The Vikings’ Pass Rush Urgently Needs to Generate Pressure
A couple weeks ago, we saw what happened against the Dallas Cowboys. Dan Quinn’s talented defense generated a remarkable amount of pressure on Kirk Cousins, completely derailing Minnesota’s offense. Minnesota’s talented group simply didn’t have an answer, leading to the 40-3 outcome. It was a good lesson on what can occur when a defense relentlessly pressures a QB. The Vikings’ pass rush needs to emulate what Dallas accomplished.
Thankfully, the most recent game didn’t lead to the same result. On Thanksgiving, the offense was able to solve their protection issues, mostly keeping Cousins upright. The QB1 responded by putting together his first 3-touchdown game of the 2022 season.
The team now sits at 9-2, second overall in the conference.
More concerning, perhaps, is that many of the issues on defense remained. That side of the ball has accumulated several great players – Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jordan Hicks, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith – and yet the struggles have been abundant. Teams are capable of both passing and running the ball on Ed Donatell’s group.
Injuries have certainly been part of the struggle. Being so thin at corner means the QB has an easier time finding his receivers. The Vikings’ pass rush will benefit from some tighter coverage in the final third of the season.
Plus, Tomlinson is excellent at getting after the QB. Most fans will think of Smith and Hunter when they consider the team’s pass rush, but Tomlinson is powerful and nimble. He can collapse the pocket and get penetration, allowing him to either get to the QB himself or make it easier for the edge rushers to get to the passer.
These excuses can only go so far, though.
The Patriots game featured Mac Jones putting together a gaudy 382 yards. For most of the game, he was comfortable in the pocket, unencumbered by Minnesota’s ferocious front. At the end, Donatell was able to get some of his guys free. Hunter got a sack, and so did backup DT Ross Blacklock. Those plays were majorly important in sealing the win.
Kevin O’Connell addressed the pass rush following the game, indicating that his DC did a nice job of adjusting to affect Jones: “It looked like [Donatell] activated some kind of mugged-up looks, sent some pressure. Both times I think were successful either getting him off the spot or potentially getting the sack […] Give Ed credit for the timely pressures he called in the second half.”
Moving forward, Ed Donatell needs to prioritize generating pressure.
At present, the Vikings only blitz on 15.8% of the time (according to the current numbers on PFR). That’s a number that ranks in the bottom third of the NFL. The wild thing is that they have several players who are capable of finding success if they get sent on blitzes. One thinks of Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Hicks as the main options.
In the past, Hicks has been a frequent blitzer. In the three seasons before arriving in Minnesota, Hicks got sent on blitzes 86 times (2019), 89 times (2020), and 49 times (2021). In 2022, Hicks has only been sent 9 times. Now, it’s worth noting that different schemes demand different things from its players. Nevertheless, it’s peculiar to see Hicks being used so little on blitzes. In the above clip, Hunter gets his sack when Hicks is being sent.
Simply sending a 5th player still leaves a DC with 6 players to cover the field, allowing for a reasonably robust group to corral the other team’s receivers. If the offense only keeps 5 players back to block, then all 5 pass rushers get a one-on-one matchup. If the offense opts to keep a TE or RB back to help, then Minnesota has 6 coverage men to slow down 4 pass catchers. That doesn’t mean there won’t be vulnerable spots on the field, but it does mean there’s (in theory) enough man power to get things done.
The Vikings’ pass rush must be better. The encouraging thing is that it can be. By no means are we watching a group that is devoid of talent. Instead, it’s a group that’s still finding its footing.
As the season continues to unfold, the defense needs to commit to ensuring they’re constantly making it challenging for the offense to succeed. Reinvigorating the pass rush is a good place to start.
Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and NFL.com helped with this piece.