The 2009 season has started pretty well for the Minnesota Vikings. With a 6-1 record, they have an opportunity on Sunday to all but wrap up the NFC North. A win over the Green Bay Packers would give the Vikings a 2.5 game lead over their nearest division rival with the head to head tie-breaker in hand.
Add to the overall record, the play of quarterback Brett Favre, the relatively good play of rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt, the emergence of Adrian Peterson as the screen threat most fans have always thought he actually was and of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice as legitimate receiving options, and several of last year's season-ending concerns suddenly appear less disconcerting.
But as the NFL goes, nearly every sunny day has its storm clouds. And for the Vikings, those clouds are appearing in areas not long ago considered strong suits.
In 2008, the Vikings allowed 216 passing yards per game to rank 18th in the league in team passing defense. That statistic, it was contended in some quarters, was the consequence of teams passing more and running less against Minnesota's stalwart defensive line--the catalyst behind the team's third consecutive top-ranked rushing defense at 76.9 yards/game.
In 2009, the Vikings have allowed 235 passing yards per game against three competent offenses and four fairly awful offenses. And this year, they cannot claim that other teams are passing on them to avoid their run defense, as they have allowed an average of 95 rushing yards per game--good for tenth in the league. That's not bad, but it's not nearly as dominant as it was the past three seasons.
The point is not, however, that the Vikings' run defense is in decline, but, rather, that the team's pass defense is looking awfully suspect for a contending team--and this despite relatively strong performances by Carl Paymuh and Benny Sapp against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week seven.
Notwithstanding some inexplicably poor routes to the ball and huge cushions committed and allowed by Cedric Griffin, the Vikings' cornerbacks have been solid much of the season. What has not been so good in pass defense, however, has been the play of the safeties and of middle linebacker EJ Henderson.
Through the first seven games, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams have combined for one interception. Forty-two individual players have more interceptions than the Vikings' starting safeties, combined. And one wide-receiver, Randy Moss, has as many. The tackles for Johnson and Williams are not high--58 combined--but they are in line with decent tackle numbers for modestly active safeties. But what those numbers do not tell, and what the lack of interceptions betrays, is the inability of either to jump routes or even provide help on tight plays.
Nowhere was the lack of safety help more evident for the Vikings this season than in last week's game against Pittsburgh. Whether watching receiver Mike Wallace haul one in and split the seam with no safety in sight or lamenting Ben Leber having to cover a receiver across the middle and down the sideline with no safety in sight, the routine was becoming eerily repetitive--nine defenders pursuing, safeties elsewhere.
If the Vikings hope to make a drive for a championship this season, the safeties will have to show up to play. That means not only making the tackles once the receiver finds them behind the corners and linebackers, but also initiating contact, reading plays, and jumping routes on occasion.
While the struggles of the Vikings' starting safeties is not a new phenomenon in Leslie Frazier's system, the lack of pass-defense production by middle linebacker EJ Henderson is. After a solid debut to the season, Henderson lately appears slow to the ball and not his earlier rambunctious self. That's led opposing receivers to tread less fearfully across the middle and recalled images of Sam Cowart attempting in vain to cover opposing tight ends. As with the play of the Vikings' safeties, Henderson's play in the passing game must, too, improve.
The Vikings' pass defense flaws are not fatal, but they do put more pressure on the offense to produce, thereby making Adrian Peterson less of a factor--unless the Vikings decide to make better use of Peterson in that facet of their offense. The flaws also mean that, despite less time-consuming drives by opponents resorting to the passing attack, the Vikings' defense is actually on the field longer owing to the Vikings' own need to pass more often. And that begins to take its toll on the run defense.
This week would be a good week to begin addressing some of these issues by seeing what the safeties have at their wherewithal. Is it a matter of timidity or simply a purposeful design aimed at protecting weaker players? Sunday's game ought to provide insight.
Up Next: Favre's Success Causing Problems on Offense.