With the Minnesota Vikings’ season over, events like the Senior Bowl taking place last week, the NFL Combine around the corner, and Mock Draft SZN in full swing, Minnesota’s needs are at the center of conversation. Absent the QB position, defensive talent is at the top of the list. Draft experts like Daniel Jeremiah are connecting interior defenders to the Vikings in the first round.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert took note of this and wrote a piece explaining that the Vikings actually ended up using defensive linemen at an unusually low rate. Seifert and Jeremiah are in close conversation with league executives. Jeremiah is more plugged in at a national level, while Seifert has local Vikings connections since he took over the Vikings’ beat in addition to covering the league nationally at ESPN.
So why is there a disconnect between these two in terms of Minnesota’s needs? Let’s get to the bottom of it.
Positional definitions create charting confusion
Defining personnel is relatively clean on offense. It’s widely known and easy to identify that 11-personnel has one RB, one TE, and three WRs. However, teams can create a strong advantage by having personnel that can play multiple roles on offense. For example, the San Francisco 49ers can deploy Christian McCaffrey as a WR or Deebo Samuel as an RB, because they can attack you in ways you might not be able to with players who fit into more traditional roles.
On defense, the definition is more based on the structure and its roots of 4-3 or 3-4. In a 4-3 defense, the defensive coordinator will say that they have two defensive tackles, two defensive ends, two outside linebackers, and one inside linebacker. But in a 3-4, you will usually have a nose tackle, two defensive ends, two outside linebackers, and two inside linebackers. These will get grouped together for convenience as 4(defensive linemen)-3(linebackers), or 3-4, respectively. However, the players don’t have the same roles. All three of the “nose tackle” and “defensive ends” in a 3-4 have a similar role to the two “defensive tackles” in a 4-3. The “defensive ends” in a 4-3 have the same role as the “outside linebackers” in a 3-4.
This is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the Vikings. They went from a 4-3 under Mike Zimmer to a 3-4 under Ed Donatell and now Brian Flores. The first play is from Minnesota’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021, while the second is from their game against Cincinnati in 2023. In the first play, the Vikings have four defensive linemen in the game — D.J. Wonnum, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Danielle Hunter — along with two linebackers, Nick Vigil and Eric Kendricks. DB Mackensie Alexander is also in the box.
Compare that to this second play, also against the Bengals, but in 2023. You can see DB Harrison Smith coming into the box, with the two defensive linemen, Jonathan Bullard and Harrison Phillips, and the four LBs — Ivan Pace, Troy Dye, Danielle Hunter, and Wonnum. Wait, what? That’s right, even though they’re literally the same people, some charting services would count Hunter and Wonnum as linebackers instead of defensive linemen.
Looking at sub-personnel in charting services also illustrates this discrepancy. I’ve got two plays below, one from the Chicago Bears and one from the Vikings. On Chicago’s first play, they are in what has been referred to as a “NASCAR” package using rush personnel. They have only one body on the field over 300 lbs. Justin Jones (93). Montez Sweat (98), DeMarcus Walker (95), and Yannick Ngakoue (91) are listed as defensive ends. They also have LBs Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards on the line of scrimmage. The personnel in play below would get charted as 4-2-5.
Now take a look at this Vikings play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They came out in a similar blitz mug, with only Phillips at over 300 lbs. on the DL. Besides him, they have Hunter, Wonnum, and Pat Jones II. They have Jordan Hicks and Josh Metellus bluffing on the line of scrimmage. However, this would get charted as a 1-4-6. Compared to the Bears above, all the Vikings did was swap out a player like Ivan Pace for Metellus. But it looks like a much more drastic shift based on the players’ listed positions:
On its face, what type of defense would you say is heavier personnel, a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5? You would expect an extra defensive lineman to be heavier than a linebacker, so you may say 4-2-5. But let’s look at an example of San Francisco’s 4-2-5, where they have No. 98 Javon Hargrave (305 lbs.), No. 91 Arik Armstead (290 lbs.), No. 97 Nick Bosa (266 lbs.), No. 94 Clelin Ferrell (265 lbs.), No. 54 Fred Warner (230 lbs.), and No. 57 Dre Greenlaw (230 lbs.) on the field:
San Francisco’s defenders weigh in at a combined 1,586 lbs. That’s light compared to the 1,650 lbs. the Vikings get from the combination of Phillips (307 lbs.), Bullard (290 lbs.), Dean Lowry (296 lbs.), Hunter (263 lbs.), Wonnum (258 lbs.), and Hicks (236 lbs.) in the screenshot below. Despite positional designations making a 3-3-5 look lighter than a 4-2-5, the Vikings are averaging over 10 lbs. more per player.
The issue above with positional designations is important to be aware of when looking at draft prospects because colleges use both systems. NFL teams can’t only choose players from the same style of system that they run, because they would miss out on prospects who fit what they want to do despite naming conventions. Hunter, who played in a 3-4 at LSU, was a fit for Minnesota’s 4-3 under Zimmer. Will Anderson Jr. was listed as an LB at Alabama and the Combine, but he was a great pick for the Houston Texans despite now being listed as a DE.
Because of this positional designation issue, draft media started looking at positional designations differently. Instead of calling a player a linebacker, defensive end, or defensive tackle, they will now use the terms “off-ball linebacker, “edge rusher,” or “interior defensive lineman.” Referring to a player this way helps effectively communicate a player’s role by just listing his position.
So what kind of personnel did the Vikings actually play?
Because charting services can struggle to accurately represent the positions, it’s hard to determine how often the Vikings used each type of front. I’m sure there’s a service that has that information but not one I have access to. Sports Info Solutions provides charting data based on personnel. They have Minnesota’s three most common fronts as 3-3-5 (329 snaps), 4-2-5 (255 snaps), and 2-4-5 (106 snaps). Notably, they also have the Vikings using a ton of time, with 82 snaps of 1-4-6, first in the NFL, and 71 snaps of 2-3-6, which was seventh.
Anecdotally, the Vikings seemed to run fronts that fell into four categories:
- The five-DL surface, like on the above play against the 49ers above, with three IDL inside the tackles, two edges, and one (or two, if they played really heavy) LB behind that. They typically used this against heavier personnel, like two TE- or two-RB sets the 49ers are in (that’s Christian McCaffrey on the edge of the screen), but also used it against 11 versus certain teams. I believe SIS charted these snaps as 3-3-5.
- The four DL surface like on the above play against the Bengals. where they have two IDL inside the tackles, two edges, and two LBs stacked. I believe SIS charted these reps as 4-2-5, even though Hunter and Wonnum are technically LBs.
- “Blitz looks” like the play against the Bucs above, which were typically used in passing situations, but Brian Flores was also crazy enough to pull out whenever. In this instance with many players on the line of scrimmage, I believe SIS went back to counting each player based on their designated position, so that play would be a 1-4-6. The Vikings ran these looks quite often, so I believe this is why SIS would chart a significant number of 4-2-5 looks as well as 2-4-5 looks.
- Goal line defense, which in some cases included up to four IDL-type players.
Meanwhile, a team like the Bears has a much cleaner profile on SIS. They ran 685 snaps of 4-2-5, 204 snaps of 4-3-4, and just 73 snaps of 3-3-5.
We can also try to determine usage by looking at snap counts for players. I bucketed Vikings players into edge rushers (Hunter, Wonnum, Jones, Marcus Davenport, and Andre Carter II) and interior defenders (Phillips, Bullard, Lowry, Khyiris Tonga, Sheldon Day, Jaquelin Roy, and T.J. Smith) and looked at their total snap counts. Edge rushers played 2,655 snaps, while IDL played 2,174. Because of Minnesota’s aggressive blitz looks on passing downs, edges clearly played more than IDL. But when you consider that the Vikings played 1,131 snaps on defense, they still played an average of 1.92 IDL per play.
“X’s on a chalkboard”
When discussing personnel, it’s also important to understand how the Vikings teach their defense. In the base 3-3-5 above, there aren’t really interchangeable roles. However, when you get to Minnesota’s blitz and sub-packages, aka when they are trying to rush the passer, they will use the phrase “X’s on a chalkboard” to describe how they teach their defense. Every player on the front needs to know the rules for every position on the front. I covered this when the Vikings hired Flores based on the “Sub Odd” front that he uses.
The reason Flores teaches this way is it helps the Vikings deploy the variety of stunts in their playbook. Every player needs to know what to do based on where he is lined up. This is illustrated by the pair of plays below. Both are “Flush” stunts, but in the first one Hunter is lined up over the center. This means he is the crasher, and he tries to drive the C upfield to create space for Wonnum, lined up on the outside. On the second, Flores lines Hunter up on the edge, and his job is the looper, which is what Wonnum did on the first play. Hunter is the X on the chalkboard and needs to know that where he’s lined up changes his job on a certain play call.
The same philosophy goes for bluff-pressure looks, where players on the line will back off into coverage. Who does what is dependent on where the formation call asks players to line up.
The Vikings can run their plays from any personnel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can use an LB in place of a DT and get the same results. Defenses have to match their personnel to what the offense is doing, or else the offense will be able to easily exploit weaknesses. The Vikings played with incredibly light personnel against the Philadelphia Eagles, and they ran all over them. If you have only four DBs against four WRs, your opponent is going to be very successful passing.
That response to personnel can be seen in the plays above. The first play against the Las Vegas Raiders is on a third-and-five, and the Raiders are in 11-personnel. Because this is a pure passing situation, the Vikings feel comfortable abandoning the run and using what is actually 1-4-7 personnel. Meanwhile, on the play against the Chiefs, they come out in 13-personnel, with three TEs on first-and-10. This heavy run look leads the Vikings to play their base 3-4-4 defense, something they rarely did. If Minnesota had come out like they did against Vegas, the Kansas City Chiefs would have just run the ball down their throats.
Pass rush is a huge need
It’s obvious that the Vikings have a huge need for pass rushers. They only had two players record more than three sacks last year, Wonnum and Hunter. Both are impending free agents. For most of the season, Hunter was their only pass rusher who could win in one-on-one situations. This created issues at the end of the season. Opposing QBs tore Minnesota’s secondary apart when they blitzed because no one besides Hunter was ever winning.
The lack of impact was particularly notable from the interior of the defense. Through Week 17, the Vikings had only an 8.6% win rate from their interior defensive line, which was by far last in the league.
Part of the reason for that low pressure rate from IDL has to do with the design of Minnesota’s defense. Watch Phillips on Hunter’s sack against the Chiefs above. Because of the stunt, he moves away from the QB. That’s because his job is to take up offensive linemen in an effort to free up his teammate, which works well on that play. So, based on the design, Phillips isn’t supposed to get pressure.
The Vikings blitzed more than any other team by far at 49%. A lot of these blitzes included designs like the above where the IDL were more like decoys than true pass rushers. However, that doesn’t mean the defense can’t use an IDL who is a quality pass rusher. There are stunts and plays that make the interior defenders the focal point of the plan, like this “cold” stunt from the preseason. Sheldon Day is the focal point of the stunt, and gets pressure:
Flores has shown the capacity to mold his defense to the strengths of his players. With the 2023 Vikings, he saw that they didn’t have a strong interior pass rusher, and decided to focus his pass rush designs on other players. However, that doesn’t mean he has a use for a strong pass rusher on the interior. After all, he had a hand in making Christian Wilkins his first draft pick while he was the Miami Dolphins head coach.
The Vikings’ defensive line need is tied to their edge rusher need
Even with blitz schemes and stunts, opposing offenses can scheme an individual rusher out of a game. It’s much more difficult to do that with two quality pass rushers. With Hunter scheduled to be a free agent, the Vikings currently have zero. Minnesota needs to make re-signing Hunter or getting a similar high-level player a priority in free agency.
Once that is accomplished, the team can start looking toward adding another pass rusher. The Vikings showed that they could put together an excellent run defense with the combination of Phillips, Bullard, and Tonga/Lowry/Day/Roy on the IDL. They will need to re-sign Bullard to do that, but he should be pretty cheap. If the team is able to add two high-level edges, that interior group will be able to hold up fine, even if it doesn’t give much in the way of pass rush.
However, if they want to make a move and invest in a disruptive interior force while only adding one good edge rusher, that path is just as valid. What they should do in this case depends on what position the best pass rusher available in free agency or the draft plays.
So, ultimately, who was right about the Vikings’ defensive needs, Daniel Jeremiah or Kevin Seifert?
Taking an IDL at 11, like Daniel Jeremiah did, or investing in one heavily in free agency absolutely makes sense for the Vikings. They need impactful pass rushers, and a player on the interior can absolutely provide that in Brian Flores’ scheme, even though he didn’t use his interior defenders that way last year like Seifert suggested.