What's happened to Vikings' vaunted defense since NFC title game?

EAGAN, Minn. -- Holding court in front of his locker, stunned at the 38-7 result in the NFC Championship Game, Xavier Rhodes summed up the performance of his defense.

"We just played trash," Rhodes said.

Nine months after that rout at the hands of eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, others inside the Minnesota Vikings' locker room might similarly describe their defensive struggles from the first quarter of the season.

Some will argue that the defensive prowess of the Vikings’ stout unit, which rose to No. 1 in scoring and total defense in 2017, has yet to return after disappearing at Lincoln Financial Field in late January.

They wouldn’t be wrong.

Minnesota has tumbled to 22nd in scoring after allowing 27 or more points in three straight games. In its past two games, the Vikings' defense allowed opposing quarterbacks to account for at least three touchdowns in the first half alone. The Rams posted 556 yards of total offense in Week 4, the most ever given up by a Vikings defense during Mike Zimmer’s tenure.

The only silver lining as the Vikings prepare to head back to Philly in Week 5 may be the early nature of these issues. Zimmer had a hard time finding an answer for their struggles against the pass after allowing Jared Goff to complete 26 of 33 passes for 422 yards and five touchdowns, but he isn’t willing to let these first four games define anything.

"This isn’t a time for ‘woe is me,’" Zimmer said. "If people remember, we were 2-2 this time last year. We finished 13-3. We were 5-0 the year before, and we finished 8-8. We were 2-2 the year before that, and we finished 11-5, so all the predictors, this isn’t a good time to predict."

With Carson Wentz returning for his third start after a complex ACL tear kept him out of the NFC title game, Zimmer noted that Philadelphia’s offense is "pretty similar" to when it had Nick Foles at quarterback.

In their last meeting, Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, converting 10 of 14 third downs against the league’s best third-down defense. He made his biggest plays when he had to drop back and pass downfield.

Last week in the Eagles' overtime loss to Tennessee, Wentz completed 33 of 50 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns, predicated on the intermediate passing attack he thrived in a year ago, hitting receivers in stride downfield.

Minnesota’s pass defense ranks 23rd (277.5 yards per game) after four weeks. It was the second-best pass defense a year ago. So far this season, the Vikings' miscommunication has led to mistakes in coverage, allowing teams to string together big plays.

"We need to cover our guys, stop making mistakes, making errors because it’s a domino effect," Rhodes said. "If one guy messes up, another guy does, a guy is open, and the quarterback finds that guy."

That’s the strategy the Rams used in Week 4. With a scheme that thrives on misdirection plays and constantly attempting to send players out the back end, Goff capitalized on a big gain by finding just one Vikings defender out of position.

"It’s just little things here and there, whether it’s your eyes were off on this play because you were worried about this or you’re making a check here for a play you might not get, that you might see," safety George Iloka said. "As a defender, us trying to take away something that probably won’t hurt us in the long run while there’s something else that might be bigger. Things like that, and obviously penalties that we’ve gotten that’s led drives to continue."

The Vikings also haven’t been able to reignite their pass rush, largely because of how offenses are scheming around them. The Vikings have a 29.1 pressure percentage in four games, which has them at 13th overall, but much of the limitation with pressuring quarterbacks has to do with the rampant play-action attacks they’ve faced. The 588 yards allowed on play-action passes are the most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Against the Packers, Bills and Rams, the Vikings have had 30 total pressures on 125 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

"It’s hard," defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. "We’re following our offensive lineman and we’re following the running back, and then all of a sudden [the QB] pulls it out and it’s a pass. Now we have to put our foot in the ground, get our momentum going up the field, going towards the quarterback, and it adds seconds. Those are precious seconds that the receiver has to break, to get open. Anyone can get open if you have six, seven seconds to do it. You wouldn’t have that much time if it was a straight dropback pass because when a defense knows an offense has to pass, you see it throughout the league, you see pressures dialed up, you see more quarterback hits, more sacks."

In the NFC title game, Foles was pressured on 11 of his 34 dropbacks, while his stout offensive line allowed him time for routes to develop downfield. His success on play-action fakes allowed Foles to post a 149.3 passer rating on throws of 20 yards or more.

That type of dismantling coupled with the Vikings' inability to stop Foles from stringing explosive gains produced speculation that the Eagles created a template for others to follow in scheming against Zimmer’s defense.

"I don’t know about that as far as what we did tipping things off," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "Obviously, as an offensive coach you look at something like that and you go, ‘OK, how did they attack the defense? How did they handle such a good front and good secondary?’ They might try to mix it into their scheme, but I don’t think it was necessarily about that. I think that right now, they’re just missing some guys on defense. Guys that helped them last year."

The indefinite absence of defensive end Everson Griffen, who is dealing with mental health issues, is certainly a factor. Griffen led Minnesota in sacks last season and is one of the league’s best pass-rushers when healthy. (He played the second half of 2017 with a torn plantar fascia.)

But beyond players on the 2018 roster, it’s fair to look at the void that has been created by players no longer wearing a Vikings uniform.

After Terence Newman retired to become an assistant defensive backs coach, the Vikings turned to Mackensie Alexander and rookie Mike Hughes to fill the void at nickel corner. Newman's expertise at one of the most difficult positions on defense isn’t easily replaceable. While the Vikings continually voice support for their young slot corners, Newman’s leadership in the secondary could have mitigated some of the early communication issues.

The Vikings' defense is almost the same as the unit that fielded a runner-up finish in the NFC. They have the same scheme, the same playcaller, the same defensive coordinator and only one new starter in Sheldon Richardson at 3-technique tackle.

The key to a defensive turnaround likely falls within the Vikings' locker room. Maybe a trip back to the place where they lost their defensive identity is the first step in reclaiming it.

"Everybody’s going to be down on us, which is fine, as they should," Iloka said. "We’re not playing to our capability, but we’re close, and that’s kind of how we have to approach it and clean up those things. We’ll be back where we want to be."