As NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell reviewed the Vikings’ win over the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, the play that extolled their defensive excellence — on a day when they held an offense that scored 540 points a year ago to three field goals — was a 7-yard checkdown.
The Falcons were trying to muster a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when they lined up on first-and-10 from their own 39-yard line, looking for a big play to Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones.
Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph lined up on the strong side of the Falcons’ formation. It was the perfect setup for a play-action pass. Quarterback Matt Ryan faked to the running back, drawing linebacker Eric Kendricks down to the line of scrimmage to take on fullback Derrick Coleman. That created a hole in the space behind Kendricks for Ryan to hit Jones for a big gain.
Except safety Andrew Sendejo wasn’t fooled, closing in on Jones’ dig route in an instant.
“Sendejo read it the whole way,” Cosell said. “He attacked the dig, so Ryan couldn’t throw the ball. He had to check it down. That’s the kind of thing that gets totally overlooked, because it becomes a 6-yard play, but when they call that play, they’re thinking they’re going to hit Julio on the deep dig for 25 yards.
“That’s just understanding, recognition, savvy. It’s not sexy, but that’s the way they play.”
There are other groups that produce flashier highlights and have more boisterous personalities. Ranked second in the league in points and yards against, and in the third year of a run in which the Vikings defense is in the NFL’s top 10, the group doesn’t even have a catchy nickname. (The Seahawks defense, it should be noted, was dubbed the “Legion of Boom” before the group had ever reached the playoffs.)
Knock them for blandness if you like, but doubt them at your own peril. The Vikings defense is putting together a résumé that compares favorably to that of most 21st-century Super Bowl teams.
Compared to the 34 teams that have reached the Super Bowl since the 2000 season, the Vikings defense would rank 12th in yards per game (289.1) and tied for 16th in points per game (17). And to find a defense — on any NFL team — that’s been as good on third downs as the 2017 Vikings, you’d have to go back 19 years.
The Vikings are stopping teams on third down 72.8 percent of the time this season — the highest rate since the 1998 Oakland Raiders (73.3 percent). They’ve allowed only 40 third-down conversions for the season, an average of 3.3 a game.
“That’s absurd,” Cosell said. “The number 40, to me, in 12 games, that blew me away. I don’t think they get their due. I think people recognize Mike Zimmer’s a good defensive coach, but I don’t think they say, ‘Wow, this defense is unbelievably great.’ ”
Which, considering how many cues the Vikings take from their coach, might be how they want it.
“That’s our goal, is to be the best,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “We haven’t always been that. Each week presents a unique challenge, and you’re going to fail sometimes. But I think we’re successful more often than not.”
‘A defense for today’s NFL’
The Vikings, Cosell said, are in a sub package — using a personnel group other than their 4-3 base defense — about 79 percent of the time, which is the second-highest ratio in the league behind New England’s 80 percent.
For much of this season, they have used Terence Newman as their nickel cornerback in normal down-and-distance situations, trusting the 39-year-old’s ability in run support, and turned to second-year man Mackensie Alexander at the nickel in obvious passing situations.
Zimmer has never been a heavy blitzer, on the order of Rex Ryan or Dick LeBeau, but the Vikings’ excellence lies in their flexible personnel that allows them to keep opponents guessing about which players will come after the quarterback and which ones will drop into coverage.
“They’re a defense for today’s NFL,” Cosell said. “What do you need when you play nickel? You need edge pass rushers: They’ve got two of them. You need speed at linebacker: They’ve got [Eric] Kendricks and Barr, who both play with speed and range. They’ve got a matchup corner in [Xavier] Rhodes, so when they choose to match him up against an opposing receiver — which they don’t do every single week — but when they choose to, he can do that. They have a multidimensional safety in Harrison Smith, who can play the back end, he can play in the box, he can blitz, he can match up to tight ends man-to-man.
“If you’re talking about today’s NFL, your sub- package defense becomes critically important. They have, essentially, every element you would look for in a sub-package nickel defense.”
The Vikings, who rank second in the league against the run after finishing in the bottom half during Zimmer’s first three seasons, are starting to get more contributions from cornerback Trae Waynes, whom Pro Football Focus ranks as the league’s best corner against the run this season. Cosell also thinks Sendejo is underrated for what he brings as a run defender.
“When you play [the nickel] that often, you still have to defend the run,” Cosell said. “Both safeties, Smith and Sendejo, are excellent run-support players. They’re both very aggressive downhill run-support players. They do not miss tackles. I think when you look at the pieces, I don’t think we want to compare them to the 2000 Ravens, or as we speak today, the ’85 Bears. But in today’s context, they give you all the dimensions you want in a defense.”
Playoffs bring validation
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who will face the Vikings on Sunday, was a linebacker on the 1985 Bears. That defense’s dominance (not to mention its bold personalities) made it one of the most revered in NFL history.
Asked this week what the Vikings need to do to put themselves in the pantheon of great defenses, Rivera pointed not to the Bears’ panache but to their postseason production.
“In the last couple years, you’ve noticed they’ve gotten progressively better,” Rivera said. “They’re very consistent. They’re a very aggressive, attacking defense. But, the hallmark will be if they win their division, win in the playoffs, get themselves to the Super Bowl, I think people will talk about them among the great defenses. Do they have the potential? Most certainly.”
They can also look at defenses with even gaudier numbers than their own, whose accomplishments have been pushed to the fringes of history without a Super Bowl title.
According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value over Average metric, the NFL’s best defense since 1950 belongs to the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles, who practically lapped the field with Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen and Andre Waters. The Eagles defense was 42.4 percent better than average, with the 1969 Vikings (32.9 percent) and the 2002 Buccaneers (31.8 percent) coming in second and third.
Those Eagles went 10-6, but after Randall Cunningham tore his ACL in the first game of the season at Lambeau Field, they didn’t make the playoffs. So while that Buddy Ryan defense is remembered fondly, it’s not mentioned with the famous championship group he coordinated in Chicago.
When asked this week what separates the best defenses from the ones that are merely good, Zimmer said: “Probably the biggest thing is winning the game in the fourth quarter — being able to take over the game. You think about the teams that can get constant pressure on the quarterback, I guess that would be it.”
Doing it in the playoffs would give the group its imprimatur.
“We always think we can do better,” Barr said. “I think it’s sometimes human nature to get complacent and pat yourself on the back, but we haven’t really accomplished too much yet.”