The Minnesota Vikings Linebackers: Linchpin of the Next Great NFL Defense?

The Vikings enter 2016 with what is already a top defense in the NFC, and possibly the NFL. How is this defense constructed that makes it so good? Justin Twell examines the Minnesota Vikings linebackers, the linchpins of this successful defensive group. 

When you think of the Minnesota Vikings success in 2015, one of the first things that springs to mind is their defense. They are young, talented, and have every chance of becoming the next great defense in the NFL in 2016.

Taking a look at each position, the Vikings have at least one star at each positional group. Underrated free safety Harrison Smith mans the back-end of the defense. Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph anchor the defensive line. But is is their linebackers who may be the key to unlocking what can very easily be an elite unit this season.

Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and veteran Chad Greenway set the tone in the Vikings base 4-3 defense. And yet extensive watching of tape sees the Vikings use a 4-2-5 nickel package on passing downs. So just what makes these three arguably a top-5 linebacker group in the NFL?

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Coverage

When watching all three linebackers in 2015, one of the major strengths in their game individually, and collectively, is their ability to cover short to intermediate routes in the passing game. Whether it’s running backs coming out of the backfield, or wide receivers hitting underneath routes or short out-routes and in-routes.

In Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers, Greenway (#52) lines up opposite Randall Cobb (#18) in the slot. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sees a favorable matchup and just before the ball is snapped – and after – looks Cobbs’s way. Barr (#55) covers running back Eddie Lacy (#27) in the flat and Kendricks (#54) picks up tight end Richard Rodgers (#82) in the middle of the field.

It’s Greenway here, though, who does a great job sticking with Cobb, who is unable to shake him off and is stopped for just a 1-yard gain, bringing up a 3rd and long situation.

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The next play is similar. In Week 12 against the Atlanta Falcons Barr is initially lined up opposite wide receiver Roddy White (#84) in the slot and follows White as he motions inside toward right tackle Ryan Schraeder (#73). As the ball is snapped, Greenway picks up Tevin Coleman (#26) underneath as he comes out of the backfield and Kendricks back peddles into a deep zone in the middle of the field.

The key here is the double coverage on wide receiver Julio Jones (#11), forcing quarterback Matt Ryan to check down to White in the flat, who is instantly wrapped up by Barr who shows great anticipation and speed to make a nice tackle.

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Bringing Pressure

The Vikings often deploy a Double A Gap Blitz look when getting after a team’s quarterback, usually with Barr and Kendricks lined up at the line of scrimmage over each shoulder of the other team’s center in the A gaps. But they do a great job of disguising exactly what they plan to do as the ball is snapped.

In Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, we can see Barr and Kendricks lined up and showing a Double A Gap Blitz look as the Vikings defense is lined up in a 4-2-5 nickel formation. Just before the snap Barr moves across to the left side of the Lions offensive formation and as soon as the ball is snapped, he is able to execute a delayed blitz and gets a clean shot on quarterback Matthew Stafford. Kendricks meanwhile – rather than blitzing himself – simply drops back into zone coverage in the middle of the field.

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This next play in Week 4 against the Denver Broncos is another example of disguises Barr and Kendricks use when looking to apply pressure. Once again the defense is lined up in a 4-2-5 nickel formation, but this time Barr is lined up at his natural strongside position showing blitz.

But keep an eye on Kendricks, who uses a stance similar to the one used in the video above, suggesting he could well drop into zone coverage as the Vikings already have seven defenders at – or close to – the line of scrimmage pre-snap.

As the ball is snapped, it’s Kendricks this time that moves across to the left side of the Broncos offensive formation, only to find a huge hole on the delayed blitz and sack quarterback Peyton Manning.

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Stopping the Run

The Vikings linebackers are extremely good open field tacklers, which is always going to help to control the run game. Another asset they possess in the run game is the ability to anticipate pre-snap before using speed and quickness to pursue the ball carrier post-snap.

In last season’s wild card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Anthony Barr moves toward where the play ultimately ends up. But watch as Kendricks side steps to his right just before the ball is snapped, anticipating the run play which gives him a slight head start as he pursues laterally to make the play.

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Another, similar, play came against the Detroit Lions in Week 7. This time, Barr and Kendricks are lined up over the center showing a Double A Gap Blitz look. Seconds before the ball is snapped, Barr drops back along with Kendricks. Kendricks, however, is already moving toward his right, anticipating where the run play is going, again giving him a head start to pursue Lions running back Theo Riddick (#25). The LB makes his pursuit nearly untouched and makes a nice tackle on a third and long situation, forcing the Lions to punt.

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Barr and Kendricks are both only 24 years old, and both could and should enter their prime years in a Vikings uniform. Greenway’s 2016 season is likely his last, but he proved in 2015 that he still has gas left in the tank. The Vikings also drafted Kentrell Brothers in the fifth round out of Missouri and brought in Emmanuel Lamur from the Cincinnati Bengals, which reunites him with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

So, to summarize: This starting linebacker corps has shown it can be very effective in coverage, pressure and against the run. 2016 will be a big season for them and they’ll be fun to watch as the Vikings look to defend their NFC North crown.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his articles on the Chicago Bears draft fits, training camp battles in Green Bay, being a NFL fan on another continent, and whether Blake Bortles can make the leap this year.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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