Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made red-zone defense a point of emphasis when his players returned to practice this week after a long weekend to savor a four-game win streak and a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the season.
“We had to put some extra work in there,” said Zimmer, whose team travels to Kansas City on Sunday with a red-zone defense on pace to rank outside the top three for the first time since 2016.
The Chiefs aren’t dominating in the red zone offensively. They rank 25th in touchdown percentage (.481), but the Vikings rank 15th in touchdown percentage allowed (.550) after ranking third both last year (.449) and in 2017 (.400), when they also ranked first in goal-to-go situations (.500).
This year, the Vikings’ red-zone defense has been exceptional against the run and alarming against the pass.
From the 20-yard line in, opponents have run the ball 15 times for 25 yards (1.7 yards per catch), one first down and the only rushing touchdown of any length the team has allowed all season, a league low. Even the Patriots defense, which has allowed only four touchdowns all season overall, has given up two on the ground.
“Guys know where to be,” Zimmer said of the red-zone run defense. “I don’t think it’s been anything special.”
Left end Danielle Hunter has a team-high 4½ tackles on red-zone runs, including one for loss, not to mention two sacks.
“He’s just a good player,” Zimmer said when asked about Hunter’s red-zone production.
Inside the 5-yard line, opponents have run the ball four times. They’ve scored once from the 2 and lost yardage twice, both times running right at nose tackle Linval Joseph.
“A lot of [defense inside the 5] is mentality,” Zimmer said. “We talk about that a lot.”
In Week 1, Joseph dropped Falcons running back Ito Smith for a 1-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 2. In Week 8, he helped Anthony Barr stuff old pal Adrian Peterson for a 1-yard loss on second-and-goal from the 2.
Second on the team behind Hunter in tackles on red-zone runs is Eric Kendricks. He has three, two of them solo and one for a loss.
Now, for that red-zone pass defense.
“We have not done a good enough job in that area,” Zimmer said. “And, typically, we’re really good in that area.”
The numbers are bad.
Opponents have dropped back 44 times in the red zone. They’ve been sacked four times while completing 24 of 40 passes (60.0) for 183 yards, four first downs, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
But here’s where stats without full context don’t paint the full picture. Three of those 10 touchdowns came in the fourth quarter when the Vikings were using backups while leading the Falcons by 28 and 22 points and the Raiders by 27.
“At that point, it’s, ‘Let the clock run,’ ” Zimmer said. “We don’t want them to score, but … I do look at the guys who are playing at that point.”
With fourth-quarter leads of that size, Zimmer can rest starters, get backups some work and use missteps by the youngsters as “easy points to coach off of.”
Of course, seven red-zone touchdown passes during the competitive portions of four games — against the Packers, Bears, Eagles and Lions — isn’t all that good either.
“We’re getting a lot of scheme things,” Zimmer said. “Against Detroit, I could have put [the players] in a better position on a route right before the half.”
The Packers also caught the Vikings off guard schematically in Week 2.
“We got a screen in Green Bay,” Zimmer said. “And these guys [Kansas City] run a lot of screens in the red zone.”
These are the thoughts that run through Zimmer’s head when his red-zone defense isn’t measuring up. The kind of thoughts that make a worrywart like Zimmer adjust practice time to accommodate a particular point of emphasis.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: email@example.com