Counselor might be a more appropriate job title considering what Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson has been doing recently.
A once-rising purple tide, one that hammered quarterbacks for 19 sacks during a 5-0 start, has been drained like a swimming pool ready for winter. The Vikings have just two sacks in a three-game losing streak, but be careful where you point that finger. Many factors have neutralized the Vikings’ vaunted pass rush, and some are completely out of their hands.
That made for an agitated defensive line room this week while preparing for Sunday’s game in Washington, where the Redskins offense has allowed the fewest sacks (11) in the league.
“It’s just frustrating, man,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “They’re three-step dropping, getting the ball out quick; on third-and-8’s, they’re running sprint outs. We’re getting chipped. They’re switching it up on us, not allowing us to rush like we want.”
Ever since Cam Newton was bludgeoned by eight sacks in the Vikings’ Week 3 win, opposing quarterbacks popped that film on, cringed and decided they don’t want the same punishment. So they’re getting the ball out of the passer’s hands as quickly as possible.
The result is the Vikings have faced one of the NFL’s top-10 quickest throwers in each of the past five weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. And they’ve landed only six sacks in that five-game stretch where quarterbacks averaged just 2.44 seconds before each pass. Newton averaged 3.10 seconds, ranking 31st among all passers that week, when the Vikings buried him.
“It’s been a lot of me talking to them on the sideline, keeping their morale up,” Patterson said. “The thing I have to keep telling them is keep running, keep fighting, keep being violent. At some point, he’s going to hold the ball. At some point, they’re going to run a deeper route and you’re going to get a chance.”
Those chances haven’t been frequent enough, in part because the Vikings simply haven’t led much lately. The Vikings have only led for a combined 34 seconds during the three losses.
The defense, through the past three games, has been given just two plays with a lead, including running a prevent defense at the end of the fourth quarter in the overtime loss to the Lions. As the Vikings continually trail in games, opposing offenses are “slow playing” the defense, defensive tackle Tom Johnson said.
“We’re trailing behind and we’re not scoring a lot of points, so they’re taking advantage of that and using the time and the clock to their advantage,” Johnson said. “They’re just slow playing us. They’re not trying to push the ball down the field as much. They’re just trying to manage the game.”
Patterson counted up the defensive line’s limited opportunities to illustrate a point to his room this week.
The Lions trusted their five linemen to ward off the Vikings’ four-man rush on only five snaps, Patterson said. The prior week in Chicago produced a similar result. And they only got three such snaps against the Eagles and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who got rid of the ball at an average of 2.28 seconds per throw.
“I keep telling them, ‘I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s the ultimate respect these teams are giving you,’ ” Patterson said. “It’s quick throws or max protection. I know, to the naked eye, you see one sack, zero sacks, ‘OK, well, that means they’re not performing.’ No it doesn’t.”
Against the onslaught of 2-, 3- and 4-yard passes, the Vikings’ rush is trying to remain “reckless,” coach Mike Zimmer said, adding they’re “kind of thinking a little bit too much” given how opponents have kept them off balance with third-down runs, screens or other quick throws.
These defensive linemen, once conjuring images of the Purple People Eaters, are just clawing to make their presence felt again.
“Even though it’s a quick pass, just make him uncomfortable,” Johnson said. “Make him feel you. If we just continue to beat our man, rush relentlessly, we’ll be OK.”