Why Minnesota’s defense has been so successful this season

Senior Analyst Sam Monson explains how the Vikings' scheme has led to defensive success thus far.

| 4 weeks ago
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Why Minnesota’s defense has been so successful this season

Is the Minnesota Vikings’ defense on the verge of something special, and can it carry the team to postseason success?

Right now the Vikings defense is playing at an incredibly high level. They lead the league in yards per play surrendered, at just 4.4, and have conceded just 13.3 points per game—despite an offense that hasn’t always held up its end of the bargain, and facing 33 more snaps this season than either of the two teams with a better points-per-game figure.

Only the Philadelphia Eagles have a better point-per-play mark than the Vikings through three games, and Minnesota just forced the reigning NFL MVP to have his worst game since Week 7 of last year.

Cam Newton ended the game against Minnesota with three interceptions to his name, two sacks charged to him, and an NFL passer rating of 47.6. That passer rating was just 13.1 when pressured, which happened on almost half of his dropbacks (48.9 percent). Though he did have a rushing touchdown, Newton was held to just 3.7 yards per carry against the Vikings, down from 5.4 over the first two games, and 4.9 over the 2015 season. By any measure, he was conclusively dominated by the Minnesota defense.

Obviously the Vikings have a lot of talent on defense and many players that are performing well right now. Harrison Smith may be the league’s best safety—sitting third among safeties this season in terms of overall grade, with an 89.2, a year after leading the position at 88.8—and is an incredibly versatile player that is at the heart of what the team does in coverage.

Harrison Smith PFF grades

DE Danielle Hunter, DT Tom Johnson, and CB Terence Newman, among others, have all had strong starts to the season, but let’s dig a little deeper into what makes this unit greater than the sum of its parts, because there are multiple other defenses grading better from an individual standpoint through three games.

Multiple coverages

The Vikings don’t actually roll their coverages often when it comes to disguises. One of the biggest keys for a QB reading a defense is whether the middle of the field is open or closed. With coverage schemes, one of the differentiators between them is how many deep zones there are. Cover-1 and cover-3 each have a deep free safety in the middle of the field, but cover-2, 4, or 6 will have two safeties deep, opening the middle of the field for post routes.

That simple read allows a quarterback to narrow down his options and start to work on secondary keys to determine exactly what coverage he is looking at. Because this is something a QB can read as he comes to the line before the ball is snapped, some teams will show one thing pre-snap, and roll to something else after it, showing either an open or closed middle of the field to the QB and switching to the other after the ball has been snapped.

Typically, the Vikings don’t do too much of that. Against Carolina, they only showed one thing and then switched to the other three times when it comes to the middle of the field being open/closed. What they do very well, however, is use a variety of different coverages within similar looks.

On 46 of Carolina’s dropbacks, Minnesota cycled through cover-1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 2-man, and even a snap in true prevent defense on the final defensive play. Some of these they used more heavily than others, but as a team, they are very good at mixing up the man and zone aspects of coverage and trying to play matchup defense with receivers in coverage.

Integrating with the defensive front

Where the Vikings are exceptionally good is in linking this coverage disguise with the blitz and the pass-rush up front.

Pass-rush and coverage have an important connection, because the quicker you can pressure the QB, the less time defenders have to cover their receivers and the more chance an errant pass comes out. On the flip-side, the better the coverage is, the longer the QB has to hold the ball to find an open man, and the more time that buys the pass-rush to get home. The Vikings integrate the two sides far more than that natural symbiotic relationship.

Minnesota will stack the line of scrimmage and make it very difficult for the offense to know who is coming after the QB, who is dropping into coverage, and what that coverage will look like when they do. They actually meld the pass-rush and coverage at or around the line of scrimmage to confuse the offense and make it difficult to identify which players at the line are part of which aspect of the defense on the play.

Take this play as an example mid-way through the first quarter against the Panthers:

Vikings defense

The Vikings have eight guys up at the line of scrimmage, with just three deep coverage defenders as a pre-snap look. Any of those eight defenders could be rushing the passer in any number, which becomes a very difficult thing for the offense to diagnose and contend with.

Later in the game, they showed the same kind of front, with both linebackers lined up in the A-gaps up front, and the same eight defenders at the line.

Vikings defense 2

When you look at the play pre-snap from the end-zone view, you can see the Vikings have somebody stationed in every single gap along the Panthers’ line, which is where the problem arises. The Panthers are looking at eight guys, each of whom is a viable threat to rush because they each have a different gap; even if Carolina keeps everybody at home to block, they can only pick up seven of them.

Minnesota Vikings defense end-zone view

This time, six Vikings’ defenders rushed—both a different number and a different combination of rushers than the last time, causing quick pressure on Newton.

If you look at the players involved at the line, four of them are defensive linemen, two are linebackers, and two are defensive backs. In personnel-package terms, the Vikings are in standard nickel defense that should look like a vanilla 4-2-5 deployment on the field. By stacking the line of scrimmage like this, however, the Panthers can’t determine which of the defenders is which, because both of the defensive backs could be rushing the passer instead of covering, with their places in shallow zones or bracketing receivers taken by the linebackers (or even the defensive linemen) on a zone blitz.

Part of keeping the offense off balance is varying not just the players that rush the passer, but how many are coming at any one time. The Vikings won’t play every coverage as it’s drawn up on the chalkboard, but at times, they only need to keep as many players in coverage as they need to cover the receivers in routes. Against Carolina, they rushed four players 27 times, a little more than half of the snaps. They rushed five on 11 snaps (22 percent), six on six snaps (12 percent), and seven once.

Bottom line

Right now, the Vikings’ defense is playing even better than a year ago, but on an individual level, they aren’t quite matching those performances (with the exception of Harrison Smith on the back end). Last season, Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr, among others, were dominating in a way they haven’t yet this season. That could go one of two ways for this team going forward in 2016; either those players begin to improve individually, and this defense has even more to come, or eventually the smoke-and-mirrors tricks of Minnesota’s scheme start to fail against opposing offenses, and the defense will be unable to match the blistering pace it has set early in the year.

Right now, though, the Vikings’ defense is one of the toughest in the league to cope with, both because of solid personnel and exceptionally-challenging schemes for offenses to diagnose and react to.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Josh Pate

    This is the kind of goofy PFF analysis I love to mock. Nothing was said in the above article. Zero insight as to why the Vikings are cleaning everybody’s clock. My favorite line: something about how Linval isn’t playing as well as last year. Says who? You’re 24 year old intern that graded the game, who never played a down of football in his or her life? LMFAO.

    How bout the summary: either the Vikings D plays better from here, or they play worse. Deep thoughts.

    • cmbc587

      Yeah…Pretty sure they said it was because of the difficult to read defensive scheme.

      • Alan Mazz

        Suggestions about how an offense might defeat that scheme would have been interesting.

        • cmbc587

          Quick reads and short passes. Forces them pull off the rush and cover. When they do that it sets up the deep ball opportunity.

          • Rodrigo Campos Pedro

            But you don’t know who is dropping into coverage.
            Call a slant,the OLB drops and you are picked.
            I’m far from an expert,if you could point out if what i said is wrong,please do.

          • cmbc587

            You’r absolutely right, I’m not an offensive coordinator or a football coach at all. I just think if the QB can make fast reads right off the snap and still have the time to dump the ball off. It would have to open up opportunity later.

    • http://www.unreasonablydangerousonionrings.com/ Moralltach

      Apparently your reading comprehension needs work. The entire focus of the above article is that the Vikings D are playing well because they’re disguising blitzes well, along with several examples. They’re not using exotic packages, they’re not rolling coverage to confuse QBs, they’re not blitzing an inordinate amount, they’re just stacking the box to confuse the O-line. That’s why.

      As far as Joseph not playing as well as last year, PFF has their own grading system. It’s kind of the foundation of the entire website. You may not agree with it, but that’s what they’re using, and by that metric, Joseph has declined slightly.

      Thirdly, Sam Monson (the author) is a senior analyst and one of the longer-tenured members of the PFF team, as any long-term reader would know. The site was founded in 2004, he’s been there since 2009. That’s seven of the 12 years the site has been around. He’s also been playing semi-pro football since at least 2009.

      And finally, he gave REASONS for why the Vikings D might get better or worse. If the individual performances come back up to where they were last year and the scheme holds up, they’ll be better. If opponents start to figure out the scheme and the individual players can’t keep up, they’ll decline.

      I understand that the PFF system isn’t for everyone, but at least read the article before shitting on it.

      • Josh Pate


        Of course I read the article. That’s why I shit on it.

        Everything in your first paragraph is a simple, clear rehash of Zimmer 101: the double A gap, amoeba, etc. This is not new information. A more trenchant analysis in my mind, is why the Vikings are playing Zim’s scheme better than they ever have.

        Second para, about the PFF grading system. I don’t agree with it. It takes each player in isolation, doesn’t account for the call, the responsibilities. A player could easily get a bad PFF grade on a play, when the coach/coordinator might single out that player as the reason the play worked. I’m not alone in not liking it. Neither does Zimmer, who has openly mocked it. Of course no numerical system would be perfect, but PFF’s ‘grades’ reflect reality about as much as well as stock prices reflect companies, which is to say, not very well. Linval’s ridiculous drop in PFF grades this year, when he is playing better than he ever has according to 1) his coach 2) himself and 3) the best Viking analyst, Arif Hasan, is just one of a million examples where the PFF ‘number’ and the reality is pretty wide. Junk in, junk out. PFF grades aren’t the worst, most ridiculuous of the ‘Next Gen’ stats. That distinction belongs to FO’s truly retarded DVOA metrics.

        Monson is just another dude with an opinion, who also has to generate click bait. I have never read anything by him that me with insight. He’s better than a lot of the Bleacher Report tools, but he’s not Pat Kirwan or Jon Gruden or anything close.

        Your third paragraph is a tautology, but I enjoyed the line about “if the scheme holds up”. AS IF IT’S SOME NEW LOOK. It’s what Zimmer has done for years.

        Again, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, and the analysis seemed straight from a couch somewhere.

        • phil

          Josephs Grade isn’t actually all that bad its his pass rushing grade that’s holding him back. His run Defense grade of 77 puts him 20th at his position which is excellent considering its out of over 110+ players. His pass rushing grade of 49 on the other hand is not so excellent and places him 78th at his position. A reason his pass rushing grade is so low is because of how low his rate of QB pressures. His pressure rate at 7.5% places him 98th among interior lineman. (9.4% was his rate last year)

          • Josh Pate

            He has 3 sacks this year, including the one that turned Cam gimpy for the rest of the game. His record, for a season, is four. He’s rushing better than he ever has, according to Zimmer. But PFF, says he’s doing worse. LMFAO

            Lots of linemen (most of the good ones) set guys up by NOT generating pressure to save it up for the big 3rd down. Jared Allen was a master at this.

            Once again, PFF numbers are just numbers. The nimrods on this site that put full faith in PFF grades as an accurate reflection of WHAT IS HAPPENING ON THE FIELD, are, IMHO, fools.

            If PFF numbers reflected reality, the team with the highest PFF numbers would win each game. But they don’t. Not even close.

            Junk subjective ‘grades’ plus junk statistical models equals junk.

            No wonder the Browns love PFF so much.

          • Phil

            I know how many sacks he has this year and last but thanks anyway. Like I said earlier, sacks are not always the best way to accurately depict if someone is a good pass rusher or not. If they do like your saying they should then did he not get off the bus the other 2 games this year? If it took him 100 snaps to get those sacks and someone only 50 to get the same amount are the players still equal like your saying they should be? This is not a holy grail site it should be taken with a grain of salt.

          • Josh Pate

            That’s not really what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that Linval Joseph has been the best nose tackle in the NFL through three games, full stop. He is in the conversation for being the best defensive player, period. The fact that PFF has him ranked where they do proves your last point, that this joint should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe two. Maybe two million.

          • Garrett Austin

            That’s the point though, he may not be attempting to pressure every down. That’s where the metric falls apart. They don’t know the actual assignment. It literally just assumes D lineman try to get to the quarterback. He consistently takes on double teams to allow the others a 1v1 opportunity. The metric fails to include scenarios such as that, and would mark it as a fail on his part for not breaking through and getting a pressure.

          • Phil

            22 out of 32 nfl teams are PFF are
            customers and out of the past 4 SB winners 3 have been clients. To say they don’t know the actual assignment is an assumption. We don’t know if the teams work with pff when breaking down game film. Not playing sides here I’m just saying we don’t know what is told from teams to pff.

          • Josh Pate

            I would bet any amount of money that teams share nothing about their assignments/schemes/calls with a website.

          • crosseyedlemon

            That’s a pretty safe bet considering how paranoid the Patriots are about keeping secrets. The thing is though, that extensive film study allows sites like this one to make pretty accurate deductions based on trends the teams have established.

          • PFFSamMonson

            Sounds plausible, right?
            But why not actually check it out rather than just state it as fact without checking?
            Against Carolina Joseph rushed the passer 21 times.
            Despite lining up at NT most of those snaps that effectively puts you in a position to be doubled by alignment, he was one on one 16 times.
            He was unblocked entirely 1 time
            He was doubled twice simply by alignment (on the same play the other DT was doubled too, because CAR had 6 blocking 4)
            He was doubled twice because the Vikings stacked Anthony Barr up at the line and he dropped out, so his man doubled down on Joseph too.

            On one of his one on one rushes he beat his man and then simply fell over. Was that part of his assignment?

            We all like to pretend that the DT we like that isn’t getting the production is because of some complicated and esoteric secret scheme that is actually the reason behind everybody’s success, but most of the time he’s just not winning his block. The Vikings scheme had Joseph 1 on 1 for pretty much the whole game, and he got one sack, and one hurry, the hurry came because he was unblocked entirely.

          • Josh Pate

            The 6-foot-4, 329-pound tackle drove center Ryan Kalil deep into the Carolina Panthers’ backfield in the third quarter Sunday, then shoved Kalil aside and brought Cam Newton down by the ankles as he tried to get away, forcing Newton from the game for one play. Joseph brought down Aaron Rodgers
            with just over two minutes left on the Packers’ final drive in Week 2,
            and fought through both a guard and a running back for his first sack
            against Marcus Mariota in the opener.

            A NT on pace for a 16 sack season? Seems like Linval is “getting the production”

          • PFFSamMonson

            Yes, he made a good play against Kalil/Newton. One. In 21 pass rushes. You think that’s good? It wasn’t because he was doubled all game or spying Newton. He just didn’t get pressure outside of that one play and a second where a protection goof left him completely untouched.

            He has three very good sacks. That is not representative of his pressure this season. Three sacks. 5 total pressures.

            He may be ‘on pace’ for 16 sacks, but he’s also ‘on pace’ for 26 total pressures in almost 700 snaps, which would be bad, and the same number as last season on about 100 more snaps.

            The sacks have been three nice plays. If you think three nice plays in 74 rushing the passer means he’s doing great in that area then I can’t help you, enjoy that opinion. But otherwise it’s probably time to stop focusing in on single plays as if they’re telling the story of his whole season.

          • Josh Pate

            Linval has more tackles than any NT in the NFC, and is second in the NFL.

            Does that tell the story of the season?

          • PFFSamMonson

            Not really.
            1. NFL’s tackle stats are wrong. There’s a reason they’re not an official statistic.
            2. Where are the tackles being made? He has 14 combined solo and assist tackles, but only 5 are defensive stops.
            Compare that to somebody like Suh who has 18 combined of which 13 are defensive stops.

            Joseph’s playing pretty well against the run, but there are guys out there playing better. Either way none of that has any bearing on his play as a pass rusher, which is not nearly as impressive as ‘3 sacks’ suggests.

          • Josh Pate

            This response, and the comment above about pressures are perfect examples of PFF’s junk in/junk out/overthink it/too clever by half BS.

            What good is a ‘pressure’ ultimately? A QB can throw a touchdown on a pressure! Can he on a sack?

            Putting pressure percentage into a DL PFF rating is a perfect example of how subjective the whole rating system is. How does “pressure percentage” play into the grade? Who makes that call? If a player has a high pressure percentage but not a lot of sacks, and the QB throws touchdowns anyway, what is the freaking point? It’s like an “almost” catch by a wide receiver.

            And Linval has a lot of tackles, but not “stop” tackles. According to you and the genius hair splitters at PFF. They were tackles, but not ‘good’ tackles. OK, dude. Thank you for making my point for me.

            Bottom line, Linval is putting up sack and tackle numbers at an enormously productive rate through 3 games.

            An All-Pro rate. Sorry. SCOREBOARD

          • PFFSamMonson

            What good is a pressure? A HUGE amount of good. Pressure drops the average QB’s passer rating by more than 30 points. Yes he may complete a pass for a touchdown against it, but equally he might throw a pick-6 because he got hurried, something he can’t do if he’s sacked.

            Pressure is also a FAR greater percentage of a guy’s rushing snaps. If a guy plays 500 snaps in a season the difference between 10 and 15 sacks is one percent of his snaps, but you’d be claiming that swung his season from ok to excellent. Five snaps in 500 does not define a guy’s season when it comes to pass rush.

            You’re complaining about lack of context in grading, but you can’t see how a TFL differs from a tackle 10 yards down field where the RB makes the first down and moves the chains anyway? If a DT is making tackles because he got driven 5 yards off the line (NOT saying Linval has been) to open the hole in the first place, they are not good plays.

            Yes, your bottom line is that Linval has two nice numbers next to his name after three games. My bottom line is that if you go and look through his tape those two nice numbers flatter his play overall, which has been solid, not great as it was a year ago.

          • cmbc587

            Really? I’m not an expert in football by any means but I know that getting pressure on the quarterback is the whole point of the rush. Hurrying him and breaking his rhythm, pushing him out of the pocket and forcing him to throw a risky pass or an incompletion is one the main objects of any defense. A sack is the bonus and sure, it’s one of the best outcomes available to a defense but they do not particularly define the defense.

          • bob

            possibly because the giants tried to get passes off quickly — out of respect for the DL. We can disagree on the details but we should agree that the defense was very good.

        • cmbc587

          Honestly Josh, I just think you’re a butthurt Vikings fan who is upset someone said something “bad” about one of your players. The article is not great but it gives some insight into whats going on and how Min is winning on defense. I’m happy with it as a subscriber.

          • crosseyedlemon

            The problem for me is that Sam describes the defensive schemes as “smoke and mirrors tricks” then a sentence later praises them as being exceptionally challenging. I suppose the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive but it does make you wonder if the analysis isn’t muddled somewhat.

          • cmbc587

            I’m sorry I don’t see the problem with that terminology. I think they can be used together and it makes sense. Smoke and mirrors is descriptive of the way they stack the box and hide their scheme, I can see how that can be challenging for an offense to audible around.

        • crosseyedlemon

          Neil makes all the guys ride a bus on the training camp tour so I doubt he would splurge on a couch for each staff member.

      • RSR1DRIVER

        I wish I knew the formula a little better. Just know Joseph had a toe issue last year, and only started 12 games (didn’t finish a couple if I recall because of the toe)

        This year he already has 3 sacks compared to 0.5 sacks last year.

        In addition he already has 8 asst tackles through 3 games compared to 14 all of last season.

      • bob

        I disagree – PFF recognizes admirably the nature of the Vikings defense and then undervalues players whose true contribution is obscured by the teamwork.

  • Alan Light

    Joseph is stopping the run and sacking the QB, last year he only stopped the run. How can he not be playing better? Makes no sense whatsoever.

    • We’ll See

      I wouldn’t read too much into it. Joseph has posted top 5 defensive player of the game numbers two of the three times this season. The third was against the Panthers, who have a great interior line.

      As he plays more games against worse offensive lines, those numbers may well improve.

    • PFFSamMonson

      Because ‘sacking the QB’ isn’t the totality of pass-rush. He has 3 sacks through 3 games, I assume nobody expects that to continue all season. If he never gets another sack all year is he still rushing the passer well? If he gets the same number of pressures in every game the remainder of the season but none of them are sacks, what then?

      Joseph has made a few nice plays as a pass-rusher, but he isn’t the dominant force he was a year ago, regardless of the fact a few of them have been sacks.

      He’s even generating pressure at a worse rate than last year, one every 14.8 snaps vs one every 11.6 snaps a year ago. Sacks are a terrible measure of pass rush. He has 3 sacks, but 5 total pressures.

  • Toloa

    I saw a video in the off season from Brett Kollman of YouTube, about the Vikings defensive strategy. The videos called “Harrison Smith is the new Troy Polamlu”. It’s a really interesting video breakdown of the Vikings strengths and their talented DB.