The Vikings defense was pretty darn good last year. They finished second in yards allowed, sixth in points, second in net yards per pass attempt and 17th in yards per rushing attempts. By all accounts, they were one of the better units in football.
But in 2017, they have taken a further step into potential all-time status. This year, they are first, first, second and fifth in those respective categories. Minnesota has All-Pro-caliber players at every level. Elite offenses such as New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles have all struggled to move the ball when they face off with the purple and gold.
What is the reason for this uptick in defensive productivity? Stars like Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Linval Joseph all had outstanding years, but they had outstanding years in 2016. No, the big difference is not all in the star power.
The biggest change in the Vikings defense was the development in the secondary from two players: Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo. In one season, they each went from perpetual recipients of eye rolls to steady, reliable defensive backs.
So how did they do it?
Waynes was the subject of the ire of many a Vikings fan in his first two seasons. He was inconsistent as a cover man, prone to being beat deep and committing too many penalties. What made his lack of development tougher to swallow was his draft position: Minnesota took Waynes with the 11th pick in 2015 while All-Pro corner Marcus Peters went to Kansas City seven picks later.
And in the early weeks of 2017, Waynes did not appear to have made any strides. He posted awful yards per coverage snap totals against New Orleans and Pittsburgh and was called for yet another pass interference on a deep ball in week two.
But something changed around the third game. Waynes played well against Tampa Bay, recording his first interception of the year and a targeted rating of just 45.8. And from there, he went on a 13-week run of solid play. He stopped getting beat over the top. He stopped committing pass interference penalties. He trusted his eyes and his instincts and did not bite on stems or double moves. He played big and aggressive on short passes without being grabby. When he did cross the line, he did it subtly and thus, got away with it.
Take a look at these two clips:
The first clip was from week two of this year and is more 2016 Waynes. He turns his hips before Martavis Bryant makes a move and as a result, is out of position when Bryant breaks inside on the skinny post. He compounds the mistake by making a play on the man instead of the ball, tackling Bryant early for the flag.
The second is from week 16. This play has a near identical set up but this time, Waynes does everything right. While he turns his hips at almost the same point in the route as the previous clip, he does not commit one direction. Rather than turning and running, he stutters briefly to see where Michael Clark goes. As soon as Clark commits outside, Waynes runs stride for stride. He makes brief contact but nothing excessive enough to draw a penalty. And then perhaps his biggest advancement as a cover corner, Waynes turns his head to play the ball rather than the receiver. Though the ball is overthrown, the coverage bothered Clark enough that he could not keep running to make the catch.
These are all little things but they have turned Waynes into one of the best number-two corners in the league. He still has not reached the level of his teammate Rhodes; he lacks the physicality to play press coverage as often as Rhodes does. But he is finally showing he has the football acumen to complement his immense athleticism. The Vikings do not need Waynes to be Rhodes but they do need him to be reliable. It has taken longer than some would like, but Waynes has finally become that, and then some.
Sendejo was in a similar boat to Waynes entering the 2017 season. He was a flawed player, prone to penalties, blown coverages and missed tackles playing alongside an elite talent. And after five full seasons in purple, two as a full-time starter, it seemed he was who he was. But somehow, he has done away with almost all of his inconsistencies this year and has become an enormous asset to the Viking defense.
Harrison Smith is arguably the best safety in football. We have covered his versatility ad nauseum, how he shuffles in and out of the box in a way free safeties rarely do. How he is a dominant slot cover, an impregnable center field and a third linebacker, all in one. But what rarely is discussed is how Sendejo’s improvement has given Smith further license to play his brand of football.
Sendejo, as the designated “strong safety,” plays in the box quite a bit. He is third on the team in total tackles with 80, more than Pro Bowl linebacker Barr. But, like with Smith, Sendejo drifts around the field. He plays a fair amount of deep safety, allowing Smith to play man coverage or step into the box. And this is arguably where his greatest step forward occurred this year.
Sendejo’s preference is clearly to be a Troy Polamalu-type. He loves to tackle with reckless abandon, flowing from sideline to sideline and throwing his shoulder pads around. In fact, this style of his earned him a fine and a suspension this year. But Sendejo had struggled at times as a deep cover, occasionally getting beat over the top and showing a certain passivity when dropping back. This year, however, he has shown none of those signs. On the contrary, Sendejo attacks balls in the air in a way he did not do in the past.
Essentially, Sendejo and Smith are interchangeable at this point. They both play up, on the line, in the slot or in center field. The only difference is that Sendejo generally plays on the strong side and Smith the weak. Like Waynes, Sendejo may not be the player his running mate is. But he is not asked to be a superstar, he is asked to do his job. And he does that exceptionally well.
Bottom line, the Vikings defense was always going to be good in 2017; there was too much star power to not be. To become truly great, they had to do away with weaknesses. Waynes and Sendejo were two of those weaknesses, and now they are strengths.
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