NFL team perception is heart-achingly ephemeral. A mere two and a half weeks ago, the Vikings looked lost defensively; their coverage was porous, their stars were injured/playing badly and rookie quarterbacks were hurdling tacklers with ease. Yet, here we are entering week seven and suddenly, the Vikings look like a top-flight defense. And all it took was two consecutive weeks of solid pass rush and tight coverage for everything to feel right again.
Defense is obviously about more than simply the some of its parts. However, the Vikings’ parts appear to be returning back to 2017 form. Despite the extended time without Everson Griffen, the pass rush has looked excellent the past two weeks. Danielle Hunter has a sack in every game this season, and is up to seven after adding two more on Sunday. Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph have dominated the middle of the line two straight weeks. Even Stephen Weatherly has come up big in his first run as a starter, including a sack fumble that led to a Joseph touchdown against Philadelphia.
The Vikings’ secondary has also stepped up his game. While the first few weeks had several instances of lapses, particularly over the top, coverage has been much tighter as of late. Prior to Mike Hughes‘ injury, the Vikings had nine different guys they could given extended run in the defensive backfield. Anthony Harris, fifth on the safety depth chart, came up with an interception on Sunday. Harrison Smith has returned to being both a lockdown cover and a reliable third linebacker. Jayron Kearse has shined in spurts. George Iloka is filling up the stat sheet. Trae Waynes has made plays and maintained consistently solid coverage. And after week four, much of this group had question marks around them after the Rams lit them up for five passing touchdowns.
Which brings us to Anthony Barr. After week four’s loss to Los Angeles, the cries of “glad we didn’t extend him” were abundant. It is an understandable reaction; Barr was in coverage on three of Jared Goff‘s five touchdowns through the air that game. And that is not to mention the costly penalties and missed tackle against Buffalo. However, even taking into consideration those three touchdowns against L.A., Barr ranks first among linebackers in quarterback pressures, second in targets/receptions per coverage snap and seventh in yards allowed per coverage snap, according to Pro Football Focus. In other words, he continues to quietly be one of the more versatile players at his position.
Plus, as has been discussed time and again, Barr was targeted on those three touchdowns due to schematic disadvantage. All three touchdowns had Barr as the victim of great offensive playcalling that put him in a position of weakness. Each time, he was left in a vulnerable one-on-one situation, one in which he more-or-less did his job. Yet, he was beat because his coach was outmatched by the other coach.
That is an underrated piece in all this, as well. Mike Zimmer did not call a great game in Los Angeles in week four. Week three was more player error than anything, but he lost a battle of wits against Sean McVay in L.A. These last two weeks, he has been much better at dialing up pressure at appropriate times and avoiding the costly mismatches that killed him two weeks ago. As a result, neither Carson Wentz nor Josh Rosen had time or windows to find open receivers for the majority of the game. Now, the fourth quarter in Philadelphia is another story. Zimmer dropped into a prevent that could have realistically sunk the Vikings late in that game. Fortunately, he got away with it, so his arrow remains up.
This is all to say that the parts are individually performing at a higher level of late. And by proxy, the whole is more recognizable as the elite defense fans thought it would be. The question moving forward is whether this two-week stretch or the last two-week stretch is more indicative of who the Vikings are defensively. They are without two key figures in Griffen and Hughes for the foreseeable future. Obviously, that takes a toll on depth. Yet, even without Griffen, the Vikings have taken steps forward with their pass rush. As for Hughes, expect a few more three-safety looks with Iloka and Kearse once Andrew Sendejo returns to the lineup.
Things are looking up for the Vikings just in time: they, the Bears and the Packers all have three wins and two losses heading into the meat of the season. With five more division games and a matchup with New Orleans on the horizon, this is no time for the cracks to reemerge.
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