Sunday slant: Too creative defensively?

The Vikings used a number of different defensive looks with their starters in the third preseason game. Repeated attempts to confuse the quarterback were met with minimal success. We break down the defensive strategy that didn't always work and wonder about its use now that the regular season is here.

With three Pro Bowl players on the defensive line, the Vikings have an abundance of talent up front. They are the only defense in the modern era of the NFL to lead the league in rush defense three consecutive years.

The bigger issue in past years has been the team's pass defense, which improved to 18th in 2009. With 14½ sacks from Jared Allen last year and 8½ from Kevin Williams, the pressure from the front four would seem to be just fine.

That's probably why Allen said he doesn't consider this a "fancy" or "creative" defense.

"I don't think we're a fancy-type of defense," he said about two weeks ago. "We're a hit-you-in-the-mouth type of defense. That's kind of our attitude. I think when you try to get fancy you're hiding something. We don't have anything to hide. We'll line up in base defense and play anybody."

True enough. However, in the preseason game that featured the starters the most, the Vikings tried to get creative by dropping defensive linemen in coverage several times, especially on third downs, when passes were expected the most.

Occasionally that strategy worked. More often than not, it didn't, which will make it interesting to see how they approach those situations now that the regular season is here.

At the end of the Texans' first drive, DE Ray Edwards dropped into coverage and covered a tight end, but on a scramble by Matt Schaub, Edwards raced back at the end of the play to be sure Schaub was stopped short of the third-down run.

Success.

On another third down on the Texans' second drive, Jared Allen dropped into a zone coverage and the Vikings brought LB Chad Greenway on a blitz from the other side. Schaub found Andre Johnson wide open on Allen's side and hit him for an 8-yard gain and a first down. On the next play, the Vikings rushed all four defensive linemen and brought LB Ben Leber on the blitz and Schaub was knocked down on an incompletion. Bringing four defensive linemen on the next third down, the Vikings defense forced a checkdown pass that came up short of the line of scrimmage.

When only three defensive linemen rushed, the Texans got a first down. When all four rushed, with a blitzing linebacker or not, the Vikings defense was successful.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he will be able to throw more at offenses with defenders who are more experienced in his system.

"No question about it. We're doing things now that we wouldn't be able to do at this point my first year here. Because of our familiarity with one another it's easy to install things and know our guys can pick it up," Frazier said. "They know me and I know them better now, so our experience together lets us be further ahead than we normally would be."

Continuing to chronicle that Texans game as a reference point, midway through the second quarter, on third-and-4, the Vikings actually had DT Pat Williams drop back into coverage. Williams was able to chuck TE Owen Daniels coming across the middle of the field on a crossing route, but his absence at the line of scrimmage left a hole for Schaub to scramble through and get the first down.

On the very next play, on first-and-10, it was Allen dropping back into coverage and Schaub finding Daniels wide to Allen's side of the field for an 11-yard gain. On that play, Leber took Allen's spot for a four-man rush.

On the Texans' last drive of the first half, the Vikings rushed all four of their defensive linemen on each passing down. However, Houston drove quickly into field goal range.

Allen said being able to effectively apply pressure with the four defensive linemen allows the back seven to do more in coverage.

"It's awesome. You can disguise coverages. You can obviously cover more people. That's a big thing," he said. "Obviously having a front four rush is the cornerstone to having a 4-3 defense. It frees up our coaches to make different calls."

At the start of the second half of that Texans game, with a mixture of first- and second-team offenses and defenses on the field, Minnesota started with a standard four-man rush, but on the initial third down of the drive, the defense dropped Edwards into coverage and brought Greenway and E.J. Henderson for a five-man rush. Dan Orlovsky completed the pass to David Anderson near Edwards for a first down.

On the next third down, Allen dropped into coverage again and Orvolsky took off scrambling to the other side of the field. The Vikings got him stopped short of the first down when he ran into Pat Williams and was immediately dropped a yard short of the sticks.

The idea of dropping a defensive lineman into coverage seemed to have very limited success against the Texans, no matter if a linebacker filled the pass-rushing area or not. But Allen said the trust in Frazier is increasing.

"I think the trust level is higher. He knows he doesn't need to send the house every play. He knows that if we come off the field and we say, ‘Hey, this is what we're seeing out there,' we can make suggestions and we can compare," he said. "When you're on the note like that, you can make corrections and it's easier to flow with the game when the players and the coaches have a good feel. He knows what we're going to do and we know what to expect out of him."

It could be that the Vikings used the preseason – and especially the Texans game – as an experiment. But, as the team readies for the regular-season opener, Browns quarterback Brady Quinn sees a defense that gets pressure on the passer.

"All around, they are a solid defense, from their D-line, to their backers, to their secondary. They do a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback, whether just from the front four, or from any dogs or blitzes," Quinn said. "Their linebackers are athletic. They are able to play the run, but also play the pass. Their secondary is solid all around. You got Pro Bowlers and guys who are able to break on the ball well, but also play the run well from the secondary. All around, they are a solid, solid defense."

Just how much that defense relies on linemen in coverage is yet to be determined.


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