It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for the Vikings’ defense. They had a stretch of games early in the year where they looked pretty stout. Then the debacle in Washington happened. The Redskins’ game plan, with its read-option looks and playaction designed to maximize Robert Griffin III’s effectiveness, seemed to expose a lot of issues at all levels of the Vikings’ D. Subsequent opponents, especially Tampa Bay and Seattle, capitalized on some of the same flaws. The run defense looked particularly terrible in that stretch of games. The Vikes’ D just looked undisciplined, unprepared and technically inept.
You can chalk some of this up to personnel problems. The middle of the defense especially is still undermanned. The nose tackle position has been an issue all year. Letroy Guion has just not gotten it done as the starter. Linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson are really back-up level players who have been forced to start thanks to the Vikings’ austerity program. The secondary appeared to be shored-up earlier, but after Chris Cook’s injury, we began to see the lack of depth there too. A.J. Jefferson hasn’t been good and Josh Robinson has played worse-and-worse the more snaps he’s gotten.
So there is still work to do for Rick Spielman before this defense gets where it needs to be. But in the meantime, Alan Williams has to work with what is available. The last two weeks Williams has done a marvelous job getting the most out of his personnel. We saw it all come together against St. Louis. The array of different looks. The blitzes. The fake-out blitz looks. Everson Griffen dropping into zone, a move that resulted in an interception. The full effectiveness of Williams’ approach only became apparent late after the Vikes sagged into prevent. The soft D allowed Sam Bradford to finally operate. Without rushers in his face, Bradford found open receivers and the Rams began pecking away at the big lead the Vikings had built up. Rather than sit there in soft two-deep allowing Bradford to lead the Rams on a possible comeback, Williams dialed the pressure up again. A key play was a corner blitz by Marcus Sherels forcing Bradford to get rid of the ball too soon. The Rams’ offensive timing was again disrupted and the comeback never game to pass.
Williams hasn’t always been this aggressive this year. In certain games the Vikings have eschewed the blitz altogether, rushing four and dropping everyone else into coverage. That worked really well against Detroit because Detroit has no run game with which to counteract that sort of approach. But we saw how ineffective that plan can be against a team with a great running back. Marshawn Lynch ripped it up in Seattle. It also proved ineffective against the short, accurate passing attack unleashed by the Bears in the first meeting this year. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall ate up that vanilla coverage. In the second meeting, Williams adjusted by bringing more heat against Cutler. That may have been a turning point for this defense. The aggressive approach paid huge dividends. You saw guys like Harrison Smith coming on blitzes and actually disrupting Cutler. The blitzes weren’t window-dressing, they were actually getting home. The Bears finally were forced to cry “no mas” and pull Cutler from the game to preserve his health.
The Vikes dialed it up even more the next week against the Rams. That was the best game Alan Williams has called all year. It was a total clinic in how to eat up an offensive line and confuse a quarterback. And the run defense held up well against Steven Jackson. It helped that the defense stayed clean penalty-wise. The Vikes have been plagued by offsides penalties in recent weeks but that didn’t show up against the Rams. Everyone stayed disciplined. Maybe the lesson here is this: it’s easier for this group to stay mentally focused when the game plan is aggressive. The passive, rush-four-and-drop approach maybe lulls them into a bit of lethargy.
It will be interesting to see how the Vikings play it from here on out. Do you dare go into Houston and throw that aggressive gameplan at Matt Shaub, Andre Johnson and that bunch? Or will Williams default back to the relatively safe approach he employed against Detroit. The problem is, Houston can come at you with a great running back in Arian Foster. This will be a huge test for the Vikes. They will have to play with the same focus and discipline they showed in St. Louis. The secondary will be under pressure. Josh Robinson needs to step his game up after a run of really bad performances. Hopefully, Chris Cook can return this weekend and give them back the coverage presence they’ve been missing.
I would prefer to see Williams keep the pedal to the metal. Better to go down swinging than sit back and let them tear you apart. And it’s much more fun to watch an aggressive defense that comes hard after the QB from multiple directions and forces turnovers. Tampa-2 just seems so old-fashioned. In today’s NFL, exotic blitz looks are where it’s at. This defense clearly plays better when guys are going downhill. There are lots of fast, athletic guys out there. Take advantage of that. Disrupt and confuse. As long as guys execute, it can work.
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