The Northern Bridage: The Vikings’ Defensive Rebirth

The “Williams Wall” of Kevin and Pat Williams was a black hole for running backs, engulfing them within their masses.

Antoine Winfield’s lure in Minnesota was congruent with that of a saint for the Vikings defense, coining the phrase “tackling corner” with his fiery competitiveness.

His secondary mates consisted of Cedric Griffin, Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson, while E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber aligned themselves in the line of sight, but behind the 650 pounds of protective “Williams” tackle.

Long ago when the media feasted upon Brett Favre’s annual offseason retirement watch, the Vikings defense was a destructive barrier to opposing offenses, and although the unit was often overlooked in favor of Adrian Peterson resembling the terminator and Favre turning away Father time amidst the previously venomous purple-fused uniforms, Jared Allen’s pain inflicting tendencies reminded opposing quarterbacks and coaches of the defense’s potency.

williams wall

The “Williams Wall” eventually deteriorated, the linebacking corps began to disintegrate and the secondary was reduced to a mangled mess of overmatched youngsters desperately failing at the mercy of NFC North titans like Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. Even Allen’s tenure in Minnesota was clipped two offseasons ago.

Now Chad Greenway is the lone Segway to the euphoric past of the organization’s past defensive successes, but after years of haggard defenses taking the field on Sundays, a promising youthful core has inspired garrulous giddiness in the collective fan base.

The devoted resources are beginning to come to fruition as the collection of first-round picks that litter the depth chart are expiating for years of mediocrity. Harrison Smith has long been one of the league’s premier safties, bordering the chief class of Earl Thomas and Eric Weddle. Smith is one of the more dependable tacklers in the league, something that carries even greater weight as a safety and the last line of defense. His instincts against the run mirror those he displays in pass coverage where his discipline and technique allocates the confidence of the coaching staff asking various tasks of him, ranging from playing single-high safety, being deployed in man coverage or lurking in a shallow zone on a seek-and-destroy mission of intermediate routes. Smith’s efficiency as an in-box safety, coverage man and even a blitzer earned him the second-best player rating among safties last season, via Pro Football Focus’s grading system.

smith

Joining Smith in the revamped secondary is Xavier Rhodes, who at his peak performance, required labeling congruent with that of the league’s elite cover men. During a particularly noteworthy four game stretch, Rhodes was thrown at 22 times, but allowed just seven catches for 54 yards with seven pass break ups and an interception yielding a quarterback rating of sub-Ryan Lindley levels at 22.2. Those are extraordinary numbers that become compounded when considering two of those games came against the proficient passing attacks in Green Bay and Chicago. Rhodes graded out as the 14th-best corner via PFF over the entirety of last season, but his length and confidence made throwing his way difficult for quarterbacks as he broke up one in every 5.9 pass attempts in his direction, the highest rate of any corner in the past eight seasons.

rhodes

While Smith and Rhodes have created a formidable duo on the backend, the front seven boasts a collection of promising and youthful contributors as well. The organization gambled on the promise of defensive end Everson Griffen last offseason as he had only one career start at the time. A season later, one that saw Griffen transform into a pass rushing dynamo and collect 12 sacks along with 64 total pressures, and Griffen’s 5-year $42.5 million extension looks like the negotiating work of a fortune teller. As Griffen eclipsed his potential this season to ease the front office’s dread of it going untapped to the tune of 40 plus million, his linemate, second-year 3-technique tackle, Sharif Floyd, cracked the window into his own promise after shredding the injury bug. Although his sample size was smaller than his peers last season, with Floyd playing just 52.5 percent of his team’s snaps, he graded out as PFF’s fifth-highest-rated tackle in 2014. His quick first step and explosive leverage, led to Floyd registering 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss last season.

griffen

Veterans Linval Joseph and Brian Robison will fill the remaining starting spots along the line as the nose tackle and strong side end, respectively. Robison is on the decline, but the ninth-year player will attempt to carve out one last respectable season before likely conceding his spot to a more youthful alternative. Joseph, however, was rated as a plus gap plugger last season according to PFF, but the Vikings ranked a ghastly 31st in adjusted line yards via Football Outsiders, and opponents saw no increased resistance running up the middle where Joseph roams as Minnesota failed to deviate from its 31st ranking. In terms of depth, the Vikings are placing much stock in largely unknown entities, outside of Tom Johnson, with Oregon State alumnus Scott Chrichton and rookie Danielle Hunter penciled in as backup defensive ends. Johnson, however, provided Zimmer with a pass-rushing luxury in 2014, adopting well to the interior rusher role that has become glorified across the league in path to accumulating 6.5 sacks.

Lined behind the front four is a gifted playmaker in second-year linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr graded out as a quality linebacker last season via PFF, where his tackling issues (Barr led all outside linebackers in missed tackles in 2014 with 22) were outgained by his amalgam of skills and shapeshifting versatility, something rarely discovered in rookies. Despite rooting himself on the defensive side of the ball for just the past three seasons after converting from running back at UCLA, Barr displayed an uncanny feel for the linebacker position in his inaugural NFL season. Barr impressed as a blitzer, but his coverage abilities were the most salivating aspect of his game, and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had no qualms over Barr dropping into coverage, as he did so on 42.8 percent of his snaps according to PFF.

barr

Accompanying Barr in the linebacking core is the aforementioned Greenway, while Barr’s former UCLA Bruin teammate and 2015 second-round pick Eric Kendricks is competing with Audie Cole for the middle linebacker spot. Greenway is still a tackling machine, but his overall performance and particularly his pass coverage slipped to an all-time low last season. In an optimal world, Kendricks will prove capable of supplanting Greenway’s role in passing situations from day one when Zimmer deploys the nickel package. If Kendricks’ progression stalls, Cole could serve as the starter in the middle for the first few weeks, but neither Cole nor Greenway possess the natural coverage abilities of Kendricks. However, adapting to NFL coverage schematics if often amongst the most taxing adjustments of rookie linebackers. Gerald Hodges gifts Zimmer with a dependable backup option on the outside in case of injury or another dramatic decrease in play from Greenway.

kendricks

The large unknown of Zimmer’s defense heading into 2014 is the other half of the starting secondary not named Rhodes or Smith, whose surnames will surely be known to Vikings fans as they watch opposing quarterbacks target them without mercy. First-rounder Trae Waynes has become a whipping board in the preseason, with analysts proclaiming all time spent not pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage is time spent being an exact replica of a rookie corner, AKA: mockery. With Waynes’ tempered expectations, Zimmer may seek out the services of his partner for life, Terence Newman, or Captain Munnerlyn, who disappointed as a free agent starter in 2014. Newman is 37, or ancient by league standards. He’s like a stale box of crackers in that he is still useable, but much fresher options are preferred, for the bulk of the meal at least. Munnerlyn will likely be used as the team’s slot cornerback, a more natural position considering his skillset and dimensions.

The other question mark is at the free safety spot, where incumbent starter Robert Blanton has been attempting to hold off, second-year sixth-rounder, Antone Exum Jr., a converted corner from Virginia Tech. Blanton essentially won the job by default last offseason and, although he played at a serviceable level, Minnesota would prefer for the high upside of Exum Jr. to trump Blanton. The consistently dependable Blanton likely still leads the position battle at this point, however, but Exum Jr.’s preseason play thus far has exhibited his ceiling as an impact playmaker.

The Vikings defense upholds the threat of the unknown, particularly in the secondary, but with a coordinator such as Zimmer, who polished late-round and undrafted players into reliable contributors and dusted off aged veterans such as Newman and Reggie Nelson during his Bengals tenure, optimism has the right to exist at a premium. With vibrant youngsters also on the cusp of stardom, the Vikings could transcend into a new stratosphere of defensive excellence in 2015.

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