Something happened on Sunday night that Minnesota Vikings have rarely seen in the Mike Zimmer era: An opposing quarterback clearing 350 yards passing.
Per Pro-Football Reference, Dak Prescott’s 393-yard performance against the Vikings on Sunday Night Football marked just the fourth time since Zimmer took over in 2014 that an opponent cleared 350. Two of those have come this year (Matthew Stafford, 352 yards).
Overall they are 18th in quarterback rating against and 20th in defensive Expected Points Added against the pass — and that’s with linebacker Eric Kendricks having an elite coverage season (by PFF’s metrics) and safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris each giving up QB ratings under 70 on throws into their coverage.
The issues have largely been at cornerback, where starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have not been as effective as in the past. Rhodes has given up a 121.3 rating against and Waynes has allowed a 109.2 rating on throws his way.
The Vikings were missing Waynes on Sunday night. Mike Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, had an opportunity to make a case for more playing time. Dallas threw in his direction 17 times, 11 of which were caught for 154 yards.
Zimmer broke down the long night for the young DB on Monday.
“There were times he wasn’t tight enough,” the Vikings head coach said. “There’s some times technique-wise that he could have been better. He opened up a little bit too much and let the receiver run, but he was in position most of the night. Honestly, the guy made a bunch of great catches and they made some really good throws. So, when I looked at the pass defense things, there was a couple things that weren’t very good, but for the most part, we were in the right place. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
Hughes was largely asked to go up against star receiver Amari Cooper. He finished the night with 11 catches for 147 yards and one touchdown.
“He caught some that may have been outside the white a couple times, good throws, being in position,” Zimmer said. “Mike (Hughes) probably could have been a little bit more physical with the receiver and the one touchdown that he had thrown on him, so there’s some things he can do better. There’s some things he did good.”
Hughes wasn’t the only one who was picked on by Prescott. Rhodes gave up five catches on five throws in his direction for 63 yards against the Cowboys. Zimmer said after watching on tapeit was one of Rhodes’ better games this year.
One player who did stand out — albeit in limited snaps — was Holton Hill. He gave up zero completions on two targets in 11 snaps.
As the Vikings head into a stretch in which they face Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers, they will need stronger play in order to reach the levels of pass defense they have achieved in the past.
How can they do it?
There’s two different potential adjustments: Personnel or schematic. On the personnel side, aiming for matchup advantages and mixing up snap counts is one potential solution.
“You probably have to mix and match based upon matchups at this point,” PFF’s Eric Eager said on Purple Daily. “In a perfect world you have a shutdown corner in Rhodes who can guard the other team’s best receiver independent of size and and strengths and weaknesses of that player and patchwork around the Trae Waynes’… I think now all the Vikings defensive backs have to be matchup driven in how they play, which means if you’re Rhodes you’re not getting 70 snaps a night.”
Zimmer has given Rhodes some rest at times this season but played him for 69 defensive snaps against Dallas.
On the schematic side, the Vikings have tried to adapt on the fly.
“We made so many adjustments, we changed coverages, we doubled Cooper, we had the coverage tilted to him, [Prescott] threw the ball great tonight,” Zimmer said after the game.
The Vikings could ramp up their aggressiveness. They only blitzed Prescott 13 times on Sunday night (per PFF). He came away 6-for-12 for 104 yards and one touchdown.
One of Zimmer’s strengths in the past has been adapting to the way offenses are attacking his team. Last year after allowing 456 yards to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4, the Vikings adjusted and finished fourth in the NFL in QB rating against. They will have an extra week to prepare for Wilson and the Seahawks with the bye week coming up.