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Vikings Defensive Line Could Give Bears Issues

The Vikings defense may not be as good as they were in years past, but their defensive line could give the Bears issues on Sunday night.

No time or space for an introduction. This is my scouting report on the Vikings’ defense.

Personnel

Any discussion of Minnesota’s defense has to begin with Danielle Hunter, who the Bears must game plan for like teams do so against Khalil Mack. Hunter is a less valuable player because he isn’t nearly adept at getting the football, but as a pass rusher and to a lesser extent as a run defender, he’s up there with 52.

Hunter will likely be hunting (had to get that one out of the way early) Mitch Trubisky from the offense’s right side, and he brings a complete skill set to the table. He’s an athletic freak who can beat you with a wide variety of moves – power, speed, finesse – but is signature choice of destruction is a lightning-quick swim move. He will use it against run or pass and it is almost impossible to stop. The first game I watched to prepare for this scouting report was the one against New Orleans, and this was the fourth play:

Hunter swim move

My analysis:

Opposite Hunter on the four-man front is Everson Griffen, who helped dim the spotlight on Hunter for a few years because he’s also quite good. More power-oriented than his counterpart, Griffen is a violent player who can get to the quarterback consistently. He had some major off the field issues this year that has severely limited how often he’s been on the field but he’s dangerous when he plays.

Rotating in at defensive end is Stephen Weatherly. He has an awkward-looking stance but he’s useful in the run game. He isn’t much of a threat against the pass, outside of the occasional bull rush success.

Inside, Linval Joseph anchors the A gap at all times. He’s mostly a two-down player for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but he is an animal against the run. Inside zone will not work for the same reason it didn’t work last week, and he can get outside more quickly than you’d think if he reads the play.

If you focus too much on Hunter, Griffen, and Joseph (and you should), three-technique Sheldon Richardson can make some plays and he’s a noticeable threat in the passing game. Tom Johnson will come in on passing downs, spelling Joseph, and in their last game against Detroit he went off for 2.5 sacks in a more expansive role. He will see the field plenty and the duo of Richardson and Johnson on third down to complement the ends is terrifying.

The defensive line is unquestionably the strength of this side of the ball. Outside of receiver, it’s the strength of this team.

The linebackers are decidedly not that, led by an oft-injured Anthony Barr, middleman Eric Kendricks, and Ben Gedeon. If Barr can’t go, Eric Wilson will fill his spot and split time with Gedeon as the other every-down linebacker.

They’re a two-faced group, with the good one being the run defense. They fill gaps especially well and make up for a shared lack of speed by recognizing plays early and flowing quickly. Kendricks is the best tackler and Barr isn’t far behind, and they will appear faster than they are when they’ve locked onto a target.

The not-so-good side to these guys is their coverage. It’s pretty noticeable on film that the scheme is designed to hide this weakness by any means necessary. They aren’t fast, to begin with, but you can make up for that with instincts and good reaction time. This group, and Barr especially, has neither.

Among the Vikings’ cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes is the best of the bunch by far. His physicality is what stands out the most, making life miserable for whoever happens to be his opponent’s number one receiver (Allen Robinson for Chicago).

While the rest of the team plays zone, they may have Rhodes lock onto his man wherever they are on the field. If he’s hurt, as he was against New Orleans, they generally won’t play matchups and just put their corners in places based on the defensive play call. Rhodes adds that shutdown CB element.

Their number two corner is Trae Waynes, a former top-15 pick from 2015. He’s a decent player but has underperformed for his draft slot. He didn’t jump off the screen one way or another on tape, other than his outstanding length. Michael Thomas victimized him, but Michael Thomas victimizes everybody. Waynes is safely mediocre.

Beyond those two, especially if one is unable to go, Minnesota exercises heavy rotation among their CBs. Mackensie Alexander is their primary nickel but Holton Hill and Jayron Kearse will get playing time in dime packages (and when Rhodes was injured, they were equally integral parts of the game). Alexander will blitz and he knows how to creep up without being detected, something for which Trubisky will have to keep an eye out (more on that later).

With Andrew Sendejo out, Anthony Harris will fill his role at strong safety while George Iloka also gets playing time. Harris is solid in coverage, but Iloka is not. Iloka is best used in the box or in the slot as a nickel or a dime guy but if they make the mistake of playing him as an actual safety, that would be the time to attack them deep.

I lead this piece with one of the two players on this defense who scare me, and I’m ending it with the other. Harrison Smith is the best safety in football. He’s good as a ballhawk and will take full advantage of forced/hurried throws and bad decisions but where he really shines is on the blitz. The Vikings absolutely love to send him and he will kill you if you don’t know where he is before every single play.

Scheme

Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator: Mike Zimmer/George Edwards

Zimmer runs the show here, and he certainly knows what he’s doing. I was impressed by how well he knows his personnel and does everything he can to bend his play calls and designs to their strengths and weaknesses.

It’s a primarily 4-2-5 (DL-LB-DB) defense and not once did I see less than that many defensive linemen on the field. Other personnel packages could be a normal 4-3, a 4-1-6, or a the nickel or dime package with an extra safety in Iloka. When you don’t take D-lineman off the field, that’s really all you can do.

Like the Bears, they have the luxury of taking linebackers off the field with complete confidence in their run defense because they know that Hunter, Kendricks, Joseph, and company are more than capable of doing so without the extra help.

The Vikings don’t really mix up their formations on the line of scrimmage, save for a look in which they put three DL on one side of the center and Hunter isolated on the other that they love to bring out on third down every so often.

Sometimes they’ll move around the defensive backs, especially the nickel and dime guys, but the look you’ll see most often is two deep safeties with cushion-happy man coverage on the outside. They don’t really care about the flats unless it’s a goal line or third/fourth and short situation so that RPO to Trey Burton on the outside should be quite effective on Sunday night. Their second-most used coverage scheme is a cover three, with equal neglect in the flats.

They also appear to be in a cover four near the goal line, but it’s really just their no-flats cover two with less space.

As mentioned earlier, take what you see on one side and not the other with a grain of salt because it’s always possible that Rhodes is in lock. The constant is that their linebackers are almost exclusively in zone because their scheme is a first cousin of the Tampa 2 (I can’t call it a true Tampa-2 because of how often they don’t have 3 LBs out there and how much they blitz the secondary) and because Zimmer doesn’t trust them.

I saw two similarities to the Bears in this defense. The first was the nickel frequency thing, and the second is how they go about blitzing. They don’t do it very often, but when they do it will be exotic and disguised well. The two main methods of creating confusion are “sugaring” their LBs in the A gaps and bringing Alexander and Smith into the box as decoys as well as rushers.

They do have two clear tendencies regarding this. First, if they show blitz pre-snap, it usually means they’re blitzing, but not from where they show it – their defensive backs are well-trained to slowly creep towards the line of scrimmage without being detected, as mentioned earlier, so while the QB’s eyes are on the guys showing blitz, he can’t see the true threat.

Second, when no blitz is shown, no blitz is coming. You’ll see a few tackle-end stunts, mainly with Richardson and Hunter, respectively, but not very often. They have full confidence in their line to get there, which is why the overall blitz percentage is middling to low.

The last thing I’ll mention is that Smith on the blitz is their ace in the hole and they know it. I would say about a third, give or take, of their blitzes are specifically designed to free him up and get him to the quarterback. It is 100 percent worth reiterating that Trubisky has to know where he is before every single snap. And if he sees 22 in white anywhere near the line of scrimmage, he has to have a plan in mind for the event that there’s no one stopping him from getting home.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for a special edition four-step game plan to defeat the Vikings, tomorrow morning on The Loop Sports.

Image: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America

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