The success of the Vikings’ new, Kevin O’Connell-led offense was the big story from their 23-7 season-opening win over the Packers on Sunday, specifically in terms of how it set up Justin Jefferson to explode for an incredibly efficient and explosive 184-yard, two-touchdown performance.
What happened on the other side of the ball deserves just as much attention. The Vikings were also debuting a new scheme on defense; this was our first look at the 3-4, two-high safety system Ed Donatell helped create with Vic Fangio over the past decade. Facing one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Donatell and company passed their first test with flying colors.
There are a couple important caveats to get out of the way. The Packers were missing both of their starting offensive tackles, which is tough for any offense to overcome. Thanks to the offseason trade of Davante Adams and an injury to Allen Lazard, Aaron Rodgers’ top four wide receivers included a pair of post-prime veterans and a couple rookies. One of those rookies, second-rounder Christian Watson, dropped what would’ve been a 75-yard touchdown pass on Green Bay’s first offensive play.
Even with all of that in mind, this was a highly encouraging defensive performance from the Vikings. They held the Packers to seven points, the fewest a Rodgers-led offense has ever scored in the rivalry series. They sacked him four times, forced two turnovers, and stopped two fourth down attempts. Of the 30 teams to play prior to Monday Night Football, the Packers’ offense had the fourth-worst Expected Points Added (EPA) per play and the third-worst success rate. 122 of Green Bay’s 338 yards of offense came on a pair of drives late in the fourth quarter with the Vikings up by 16 points, the latter of which was true garbage time with Jordan Love at quarterback. Six of their eight possessions prior to that point gained 26 yards or fewer.
This game showcased the potential of what the Vikings’ defense can be this year: a complementary unit with playmakers at all three levels. The defensive line got after Rodgers, but several of their four sacks came because the coverage was sharp downfield. The secondary mostly played well, but their jobs were made easier by the pressure generated by the pass rush. It all worked hand in hand.
“What I thought it would take to win the football game is that marriage,” O’Connell said. “We talk a lot about the marriage of the run and the pass offensively, but the marriage of rush and coverage on defense. I mean, (Rodgers is) not going to miss very many people when they’re open. Every time they were able to get home up front, it’s a credit to the back end clouding up that picture for him. Just make him hold it one more click, one more hitch, and see if we can get home.”
What O’Connell described is the whole idea behind Donatell’s scheme. Starting with two high safeties on almost every play and rotating into different looks after the snap causes things to be muddy for the quarterback, who isn’t able to identify much before the snap. The goal is to create some confusion, forcing the QB to hold onto the ball for just another moment or two, which should be enough time for the pass rush to get there. Rodgers is one of the all-time elite minds at the position, so he was frequently able to make the right read and get the ball out quickly, but there were also times where he had to hold onto it until it was too late.
It all starts with the duo of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, dubbed the “Edge Department” by Donatell. They only combined for five pressures, but they made them count by recording one sack apiece. Hunter looked fully healthy, picking up a sack and pressuring Rodgers before D.J. Wonnum got him to the ground for a big third down stop in the fourth quarter. Smith got a revenge sack against his old team, beating the right guard with a nasty bull rush to get to Rodgers.
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“One coach said last year, ‘I would sell my soul for two great pass rushers,'” Kirk Cousins said after game. “Because as I’ve been around the league, you just see, when you have two guys that can really roll and they stay healthy, the difference it makes in your success level in this league is significant. So every team is looking. If you don’t feel you have one, you draft one. If it you have them, you try to keep them. It makes a difference.”
If Hunter and Smith able to stay healthy, the two of them alone will have a major impact on every game. But they’re far from the only difference-makers on this defense.
Up front, the Vikings added nose tackle Harrison Phillips this offseason to pair with Dalvin Tomlinson in the middle of their defensive line. Phillips, Smith, and a few others combined on maybe the biggest play of the day for the defense, stuffing A.J. Dillon on fourth and goal for a turnover on downs. Tomlinson, who is known for his run defense, had a standout day as a pass rusher, finishing with a 25 percent pass rush win rate that was tied for third-best among defensive tackles in Week 1. At times, he was even used from wider alignments than we’ve previously seen, and was able to have success in those situations.
The second level features a stout linebacker duo. Jordan Hicks struggled in coverage in his Vikings debut, but that should improve over time as he gets more comfortable in this defense. He balanced that out by leading the Vikings with 14 tackles and sacking Rodgers on the opening possession of the second half, forcing a fumble that Tomlinson recovered. Eric Kendricks remains one of the game’s elite coverage linebackers, a skill that he displayed with a fourth-down pass breakup to seal the game.
The biggest defensive question mark coming into this season was the secondary, which nearly gave up an immediate touchdown. Peterson was beaten badly by Watson on the first play, saying later that he wasn’t anticipating a deep route. But he was solid after that point, Cameron Dantzler played fairly well, and Harrison Smith was fantastic. Smith recorded his 30th career interception — his first against Rodgers in a decade — and was all over the field as a central figure of the Vikings’ disguised looks.
“There’s a couple things we could clean up, but for the most part it was a really, really sound game plan by coach,” Peterson said. “We executed on all levels and I believe we got better in the areas we needed to get better in. Two-minute warning, third downs, red zone, end of the game. Those things are very promising for us to continue moving in the right direction.”
There’s still reason to believe the secondary could be somewhat inconsistent this year, but there’s also plenty of upside with that unit. It’ll be interesting to see how rookies Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. get worked into the mix over the course of the year. Booth is dealing with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a couple weeks, but Cine is expected to make his NFL debut next Monday against the Eagles.
Overall, it was an excellent first showing for the Vikings’ new-look defense. It was just one game, but between the scheme, the individual talent of various stars, and the way the three levels worked together, one can envision this defense engineering many more stifling performances like this one over the course of the season.
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