One of the topics of conversation this week was the inordinate amount of time the Vikings defense had to play in nickel coverage. All four of their starting defensive backs – Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith – played all 80 defensive snaps and rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes was in for all but 10 plays.
The Vikings weren't alone in that position. Buffalo's defense was on the field for 91 plays against New England. Washington saw a Philadelphia high-speed buzz saw that ran 53 plays in the first half of their game and Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said they could have gone faster. With more teams running the read option offense with a hurry-up, no-huddle look, the pressure is being applied to defenses like never before, especially in the secondary.
Detroit gave the Vikings 48 three-receiver looks. It wasn't something that they weren't expecting. The Lions made no bones about planning to spread them out, but the extent to which they did it changed how the Vikings addressed their defensive in-game scheme.
"That was just the design of their offense," Rhodes said. "We knew they were going to have a lot of receivers out there on most plays, so we would have to play a lot of nickel. I didn't know I was in there for 70 plays until now, but I knew I was out there a lot of the time."
The Vikings struggled to contain the Lions offense, as Matthew Stafford picked them apart and drove Detroit up and down the field most of the day. But the Vikings didn't help themselves with sloppy tackling. Facing offenses that are designed to spread out defenses puts more of the onus on the first player to the ball making plays and the Vikings didn't do that consistently enough against the Lions.
"There were a lot of things we could have done better, especially tackling," Sanford said. "There were a lot of missed tackles and we didn't execute like we needed to at critical times of the game. They're little things that you can fix to get better as a team."
Part of the problem the Vikings face is that opponents are so concerned about the pass rush from Jared Allen and Brian Robison that they design quick-hitting plays that won't allow Allen or Robison the time to get into the backfield. The slants and bubble screens put more pressure on the players in coverage to close on the ball in a hurry – a plan they expect to see this week from Jay Cutler and the Bears.
"Everybody tries to get rid of the ball quick on us," Cook said. "We have such dynamic pass rushers on the outside. I expect the ball to come out fast this week too."
The play design kept the Vikings' nickel back on the field almost the entire game and reduced to the Vikings to two linebackers for all but 15 plays Sunday. While the Vikings don't expect Chicago to come out with that many three- and four-receiver sets, when they do the Vikings have to react – usually at the expense of the weakside linebacker position.
"You have to be ready to match up with what they put out there," Rhodes said. "You have to match up receivers with cornerbacks. You can't have linebackers covering wide receivers because they can create a speed mismatch."
The good news for the Vikings was that, while their defensive backs were pressed into non-stop duty, they held well, which Sanford credited to the Vikings' aggressive practice style and the team's conditioning program.
"I thought we did pretty well considering how long we were out there," Sanford said. "I was talking to Chris Cook in the second half and said that nobody out there looked like they were gassed. We pride ourselves on our conditioning and it was good to see that. Even though we were all out there for 80 plays, nobody was tired or worn out. That's good to know because you never know how many times you're going to have to be out on the field and you want to know that you can stay strong late in the game when winning is on the line. Our strength and conditioning coaches do a great job of working with us. When it comes to game time, it makes it a lot easier knowing that we've got the conditioning to stay strong and can leave it all on the field on Sundays."
The Vikings are expecting a similar attack from Chicago on Sunday as the Bears bring in a physical, dominating go-to receiver in Brandon Marshall. For a rookie like Rhodes, going from Calvin Johnson to Marshall is like going from the frying pan directly into the fire.
"They're probably going to do a lot of the same things that Detroit did," Rhodes said. "Brandon Marshall isn't as fast as Calvin, but he has a lot of the same attributes. He's big and physical, and their offense is built enough around him that you know the ball is going to be coming. It doesn't matter if you have two guys on him, Cutler is still going to push the ball into him."
While the Vikings typically don't assign a player to shadow a receiver because it's not a component of the standard Tampa-2 defense, Cook said he's willing to take on Marshall one-on-one all day – or at least as often as the Vikings will allow it.
"They haven't said whether I will travel with him or not," Cook said. "We'll see when we get to Sunday. I definitely want to guard the best guy and he's the best guy. (The coaches) know me and they know I like to play against the best, but it's not my decision to make."
With NFL offenses coming up with new looks and game plans designed to separate defenders and conquer them in one-on-one battles in space, what the Vikings saw Sunday is likely going to be a recurring theme. Defenses are adjusting on the fly from this new wrinkle in offensive style, but the Vikings are confident that they can make those adjustments and find the weaknesses and flaws in the systems. It won't be easy, but the defensive backs are ready to do full-time duty early and often in the 2013 season.
"You're going see a lot more of that this year," Sanford said. "More teams are trying to spread you out and play like a two-minute offense throughout the game. They're going with a lot of Zebra formations and keeping wide receivers out of the field and to get athletes in space and going no-huddle. I think we're going to see a lot of that over the season because it's becoming what most teams are doing. It's going to put pressure on defenses, but it's our job to shut them down. Fortunately, we've got athletic d-backs and we can get the job done."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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