Indianapolis Colts

Of Indianapolis’ 264 rushing yards at the expense of Buffalo’s defense, the interior of the Bills’ front allowed 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. A whopping 5.6 yards per carry. And Phillips played 78% of those snaps. Yikes.

Week 13 vs. New England

Phillips and the middle of Buffalo’s front fared a lot better against their divisional foes, although the New England Patriots clearly got to the edge with regularity in this one. Of the 222 rushing yards that the Patriots accumulated in the Monday night contest, 72 yards on 15 carries is a step in the right direction but far from having an impactful day against the run. New England’s 4.8 yards per carry into the teeth of Phillips and Buffalo’s defense is still borderline domination.

Week 14 @ Tampa Bay

Now, this is exactly what Vikings fans should hope to see. Despite the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running for 137 yards on the day, only 38 yards on 12 carries came at the hands of Phillips and the interior of his defensive line. No matter how you slice it, a 3.2 yards per carry average is winning the battle up front and looks every bit the part of Phillips being a top-six interior defensive lineman against the run.

Week 15 vs Carolina

Similar to the previous week against Tampa Bay, the box score doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Even though Buffalo surrendered 151 yards on the ground to the Christian McCaffrey-less Carolina Panthers, only 21 yards on eight carries came as a result of attacking Phillips and the middle of Buffalo’s front. Another dominant showing with a 2.6 yards per carry.

Week 16 @ New England

Buffalo’s struggles against New England’s ground game picked right up where they left off from Week 13. Of the 149 yards on the day, 61 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries came by way of exploiting Phillips and the interior of the Bills’ front. 5.1 yards per carry isn’t exactly what you’re hoping for out of your hog mollies up front.

Divisional Round @ Kansas City

Unfortunately for Phillips and the Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs had their way with the Buffalo defense in what resulted in one of the most exciting football games of the 21st century. The Chiefs dominated the battle up front with 182 rushing yards, and Phillips’ interior defensive line surrendered 80 yards on 13 carries for an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Does this look like the sixth-best interior defensive lineman against the run?

When accumulating all of the rushing attempts into the interior of the defensive line from these six games, Phillips and Buffalo allowed the following:

IND: 23 carries, 128 yards, 2 TDs, 5.6 yards per carry

NE: 15 carries, 72 yards, 4.8 yards per carry

TB: 12 carries, 38 yards, 3.2 yards per carry

CAR: 8 carries, 21 yards, 2.6 yards per carry

NE: 12 carries, 61 yards, 2 TDs, 5.1 yards per carry

KC: 13 carries, 80 yards, 6.2 yards per carry

Total: 83 carries, 400 yards, 4 TDs, 4.8 yards per carry

When looking at Buffalo’s inept defense against the run, especially from rushing attempts into the middle of its front where Phillips resides, it’s more than fair to poke holes in PFF’s run-defense grade for Phillips.

Can some of that be attributed to Leslie Frazier‘s scheme? Or how about Phillips’ interior defensive linemen pals? Possibly.

On the surface, Phillips appears to be an elite-run stuffer — thanks in large part to PFF’s questionable grade. But when looking at his minimal impact for Buffalo’s efforts against the run, his reliability raises real questions.

If the Vikings want to drastically improve on their 26th ranking against the run from last year, Phillips will need to provide a much larger impact than he had for Buffalo down the stretch of last season — when he became a fixture in their efforts on the ground.

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