The Key to Revitalizing Ed Donatell’s Vikings Defense
Many expected more from Ed Donatell’s Vikings defense.
The numbers aren’t pretty. Right now, the team is 30th in yards allowed. They’re dead last when it comes to passing yards allowed. Take a look at the passing performances since the Week 7 bye:
- Week 8: Kyler Murray – 326 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
- Week 9: Taylor Heinicke – 149 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
- Week 10: Josh Allen – 330 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
- Week 11: Dak Prescott – 276 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs (backup Cooper Rush added 31 passing yards)
- Week 12: Mac Jones – 382 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
- Week 13: Mike White – 369 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Seeing so many interceptions is encouraging. In theory, a team can allow a bunch of yards and still perform adequately if they get turnovers at key times. Just look at Ed Donatell’s Vikings defense for an example.
The yardage totals, though, are concerning. If we subtract Prescott – mercifully, he was pulled early since Dallas had already built up such a gargantuan lead – then the Vikings have only held one QB to less than 300 yards since the bye. Heinicke is a journeyman veteran who succeeds largely because of a Case-Keenum-style it-factor, not because he puts together elite statistics.
In other words, the defense needs to be considerably better, especially against the pass.
Over on Vikings Territory, Dustin Baker has been keeping track of the team’s major statistical rankings. Key stats like 2nd-half points allowed (25th), completion percentage allowed (24th), and sack percentage (18th) are less than inspiring.
How should the team respond?
One solution rests in trying to get more from their pass rush. We can be certain that the coaches are already working tirelessly to find success in this aspect of the game. That being said, it’s fair to wonder if there are different things they can be doing to help to push the pass rush even higher.
Should they get stacked on the same side on passing downs? Should Smith get lined up on the center more frequently? Should Hunter? What about bringing an extra blitzer to force the offense into more one-on-one blocks? These are all options to consider.
Take a look at the sack totals since the bye:
- Week 8: 4 sacks
- Week 9: 3 sacks
- Week 10: 2 sacks
- Week 11: 0 sacks
- Week 12: 3 sacks
- Week 13: 1 sack
Now, a sack is only part of the equation. Getting pressure more generally ought to the broader goal; getting the sack is the cherry on top. Forcing a QB to throw the ball away or rush his decision can be very beneficial. Simply making the QB uncomfortable in the pocket can be enough to make a pass inaccurate.
What I’m trying to say, folks, is that perhaps the best thing for Ed Donatell’s Vikings defense is a reinvigorated pass rush. At times, the secondary has struggled, too often playing soft coverage that allows for easy completions. A cure is getting to the QB early and often. It’s supremely difficult to complete passes with regularity if one is consistently getting hit be defenders.
One wonders, then, if there is some way for Donatell to coax out more production from his defensive front. Dalvin Tomlinson’s return does help. Ross Blacklock had a nice sack against the Patriots, so perhaps the backup DT can contribute more. Patrick Jones put together some great reps against the Jets; might he be ready for a few more snaps?
All of these players matter. In the end, though, this defense may live or die with the play of Hunter and Smith. Coming into the season, it looked like they’d form one of the NFL’s preeminent pass rusher pairs. For stretches of the season, that has been the case. Smith has been particularly noticeable, but Hunter is no slouch.
Of the two, it’s Hunter who has the higher overall PFF grade (Hunter is at 82.5, 12th among EDGE players; Smith is at 80.4, 17th among EDGE players). Isolating the pass rush puts Smith ahead, though. The former Packer is coming in at 6th overall with an 84.4 score. Hunter is 28th at 73.9.
Heading into the Lions game, Smith leads Minnesota with 9.5 sacks. Hunter is coming in at 2nd on the team with 7 sacks. The same hierarchy exists for TFLs and QB hits. Smith leads the way with 15 TFLs and 19 QB hits; Hunter gets the silver medal in both categories with 11 TFLs and 12 QB hits.
Both have been playing well, but their ability to elevate even further might make the difference for Minnesota’s defense. Indeed, both have the potential to take over the game, consistently winning their one-on-one matchups. When that occurs, the opposing offensive coordinator needs to adjust the play calling and blocking scheme, making it more challenging to keep churning out first downs.
Ed Donatell, like every defensive coordinator, wants to work with a numbers advantage. If he can consistently get to the QB with just his front four, Donatell can drop 7 men into coverage. The advantage becomes particularly prominent if the offense is compelled to keep an extra blocker or two behind. In that scenario, Donatell can have 7 defenders guarding against 4 pass catchers (and, at times, a QB who may run).
Sprinkling in more blitzes may be a good thing, a part of a winning strategy for the defense. Nevertheless, having Smith and Hunter play at an elite level from the first snap onward may be the key to allowing this defense to succeed, especially in the playoffs. Why not prepare for the final tournament by putting together a huge day against Jared Goff’s Lions?
Minnesota’s next game takes place on Sunday at 12 CST.
Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.
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