Between 2016 and 2018, the Minnesota Vikings turned good quarterbacks into average players, average quarterbacks into mediocre and mediocre quarterbacks into laughable.
The combined QB ratings against the Vikings defense over the last three years have been 83.0 (fourth in the NFL), 73.0 (third) and 83.3 (fourth). Put differently: The expected QB performance against Mike Zimmer’s defense would be that of Ryan Fitzpatrick or Joe Flacco.
This year the Vikings rank 19th in the NFL in opposing QB rating (92.7) and they have twice given up ratings of over 100 to backup quarterbacks in losses.
On Sunday, journeyman QB Matt Moore completed 71% of his passes, picking up 275 yards at 7.9 yards per attempt against the Vikings defense.
In the recent past, that type of performance by a backup would have been stunning. But this season opposing quarterbacks are having success targeting the Vikings’ corners like never before in their careers. When throwing at Trae Waynes the Chiefs’ veteran completed 7-of-9 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown in which Tyreek Hill got behind him on a double move.
“The deep ball on [Trae] Waynes, he’s got the guy covered and he lets the guys catch the ball, the double move he got beat on wasn’t good, it’s things like that when we’re in position, we have to make those plays,” Zimmer said on Monday.
Rhodes allowed four receptions on five targets, including 11-yard gain into his coverage on the game-tying drive.
Overall Pro Football Focus grades them the 62nd and 70th of 79 corners in the NFL. In terms of rating against, Waynes is 53rd and Rhodes 71st.
Here’s how that compares (in rating against) to the last three seasons.
2016: Waynes — 18th, Rhodes — 1st
2017: Waynes — 42nd, Rhodes — 21st
2018: Waynes — 45th, Rhodes — 33rd
2019: Waynes — 53rd, Rhodes — 71st
Opponents have especially gone after Waynes this season, targeting him the fourth most of any corner in the NFL.
Outside of the two starting corners the Vikings’ defenders have largely been effective in pass coverage. When throwing against Harrison Smith, opposing QBs have a 53.3 rating and 72.8 rating when targeting Anthony Harris. Linebacker Eric Kendricks has 10 passes defended and the highest coverage grade from PFF in the NFL.
With Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers on the slate, the Vikings will have a difficult time slowing down passing attacks if they do not get better performances out of the starting corners.
Zimmer has already made changes to the way he deploys Rhodes after early season struggles. Once used like Darrelle Revis on an “island,” he is no longer shadowing the opponent’s No. 1 receiver each week. The Vikings head coach was asked on October 7 about the change.
“Because I told him not to, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be like that every week,” he said. “That’s just how we decided to do it this particular week and that particular week.”
Rhodes appears to be playing off the line of scrimmage more often following a slew of penalties. QBs are completing 84.4% of passes into his coverage but averaging less than 10 yards a catch, pointing to the use of short throws in front of the former Pro Bowler.
There may be a domino effect to the tweak in Rhodes’ usage that impacts Waynes. If Rhodes isn’t out on an island and is being used more in zone coverage, that may allow for less opportunities to roll coverage in Waynes’ direction and provide more deep-shot opportunities for opponents.
One of the potential solutions for the Vikings could include a more aggressive blitzing approach from Zimmer. They had a great deal of success blitzing against the New York Giants in Week 5, sending extra rushers after Daniel Jones 15 times on 43 drop backs. They only blitzed Matt Moore seven times on Sunday.
The elephant(s) in the room are Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, the team’s two second-year cornerbacks who have performed admirably when given chances over the last two years. Hughes has allowed 15-for-23 passing in his direction for just 8.1 yards per catch and a 92.8 rating since returning from a torn ACL suffered midway through his rookie year. Hill, who is just returning from an eight-game suspension, gave up just 16 receptions in 31 targets in fill-in duty last year.
Neither player has the same tenure in the system and therefore the level of trust might not be on the same level as the struggling veterans but it will be interesting to see if Zimmer’s patience with his starters is tested down the stretch with possibly the two future starters waiting in the wings.
The bottom line is: If the Vikings continue to rank in the bottom half of the league in passer rating allowed, they could be in for more games in which the offense is asked to pick up the defense.