EAGAN/ZOOM — Pressed about his team’s lack of run defense in a 14-7 loss to the Browns in Week 4, Mike Zimmer stood by his defensive players.
“I’m not discouraged one bit about the lack of stopping the run,” Zimmer said despite allowing 184 yards to Cleveland rushers.
Three months later, the rush defense — considered to be a foundational strength of the team entering the season — has repeatedly let the Vikings down, but the head coach is still in search of silver linings.
“Who did I talk to the other day that was talking to us about the tape?” Zimmer pondered. “They looked at the numbers, then looked at the tape, and it was like two different circumstances. But they are what they are, and we’ll just keep trying to get better.”
Unfortunately for the Vikings, the window of improvement has all but closed for 2021.
There’s no way to slice it positively for the purple. Looking at several raw yardage stats, the Vikings are 27th in overall rushing yardage given up, tied for last in 100-yard games allowed by opponents and 21st in runs of 10+ yards. While raw yardage can be misleading one way or another, the Vikings run stoppers only look worse in per-play or situational metrics. They are 30th in yards per carry, 31st in success rate allowed and dead last in expected points allowed on the ground.
As the Vikings enter Week 18 with a 7-9 record and no shot at the playoffs, there are several scapegoats getting more scrutiny (i.e., Kirk Cousins, for missing last Sunday’s game on the Reserve/COVID-19 list), but the run defense has been extra-culpable in losses to the Rams and Packers, allowing 333 yards in two games, and the Vikings have given up 100 or more yards rushing in the last six overall.
“There have been a number of factors,” Zimmer said, “but we gave up a lot of yards in a couple ball games, and that extended it. Like we played 98 plays against Baltimore, things like that. For the most part, it hasn’t been as bad as the numbers.”
Zimmer’s point about facing extra plays in certain games only rings partially true. Teams could theoretically rack up larger totals in inefficient fashion, but that hasn’t been true against the Vikings. In their three worst games against the run, they allowed yards per carry totals that were all well above league average: 4.8 against Cleveland, 5.3 against San Francisco and 5.5 against Baltimore. (The league average is 4.3.)
In fact, the Vikings tied for a league high in games where they allowed at least 4.5 yards per carry. So it’s a fallacy to say that a few bad games ruined the Vikings’ stat lines.
Regarding Zimmer’s remark about the film looking better than the stats, the head coach can claim a small victory in the evaluation by Pro Football Focus, a film-based analytics operation. PFF currently ranks the Vikings 21st in run defense based on the sum of their players’ individual grades; that’s a decent improvement up from 29th last year but hardly paints a pretty picture.
Undoubtedly, personnel voids have played a role. Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce, three key defensive line pieces, will finish the season playing in less than 10 games. Primary replacements D.J. Wonnum and Armon Watts rank 110th and 122nd at their respective positions in run defense.
“It's hard to get continuity when you're playing a bunch of different guys,” said co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson. “That's the thing that's been our issue from the beginning. Because of injury, because of COVID, I think we've never played a game with the 11 guys on defense that we thought we were going to have starting in training camp. That's part of what happens during an NFL season, but I think a lack of continuity has hurt us throughout the course of the season.”
Missing Pierce, Hunter, Griffen and Anthony Barr for long stretches hurt, but the Vikings can’t entirely point the finger at injuries. The Vikings are squarely in the middle in terms of man games lost this season, and their run defense struggled even with the presence of big nose tackles Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson, who graded in PFF’s top 30 at their position but didn’t stop the run as hoped.
It didn’t require a rocket science degree for opponents to see Minnesota’s girth in the middle and run to the edges where the Vikings’ defensive ends, corners and linebackers were much less physical than in past seasons. The team’s three primary linebackers combined to miss 34 tackles this season, while their top three corners missed another 30.
“Just being more sound, a lot of techniques,” Wonnum said about where the run defense lacked. “Sometimes guys get bumped out of their gaps or different things like that. So basically just technique, just different things we got to cue in and be more critical in going into these games, especially improving on that for next year.”
Talent, scheme, technique, whatever the cause, the Vikings got away from their run-stopping prowess for a second straight year.
If you’re pining for the days of Linval Joseph or the Williams Wall, you’re probably not alone.