Fixing The Vikings Defense For A Playoff Run

Photo: Vikings vs Chargers
Vikings vs Chargers. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

Rotate, Rotate, Rotate

One of the best things the Vikings coaches have done all season is find oppportunities for younger players to get on-field experience in situations where they are not critical to the team’s overall success.

Think cornerback Kris Boyd getting a few snaps here and there on defense when the game is out of reach.

That’s solid player development.

Defensive Line Rotation

Another strategic move we’ve seen out of the Vikings is often using a defensive line rotation that both gives younger players valuable experience but also keeps everyone fresher over the course of a season.

Given enough frequency, the snaps incurred during those rotations add up over time for younger lineman like Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa, Ifeadi Odenigbo, and now rookie Armon Watts, who saw action against the Cowboys, Broncos and Seahawks.

Defensive Coordinator George Edwards discussed the value of rotating corners:

I think it’s a combination of things. We’ve had some guys that have had to go in and out of the lineup, and we think just guys have gotten better the more that they’ve been in our system and been able to come in and rotate and been able to help. That’s been a good thing for us.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator, George Edwards

Those snaps add up to better athletes overall and fresher starters when it matters most, during a playoff push.

Skor North’s Mattew Coller has broken down what that rotation looks like numberswise.

Cornerback Rotation

Photo: Xavier Rhodes

While the establishing a defensive line rotation was a strategic decision at the outset of the season, the cornerback rotation we’ve seen in recent weeks appears to be a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

Throughout the course of the season it has become increasingly clear that Xavier Rhodes is not the shutdown corner he once was.

Whereas opposing quarterbacks used to avoid throwing in his coverage area, now they routinely target him but since head coach Mike Zimmer instituted a rotation system for his defensive backs, Rhodes’ stats have improved.

That rotation started only last week against the Detroit Lions, so we’ll see if it continues against the Chargers but it wouldn’t surprise me of it did resume. While you cannot draw much of a conclusion from the rotation against a bottom-feeding Detroit team, common sense would dictate that there are some advantages Vikings might gain from a rotation at this point in time.

First, it relieves some of the pressure to perform to expectations from Xavier Rhodes while limiting the potential damage as he works through his struggles. Second, is the simple fact of keeping the entire backfield fresher by reducing their overall snaps. Third, is additional snaps for youngsters Mike Hughes and Holton Hill as the team drives for a playoff run.

Defensive Coverage Changes

The rotation likely does not fully explain the improvement in pass coverage we’ve seen over the past two weeks. The Vikings have also been employing coverage changes designed to limit the success of explosive pass plays.

The Athletic‘s Arif Hassan‘s superb examination of those change concludes with this revealing stat:

In the first 12 weeks of the season, the Vikings gave up 40 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the 12th-most as a percentage of all passing plays at 9.0 percent.  In the past two weeks, only 1.3 percent of passing plays were completed for over 20 yards.

The Vikings defense needed a change — here’s what that looks like so far

Linval Joseph

Photo: Linval Joseph

Do not underestimate the value of the return to health of defensive tackle Linval Joseph.

Joseph might be the best-kept secret in the NFL regarding defensive tackle talent. It’s not like we Vikings fans don’t recognize the value he provides to Minnesota’s defensive line but the rest of the league has been rather slow on the uptake.

His ability to create pressure up the middle while also excelling against the run will go a long way at papering over any deficiencies the Vikings may suffer in the secondary as they look to make a playoff push.