A Proper Evaluation Of The Vikings’ Defense After Three Games

Bend don’t break – the perfect words to describe the Minnesota Vikings defense this season.

Somehow, the new Ed Donatell-led unit currently ranks 30th in total defense, but interestingly 10th in total defense. How could that be possible?

It all goes back to three words: bend, don’t break. Let’s give out a proper evaluation of the defense throughout the first three games. First off, let’s evaluate the unit in each individual game this season.

Week 1 vs. Packers: The defense throws Aaron Rodgers off his game
After allowing Christian Watson to get wide open but then benefitting from the rookie dropping a wide open touchdown on the Packers’ opening drive, the Vikings defense stiffened up for the remainder of the game in a way we had never seen them do before against an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers squad.

After the drop led to a Packer punt, Za’Darius Smith made sure the Packers were shutout on the next drive with a sack on Rodgers that drove them out of field goal range. That was followed by the defense allowing the Packers to drive down to their goal line, but then stuffing running back A.J. Dillon on fourth down and goal. That was followed by two turnovers, the first of which occurred when the Harrison duo of Harrison Phillips and Harrison Smith made magic happen right before halftime. Phillips pressured Rodgers into throwing a desperation pass downfield that was intercepted by Smith and ended any shot of the Packers scoring in the half. On their first drive of the second half, Rodgers fumbled the ball when linebacker Jordan Hicks sacked him, with defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson recovering.

By the time the Packers finally did score via a third-quarter touchdown run by Dillon, the Vikings were up 20-0. In all for this game, Donatell’s Cover 7 scheme, which saw everyone but the front four lineman drop back into coverage, got four sacks on Rodgers and forced him into two turnovers.

Week 2 at Eagles: A tale of two halves for the defense
It’s no denying that the Vikings defense got completely gashed by Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and the rest of the offense in the first half. Donatell’s unit allowed 24 points and gave up 347 yards. Hurts alone had 301 yards of offense, including scoring three total touchdowns. The only bright spot in the first half was a D.J. Wonnum sack on Hurts that forced a punt.

On paper, it looks bad. Hurts finished with a total of 391 yards (333 through the air, 58 on the ground), and scored the aforementioned three touchdowns. The Eagles also had 163 yards on the ground, with running back Miles Sanders being the leading rusher with 80 yards on 17 rushing attempts. That’s a total of 496 yards of offense against a defense that had just held Rodgers and the Packers to 338 total yards, with most of the Packers’ yards coming in garbage time.

The truth, however, is that the Vikings defense adjusted its gameplan and allowed plenty of opportunities for a comeback from the offense.

After letting the Eagles score 24 points in the first half, Donatell’s unit shut them out in the second half. Philadelphia’s drives in the second half ended with a punt, blocked kick, interception, and a second punt. The defense allowed just 119 yards on 28 second-half plays, for an average of 4.2 yards per play.

Although the defense was gashed in the first half, they adjusted to the Eagles’ run-heavy scheme in the second. Unfortunately in this game, a horrific second half offensive performance overshadowed the said adjustments made. For this game, the Vikings collected 3 sacks, an interception, and blocked a kick. They may have allowed a 17-point first-half deficit to appear, but they also allowed the offense to have chance after chance to erase said deficit.

Week 3 vs. Lions – Bend Don’t Break Defines The Defense
The repeated phrase of Bend Don’t Break really defined the game against the Lions.

On the first three drives of the game for the Lions, the Vikings defense let them have their way. The Lions racked up 174 yards on 25 plays and scored two touchdowns, averaging nearly 7 yards per play. Several broken coverages by the secondary and a missed Greg Joseph field goal didn’t help. After the Lions went up 14-0, however, things changed. The Vikings forced the Lions into a turnover on downs and a punt on their remaining first half possessions, and the offense actually capitalized on the defense’s performance for once with two touchdowns of their own. As a result, the teams went into halftime tied 14-14.

To start the second half, the Vikings defense once again allowed the Lions to drive down the field and score. Allowing 100 yards on 15 plays for an average of 6.6 yards per play, the Lions went up 24-14 via 10 unanswered points. The offense seemed to fall apart again, as Joseph missed another field goal and running back Dalvin Cook would fumble the ball away. However, the defense proceeded to shut out the Lions the rest of the way, allowing a total of 100 yards on the next 27 plays, for an average of almost 4 yards per play, while forcing two punts and a turnover on downs before intercepting Jared Goff’s Hail Mary pass to end the game. Once again, the offense got going, and the Lions defense allowed them to go up 28-24 with 45 seconds remaining, which was enough to come away with the win.

The defense didn’t accomplish anything of note here outside of the interception. There were no sacks but the pass rush applied a lot of pressure, and Za’Darius Smith also had two key tackles for loss. All in all, solid game from the Donatell unit, bending many times throughout the game but coming up clutch when need be.

Now, let’s go over one big concern with the defense and their biggest strength.

Run Defense Will Be An Issue This Year
Here are the rushing yards allowed by the Vikings defense this year in every game:

In Week 1, the Packers ran for 111 yards on 18 attempts for an average of 6.2 yards per carry.
The following week saw the Eagles run for 163 yards on 34 attempts for an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
The Lions ran for 139 yards on 35 attempts for an average of 4.0 yards per attempt.

While it is encouraging that the yards per attempt per game has gone down for this unit, it is still concerning that the run defense has given up over 100 yards rushing per game so far. The Vikings are not going to win a lot of football games if this continues. Opponents will exploit Minnesota’s primary defensive weakness and play ball-control football to keep Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense off the field. This couldn’t have been truer in the Eagles game when they ran for 163 yards and essentially played keep-away in the first half.

I know the Packers were running in essentially garbage time, but 111 yards is still a lot and it is discouraging that they still got over 6 yards a carry.

It’s only three games and this can get better, but with Donatell emphasizing the Cover 7 and two-high-safety schemes which see most defenders drop back into coverage, it wouldn’t be surprising if this lingered on throughout the year.

Two-Minute Defense Has Gone From A Liability To A Strength
The Vikings’ two-minute defense was historically bad last year in both halves of the game. That unit of the defense gave up the most points ever allowed in the final two minutes of a half. It was that bad.

To reference how bad it was, if the defense didn’t allow a single point in the last two minutes of either half last year, the Vikings would have gone 15-2. Considering that they finished one game out of postseason play last year, this is a huge stat.

Under Donatell, however, two-minute defense has become the unit’s biggest strength. The Vikings are one of two teams, along with the Colts, that have yet to allow a single point in the fourth quarter this year. That is amazing, especially for a unit that was so awful at it a year ago.

In fact, the Vikings have given up only three points at the end of a half this year, which came against the Eagles when they kicked a field goal just before halftime.

Obviously, we know that the Vikings will probably allow fourth-quarter points and more two-minute points throughout the season. But for a defense that was so bad at it last year, this is major progress. Donatell has really installed the art of situational defense into this team and so far, it has been perfected.

One more thing needs addressing – the secondary.

Expect Growing Pains From This Young Vikings Secondary
Outside of Harrison Smith and cornerback Patrick Peterson, this Vikings secondary for the most part is littered with young players. Some of the more notable youngsters include cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler Sr. and Andrew Booth Jr., as well as safeties Lewis Cine, Camryn Bynum, and Josh Metellus. It should also be noted that Peterson does appear to have lost a step this season, as he has been the man responsible for many of the Vikings’ busted coverages this year.

So far this season, the young factor in the secondary has been apparent.

After giving up 195 yards passing and allowing 5.7 yards per attempt against Rodgers, the secondary allowed Hurts to throw for 333 yards. However, in the second half of the Eagles game, Hurts only had 82 passing yards as the Vikings defense adjusted.

Against the Lions in Week 3, the secondary allowed Goff to complete his first five passes and would allow multiple big chunk plays (such as big first half catches by Amon-Ra St. Brown and D.J. Chark), although they didn’t give up the chunk plays towards the end of halves.

So far this year, it’s been a mixed bag for the secondary. One minute, they can be giving up a big chunk play that sets up a scoring drive. The next minute, they can go into total lockdown mode and allow the offense more opportunities.

So what can we expect from the Vikings defense this year?

Don’t Give This Defense High Expectations
Week in and week out, you won’t get the Vikings defense that showed up against the Packers. You also won’t get the defense that showed up against the Eagles.

It would be closer to expect something more in the middle. The Lions game is probably what you should expect from the defense this year. The run defense will give up a lot of yards, and the secondary will give up big chunk plays at times. But when it matters most, this defense will more often than not come together and play at its best. And honestly, if you give up a lot of yards but show up when it matters most and give the offense opportunities to capitalize on their stops.

If you told me our averages on defense would be giving up between 225-275 passing yards per game and 75-125 passing yards per game, I’d be okay with that- as long as the two-minute defense can show up when it matters most.

As long as this defense isn’t as bad as last year’s edition, and can still make plays when necessary, the Vikings will be fine. It’s just a matter of execution now.
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