Unusual mistakes cost the Vikings the NFC Championship, a game where the league’s No. 1 defense allowed a season high in points, yards and third-down conversions. Philadelphia attacked Minnesota downfield and routinely reverted to that strategy to send itself to the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t play like ourselves,” Everson Griffen said after the January loss. “The score reflects it, and it sucks.”
That feeling is similar for Minnesota after Week 3. Most teams are due to notch a clunker every so often, but the way the Vikings defense unraveled against Buffalo -- in large part due to its own mistakes -- is something this usually sharp defense is unaccustomed to.
“There was a lot of uncharacteristic things, especially defensively, and when you see guys running free down the field, that never happens,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “They were able to hit us in some spots that we were unfamiliar with, not being in those types of positions, so they took advantage of it.”
It can be argued that the backbone of this team hasn’t played the same dating to the second half of the NFC divisional playoffs, when Minnesota allowed the Saints to charge back from a 17-0 deficit. In an effort to restore its status after the way last season ended, the Vikings went out and upgraded a handful of spots on defense, notably with the addition of Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle and spending their first-round pick on cornerback Mike Hughes. Minnesota also said goodbye to two key veterans in Brian Robison and Terence Newman.
Through the first three games of 2018, the same issues have popped up -- win, loss or tie -- couched by the same buzzword to describe the overarching nature of what’s causing mistakes on defense: miscommunication.
Twice in the first quarter against Buffalo, Minnesota got caught looking as a Bills player was left uncovered for a big gain. On the Bills’ second touchdown, a 26-yard pass from Josh Allen to Jason Croom, the second-year tight end lined up like he was about to block and blew right past Hughes down the sideline. Hughes bit on the screen fake, and linebacker Eric Kendricks didn’t adjust in time to shift over and cover the tight end before he “walked into the end zone.”
To Minnesota’s credit, the defense contained Buffalo’s tight ends (44 yards, 1 TD) far better than they did George Kittle (5 catches, 90 yards) and Jimmy Graham (6 catches, 95 yards) in Weeks 1 and 2, but the issues the Vikings had in turning those players loose continue to pop up.
“It was a miscommunication,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of the Croom touchdown. “It has nothing to do with who it was, a tight end, wide receivers, running back, it doesn’t make a difference.”
But it’s still a problem, one that continued down to the final minute of the first quarter, when running back Chris Ivory was left wide open for a 55-yard gain. As Allen was chased out of a collapsing pocket by Danielle Hunter, the rookie watched Charles Clay run an underneath route between Kendricks and Hughes, leaving an opening to dump off an 11-yard pass to Ivory, which he took down to the Minnesota 6-yard line.
One of Minnesota’s biggest strengths last season was its ability to clamp down on allowing big plays. The Vikings allowed 55 explosive plays (runs longer than 10 yards and passes longer than 20 yards) in 2017, which was the fewest in the NFL. Through the first three weeks of the season, Minnesota has given up 18 explosive plays, which has them tied with four other teams for the ninth-most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Miscommunication issues are to blame for a handful of those plays in Weeks 1-3, leading to opposing players running free between linebackers and cornerbacks. Hughes and Mackensie Alexander continuing to get their bearings as regular contributors at nickel poses an opportunity for teams to attack the Vikings in similar ways if this defense doesn’t remedy the coverage breakdowns that have turned players loose the first three games.
“Offenses scheme for us, we game plan for them,” Kendricks said. “It’s about the adjustments you make and getting after it. We need to communicate better and do better on defense.”