Vikings Film Review: Conservative defense not sustainable down the stretch

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) DeVante Parker
(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) DeVante Parker /

It was a happy Thanksgiving for the Minnesota Vikings, as they defeated the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium by a final score of 33-26.

Once again, the Minnesota Vikings had fans on the edge of their seats for four quarters, with the adrenaline rush of the game overcoming the tryptophan drowsiness from Thanksgiving dinner. Last Thursday’s result against the New England Patriots was a great bounce-back victory for a Vikings team that got the breaks beat off of them just four days prior by the Dallas Cowboys.

The win shows that Minnesota has great leadership from the top down. Kevin O’Connell had his team ready to play, and there was accountability held from the veterans on the team, such as quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw for three touchdowns in a primetime game.

While the offense looked nearly unstoppable, Minnesota‘s defense allowed over 400 yards of total offense, and Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was able to settle into the game early.

The way the Minnesota Vikings currently play defense is not sustainable for the playoffs

The Vikings have now allowed 982 passing yards and a 109.2 QB rating to their last three opponents. In that same stretch, opponents are averaging 4.6 rushing yards per carry, and they are converting 55 percent of their third-down attempts.

Part of this is due to injuries on the defensive side of the ball for Minnesota, such as defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Cam Dantzler.

However, every team in the NFL deals with injuries to starters throughout the season. The bigger issue is the conservative nature of the Vikings’ defense, not in terms of their physicality, but rather in terms of playing an abundance of soft zone and only rushing four linemen.

It puts a lot of pressure on stars such as Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith to get home and sack the quarterback. Luckily for Minnesota, that is something that Smith and Hunter have both been very good at this season.

The Vikings have also enjoyed a healthy dose of turnovers throughout the season as well. Veterans such as safety Harrison Smith had key interceptions in three straight games against the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, and Washington Commanders, and Patrick Peterson had two interceptions, including the game-winner, against the Buffalo Bills.

This has led Minnesota to be turnover-dependent defensively, having yet to truly stop their opponent offensively this year. The Vikings have allowed 25 points per game this year since their dominant win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 and 32 points per game in their last three matchups, which is good for dead last in the NFL.

Perhaps the injuries in the secondary have forced Minnesota to take a more conservative approach and run softer zones as opposed to man-blitzes. Regardless, it is currently hurting the Vikings and is not a sustainable way to win games as the playoffs are approaching.

Looking at the first Patriots touchdown from last Thursday, Minnesota played Cover 2-X on 2nd-and-6 with New England on the Vikings’ 34-yard line.

Cover 2-X is a variation of Cover-2 where everyone plays Cover-2 except for the boundary corner, who is locked man-to-man. In the image above, we see everyone playing zone for Minnesota except for Patrick Peterson, who is locked man-to-man with his receiver.

Cover-2 X gets its name as the X-receiver is typically what offenses label their boundary receiver. Another variation of this coverage is Cover-2 Z, where the field corner would be locked man-to-man with the widest receiver, which offenses typically label as the “Z” receiver.

With trips to the left of the field, the Vikings were in a bad position from the start, as the Patriots had more receivers than Minnesota could cover in their zone.

New England receiver Nelson Agholor had as easy a touchdown as one could have in this look as he simply ran down the middle of the field and was able to split the two-high safeties. Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks has a difficult task in carrying Agholor deep, but because the Patriots had three receivers to the field, Kendricks had to also account for New England tight end Hunter Henry in the slot.

Because Kendricks had to account for both Agholor and Henry, he was unable to play his zone correctly. This allowed Agholor to run free behind Kendricks and set up an easy throw for Jones for the touchdown.

A sidebar here is that Minnesota safety Cam Bynum may have had a chance to make a play on the ball, but he slipped coming out of his break.

The Vikings’ soft zone set up a 34-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Henry later on in the game to put the Patriots up 23-16 to start the second half. This was a nicely executed play-action pass by New England against a Minnesota team that has struggled to defend the run as of late.

The Vikings were in Cover-6, which means they were playing Cover-2 to the boundary and Cover-4 to the field. You can identify it is Cover-2 to the boundary as Peterson plays sticky to the flat, and Minnesota corner Duke Shelley drops into a deep quarter zone with both safeties over the top.

Vikings linebacker Jordan Hicks bit hard against the run, which sprung Henry free behind him, and it put the tight end in a one-on-one situation against Bynum. A missed tackle later, and Henry found himself in the end zone.

The Vikings did not pressure Jones much during the game, but they were able to get key sacks from Hunter on the final two drives of the contest to give them the win.

Minnesota continues to find ways to win, which is not easy in the NFL and should always be celebrated, but they will eventually have to win games on their terms if they want to make a playoff run.

This is a Vikings team that has yet to play a complete game, which should genuinely excite fans as they currently sit with a 9-2 record. A matchup coming off of a mini-bye against a vulnerable New York Jets team awaits Minnesota next.

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