The Minnesota Vikings defense has been The Minnesota Vikings defense again over the past three weeks.
Following a troublesome 465-yard passing game by Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams, neither the Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals or New York Jets have put together 300 yards passing or 100 yards rushing against Mike Zimmer’s defense.
After causing zero turnovers in weeks 2-4, the Vikings have picked up eight turnovers in their last three games.
Quarterbacks Carson Wentz, Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold have combined for 57.8 percent completion percentage, three touchdowns, four picks, 10 sacks and a 73.0 quarterback rating.
Here’s the craziest stat: The last three opponents are 4-for-32 on third down against the Vikings.
Zimmer has mixed up pass rush looks on third down over the past three weeks, giving Wentz headaches and baffling the two rookie quarterbacks into submission.
It isn’t so much that the Vikings are bringing more blitzes — they ran the same number of blitzes in Week 7 as Week 2 — it’s that a number of different pressure packages, one of which includes a three-man front, have been more effective than they were earlier in the year.
“Usually with a four-down front in protection they’re identifying four guys and one more guy, and in the three-down front they have to identify three down and one other guy, that might be [Anthony] Barr, that might be [Eric] Kendricks, that might be [Eric] Wilson,” Zimmer explained Monday. “There’s different ways to rush the quarterback, but you also have other guys in coverage, so you may have a guy covering a back, covering a tight end, doubling a guy. I guess it’s a little more varied.”
The Vikings’ head coach pointed out that his calling card double-A gap (or mug) look, in which players line up on both sides of the center, is now being used all over the NFL. That means that teams are spending all offseason preparing for that look as opposed to when he first started using it in Cincinnati.
“Every team in the league now is running double A gaps, so five, six years ago, whatever it was, seven years ago when we started all that stuff, it was free runners all day long,” Zimmer said. “Now [they say,] ‘OK, we’re going to block it this way. We’re going to do this, we’re going to check to that, check to a screen, do this.’ Gives us something else to work on, and at some point we’ll be back to our old self.”
As Zimmer adjusts to the adjustments, one thing he has to consider is how teams are scheming for space. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has mentioned on numerous occasions that his goal is to create space for playmakers. In Week 4, Rams brilliantly created mismatches in space against the Vikings for their running back Toddy Gurley and top receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.
“Everything is rockets, don’t block this guy and leave this guy alone, five wide receivers,” Zimmer said. “Yesterday they came out in three wide receivers and two tight ends a lot, and they had maximum protections and they had no backs, all five guys out. It becomes a space game, really, and that’s partly why you want to get more cover guys in there if you can.”
Zimmer’s use of different personnel packages has been noticeable. Last season he used a defensive back rotation that occasionally sent Mackensie Alexander in the game for Terence Newman and used linebacker Ben Gedeon when the opposing team had two tight ends on the field. This year we have seen safety Jayron Kearse play 90 snaps as a nickel corner as part of a “big nickel” package and Eric Wilson has seen 37 snaps, often times in a look that puts Anthony Barr on the edge.
For all the adapting that’s going on, that doesn’t mean the Vikings’ defense has needed to become more complex. In fact, Barr said last week that some of the early-season issues may have been due to attempts at tweaks gone wrong and that the team has gone back to what they do best over the last few weeks.
“The offseason you have so much time to come up with all these great ideas and I think sometimes it doesn’t go exactly how you drew it up,” Barr said. “Going back to who you are, knowing your identity, doing what you do well has helped us be successful.”
Asked to be specific about which areas the defense had simplified, Barr couldn’t expand.
“Yes but I can’t share that with you,” Barr said smiling.
While the Vikings’ defense is no doubt causing more havoc than it did against Buffalo and Los Angeles, there’s something that Zimmer isn’t ignoring: The team crushed two rookie quarterbacks. Up next is no rook. Slowing down Drew Brees will require an even higher level of play from the Vikings’ defense.
“It’s different than it has been in the last few weeks,” Zimmer said of preparing for Brees. “This guy is amazing. I’ve always thought when you talk about Hall of Fame quarterbacks, he’s going to be one, but he’s very cerebral, accurate. He’s moving well in the pocket. I was watching tape today and I thought, ‘How old is this guy? I thought he was getting old.’ He moves well in the pocket. He’s not really a runner, but he scrambles and usually to find guys open and he knows where to go with the football, he’s extremely accurate.
“They’ve got a great scheme, all kinds of things. They’ve got all different kinds of personnel groups. They use their backup quarterback, [Taysom] Hill, as a tight end, they use him as a running back, they use him as a quarterback to run the options. There’s a lot of different things.”