NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Defense, Part 1

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This is the part three of our Minnesota Vikings breakdown as we draw ever closer to Sunday’s big game.

Earlier this week, Kevin Kinkead dissected the Vikings’ offense and special teams unit, which you can read here:

NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Offense

NFC Championship Game: A Look at Minnesota’s Special Teams

Today, I’m going to dive into the Vikings defense and what makes them so formidable. Tomorrow, in part two, I’ll take a look at how the Eagles can attack it.

There have been plenty of articles written this week about the vaunted Vikings defense and the challenges it will present the Eagles’ backup quarterback and supporting cast. Aside from naming star players, though, not many have explained what makes their defense so particularly dangerous. Even fewer have delved into how they can be beaten. Today, we will.

Doug, I hope you’re paying close attention.

Playing Team Defense

Playing sound team defense requires a deep understanding of a system and familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of every player in that defense. The same can be said for offense, but not to the same degree as the defense, which is much more reactionary.

On any given play, each player has his own rules or responsibilities based on the call, but these rules can change instantaneously depending on what the offense throws at you. A player must know their responsibility, properly diagnose what the offense is trying to do, understand how that changes their responsibility and then, finally, react. This all must happen in a matter of seconds. If this process is anything but second nature, the defender will not be in position to make a play. This is all just on a micro level.

From a macro standpoint, for a defense to function as it’s designed, all eleven players must be processing all of that and reacting simultaneously in the exact same way. They must identify the same things and react in the same fashion as their counterparts or the entire defense could be exposed.

This is the primary reason why the 2011 “Dream Team” never had a chance. Throwing a bunch of random star players and an offensive line coach together and telling them to play defense is just not a good strategy.

For Minnesota, this is the primary reason for their defensive success. Individually, they are quite talented, but it’s their continuity that matters most. Their core group of players have been together for some time and have an excellent understanding of coach Mike Zimmer’s system. This is what allows them to play fast, push the envelope, and get really creative.

Versus the Run

The success of any defense relies on its ability to win on first and second down. For the Vikings, they do this with an incredible discipline up front and devastating speed at the linebacker position. In addition to their individual talents, their ability to trust the coverage behind them allows them to drop a safety down into the box on almost every running play.

In the clip below, watch how disciplined each man plays along the line. The defensive line takes away the front side gaps, forcing Alvin Kamara to cut back inside to a waiting Eric Kendricks, who displayed great patience letting the play come to him:

In the next clip, the Vikings’ speed is on display. This play is designed to go inside, but the defensive line is able to clog up the lanes and force Mark Ingram outside. Watch how quickly Kendricks is able to diagnose that, get off of his block, and get to the sideline to keep the gain to one yard:

With consistent execution up front and the speed of the linebackers, it is really difficult to beat them on early downs which sets them up for what they do best.

3rd Down Domination

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Vikings defense is great on third down. There’s a statistic floating around that says the Vikings only allowed a first down on 25.2% of their third down plays, good for number one in the league.

But that’s not just number one this season, it’s number one ALL TIME.

Much of this success can be attributed to Zimmer’s creativity in his blitz looks and coverages. He doesn’t blitz at an astronomical rate on early downs, but gets more aggressive on third down and can make things very confusing for a quarterback.

In the play below, the Vikings do a great job confusing the protection called by the Saints. They bring safety Harrison Smith up to the line, showing blitz off of the edge. As a result, the Saints will call a slide protection to the left side to account for Smith, which leaves their right side on an island with Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter. This is a fairly common protection call for an offense, but Zimmer was able to anticipate that reaction and was one step ahead.

At the snap, Hunter drops out into coverage, Robison slides to the outside in an attempt to keep Brees in the pocket and Anthony Barr takes a free run through the A gap. This is a great example of how the Vikings’ pre-snap alignment got Barr in unblocked while the center and right tackle were left blocking ghosts.

The Vikings defense is also known for mixing up its coverages. They will run both zone and man out of a single safety look and mix in a fair amount of quarters coverage with two deep safeties and both outside corners playing a deep quarter of the field.

If the mixing of coverages isn’t enough to confuse the offense, they also disguise them really well. The continuity that each player has in Zimmer’s system allows them to show various pre-snap looks and rotate last minute into a different coverage. One thing to look for is how often the safeties will rotate. Both Smith and safety partner Andrew Sendejo are virtually interchangeable and take advantage of that versatility quite often.

Going back to the Eagles’ 2016 matchup with the Vikings, Zimmer married his exotic blitz concepts with some really cleverly disguised coverages to put rookie Carson Wentz to the test.

In the first play, Smith is again showing blitz off of the edge, but, just before the snap, rolls back to a single high alignment. Meanwhile, on the left side, safety Jayron Kearse moves down into the slot while the nickel corner creeps inside, blitzes off the edge, and gets right into Wentz’s face:

On the next play, the Vikings do what Zimmer defenses are best known for, and set up in both A gaps while also showing blitz from both edges with Smith and the nickel cornerback leaving one safety over the top.

Just as the ball is snapped, the Vikings roll back their left cornerback, putting two high safeties over the top, and then have Smith drop out to cover Dorial Green-Beckham. Meanwhile, both linebackers hesitate, then roll over the top and blitz Wentz’s left side. The play actually results in an interception, primarily because Green-Beckham completely stops his route in the middle of the field.

The Vikings defense brings a lot to the table, particularly on third down. This game will be a huge challenge for Jason Kelce in calling the protections and for Nick Foles in diagnosing the different looks that Zimmer throws at him. It will be key for the Eagles to keep their offense on schedule and avoid too many third and longs. Doing so will keep the Vikings’ defense at bay and hopefully force more conservative, predictable play calling.

As I mentioned earlier, the Vikings defense is very good, but they can be beaten. Tomorrow, in part two of my breakdown, I will explain how. Stay tuned.

Doug, you’ll have to wait one more day for the secret sauce.

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5 Responses

  1. Skol Vikings honor your name… Go get that first down then get a touchdown… Fight Fight Fight Fight… Lets win this game… V-I-K-I-N-G-S!!!! Skol Vikings Let’s GOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!

  2. What if you have you the coggin toboggan stand out front of the Linc Sunday afternoon with a horse mask on?

      1. That implies that you spit out what you just swallowed.
        Unless your the type that can laugh and ‘keep it down’.

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