The Minnesota Vikings defense has crawled itself out of a historic rut the past two games thanks to a little intervention from head coach Kevin O’Connell.
A streak of surrendering 400-plus yards in five straight games for the first time in franchise history was capped by a 34-23 loss to the Detroit Lions back on December 11. Fans made calls to fire defensive coordinator Ed Donatell — a move that would not bode well for continuity late in the season with a playoff berth in the bank.
Instead, O’Connell approached Donatell before the team’s Week 15 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts with a simple message: “Be less predictable.”
“KOC met with Donatell last week and said, “Hey, here’s how I would attack your defense if I was scheming against it… Be less predictable,” SKOR North’s Phil Mackey tweeted on December 24, referring to an on-air report during the team’s Week 16 victory over the New York Giants.
It worked wonders.
The Vikings defense allowed just one offensive touchdown the entire game and held the Colts to just a field goal after the first half, proving vital to Minnesota mounting the largest comeback in NFL history.
The defense is still bleeding yards, allowing 445 yards to Giants last week, however, Donatell has found ways to dial up more pressure, varying coverage schemes and allowing the team’s pass rushers to thrive.
Returning to full health, the Vikings defense is finding its mojo again, forcing three turnovers in the past two games after forcing just two turnovers in the previous four games.
There are still many questions about whether this unit can be relied on to win playoff games. The Athletic’s Alec Lewis did a deep dive and found the latest installs on defense could be an encouraging sign moving forward.
Vikings Defense Becoming More Creative In Time for Postseason
For the majority of the season, the Vikings have deployed zone coverage with two-high safeties more than any other team. It was a measure to limit the explosive plays.
That lent itself to opposing offenses’ willingness to take the easy underneath yards with the secondary playing soft coverage.
As early as Week 2, Patrick Peterson said as early that he thought the secondary needed to play “closer in coverage” after allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to score 24 first-half points in an eventual loss.
But after the loss to the Lions, Donatell and O’Connell both admitted they’d like to take the air out of the coverage — and it wasn’t just empty promises.
The Vikings played a season-high 33 snaps in man coverage against the Colts, according to The Athletic. They also played tighter in zone coverage, muddying up the picture opposing quarterbacks are seeing pre-snap.
That’s led to a resurgent performance from pass rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith. Smith posted his first sacks after a four-game drought against the Colts, while Hunter had a season-high nine pressures and two sacks last week against the Giants along with a 91.8 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade.
Peterson, playing much closer to the line of scrimmage as a boundary corner the past two weeks, even got in on the pass rush, reaching Daniel Jones on a corner blitz — a refreshing play call after weeks of watching the Vikings sit pat with their four-man pass rush.
Kevin O’Connell Lauds Ed Donatall for Willingness to Blitz
The Vikings have been content with the amount of pressure they’ve produced with their four-man pass rush despite calls to blitz more in recent weeks.
Donatell has dialed up timely blitzes as of late, which O’Connell praised.
“We’ve had those. Whether you’re sending the nickel, corner, whatever it is. Sometimes a run-stopping pressure. Sometimes just trying to catch off maybe some of their RPO (run-pass option) game or [shotgun] run. I thought Ed was aggressive in spots and continues to kind of make adjustments in the game to give ourselves a chance,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said in his postgame press conference after last Saturday’s win over the Giants.
“[The defense] held them under 30 percent on third down, forced some turnovers there, and offensively we were able to not have any turnovers,” O’Connell added. “When you win that battle, although sometimes it can feel like a grind against that team, you play clean enough, you’ll give yourself a chance to win in the end. That’s when our team tends to respond.”