'We have to be honest': Vikings attempt to fix one of the NFL's worst defenses

Kevin O'Connell's defense is ranked last in the league, giving up 403.7 yards per game. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

EAGAN, Minn. -- A switch flipped this week for the Minnesota Vikings. After a month of watching his defense get destroyed, coach Kevin O'Connell sprang into action.

O'Connell spoke in blunt terms, both publicly and privately, entertaining every possibility aside from swapping out the entire scheme. He did not dismiss a question about making changes to the coaching staff, or responsibilities within it, saying only that it wasn't a consideration "as of right now." He also hinted strongly at making adjustments to personnel, pass-rush strategy and coverage techniques for Saturday's game against the Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

It was a dramatic tone for a 10-3 team that has a 99.9% chance of going to the playoffs as the NFC North champions, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. But the Vikings' defensive numbers have been awful and their options are limited. O'Connell finally had seen too many unchallenged gains against a scheme he entrusted to veteran defensive coordinator Ed Donatell in his first year as an NFL head coach.

"Coaching is very important in times like this," O'Connell said. "We don't want to completely revamp, [but] we have to be honest and look at things in a way where we can be the most competitive group we can possibly be over there."

The Vikings' scheme has been under some level of scrutiny since Week 2, when ESPN analyst Troy Aikman called out the soft zone coverage it used as the Philadelphia Eagles moved the ball up and down the field in a 24-7 loss. Donatell has made clear all season, and again Wednesday, that his core philosophy is to rely on his front four -- especially linebackers Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter -- to apply enough pressure to allow the rest of the defense to sit back in zone coverage.

Viewed another way, the Vikings have used one of the most predictable defensive approaches in the NFL this season. They are in their nickel personnel group on 81.4% of snaps with split safeties 55.8% of the time, both the second-highest rates in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. They use zone coverage at a rate of 83.2%, also the second-highest in the league, and they blitz at the NFL's sixth-lowest rate (19.9%).

They are on pace to field one of the worst defenses in Vikings history. They are allowing an NFL-worst 403.7 yards per game this season, well ahead of the franchise record of 397.6 set in 2013.

Donatell said Wednesday the problem is more about execution than scheme and expressed confidence that "we'll work out of this." In his 32nd year as an NFL assistant, and fourth stint as a defensive coordinator, he added: "I can't guarantee it in five days, six days, seven days. But eventually we'll be there. Because we know what we're doing and how to do it."

The questions, of course, are how and why it is taking so long. Cornerback Patrick Peterson said as early as Week 2 that he thought pass defenders needed to apply tighter coverage. That has not materialized in a substantive way, however, and opponents have caught on.

In their past five games, the Vikings have allowed 30.4 points and 460.6 yards per game, the highest such marks in the league over that span. Opponents have 23 pass plays of at least 20 yards in those games, the second-highest total in the league.

The most galling examples have come when the Vikings have played what NFL Next Gen Stats considers "off coverage." (The closest defender is more than five yards away.) They have employed it on an NFL-high 261 snaps this season and allowed a league-worst 9.2 yards per pass attempt in those circumstances.

For the first time Wednesday, Donatell acknowledged the need to close those gaps.

"We'd like to take some of the air out of the coverage," he said. "You want to be tighter. Whether you're in man or zone, we've got to be tighter on our matches and tighter on people. That makes it harder for people to run their passing game."

Asked why Vikings defenders have so often been in off coverage, Donatell paused and said: "We just want to be tighter. That's what we're looking for. Our players are doing what they're coached to do."

Some of those instances are the result of busted coverage, including a 40-yard touchdown pass Sunday to Detroit Lions receiver Jameson Williams. But most have simply exploited the Vikings' coverage design, and it appears to be one of the areas O'Connell has zeroed in on.

O'Connell said this week that the defense must find ways to increase its pressure and be "a little bit more aggressive at times." If that means blitzing, it would run counter to Donatell's preference for a standard four-man rush. The Vikings did blitz a season-high 31% against the New York Jets in Week 13, but that fell back to 22% against the Lions.

Speaking Wednesday, Donatell indicated he would rather tweak coverage more than his approach to sending extra pass-rushers.

"If you can hold the coverage just a little bit longer, a lot of those rushes will work with four," he said.

Doing so puts a high degree of pressure on Smith and Hunter, who have combined for 16.5 sacks this season but only three in the past five games. Smith ranks No. 11 in the NFL in pressure rate at 11.9%. Hunter (7.9%) ranks No. 61.

Twice this week, once on KFAN 100.3-AM radio and again in speaking Wednesday with reporters, Peterson suggested a focus this week on boosting Smith and Hunter with new rush strategies.

"Teams have been doing a good job of chipping our edge guys," he said, "forcing us to dial in a little bit with different games up front. ... We always talk about marrying rush with coverage. We have to continue finding ways to get to the passer, much more efficient, so those coverage and rushes marry together going forward."

As part of the 3-4 scheme, Smith and Hunter have been dropping into coverage on 4.8% of their snaps. Donatell said he is "pleased" with the number, insisted that "we don't over-drop those guys" and suggested the rate is close to previous seasons. In fact, it is measurably higher. Hunter dropped on 2.9% of his snaps at his height as 4-3 pass-rusher in the Vikings' previous scheme from 2018-19, while Smith dropped on only 1.9% of his snaps during the 2020 season with the Green Bay Packers.

Smith has been working through a knee injury, and Donatell suggested that Hunter is still getting accustomed to working as a stand-up 3-4 -- a surprising admission in Week 15 of a season.

"I think he's getting more comfortable every week," Donatell said. "It'll take the whole year. It's different to every individual. Standing up and playing in our base is a little new to him, still."

It seems fair to point out two notable caveats. First, veteran safety Harrison Smith is set to return Saturday from a neck injury; his presence should lower the chance for a coverage bust. Second, the Vikings have compensated for the yardage they've given up by intercepting eight passes after the start of the fourth quarter, tied for the NFL lead.

Clearly, however, O'Connell had had enough, leaving him in the uncomfortable position of demanding changes from coaches who haven't made the adjustments on their own.

"We’ve got to be honest with each other," he said. "We've got to look at things with a standard at which we expect our players to execute but also as coaches look at it in a way, [and say], 'Regardless of the reasoning, regardless of the outcomes, what are we doing process-wise to put all of our players in all three phases in good situations?'

"Ultimately, I'm responsible for everything we do as a football team so I want to make sure I'm doing my job as the head coach to make sure that we're continuing to evolve and grow as a team."