The Minnesota Vikings Have a Play-Action Problem
On the surface, one of the bigger mysteries of the first month of this NFL season is how the Minnesota Vikings defense has drastically underperformed relative to expectations. On every level of the defense, the team had a Pro Bowl or potential Pro Bowl talent, with seemingly no clear holes. After finishing second in Pro Football Reference's expected points model in 2017, along with the signings of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, safety George Iloka and the drafting of first-round cornerback Mike Hughes, it was thought that they would sustain their level of success in 2018.
After entering the season as one of the NFC's top teams, they sit at just 1-2-1. FiveThirtyEight's predictions currently have them projected for 7.9 wins, a 35 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 24 chance to win the NFC North. Much of this has to do with the fact that they currently, despite preseason projections, have a bottom-five ranked pass defense through September.
ANY/A Value (sans sack yards) on the defensive end after Sunday Night Football. Baltimore's defense is the best in the NFL so far. New Orleans and Tampa are at the bottom. pic.twitter.com/jpIPAMktLj— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) October 1, 2018
In an effort to find out why exactly the Vikings aren't performing up to expectations, I went through Minnesota's allowed pass completions of 15 or more yards. One glaring trend that showed up over and over again was the fact that their linebackers, particularly Eric Kendricks, are having trouble on play-action passes this year.
On eight passes alone, the Vikings' linebackers allowed receptions totalling 353 yards. That means that 32 percent of their team's allowed passing yards came from just about six percent of plays. Below is the lowlight reel.
Let's break this one down quickly.
Play #1, 13:39 left in the 2nd quarter against the 49ers:
Eric Kendricks (#54) is about seven yards away from the targeted wing tight end after play action and makes a sideline tackle after an 18-yard gain.
Play #2, 10:41 left in the 3rd quarter against the 49ers:
A fullback is motioned out into the slot, taking linebacker Ben Gedeon (#42) out of the box. On switch releases, all three defenders on the left of the formation, including Gedeon, end up inside the numbers while the fullback switches inside. Gedeon makes the tackle 56 yards downfield.
Play #3, 3:54 left in the 3rd quarter against the 49ers:
Kendricks attempts to pick up a crosser, but crosses the crosser's face without ever seeing him, somehow. He ends up about seven yards from the target when the catch is made, resulting in a 36-yard gain.
Play #4, 5:15 left in the 1st quarter against the Bills:
Like in Play #2, a back is motioned out on a switch release play. Kendricks is taken out of the box, with both he and the slot cornerback taking on the swing route the back runs. None of the four defenders to the left of the formation pick up the slot player running outside the numbers, leading to a 26-yard gain and six points.
Play #5, 0:37 left in the 1st quarter against the Bills:
Off of play-action, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen broke into a scramble drill and threw the ball across his body. With no linebacker occupying the running back, a seven-yard gain turned into a 55-yard play.
Play #6, 9:40 left in the 1st quarter against the Rams:
This is the one people are most familiar with. To put it simply, Anthony Barr (#55) got in a 70-yard foot race with a receiver and lost.
Play #7, 13:54 left in the 3rd quarter against the Rams:
Kendricks played a floating zone instead of picking up the target, leading to a reception being made right next to him. There were about 15 yards after the catch made on this 27-yard play.
Play #8, 7:41 left in the 3rd quarter against the Rams:
On a screen to running back Todd Gurley, Kendricks missed a tackle at the 40. This play went for 65 yards.
Coming out of Thursday Night Football, the main narrative for the Vikings' defensive collapse revolved around Barr's foot speed, which not only gave up Play #6 for a 70-yard touchdown but also was taken advantage of on a Gurley seam route in the red zone for a touchdown. With that being said, if you watch Minnesota's "explosive plays" given up in September, it is clear that their ability to handle play-action passes is a bigger concern.
Be it miscommunications on switch concepts, missing tackles or the inability to find crossers, their linebackers have struggled in this situation so far, with Kendricks notably looking lost. Will they continue to play the pass this poorly throughout the season? Maybe. Will teams try to attack this defense with play-action until they play it with confidence? Absolutely. At 1-2-1, the Vikings are flirting with near-certain elimination with a few more losses. A quick fix will be needed here to salvage their season.