Take it away, Arif.
The Vikings have one of the worst quarterbacks to start for them in the NFL, no matter how you slice it. And yet, it’s not the problem.
A defense that gives up 2.3 points per drive has no excuse, even if the offense hasn’t been setting it up to do well. Regardless of field position, the Vikings defense is the second-worst team in the league when it comes to preventing first downs and touchdowns, as evidenced by Football Outsiders’ Drive Success Rate statistic. The Vikings defense has broken down spectacularly, and seems to be able to neither defend the pass nor the run. It’s difficult to pinpoint the cause, even after extensively combing over the All-22.
After isolating some of the most impactful defensive failures the Vikings have given up, per Advanced NFL Stats’ WPA calculations, there are a multitude of problems, and it’s not easy to isolate one single issue. I looked at 20 plays, here are a few that will isolate the cornucopia of issues well enough.
The first play is familiar: the Martellus Bennett touchdown to seal the game for Chicago, thrown against Chris Cook for an easy-ish win.The call on the field was good, despite the fact that the Bears ran a Cover-2 beater. Had the coverage rotated properly, Cook wouldn’t have been left on an island against two receivers and forced to pick his poison (he picked correctly, by the way). On the other side, Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett get open, meaning Jay Cutler actually threw the third-hardest pass on the play to win the game. The issue here is that the split of Martellus Bennett from the line of scrimmage automatically led to a coverage check to change the Cover-1/Cover-3 call to a Cover-2 call from the same formation.
Josh Robinson, naturally, blew his shot at man coverage, but it was against Brandon Marshall.
The next play is painful, but a reminder that the Vikings are poorly equipped to deal with running backs who display “agility” and “speed.”
It’s pretty clear to see that the play wasn’t at fault here; it’s a simple Cover-2 man, with a press concept at the top. Chad Greenway’s assignment was Reggie Bush, who cut him out of the play before he even got the ball. Later, terrible tackling angles from Jamarca Sanford (most notably) and Harrison Smith allow Bush free reign. As a side note, it wasn’t his responsibility, but it was a reason he was drafted, so it is depressing that a player as fast as Josh Robinson couldn’t catch up to anybody, much less a fast-but-not-quite-as-fast Reggie Bush.
The fault here lies with the agility of the linebacker, not in play recognition or defensive call. It is true that a zone defense would have been better equipped to deal with that particular pass, but the Lions actually ran a play designed to stress Harrison Smith and make him choose between three options. Man coverage is the best way to deal with that issue, so it was a generally good call. There is not much to say here, except that Greenway didn’t just take the wrong angle, he simply didn’t have the physical ability to cover Bush.
Here’s another example of the Lions hurting the Vikings - this time with Nate Burleson.
It wasn’t a touchdown, but it was close enough and a turning point in the game. It’s a fairly routine play, but it’s in a high-leverage situation in what should be a win for the Vikings - their top corner against a middling wide receiver. The playcall is Cover-1 Robber, which is designed to do two things: 1) confuse the coverage read for the quarterback 2) allow a free-wheeling zone defender to undercut routes and break on the ball without having to worry about whether or not he has help, because he does. Generally speaking, it will take routes away from the middle and force quarterbacks to hit riskier reads. The best way to attack the Robber is with outside routes that work with a timing element, which is exactly what the Lions did there.
Notably, Erin Henderson doesn’t have the ability to do that because no routes break over the middle. One of the greatest strengths of the Robber is that it is easy to disguise. The Vikings do not attempt to do that. Because Brandon Pettigrew splits wide, he becomes wide open against Marvin Mitchell. Harrison Smith can’t offer any help because the four verticals concept doesn’t give him many choices. He initially breaks to Calvin Johnson because Josh Robinson is supposed to take away outside routes and funnel Johnson in, but Mitchell’s ineptitude brings him over. Interestingly, Josh Robinson actually did a very good job here. Xavier Rhodes took away Kris Durham. The failure of the play falls mostly on Chris Cook for not reading the receiver enough to turn his head around in time and deflect the ball. He loses a step despite opening the gate correctly, but the bigger issue is simply that he didn’t have ball awareness. The next play was a touchdown.
Now back to the Bears game.
One thing Brandon Marshall has over Calvin Johnson is a better ability to use his body to beat press coverage. Both are incredibly imposing physical specimens, and both use that to their advantage throughout the process of the route and catch, but Johnson will sometimes use finesse when crude power will work. Not so for Marshall.
Chris Cook hilariously attempts press coverage and falls behind. This should theoretically be a strength for Cook's as he has long arms and he's strong. Sanford perhaps sits too long on the seam route (Cover-1 Man) before rolling over to Marshall, where it’s too late, but this is more an issue of Cook’s failure than it is Sanford, who bears partial responsibility for the touchdown.
Here are two other plays illustrating the Vikings defensive shortcomings.
The easiest person to blame here would be Jamarca Sanford. That’s fine and he was terrible. But the most at fault is Marvin Mitchell, who can’t shoot a gap to save his life and somehow gets blocked out of the A gap by the left tackle. Kevin Williams isn’t amazing, but neither is he bad. Erin Henderson locks up the fullback, as per his MIKE responsibilities. The WILL absolutely needs to freelance, navigate through traffic and shed blocks in order to make plays in the running game. I don’t know why Mitchell hesitates, but it is a fault. Harrison Smith reads the flow of the run poorly, but he could not have made a difference either way.
To sum things up, look at what happened most recently.
This is a phenomenally bad playcall. Robinson tracks Smith across the formation, signaling man coverage, and all the receivers (and Cam Newton) know that checking to their man beater is the simplest thing to do (if that was not the original call). Out of a bunch formation, man coverage is extraordinarily bad, especially in the red zone.
With LaFell and Steve Smith crossing underneath, Harrison Smith in man coverage on a tight end, Sanford is left to clean up anything that hits the middle of the end zone. That’s fine; he’s left without a particular responsibility on this play and may end up having to pick up DeAngelo Williams out of the backfield. But either Cook or Robinson is going to get burned, depending on who has to go over the top when covering the crossing routes in man. Robinson could have closed better as soon as Smith’s outside shoulder turns to Newton (that gives him about 1.5 seconds) but there’s not much you can expect him to do. He had an opportunity to limit or restrict the catch, but only in the loosest definition of the word.
The Vikings defense needs to have an automatic check for bunch formations at the goal line, and nine times out of 10 it should include zone coverage; either a box concept at the line or a more traditional zone designed to close in on breaking balls. But Robinson was left out in the cold because there wasn’t a way to respond to the bunch formation like any team rationally would. I’m not much sold on heavy man coverage concepts in goal line situations anyway, even with a blitz, because of the issues involving a quarterback draw (especially with a player like Cam Newton) or other type of outside run cleared by receivers running routes, but this was spectacularly poor.
So what’s wrong with the Vikings defense? Everything.
There are clear talent issues: Chad Greenway, for whatever reason (age, passion, surgery, whatever you want) isn’t agile and Henderson isn’t being played to his strengths. Josh Robinson is clearly a very weak link in the secondary and Marvin Mitchell is an embarrassment. Jamarca Sanford hasn’t followed through on his impressive 2012 season, while the defensive line isn’t getting much pressure, even when aided by blitzes. The coaches are often playing the wrong player, too. There’s not a rational argument, looking at the film, to play Marvin Mitchell, and it looks like Josh Robinson is kind of a dumb decision, too. Xavier Rhodes on the outside is a good decision, but Robinson hasn’t actually been bad on the outside that often (although you’ll find that hard to believe given the weird switch concept that burned him for a long touchdown against Carolina). Of his 39 receptions allowed, 31 have been in the slot. He’s a bad slot corner, but alright on the outside. Rhodes may be a better corner on the outside, but that’s not the issue; the Vikings need a slot cornerback and they need one badly. Robinson has already proven why it’s unwise to take an outside corner and fit him inside. The Vikings may as well see what they have in Marcus Sherels moving forward.
Aside from that, there are often bad plays called. Not as often as fans would believe as the breakdowns are usually the result of skill and not scheme, but they do happen from time to time. People like to malign the Tampa-2 defense, but the Vikings don’t run the Cover-2 or Tampa-2 looks as often as people believe, and the biggest defensive breakdowns are rarely out of a two-high safety look anyway.
There are schematic issues; the size of the no-cover zones underneath the hook/curl assignments (underneath zones) are too big and the landmarks don’t allow linebackers to break to the ball quickly enough underneath and that could lead to significant issues against the very running backs that have been plaguing the Vikings the most, but it has also put the Vikings in a position to create takeaways from the linebackers. The issue is that there are too many points and yards given up for each takeaway the Vikings grab, and that is a result of talent more often than not.
At the same time, position coaches and defensive coordinator Alan Williams haven’t really been providing the support for the players that they need, it seems, to learn the system, the natural checks and who they can trust in coverage. Harrison Smith seems more out of place than before and Jamarca Sanford looks to take worse tackling angles than he did a year previous.
The Vikings also have the worst linebacker corps in the league, if Pro Football Focus is anything to go by - even if that isn’t strictly true, it’s true enough. How does that happen when there are two linebacker coaches? It could be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen; Greenway was excellent in 2010 under Fred Pagac (and then Jeff Imamura after Pagac was promoted) while Erin Henderson was potentially one of the top outside linebackers in the league under Mike Singletary. But when the two combined forces as position coaches, the unit went south quickly.
Clear lines of responsibility, along with clear positional and schematic control would resolve this problem in all likelihood. There’s not much that can be done to resolve these concerns this year, but Alan Williams could attempt to change some of the schematic problems (and perhaps call less Cover-1) to hide the surprising weaknesses of his unit in the coming weeks. Beyond that, the Vikings need to seriously evaluate Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti to see if they are ready to take on the roles that Marvin Mitchell and Erin Henderson seemingly cannot, given Desmond Bishop’s injury. Just like Christian Ponder took over for a struggling Donovan McNabb and didn’t do too poorly given the time he had to learn the offense, the Penn State linebackers could do the same on defense.
Josh Robinson could lose all of his duties at one position to devote all of his time to learning the other - either slot or outside corner. Generally speaking, it seems as if this double duty is killing his ability to really pick up what he needs to in order to grow into his role and figure out what he needs to do.
Sometimes there aren’t answers. But that doesn’t mean the Vikings shouldn’t try. After all, that’s why they went after Josh Freeman, isn’t it?