Scouting The Minnesota Vikings Defense

The Minnesota Vikings defense launch their home slate as they welcome Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense to Minneapolis for NFL Week 2. Following a sound 34-6 road win over St. Louis to open their 2014 campaign, Mark Schofield examines the Minnesota defense.

Defensive Line

The Vikings primarily run a four-man defensive front with a slight twist in that they utilize a nose tackle, a defensive tackle and two defensive ends rather than the traditional two tackles and two ends.

Right Defensive End – Everson Griffen (#97, 6’3”, 273 lbs)

Griffen is in his fifth season out of the University of Southern California. After seeing limited action the past few years, he has stepped into a starting role with the Vikings in the wake of Jared Allen’s departure. While Griffen previously saw time both inside and outside, he is now playing defensive end where his speed and quickness make him best suited to be a 7-technique pass rusher. In Minnesota’s opener he seemed most at home in that role, although he also lined up as a 5-technique depending on front and alignment. While Griffen is mainly a speed rusher, he occasionally relies on his strength to bull rush. He will usually try to release from opposing tackles with a rip or spin move, but he is not afraid to reach out and engage them when the situation merits.

On Sunday Griffen tallied sacks on back-to-back plays midway through the fourth quarter. On the second of these, with 6:07 left in the game, he makes a strong power rush upfield, but then utilizes a quick spin move to disengage from his blocker and wrap up the quarterback.

Nose Tackle – Linval Joseph (#98, 6’4”, 323 lbs)

This East Carolina product is in his fifth NFL season. Joseph is a big body in the center of the Minnesota defensive line, and on most plays he will line up on the center while shading to either the strong-side or weak-side shoulder of his opponent. Typically Joseph works to occupy the center and on-side guard on plays, preventing either offensive lineman from getting to the second level to block a linebacker. Joseph recorded five tackles for the Vikings against the Rams.

Defensive Tackle – Sharrif Floyd (#73, 6’3”, 305 lbs)

Floyd is in his second season out of the University of Florida. The ex-Gator is large but he can be very quick and explosive, especially off the snap. Minnesota typically places Floyd in a 3 technique to the strong-side of the formation. Floyd had a quiet game against St. Louis, but do not let yourself be fooled. He possesses a combination of strength and quickness that must be managed on Sunday.

Left Defensive End – Brian Robison (#96, 6’3”, 259 lbs)

This eight-year veteran from the University of Texas tallied 8.5 sacks last year and had 9 in 2012. Robison is similar in technique to Griffen, favoring speed and quickness over strength when rushing the passer. Robison seems to utilize the rip move as his method of choice to disengage quickly from blockers. He also looks to guess from time to time, often taking himself out of a play when he makes the wrong decision. Robison will give up on a play quickly if the offensive tackle beats him with power arm extension.

A Few Words on the Defensive Front

Because the Vikings choose to utilize a shaded nose tackle in Joseph and a 3-technique lineman in Floyd, Minnesota does not do a lot of pre-snap shifting on the defensive line. On most plays they will line up in either an over or under front depending on their play call and stay in that front even if the offense utilizes motion or shifts its players. For that reason, look for New England to utilize a formation shift often termed “trade.” For example, they may break the huddle and position Rob Gronkowski as an in-line tight end position to the left. In response, the Vikings will line up their defensive front in an over front to Gronkowski’s side of the formation. Then, before the snap, Gronkowski will shift or “trade” to the same spot on the other side of the formation. Minnesota’s defensive line will not adjust and will simply stay in what has now become an under front.

The Linebackers

The Vikings’ linebacking corp consists of two veterans and a young rookie selected in the top ten of the most recent NFL draft.

Strong-Side Linebacker – Anthony Barr (#55, 6’5”, 255 lbs)

Barr is a rookie out of UCLA selected ninth overall by the Vikings last June. He was recruited to play running back in college and started seven games as a true freshman on offense. He then switched to right outside linebacker in the Bruins’ 3-4 scheme, where he started 13 and 14 games, respectively in his last two seasons there. Strong and quick, Barr uses his athleticism to make up for his inexperience. As outlined in the Passing Game Preview, Barr does look confused at times when dropping into zone coverage. When playing in man coverage he is solid, perhaps even above-average, and uses his speed to close down separation in a hurry. Here is one example of Barr covering the quick Tavon Austin out of the backfield and holding him to a minimal gain:

Middle Linebacker – Jasper Brinkley (#54, 6’1”, 252 lbs)

Brinkley returns to Minnesota after spending a season in Arizona. He started 15 games for the Vikings in 2012 at middle linebacker and recorded 99 tackles, 63 of them solo. He signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals during the 2012 off-season, but saw limited action. Brinkley has now resumed the role of starting middle linebacker for the Vikings. Decidedly a “run first” defender, Brinkley begins each play focused on the backfield, and his initial steps are always forward. He looks a step slow in man coverage and he is removed when the Vikings go with nickel personnel.

Brinkley showed his ability in the run game on Sunday with this stop on Tavon Austin. The Rams used placed the quick second-year receiver in the backfield as a tailback in an I-formation. Watch Brinkley in the end zone view. He takes on the lead blocker and is able to work around the fullback to make the tackle on the speedy receiver. Note how Brinkley recognizes the developing hole and quickly steps into it to make the play.

Weak-Side Linebacker – Chad Greenway (#52, 6’2”, 242 lbs)

Another veteran linebacker, the Vikings’ 2006 first-round pick enters his ninth NFL season. Greenway missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury suffered while playing special teams in the preseason, but returned to earn a starting job. Since then Greenway has started 112 of 113 games for Minnesota. Greenway is tasked with flowing to the ball and making plays on the weak side for Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 sets and the hard-nosed player is very well suited for this role. Stronger against the run than the pass, he is vulnerable to play-action and can be slow to set up in his zones when the Vikings run zone coverage underneath. Greenway stays on the field with Barr when Minnesota goes with nickel personnel.

A Few Words on the Linebackers

This is a solid linebacking unit that the Patriots are lucky to face early in the season since they will improve as Barr gains experience. They looked shaky at times against St. Louis in pass coverage, especially when tasked with playing an underneath zone. This corps also fell for numerous play-action fakes against the Rams and, if the Patriots work at establishing some semblance of a running game, New England will be in great position to exploit this unit’s weaknesses against the pass.

The Secondary

Minnesota’s secondary, while only slightly tested against St. Louis, showed some holes and there were opportunities for the Rams to make plays downfield. On most plays Minnesota will show a Cover 2 look, and the Vikings will often roll the coverage to Cover 1 at the snap, sending strong safety Robert Blanton down into the box. Blanton and free safety Harrison Smith were also college teammates at the University of Notre Dame, so they know each other’s skills and tendencies well. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is a veteran acquired in the off-season from Carolina, while the other cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, was a first round draft choice by the Vikings last year. When they bring in a fifth defensive back, Minnesota puts Josh Robinson on the outside as a third cornerback, sliding Munnerlyn into the slot. This young secondary, much like the linebacking unit, will likely improve as the season progresses.

This secondary looked most vulnerable when they stayed in Cover 2. When they utilized man concepts, typically Cover 1, they could rely on their athleticism to stay in tight coverage on the St. Louis receivers. Here is one example:

Contrast that play with this example of a tight man scheme.

Cornerback – Captain Munnerlyn (#24, 5’9”, 187 lbs)

Between the two cornerbacks, Munnerlyn is the weaker link. A sixth-year player from the University of South Carolina, his small stature proved troublesome when he matched up with St. Louis’s Brian Quick, a bigger receiver listed at 6’ 3” and 213 lbs.

In the above clip, the Rams send Kenny Britt in motion across the formation with Munnerlyn trailing him, but Munnerlyn and Rhodes switch assignments pre-snap. That puts Munnerlyn on Quick who runs a deep slant over the middle, and Munnerlyn is beaten out of the break. Watch how when Quick makes his break, Munnerlyn fails to get a hand on him and Quick is able to run away from his defender.

What Munnerlyn does do well is defend in the slot in Minnesota’s nickel package. On this third-and-long play in the second quarter, the Rams have a slot formation and Munnerlyn is lined up there, five yards off the line of scrimmage with an inside alignment. He quickly diagnoses a screen, avoids two blockers, and holds this play to a short gain.

Cornerback – Xavier Rhodes (#29, 6’1”, 210 lbs)

Last year the Vikings selected Rhodes in the first round of the NFL draft as the 25th overall pick. The Florida State player started six games last season for Minnesota and is now solidly entrenched as a starter.

When tested on Sunday, Rhodes looked to be developing into a strong cover cornerback. On this play, Rams quarterback Shaun Hill tries to hit Britt on a go route against Rhodes. Rhodes gets a good jam as Britt makes his break, but the defender turns his hips and gets his head around quickly to locate the ball.

Free Safety – Harrison Smith (#22, 6’2”, 214 lbs)

Of the four secondary players, Smith was the most impressive last Sunday. In reviewing the tape it was apparent that Zimmer likes to utilize the former Notre Dame player in his blitz schemes. Smith tallied one sack against St. Louis and added a QB pressure.

On this 3rd and 8 play early in the third quarter, the Rams have a bit of a drive going and only trail 13-0. St. Louis lines up with their backup quarterback, Austin Davis, in the shotgun flanked by two running backs. They have a slot to the right of the formation and a receiver split to the left. Minnesota counters with dime personnel, but they put eight players in the box on the line of scrimmage showing Cover 1 with the three secondary players. Smith is on the line of scrimmage to the right of the defense and comes in unblocked for a sack, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal attempt.

Minnesota blitzes Smith again later in the game. On this play, St. Louis has 1st and 10 just outside the red zone. They put Davis in the shotgun and have a split left/trips right formation using 11 personnel. The Vikings have their nickel package on the field in a 4-2-5 alignment, but they put both linebackers in the A gaps and bring Smith up on the line of scrimmage to the right side of the defense. Only one linebacker (Barr) blitzes while Greenway drops into coverage. Smith blitzes as well and gets to Davis, forcing a quick throw.

Smith sealed the win for the Vikings with a very impressive pick-six late in the game. The Rams come out in the shotgun, again with a single receiver split to the left and a trips to the right using 11 personnel. Minnesota shows Cover 2 with their nickel personnel aligned in a 4-2-5. At the snap of the ball they roll into a Cover 1 look with Smith playing in a “robber/spy” concept. As you watch this play, focus on Smith’s movements. He sees Davis staring down tight end Jared Cook, who is running a ten-yard in pattern, and makes a fantastic break on the ball. Smith steps in front of Cook, secures the interception, and returns it 81 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

Strong Safety – Robert Blanton (#36, 6’1”, 200 lbs)

Blanton earned the starting strong safety position late in the pre-season, and made only his fourth career start Sunday against the Rams. A prototypical strong safety, Blanton is proficient in run support but can struggle when matched up in man coverage. In this example the Vikings roll from Cover 2 into Cover 1 pre-snap against this Rams formation. St. Louis utilizes 12 personnel aligned with a single split receiver to the right, a dual tight end wing, and flanker trips to the left. The tight end Cook runs a wheel route against Blanton, first breaking to the sideline and then cutting straight up the field. He beats Blanton, who makes the situation worse when he fails to turn his head around and gets flagged for pass interference.

A Few Words on the Secondary

Of the four main secondary players, Harrison Smith was the most impressive this past Sunday. As the game progressed Minnesota seemed to use Smith more as a strong safety, bringing him down into the box to blitz or rolling him up in their Cover 1 scheme, while dropping Blanton into the deep free safety position. On Sunday watch what the Vikings choose to do with Smith, and also with Barr at the linebacker level. Those two young players look to be the cornerstones upon which Mike Zimmer is building his young defense.

Mark Schofield, Inside The Pylon’s quarterback, writes about play design, receivers, great offensive performances and

The Minnesota Vikings defense launch their home slate as they welcome Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense to Minneapolis for NFL Week 2. Following a sound 34-6 road win over St. Louis to open their 2014 campaign, Mark Schofield examines the Minnesota defense.

Defensive Line

The Vikings primarily run a four-man defensive front with a slight twist in that they utilize a nose tackle, a defensive tackle and two defensive ends rather than the traditional two tackles and two ends.

Right Defensive End – Everson Griffen (#97, 6’3”, 273 lbs)

Griffen is in his fifth season out of the University of Southern California. After seeing limited action the past few years, he has stepped into a starting role with the Vikings in the wake of Jared Allen’s departure. While Griffen previously saw time both inside and outside, he is now playing defensive end where his speed and quickness make him best suited to be a 7-technique pass rusher. In Minnesota’s opener he seemed most at home in that role, although he also lined up as a 5-technique depending on front and alignment. While Griffen is mainly a speed rusher, he occasionally relies on his strength to bull rush. He will usually try to release from opposing tackles with a rip or spin move, but he is not afraid to reach out and engage them when the situation merits.

On Sunday Griffen tallied sacks on back-to-back plays midway through the fourth quarter. On the second of these, with 6:07 left in the game, he makes a strong power rush upfield, but then utilizes a quick spin move to disengage from his blocker and wrap up the quarterback.

Nose Tackle – Linval Joseph (#98, 6’4”, 323 lbs)

This East Carolina product is in his fifth NFL season. Joseph is a big body in the center of the Minnesota defensive line, and on most plays he will line up on the center while shading to either the strong-side or weak-side shoulder of his opponent. Typically Joseph works to occupy the center and on-side guard on plays, preventing either offensive lineman from getting to the second level to block a linebacker. Joseph recorded five tackles for the Vikings against the Rams.

Defensive Tackle – Sharrif Floyd (#73, 6’3”, 305 lbs)

Floyd is in his second season out of the University of Florida. The ex-Gator is large but he can be very quick and explosive, especially off the snap. Minnesota typically places Floyd in a 3 technique to the strong-side of the formation. Floyd had a quiet game against St. Louis, but do not let yourself be fooled. He possesses a combination of strength and quickness that must be managed on Sunday.

Left Defensive End – Brian Robison (#96, 6’3”, 259 lbs)

This eight-year veteran from the University of Texas tallied 8.5 sacks last year and had 9 in 2012. Robison is similar in technique to Griffen, favoring speed and quickness over strength when rushing the passer. Robison seems to utilize the rip move as his method of choice to disengage quickly from blockers. He also looks to guess from time to time, often taking himself out of a play when he makes the wrong decision. Robison will give up on a play quickly if the offensive tackle beats him with power arm extension.

A Few Words on the Defensive Front

Because the Vikings choose to utilize a shaded nose tackle in Joseph and a 3-technique lineman in Floyd, Minnesota does not do a lot of pre-snap shifting on the defensive line. On most plays they will line up in either an over or under front depending on their play call and stay in that front even if the offense utilizes motion or shifts its players. For that reason, look for New England to utilize a formation shift often termed “trade.” For example, they may break the huddle and position Rob Gronkowski as an in-line tight end position to the left. In response, the Vikings will line up their defensive front in an over front to Gronkowski’s side of the formation. Then, before the snap, Gronkowski will shift or “trade” to the same spot on the other side of the formation. Minnesota’s defensive line will not adjust and will simply stay in what has now become an under front.

The Linebackers

The Vikings’ linebacking corp consists of two veterans and a young rookie selected in the top ten of the most recent NFL draft.

Strong-Side Linebacker – Anthony Barr (#55, 6’5”, 255 lbs)

Barr is a rookie out of UCLA selected ninth overall by the Vikings last June. He was recruited to play running back in college and started seven games as a true freshman on offense. He then switched to right outside linebacker in the Bruins’ 3-4 scheme, where he started 13 and 14 games, respectively in his last two seasons there. Strong and quick, Barr uses his athleticism to make up for his inexperience. As outlined in the Passing Game Preview, Barr does look confused at times when dropping into zone coverage. When playing in man coverage he is solid, perhaps even above-average, and uses his speed to close down separation in a hurry. Here is one example of Barr covering the quick Tavon Austin out of the backfield and holding him to a minimal gain:

Middle Linebacker – Jasper Brinkley (#54, 6’1”, 252 lbs)

Brinkley returns to Minnesota after spending a season in Arizona. He started 15 games for the Vikings in 2012 at middle linebacker and recorded 99 tackles, 63 of them solo. He signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals during the 2012 off-season, but saw limited action. Brinkley has now resumed the role of starting middle linebacker for the Vikings. Decidedly a “run first” defender, Brinkley begins each play focused on the backfield, and his initial steps are always forward. He looks a step slow in man coverage and he is removed when the Vikings go with nickel personnel.

Brinkley showed his ability in the run game on Sunday with this stop on Tavon Austin. The Rams used placed the quick second-year receiver in the backfield as a tailback in an I-formation. Watch Brinkley in the end zone view. He takes on the lead blocker and is able to work around the fullback to make the tackle on the speedy receiver. Note how Brinkley recognizes the developing hole and quickly steps into it to make the play.

Weak-Side Linebacker – Chad Greenway (#52, 6’2”, 242 lbs)

Another veteran linebacker, the Vikings’ 2006 first-round pick enters his ninth NFL season. Greenway missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury suffered while playing special teams in the preseason, but returned to earn a starting job. Since then Greenway has started 112 of 113 games for Minnesota. Greenway is tasked with flowing to the ball and making plays on the weak side for Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 sets and the hard-nosed player is very well suited for this role. Stronger against the run than the pass, he is vulnerable to play-action and can be slow to set up in his zones when the Vikings run zone coverage underneath. Greenway stays on the field with Barr when Minnesota goes with nickel personnel.

A Few Words on the Linebackers

This is a solid linebacking unit that the Patriots are lucky to face early in the season since they will improve as Barr gains experience. They looked shaky at times against St. Louis in pass coverage, especially when tasked with playing an underneath zone. This corps also fell for numerous play-action fakes against the Rams and, if the Patriots work at establishing some semblance of a running game, New England will be in great position to exploit this unit’s weaknesses against the pass.

The Secondary

Minnesota’s secondary, while only slightly tested against St. Louis, showed some holes and there were opportunities for the Rams to make plays downfield. On most plays Minnesota will show a Cover 2 look, and the Vikings will often roll the coverage to Cover 1 at the snap, sending strong safety Robert Blanton down into the box. Blanton and free safety Harrison Smith were also college teammates at the University of Notre Dame, so they know each other’s skills and tendencies well. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is a veteran acquired in the off-season from Carolina, while the other cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, was a first round draft choice by the Vikings last year. When they bring in a fifth defensive back, Minnesota puts Josh Robinson on the outside as a third cornerback, sliding Munnerlyn into the slot. This young secondary, much like the linebacking unit, will likely improve as the season progresses.

This secondary looked most vulnerable when they stayed in Cover 2. When they utilized man concepts, typically Cover 1, they could rely on their athleticism to stay in tight coverage on the St. Louis receivers. Here is one example:

Contrast that play with this example of a tight man scheme.

Cornerback – Captain Munnerlyn (#24, 5’9”, 187 lbs)

Between the two cornerbacks, Munnerlyn is the weaker link. A sixth-year player from the University of South Carolina, his small stature proved troublesome when he matched up with St. Louis’s Brian Quick, a bigger receiver listed at 6’ 3” and 213 lbs.

In the above clip, the Rams send Kenny Britt in motion across the formation with Munnerlyn trailing him, but Munnerlyn and Rhodes switch assignments pre-snap. That puts Munnerlyn on Quick who runs a deep slant over the middle, and Munnerlyn is beaten out of the break. Watch how when Quick makes his break, Munnerlyn fails to get a hand on him and Quick is able to run away from his defender.

What Munnerlyn does do well is defend in the slot in Minnesota’s nickel package. On this third-and-long play in the second quarter, the Rams have a slot formation and Munnerlyn is lined up there, five yards off the line of scrimmage with an inside alignment. He quickly diagnoses a screen, avoids two blockers, and holds this play to a short gain.

Cornerback – Xavier Rhodes (#29, 6’1”, 210 lbs)

Last year the Vikings selected Rhodes in the first round of the NFL draft as the 25th overall pick. The Florida State player started six games last season for Minnesota and is now solidly entrenched as a starter.

When tested on Sunday, Rhodes looked to be developing into a strong cover cornerback. On this play, Rams quarterback Shaun Hill tries to hit Britt on a go route against Rhodes. Rhodes gets a good jam as Britt makes his break, but the defender turns his hips and gets his head around quickly to locate the ball.

Free Safety – Harrison Smith (#22, 6’2”, 214 lbs)

Of the four secondary players, Smith was the most impressive last Sunday. In reviewing the tape it was apparent that Zimmer likes to utilize the former Notre Dame player in his blitz schemes. Smith tallied one sack against St. Louis and added a QB pressure.

On this 3rd and 8 play early in the third quarter, the Rams have a bit of a drive going and only trail 13-0. St. Louis lines up with their backup quarterback, Austin Davis, in the shotgun flanked by two running backs. They have a slot to the right of the formation and a receiver split to the left. Minnesota counters with dime personnel, but they put eight players in the box on the line of scrimmage showing Cover 1 with the three secondary players. Smith is on the line of scrimmage to the right of the defense and comes in unblocked for a sack, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal attempt.

Minnesota blitzes Smith again later in the game. On this play, St. Louis has 1st and 10 just outside the red zone. They put Davis in the shotgun and have a split left/trips right formation using 11 personnel. The Vikings have their nickel package on the field in a 4-2-5 alignment, but they put both linebackers in the A gaps and bring Smith up on the line of scrimmage to the right side of the defense. Only one linebacker (Barr) blitzes while Greenway drops into coverage. Smith blitzes as well and gets to Davis, forcing a quick throw.

Smith sealed the win for the Vikings with a very impressive pick-six late in the game. The Rams come out in the shotgun, again with a single receiver split to the left and a trips to the right using 11 personnel. Minnesota shows Cover 2 with their nickel personnel aligned in a 4-2-5. At the snap of the ball they roll into a Cover 1 look with Smith playing in a “robber/spy” concept. As you watch this play, focus on Smith’s movements. He sees Davis staring down tight end Jared Cook, who is running a ten-yard in pattern, and makes a fantastic break on the ball. Smith steps in front of Cook, secures the interception, and returns it 81 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

Strong Safety – Robert Blanton (#36, 6’1”, 200 lbs)

Blanton earned the starting strong safety position late in the pre-season, and made only his fourth career start Sunday against the Rams. A prototypical strong safety, Blanton is proficient in run support but can struggle when matched up in man coverage. In this example the Vikings roll from Cover 2 into Cover 1 pre-snap against this Rams formation. St. Louis utilizes 12 personnel aligned with a single split receiver to the right, a dual tight end wing, and flanker trips to the left. The tight end Cook runs a wheel route against Blanton, first breaking to the sideline and then cutting straight up the field. He beats Blanton, who makes the situation worse when he fails to turn his head around and gets flagged for pass interference.

A Few Words on the Secondary

Of the four main secondary players, Harrison Smith was the most impressive this past Sunday. As the game progressed Minnesota seemed to use Smith more as a strong safety, bringing him down into the box to blitz or rolling him up in their Cover 1 scheme, while dropping Blanton into the deep free safety position. On Sunday watch what the Vikings choose to do with Smith, and also with Barr at the linebacker level. Those two young players look to be the cornerstones upon which Mike Zimmer is building his young defense.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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2 thoughts on “Scouting The Minnesota Vikings Defense

  1. Floyd is listed as questionable this week, one reason he may have been quiet last week (no idea when he was injured). According to this, some optimism he’ll play:
     

     
    Coach Mike Zimmer continued to sound optimistic on Friday that cornerback External and defensive tackle External — who both did some work in practice on Friday — would be able to play for the External in their home opener on Sunday against the External.
     
    Rhodes was officially listed as questionable with a groin injury, as Floyd was with a shoulder injury, but Zimmer said there is a “good chance” Rhodes will play, and added Floyd is feeling “much better” after getting hit in the shoulder late in Sunday’s game against the External.
     

    External

  2. Yeah, a lot of the Minnesota beat/film guys were down on Floyd after Sunday. A groin injury slowing him down makes some sense. I think with him, Barr, Rhodes and Smith they have some nice young talent at each level.

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