Mike Zimmer has always made adjustments.
Early in his career with the Minnesota Vikings, he would dial up double-A gap blitzes and freak out opposing quarterbacks but eventually teams found answers so he switched it up. Now you will see zone blitzes on third-and-long or Harrison Smith sneaking up into the box and dropping out at the last second to the bewilderment of the QB.
Last year the Los Angeles Rams found some holes in the armor on a Thursday night game putting up 38 points and over 400 yards passing. Zimmer made some tweaks and the defense finished the year fourth best in passer rating against.
This time around things haven’t come easy. After a game against Detroit in which Matthew Stafford posted 30 points at Ford Field, Zimmer acknowledged that he was throwing the kitchen sink of coverages at the Lions only to see the secondary picked apart.
This season Rhodes and Waynes have both been picked on to the tune of a 130.5 and 111.7 rating, respectively, when targeted. Those are the second and 16th (of 85) worst marks in the NFL. While Hughes hasn’t been perfect by any means, his rating against is 100.3 in his sophomore season on 48 targets.
ESPN’s Seth Walder took the analysis a step farther using tracking data.
oh and I almost forgot!
The defenders that have given up the *most* completed air yards over expectation this season. pic.twitter.com/dQNwLAiLfp
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 13, 2019
After seeing starting corner Xavier Rhodes struggling against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, Zimmer went to a defensive back rotation the following week. The Vikings’ head coach said that the plan was to keep his CBs fresh and focused.
“We have a plan each week going in, but I like these young corners, too,” Zimmer said Friday. “Holton Hill and Kris Boyd, I think they have a good future coming forward. But yeah, we have a plan going in and kind of stick to it, and then sometimes it changes obviously if somebody gets dinged up or something like that.”
“I think it’s a combination of things,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “We’ve had some guys that have had to go in and out of the lineup, and we think just guys have gotten better the more that they’ve been in our system and been able to come in and rotate and been able to help. That’s been a good thing for us.”
Versus the Lions Rhodes was targeted just twice with zero catches. He and Trae Waynes split time with Mike Hughes and Holton Hill worked into the game after Rhodes suffered an ankle injury.
But that was against a No. 3 quarterback. On Sunday afternoon in sunny Los Angeles, the CB rotation will be tested by Philip Rivers and one of the most dangerous passing teams in the NFL.
The Chargers may only be 5-8 but they rank fifth in the NFL in net yards per pass attempt and seventh in passing Expected Points Added.
While the L.A. offensive line is short of impressive, the Vikings won’t be able to purely rely on their pass rush with the Chargers losing sixth fewest yards to sacks.
At his disposal Philip Rivers has weapons who can make even the best cornerbacks look bad, especially Keenan Allen, who has 102, 97 and 81 catches over the last three seasons. If he played in Dallas, Allen would be on video game covers. Rivers has a career 102.4 rating when targeting his No. 1 receiver.
“He’s a great guy, in and out of his breaks he will give you misdirection on his routes, good at press, smart at reading coverage, he will sit the routes when he needs to sit them,” Rhodes said. “You can tell him and Philip are on the same page on almost all the routes…he’s an all-around good receiver.”
Plus Mike Williams has become a legitimate deep threat, bringing down 11 passes traveling over 20 yards in the air on 22 deep targets for 315 yards.
The Vikings haven’t faced many quarterback-receiver combos of Rivers-Allen-Williams this season. They slowed down Julio Jones in Week 1 but against the No. 4 ranked receiver by PFF Amari Cooper Minnesota allowed 11 catches on 13 targets for 147 yards. When they matched up with seventh rated wideout Courtland Sutton, quarterback Brandon Allen got him the ball five times on seven targets for 113 yards. The No. 8 graded receiver by PFF Devante Adams gained 106 yards on seven receptions, eight targets. Allen is graded 12th.
No doubt the Chargers will aim to take advantage of the cornerbacks. The pressure will now be on Zimmer’s younger corners to step into the limelight and turn the Vikings’ defense from good to great again.