Alan Williams talked about "death by inches" that can kill a defense. For the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, it's been more like death by third down.
The Vikings have the worst third-down efficiency in the league and Leslie Frazier intends to enact change to improve that. Third downs have become the bane of their defense.
"That's what we have to get turned around," Frazier said. "I think I know what needs to happen to get that turned around."
Six teams in the NFL have given up more first downs than the Vikings' 169 surrendered on defense, but no one has given up a higher percentage of third downs than Minnesota. The NFL average is 38.4 percent through eight weeks. The Vikings are allowing opponents to convert first downs 51 percent of the time on third down.
"There are some things we have to do better and I think we can," Frazier said. "We have a big ballgame coming up, but I think there are some things we can definitely do better and I think we will, primarily because of the attitude and approach of our players and knowing that our coaches are going to work extremely hard on finding ways to put them in good positions to make plays, and when they are they'll find ways to make those plays."
Players say those changes have already started to be enacted.
Cornerback Josh Robinson has been one of the most maligned defenders on the team. There is a reason for that. He is being asked to play the nickel cornerback position for the first time this year and opposing offenses have targeted him often, with great success.
But Robinson said coaches are implementing changes to make things easier for him.
"For me personally, I've seen it in different coverages so it's a cleaner read for me," he said. "I don't have to read alignment in certain defenses and things like that. I thank them for that, but always trying to make sure they're not making the game plan too simple just for me.
"… I could tell it would help me, clean me up when they make certain adjustments. You appreciate them, but making sure they're not making these adjustments because I can't read my keys or whatever it may be."
Robinson said the changes weren't simply for him, adding they even made some changes in previous years with established veteran Antoine Winfield, who, like Robinson, slid inside to cover slot receivers in the nickel defense. Winfield, though, was more established and had greater success.
The Vikings will already be short-handed Sunday. Three-quarters of their starting secondary will be out Sunday with injuries. Harrison Smith (turf toe) is out until at least December, and Jamarca Sanford (groin) and Chris Cook (hip) won't play Sunday against the Cowboys' No. 8-ranked pass defense.
The Green Bay Packers especially gave the Vikings fits on third down. They converted 13 of 18 third downs and another two on fourth down.
That's what had Frazier and the defensive coaches re-evaluating the scheme.
"I think we have to do it. We are so bad right now on third down on defense. You have to look at how we're doing it, what we're doing schematically and also the people that you're asking to do certain things, can they get it done?" Frazier said. "Do we need to be doing something different based on the people that we're asking to execute the defense? This is a time, without question, to try to go back and look at some things. Any time a team gets 72 percent conversion rate, that's a time to really do some re-evaluation."
Middle linebacker Erin Henderson said the third-down defense has been a "tough spot" for the Vikings, but was having a hard time figuring out exactly what went wrong.
"It seems like every time a third-down situation pops up it's something different that they're able to convert on and they're able to be successful with. It's not really one thing teams are honing in on. It's kind of a grab bag of plays and different things on how it's happened," Henderson said. "It's just a matter of us going out there and fighting on third down to make sure we can get off the field. I tell the boys all the time, ‘If you're tired, let's make a play. Somebody make a play right now and let's get off. Let's sit on the bench and get some water and rest up and get ready for the next series.' We'll keep working at it. We'll keep trying to get better."
Henderson declined to get into details for competitive reasons, but he said he hoped some changes would be made during Sunday's game.
"You hope so. You never really know until you get into the game. We have an idea and we have a game plan going into (the game), but things can change on the fly and things can be different at times," Henderson said. "So you prepare for it to go a certain way and you hope that it goes that way, but you never know how the game is going to play out."
Robinson said the secondary is "slowly but surely" making strides.
"It's not as fast as we'd hoped, but I think we are improving in certain areas," he said. "There are a lot of areas where we do need to continue to improve, myself included, and that's what I think we'll continue to do."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Changes enacted for third-down defense
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