With the Vikings having Week 5 off following their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London last Sunday, it is a time for the team to assess the offense, defense and special teams and try to continue the things that have gone well and eliminate the things that have contributed to their 1-3 record.
In the second of a two-part series, we examine the six keys to the defense – what has been good, what has been bad and what has been ugly. Where do the Vikings have reason for optimism? Where do they have reason for concern? These are the six critical areas that are being examined while the Vikings finish off their bye week.
1. Fourth Quarter Defense – What makes the Vikings' 2013 season so frustrating to date is that they have had leads in all four of their games and, if games were 59 minutes instead of 60, the Vikings would be 3-1, not 1-3. Through the first three quarters of their four games, the Vikings have outscored their opponents 106-92. In the fourth quarter, they have been outscored 31-9 – allowing four touchdowns and one field goal while scoring just three field goals – two of which left the door open for Chicago and Cleveland to come from behind for victories. The Vikings have played solid enough defense to win games through the first three quarters. The fourth quarter production has to change.
2. Improved Play in the Secondary – Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford have been injured early in the season and it's clear that the lack of depth at both cornerback and safety is glaring. No disrespect intended to A.J. Jefferson or Andrew Sendejo, but both of them have been burned at key times and allowed opposing offenses to continue drives. Leslie Frazier expects Cook and Sanford will both be back at practice this week, but their injuries have shown that depth is lacking and will needed to be upgraded at some point – either via a trade prior to the trade deadline at the end of this month, coaxing Antoine Winfield out of retirement or addressing the position in free agency and the draft. The team has a good core of young talent at the starting spots, but depth is sketchy.
3. Keep the Turnovers Coming – Last year, the Vikings defense had just 22 takeaways on defense – 10 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. While they popped the ball loose 23 times, they only recovered 12 of those potential turnovers. Through four games, the Vikings have 12 takeaways – seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries (on seven fumble opportunities). They have been extremely opportunistic, getting five of their interceptions from Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Kevin Williams. While the Minnesota cornerbacks have yet to get into the takeaway act, the Vikings are on pace to create 48 turnovers – more than twice as many as last year. If those numbers hold true, the Vikings can win a lot of games.
4. More Consistent Pass Rush – A strong pass rush makes all three levels of the defense better and more opportunistic. The Vikings have nine sacks through four games, but five of those came against human glacier Ben Roethlisberger last week. Prior to that, the Vikings had just four sacks in three games. Any time a quarterback has time to throw and doesn't face consistent pressure, he gets comfortable and can play pitch and catch with his receivers. Opposing quarterbacks are completing more than 65 percent of their passes and, as a result, are able to sustain drives and keep the Vikings defense on the field. It's hard to win games when opponents have a six-minute time of possession advantage, which is what their first four opponents have enjoyed.
5. Don't Allow Teams To Pass At Will – The Vikings constantly harp on the fact that stopping the run is critical to winning games defensively. Through four games, opponents are running just 25 times a game. They have thrown 187 passes (62 more than the Vikings), have completed 122 of them (47 more than Minnesota), thrown for 1,364 yards (425 more than the Vikings) and thrown 10 touchdown passes (six more than Minnesota). An average outing for quarterbacks playing the Vikings (Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Roethlisberger – none of whom are mentioned in the discussion of elite quarterbacks) has been completing 31 of 47 passes for 341 yards and 2.5 touchdowns. Those are fantasy numbers for guys like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. The Vikings have to dramatically improve on those numbers, especially given the Murderer's Row of quarterbacks coming in the final three months of the season.
6. Improve On Third Down – It can be argued that the value of any defense is how it performs on third down. Every year the average of third-down conversions is around 38 or 39 percent. Do better than that standard and most of your defensive numbers improve – from yards allowed to time of possession. Do worse than that standard and you struggle. The Vikings have allowed opponents to convert on 47.3 percent of their third down opportunities, keeping the defense on the field longer and allowing drives to sustain. That has to change and that may be the key stat to following moving forward.
The Vikings have enough talent on defense to keep the team in every game they play. They've had a knack for the big turnover, but they can't depend on those if they intend to right the ship and get back to the playoffs.
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