The Minnesota Vikings’ offense got out to an impressive start against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, jumping out to a 24-3 lead at halftime. They sputtered in the second half, handing the baton over to the defense to finish the job.
The Saints scored two TDs in the second half. But the defense created enough negative plays, with two sacks and two interceptions in the second half, to hold them at an arm’s length. Despite what it may have felt like watching the game live, the Saints were never close to coming back by win probability:
The strong defensive performance against the Saints has been part of a larger trend during the team’s five-game winning streak where they have been playing excellent defense. They’ve forced at least one turnover in every game, 11 total during the streak. Outside of the Atlanta Falcons game, where the Vikings gifted eight of 28 points to Atlanta on a safety and two fumbles that put them in scoring position, Minnesota hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in a game during the stretch.
Efficiency metrics also show that the Vikings’ defense is on the rise. They haven’t separated themselves from the pack, but they have the best defense in the NFC if you weigh towards recent play, per PFF’s Timo Riske. They are also fifth overall behind the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, and Kansas City Chiefs:
The Vikings are clear outliers in their approach to attacking opposing QBs this season. Through Week 9, the Vikings were first in blitz rate, at 51%, and first in percentage of plays with just a three-man rush, at 22%, per Sports Info Solutions (Week 10 data is not yet available). To put this in context, the second-place blitz team, the New York Giants, has blitzed 43% of the time. The Pittsburgh Steelers (35%) are in third place. In terms of drop eight, only the Falcons and Saints, both at 14%, play with eight in coverage even half as much as the Vikings.
Combine heavy blitz rates with the fact that the Vikings line up with a two-high shell on only 27% of snaps, the lowest in the league, and you get a defense that is daunting to run against from a box count perspective and confusing to decipher in pass coverage after the snap. Throughout their win streak, Minnesota has begun to vary their blitz usage. Against the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, they blitzed 81% and 63% of the time, per PFF. They blitzed a positively modest 40% of the time against the Green Bay Packers, and then 50% against the Falcons, before turning in their lowest blitz rate of the season by far against the Saints:
The combination of interesting schematics and strong individual performances has led to a defense that is exciting to watch every week. Let’s dive into the tape of the defense against the Saints to help see what has made the Vikings successful.
Coverage disguise confusing the QB
Despite a low blitz rate, the Vikings still played very aggressively in this game. They simulated a lot of pressure, which means showing a number of players up at the line of scrimmage before dropping out at the snap. The hope with simulated pressures is partly to get a free rusher or at least an advantageous pass-rush matchup. However, the Vikings also pair that with consistently disguising coverages on the back end. They run a ton of invert coverages and other post-snap rotations.
On the first play of the game, the Vikings have Jordan Hicks and Ivan Pace Jr. at the line of scrimmage. With Camryn Bynum as a single-high safety and Akayleb Evans, Josh Metellus, and Harrison Smith lined up in press, Saints QB Derek Carr likely reads man coverage. Because of this, he identifies Michael Thomas, running an out, as a good matchup against Metellus, who has inside leverage.
However, the Vikings rotate into Invert Cover 2 at the snap. Byron Murphy rolls deep, and having a CB deep is the “invert” part of the coverage. Carr expected Evans to peel off vertically to cover Chris Olave on the go. Instead, peels off into his flat responsibility. That allows Evans to drive on the throw and hit Thomas hard, forcing an incompletion:
Another invert coverage led to Jonathan Bullard‘s strip-sack. On this play, the Vikings again show a single-high safety look, feigning Cover 3. Instead, they drop Murphy into a deep half and slide Bynum over, while Pace takes a deeper zone in an Inverted Tampa 2. Because Carr thought it was Cover 3, he decided to work the high-low over the middle of the field and wants to fit the ball in underneath the safety.
Because Carr got stuck on the routes over the middle, he held on to the ball and ate the sack. If he had recognized the coverage shift, he might have been able to find one of the fades along the sideline, both of which seem pretty wide open. However, his eyes and feet never leave the middle of the field, and he’s never in position to throw one of those routes:
Aggressive tackling on quick throws
In addition to disguising coverages well, the Vikings hit hard and tackled well in quick game. Alvin Kamara is a dangerous weapon in the passing game, but Minnesota completely shut down both screens the Saints tried to run to him on. The Vikings allowed only 3.2 yards after catch per reception in this game per PFF. For context, the lowest for an individual team across the entire season is 4.2 YAC per reception by the Carolina Panthers.
Minnesota’s tackling was clinical in this game. Everyone got in on it, including a number of backups, like Troy Dye, Andrew Booth Jr., and Mekhi Blackmon. Here’s a compilation of the best plays against the Saints’ quick game:
playing mind games with your opponent
Last week after Josh Dobbs‘ first fumble, the Vikings’ defense found themselves starting with the worst field position possible, as the Falcons got the ball at the one-yard line. Immediately, they forced a false start. During his weekly press conference, Brian Flores highlighted that Harrison Phillips was Minnesota’s “shift coordinator,” meaning that he is responsible for defensive line shifts before the snap. Sometimes these shifts are used to confuse run-blocking or pass-protection assignments for the offense, but the Vikings have also weaponized them into a way to get opponents to false start.
They were successful in drawing a false start on a fourth-and-one with the Saints backed up in their own territory, subsequently forcing a punt, on the play below:
The Vikings also forced another false start with a line stunt, as Rashid Shaheed jumped on the play below:
The Vikings also used a late shift to force a pressure early in the game. Harrison Phillips shifts from playing over the RG to playing over the C, and Patrick Jones also slides in a gap, which means RB Jamaal Williams needs to protect against Metellus up the middle. Metellus beats Williams easily, and it forces a misfire from Carr:
run stuffing interior defenders
The Vikings have allowed the fourth-fewest yards per carry on the season, and they are seventh in EPA/play against the run. Part of that is because they typically load boxes. However, they also have a pair of interior defenders in Phillips and Bullard who are playing really well.
Minnesota got a critical run stop on the play before forcing the false start highlighted above. On the play below, the Vikings run a little bit of a stunt, with Phillips and Khyiris Tonga stepping to their right at the snap. The Saints’ run play is designed to hit in the A gap between the C and LG, but Phillips immediately occupies that gap.
From a blocking perspective, LG James Hurst is supposed to double-team Tonga with LT Andrus Peat before moving up to Jordan Hicks at the second level. Because Phillips slants, Hicks needs to cover the backside A gap. He steps into that hole, ruining Hurst’ angle. Phillips also just makes a great play against C Erik McCoy‘s block. He completely controls his opponent and works his way back into the backside A gap to combine with Hicks for the crucial stop:
Jonathan Bullard has also been excellent against the run this year, and his play should be highlighted alongside Phillips. On the play below, Bullard, lined up over the LT, takes on a double team from Peat and TE Foster Moreau, holds his ground easily, and combines with Pace for the tackle.
Other Strong individual play
Schematically, the Vikings outplayed the Saints in this game. They also outplayed them individually.
A great example from the DBs comes on this third-down play, where the Vikings are in man coverage. Minnesota’s corners do a great job across the board, including Blackmon and Booth at the bottom of the screen, who have a very difficult job in covering routes running across the field from outside leverage. At the top, Byron Murphy executes excellent trail technique against Olave, and is in position to stop any short throw because he knows he has help from Bynum over the top. Jameis Winston throws the ball well over Olave’s head. But if it were in any other spot, Murphy and Bynum were in position to make a play on it.
The Vikings also got two sacks that were pure wins from their top two edge rushers. On the first one, D.J. Wonnum shows great burst off of the line of scrimmage and nice bend to turn the corner and sack Carr.
The next play deserves a bit of context. On the previous play, Danielle Hunter was called for illegal use of hands to the face, which gave the Saints a first down instead of bringing up fourth-and-10. Hunter had made some contact with Peat’s neck area, but the refs missed an important detail. Peat had grabbed Hunter’s facemask and ripped it clean off. The facemask penalty would have overridden Hunter’s, and New Orleans should have had to play a third-and-25.
Here’s the play:
That missed call appeared to be a strong motivator for Hunter, who absolutely dominated RT Ryan Ramczyk, a very good player in his own right, on the next play with a spin move for the sack on Jameis:
Minnesota’s win over the Saints was a complete team effort. The offense darted out to a lead in the first half, but the Vikings relied on the defense to finish the job. Even outside of the two turnovers the Vikings forced, Minnesota’s defense was excellent (so much so that I didn’t even need to showcase the interceptions in this piece!).
The Vikings used simulated pressure looks and big post-snap coverage shifts to confuse the Saints’ QBs. They were extremely aggressive to tackle receivers on quick passes, and shut down New Orleans after the catch. They used mind games along the defensive line to induce false starts and help get free rushers.
The Vikings’ players also stepped up big time on an individual basis. I’ve already mentioned the tackling, but the interior defensive line was stout against the run, defensive backs were sticky in coverage, and Wonnum and Danielle Hunter got high-quality sacks. Josh Metellus was also devastating as a blitzer, with four pressures and two QB Hits despite not getting a sack per PFF.
Strong showings defensively have helped Minnesota’s turnaround from a 1-4 start into a five-game win streak. Brian Flores is leading a defense that is well coached, aggressive, and showing more talent than many thought it had before the season.