Dec 23, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams coaches against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Vikings won 23-6. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Vikings and Cowboys Duke It Out For Title of Worst Pass Defense In NFL

We’ve been so obsessed with our own terrible pass defense here in Viking Nation that we haven’t even noticed the stink show going on down in Big D. Believe it or not, the Cowboys actually have a worse pass defense than the Vikings at least according to the official rankings.

As of Week 9, the Vikings are only 29th in the league in passing yards allowed, ahead of three teams including the Broncos, Eagles and Cowboys. The Cowboys themselves rank dead last having given up an average of 315 yards per game through the air.

The amazing stat with the Cowboys is the number of 400-yard passing performances they’ve allowed. That number is a staggering 4, an NFL record. And the season isn’t close to over yet. The Cowboys have a good chance to put that record way out of reach.

By contrast, the Vikings’ atrocious pass defense has given up zero 400-plus yard passing games. Their worst performances came Weeks 1 and 4 when they gave up 357 yards to the Lions and Steelers respectively. So at least by that measure, they are nowhere near as bad as the Cowboys in pass defense.

But yardage allowed is of course only one stat. There are other numbers that may be just as telling or possibly even more telling. For instance, you can give up a ton of yards but still have a decent defense if you force enough turnovers. The Cowboys are an example of a team that gets gashed quite a bit but is also able to stop drives by taking the ball away. So far this year they have 11 interceptions, third most in the league. The Vikings have only 7 interceptions, which ranks them 16th. And it seems like a lot fewer than 7, maybe because most of those came early in the season.

There are other stats we can look at that give us a feel for how well a unit is defending the pass. Completion percentage against gives you an idea of how well a team actually covers, while removing the factor of yards gained after the reception. In that area the Vikings are brutal. Quarterbacks are completing passes at a 67.3% clip against the Vikings’ D, fourth-worst in the league. The Cowboys are actually more middle-of-the-road in this stat, giving up a 63% completion percentage.

The problem for the Cowboys is the big play. Thus far they have surrendered 34 20-plus-yard pass plays, second-worst in the league. The Vikings by contrast have allowed just 20 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks them 4th overall, tied with San Francisco.

This makes perfect sense to anyone who’s watched the Vikings this year. It’s not the big play that normally gets them, it’s the endless succession of small plays. Teams don’t go over-the-top that readily on the Vikings, who mostly leave both their safeties deep and play off with their corners. Quarterbacks who are patiently willing to take underneath stuff will find holes all over the defense and can dink-and-dunk their way down the field. The Cowboys on the other hand have a greater propensity to give up the big play, but also force more takeaways, which suggests that they’re willing to gamble more.

Other statistical measures have these teams dead-even or close to it. Both have surrendered a ton of first downs via the pass: Cowboys 121 (2nd worst), Vikings 108 (6th worst). So clearly both teams have a difficult time getting off the field. The Vikings as we’ve seen have struggled mightily on third down, allowing teams to convert at a 50.9% clip. The Cowboys have been much better, allowing only 37.3% of third downs to be converted. This tends to indicate that the Cowboys are giving up big plays in early downs.

Quarterback efficiency against is another way we can measure the crappiness of a defense. The Vikings are sixth-worst in this category, allowing QBs an average passer rating of 97.7. The Cowboys’ average passer rating against is 88, which puts them right in the middle of the league. The Cowboys are also better at pressuring the passer than the Vikings; Dallas has 21 sacks on the season to the Vikings’ 14. I realize sacks aren’t the only means of measuring QB pressure, but sacks are great for shutting down drives. The higher rate of sacks and interceptions for the Cowboys plays directly into that much lower third down completion percentage. They are giving up big plays, but they are also making big plays.

Ultimately of course it all comes down to how many points you surrender, and this is one category where the Cowboys have the Vikings by a wide margin. The Vikes are allowing 32.1 points per game, third worst in the NFL. The Cowboys despite their statistically horrific defense are allowing 23.2 points per game, making them over a touchdown better than the Vikings.

What does this tell us? To me it’s a reflection of offensive efficiency as much as anything. The Cowboys aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, but check their stats and they mostly fall in the middle of the road. Check the Vikings’ stats and you find them mostly floundering at the bottom of the league. The key stat here is time of possession. The Cowboys’ offense on average is holding the ball for 30:17 per game, ranking them 17th overall. The Vikings? Their 24:52 average TOP is dead last.

That last stat is the true killer for the Vikings. Their inability to consistently produce on offense is forcing their defense to be on the field a disproportionate amount of the time. And the defense’s inability to get off the field on third down is consequently exacerbating the offense’s inability to find its rhythm. It isn’t a matter of the defense impacting the offense or vice versa, it’s a matter of both units feeding each other’s ineptitude.

That’s why the whole notion of dividing a team up by offense, defense and special teams and attempting to ascribe “blame” to one particular area is kind of silly. All parts of a team must be functioning together for that team to win. Right now the Vikes are bad both in offense and defense. That’s why they’re 1-6. The Cowboys are pretty bad on defense, especially in giving up big passing plays, but are at least functional on offense, which is why they’re 4-4.

But back to the original question: which of these teams actually has the worse pass defense? I guess it all boils down to a pick-your-poison situation. Which is more painful: watching your team give up huge pass plays or watching it get gashed to death on short completions? Either way you end up surrendering lots of yards. The Cowboys at least have been good enough on defense to stuff some drives via takeaways, and the points-allowed number is glaringly in their favor.

All things being equal, I think I’d rather have the Cowboys’ pass defense right now. Yes they tend to get reamed, but they also take the ball away and are obviously stopping their share of drives. The Vikes’ defensive woes would of course be somewhat ameliorated if the offense could get going and possess the ball for larger chunks of time.

The real problem for the Vikings when you boil it down is lack of big play ability on both sides of the ball. They’re not taking the ball away enough and they’re not hitting enough big plays on offense. They need Adrian Peterson to get back his home run stroke, and they need to find a QB who can get the ball downfield. It might not hurt to get the very talented Cordarrelle Patterson more involved as well. He has untapped big play ability.

It’s not complicated. If you want to win you have to be at least competent across the board. Right now the Vikings are bad in everything except returning kicks and, when Blair Walsh’s hamstring is healthy, kicking field goals. That ain’t gonna get it done.

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