Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Porous Defense?

Yesterday was a day to enjoy another Vikings' road victory. Today is a day to return to reality. And reality for the Vikings is that, as good as their offense is, their defense is still what holds this team back.

After five games, the Vikings rank near the bottom of the NFL in nearly every defensive statistic. Minnesota ranks 30th out of 32 teams in yards allowed per game, yielding a whopping 384 yards. Only Indianapolis (385) and New Orleans (414) allow more yards per game. For the Vikings, this averages out to 6.2 yards per play. Only the Saints (6.3) allow more yards per play.

In contrast to these numbers, the league leading Broncos have allowed 224 yards per game and the Redskins have allowed 4.1 yards per play, both through six games. And while the Vikings are dead last in the NFL allowing 23 first downs per game, the Broncos are number one allowing a mere 12 first downs per game.

The Vikings are 26th in third down conversions allowed, with teams converting at a 42% clip. Houston is last in the league at 50% and Washington is first allowing just 23%.

The Vikings fair about the same on fourth down, allowing teams to convert 71% of the time, ranking Minnesota at 26th in this statistic. San Francisco, Buffalo, and New Orleans rank last having allowed conversions on 100% of opponents' 4th down attempts (Tampa Bay also has a 100% success against rate but opponents have only attempted one fourth-down conversion against the Buccaneers).

Minnesota's defense is equally abysmal with respect to yards penalized, having been penalized 41 times for 354 yards to rank the Vikings 27th in this category. The 8.6 yard average reflects the numerous pass interference calls that the Vikings have sustained this season. Denver is last in the league with 52 penalties for 482 yards and a 9.3 yards per penalty average. Houston and New Orleans rank just below Minnesota.

And if you are into being depressed, consider that the Vikings brought in a new defensive coordinator, Ted Cottrell, signed a purportedly grade A cornerback in Antoine Winfield, drafted a pass-rushing expert in Kenechi Udeze, moved Chris Hovan to his "more natural position" (bench?), and had more experience at linebacker than they had last season (save, of course, for middle linebacker), and the Vikings still are much worse than they were last season--a season that ended when the Vikings allowed a touchdown to a nobody QB on 4th and forever from nearly midfield. Yikes!

Last season, despite having what even the most informed of NFL observers rightly considered a shaky defense, the Vikings ranked 23rd in yards allowed per game (334), 28th in yards per play allowed (5.4), 24th in first downs allowed per game (20), 19th in 3rd down conversions allowed (34%), 15th in fourth down conversions allowed (42.9%), and had the third lowest yards-penalized total (720).

While it was difficult to put a good spin on last year's numbers, it is nearly impossible to put a good spin on this year's numbers. Despite injuries to Claiborne and Henderson, the Vikings cannot say that injuries have hurt their defensive performance, as there is no statistical evidence that either Claiborne or Henderson are an upgrade to what the Vikings currently have in the linebacking corps. Nor can the Vikings continue to say that the numbers reflect a "bend but don't break" game plan, as they have allowed an average of 25 points per game.

But, despite the clear dreariness that is the Vikings' current version of defense, the Vikings can point to one statistic that bodes well for them. While the Vikings have been porous on defense, they have been so against some of the better offensive teams in the NFL--Philadelphia (6th), Dallas (10th), Houston (11th)--and against a respectable New Orleans offense (17th) and a Chicago team that was much better with Rex Grossman than it has been with Jonathan Quinn.

Perhaps, as the Vikings take on the Titans, Lions, Jaguars, and Redskins of the league, their defense will firm up. Of course, there are also those other teams, such as the Giants, Packers, Colts, and Seahawks, that are certain to reassert reality for the Vikings' defense. And it is these more high-powered offenses that also happen to play good enough defense that they could stand in the way of the Vikings' post-season ambitions.

Tomorrow: Winning in spite of themselves.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm a baseball kind of person and a football spectator. So I ask you this, how DO defense get better in the NFL?

I mean it's very different than baseball where you you have players staying with their organization for years on end. In the NFL it's like every season teams just trade players among each other. So if you could enlighten us football ignoramouses, I'd appreciate it.

Vikes Geek said...

Good question. Most NFL teams have found that the best way to build a good defense is through the draft. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Vikings, who had success in the draft primarily in drafting offensive players during the Denny Green era, do not have a strong defense. Most of the promising players on the defensive side of the ball for the Vikings are young and the product of the Tice era.

A second way to build a defense in the NFL is through free agency. This is more expensive because the transparency of talent--i.e., the interchangeability of players from team to team--drives up the market for quality talent (and nobody really wants the lesser talent). The Vikings have had several opportunities to add quality players through free agency in the past two years. Last year, one could excuse them if they believed that they were still a year away from contending and that it was thus a better use of resources under the salary cap to wait for this year. They thus passed on players such as Dre Bly, a guy who would look pretty good in purple this year. But this year, with the team promising that they are on the cusp of a title, the Vikings refused to bid on players such as Grant Wistrom, Jeremiah Trotter, Jevon Kearse, Ian Gold, or any other free agent not named Antoine Winfield. This despite being approximately $20 million under the salary cap and having one of the most profitable teams in the NFL.

A third way to build a defense is through trades. Unlike baseball, trades are relatively rare in the NFL and the three trades made just before yesterday's trading deadline constitute a veritable flurry of trades. One trade that the Vikings purportedly had an opportunity to make was that of Michael Bennett for Adewale Ogunleye, a player the Bears got from the Dolphins for Marty Booker, the Bears' top receiver. That trade obviously never happened.

In the end, the best way to build a solid defense is by judicious addition of veteran players to augment a system that relies primarily on the draft. The draft provides the cheap talent, but players that emerge from the draft usually need seasoning--particularly at certain positions on defense (such as middle linebacker). Solid veterans usually cost a buck but they provide stability and an awareness of the game that is usually lost on younger players. The Vikings have some veterans on defense--most notably Corey Chavous--but their front four and linebacking corps are very young.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an excellent answer! I really appreciate it.

The one thing I constantly forget about football is the lack of minor league system (and for good reasons naturally) so that when rookies begin they really are rookies.

Thanks again.

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