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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings

A crazy theory on the imminent demise of the Minnesota Vikings’ defense

When does an outlier threaten to become the norm?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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The Minnesota Vikings are a bit of a trendy pick heading into the start of the regular season and their matchup with the Green Bay Packers in week one. This offseason, Luke Kuechly said they may have the best secondary in the league, and a few high-profile analysts have pegged Kirk Cousins as a dark horse MVP candidate.

I somewhat understand the optimism. Mike Zimmer ran an old-school offense and was, apparently, not great for clubhouse chemistry. It’s easy to imagine new head coach Kevin O’Connell, formerly of the Rams, turning the Viking offense (which features a Stafford-level quarterback in Cousins and a Kupp-level receiver in Justin Jefferson) into something like the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning offense from a year ago. It’s also not huge stretch to imagine a healthy Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks plus an angry Za’Darius Smith forming a very good defense. Bolstering all of this, the Vikings were comically bad at the end of halves, as chronicled by Arif Hasan in The Athletic:

The Vikings are worse at the end of the first half than they are in the second, enough that their end-of-half defense is the worst that the NFL has seen in the past 21 years, per Trumedia. Giving up six points per game in the game’s 29th and 30th minutes, the Vikings’ defense in that situation has managed to outdo the 2018 Bengals, the second-worst, by an extraordinary margin.

Basically, the Vikings became by far the worst defense in the league at the end of the first half, though they were no great shakes at the end of the game either. And with a performance that bad, it stands to reason that regression will take hold and they’ll bounce back at least a bit.

Except…

On to the insane theory

It’s week one, and we frankly don’t have much data on any team. If this particular prediction blows up in my face and the Vikings lay the smackdown on an inexperienced Packer receiving corps, possibly without Allen Lazard, I won’t be that surprised. But something about the general profile of the Vikings’ defense from a year ago just keeps bugging me, and it’s related to their end of half failure. Arif dug into the reasons for the Vikings’ struggles and you should read the entire thing, but this is what stood out to me more than anything else:

But they do change things schematically; the Vikings play with a less complex defense in the final two minutes – like most teams do – than they do in the first 28. The issue is that it seems like that’s what they’ve been thriving on. When the defense does such a great job creating confusing looks, dropping linebackers and cornerbacks in unusual places and forcing creative blitz looks and tough protection calls, abandoning that approach can seem like relief for opposing quarterbacks.

There is surely some randomness involved; Arif does note that the Viking breakdowns in these scenarios run the gamut and often involve some weird bounce or odd bad break. However, I think it’s worth noting that the biggest likely candidate for this specific problem was the Vikings’ inability to run the standard Zimmer scheme in these moments.

When a new coordinator takes over, it’s always difficult to tell just how big on an impact there will be. Talent is still the single most important factor on any given unit, but scheme matters more than we usually acknowledge. When the Packers moved from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur, it mattered. When the Bears moved from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano on defense, it also mattered. What Arif did was to parse out a natural experiment within the 2021 Vikings quantifying exactly this problem: How much does the Zimmer scheme matter to the Vikings’ defense? The answer was, apparently, quite a lot.

In 2022, the Vikings’ defense will be run by Ed Donatell, the former Packers defensive coordinator and Vic Fangio disciple. While Donatell has had success in the past, it’s worth noting immediately that this will be an enormous philosophical change. Zimmer typically runs a base 4-3 while Donatell and the Fangio school run a base 3-4, but more importantly, Zimmer’s defense relies heavily on disguising coverages. On any given play, a Zimmer defense will wait until the last second to drop players into coverage, and the mix is generally unpredictable, relying on Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith to flow to weaker pass defenders who may be picked on should the confusion and pressure not get home.

The Fangio/Donatell school is much more of a “what you see is what you get” operation, and if you’re looking for an archetype, it’s likely to resemble some recent Packer defenses. There is a reason that the Vikings also employ Mike Pettine (and Za’Darius Smith and Chandon Sullivan) after all. Thinking through these changes, one can see the problem immediately: It seems likely that scheme did a lot of work for Minnesota last year, and when quarterbacks could see what was coming, they very much took advantage. Donatell has his own scheme and the Vikings have plenty of talent on defense, but they have their weak spots too, and without that pre-snap confusion, I wonder if their personnel is up to the task, especially in the secondary.

Harrison Smith is amazing at safety and I like Cameron Bynum and Lewis Cine a lot too, but at corner, it’s a different story. Patrick Peterson was once a phenomenal athlete (and he’s still a very good one) but this is his age 32 season, I think he’s clearly lost a step. He also missed 4 games last year. As for Cameron Dantzler, well, here’s his RAS:

Dantzler graded out as PFF’s 17th best CB last year, but look at his run blocking grade versus his pass coverage grade. That’s a weird profile! His coverage grade ranked just 39th!

We all know about Chandon Sullivan, who will be taking over in the slot for the departed Xavier Woods (safety) or perhaps the departed Mackensie Alexander (corner) depending on the day. Chandon’s not exactly going to be an upgrade for anyone. The Vikings also spent a high pick on Andrew Booth, but he wasn’t a burner at Clemson, relying more on his size for effectiveness. He didn’t test because of a hernia and he suffered a minor ankle injury during the preseason, though he appears ready to go. Still, this is an uncertain group, and without the disguised pressures, which were occasionally successful against Aaron Rodgers, and questionable corner talent (especially down the roster) I think there’s a chance the Vikings have major coverage issues.

The Packers are somewhat unfortunate to get them in Week 1, as age (Za’Darius at 30, Kendricks at 30, Peterson at 32, Smith at 33, and Hunter at 28, coming off an injury-plagued season) and injuries are quite likely to become a factor as the season wears on. This is almost certainly as healthy as the Vikings will be, and I still suspect they run into issues transitioning to Donatell’s defense without the horses in the secondary to make it happen.

You probably remember this MVS 75-yard touchdown from last year. It wasn’t enough to win the game and it happened just outside of the last two minutes, but it’s emblematic of how the Vikings struggled when stretched at corner and when the quarterback can see the rush coming.

That’s Adams at the bottom of the screen with Patrick Peterson in press coverage, and Josiah Deguara up top, with a 7-yard cushion for some reason. MVS is in the slot with Randall Cobb, and everyone but Adams gets a clean release. This is extremely easy to diagnose for Rodgers as the Vikings bring six and the Packers do an excellent job of picking everyone up.

If you watch Patrick Peterson carefully you can see exactly when he realizes they screwed up. Mackensie Alexander breaks down on Randall Cobb. Adams and Deguara run mesh, and seeing Adams break open in front of him, Harrison Smith jumps forward to assist. This leaves MVS, with a full head of steam, one-on-one with safety Xavier Woods, who is fast, but not nearly fast enough.

Woods is gone, and Camryn Bynum is an upgrade at safety, but he’s not a burner either.

And you can now see how speed will be a problem for this team. Allen Lazard may not play in this game, but it might not be the worst thing in the world to get Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson reps in this one.

The Vikings are a hot pick, but everything to me screams that the defense will get quite a bit worse, not better. Donatell is a huge downgrade from Zimmer, while the age and recent injury history of Minnesota’s key defenders puts them at a major risk of collapse. I think most teams, including the Packers, know exactly how to attack the weaknesses of their personnel, and that Mike Zimmer made it more difficult through creative scheme construction. That construction is likely gone and the defense has a history of failing in its absence.

Unless Ed Donatell and Mike Pettine have developed some additional tricks, Sunday may be a rude awakening.

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