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Photo provided courtesy of Vikings.com

Don’t you love the NFL offseason?  If you thought the wait for the NFL draft was bad, we’re currently experiencing the worst part of the year for football fans. For those finding ways to supplement your withdraws with another type of football, I’m jealous. For myself, in hopes of filling the void, I’ve watched and re-watched the practice highlights looking for something to stand out.  I’ve also done a great deal of thinking around the current depth chart, trying to predict where the 2014 Vikings will make their greatest strides.

When looking at a defense full of holes in 2013, it isn’t difficult to identify the area in need of the largest improvement. Second to only the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings ranked 31st in total passing defense in 2013, surrendering an average of 287 yards through the air per game. To throw salt on the wound, the Vikings allowed 37 passing TDs and a completion percentage of 64.7%, a completion percentage so high that only 6 quarterbacks averaged a higher number for the 2013 season.

The Vikings secondary wasn’t just the weakest spot on the field, it made an opposing quarterback look like a pro bowler week in and week out.

The defensive collapses were frustrating to watch. Each week, fans watched in agony as the defense gave up more 3rd & long completions, some of which cost the Vikings wins and ultimately cost Head Coach Leslie Frazier and staff their jobs. There is no quick fix for a defensive unit as broken as the Vikings secondary. Was it the scheme or the personnel? Let’s take a closer look at how General Manager Rick Spielman has addressed the troubled secondary entering the 2014 season.

SCHEME:
As discussed since his hire, Zimmer employs a unique hybrid defense where players are used in a versatile manner. The success Zimmer has found, I believe, correlates with his ability to fit his defensive strategy against a specific opponent.

A key component of Zimmer’s hybrid defense is an aggressive front seven with linebackers used to add quarterback pressure, leaving your secondary to rely more on man coverage. The early stages of this transformation can be noted in commentary coming out of OTAs.

This leads us to the question: do the players make the scheme or the scheme make the players? It seems Zimmer is very skilled at fitting his scheme to his player’s abilities and I suspect you will see reflected within the defense we see in 2014.

WHAT TO WATCH:
There is little doubt that new Head Coach Mike Zimmer will help the secondary find improvement in 2014. Zimmer has consistently found success reviving defenses and fans’ anticipation for seeing what Zimmer has in store for our 2014 squad grows daily.

Not only has Zimmer found success turning around defensive units, he’s also found success taming some of the best quarterbacks in the league. In 2013, Zimmer’s Cincinnati Defense held Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to 244 yards and 1 TD while generating 2 interceptions and holding Rodgers to a 60.0 completion percentage. That is roughly 40 yards less than Rodgers Average in 2013, and a significant step down in completion percentage from the 2013 average of 66.0.

2 weeks later in week 5, Zimmer’s defense held New England’s quarterback Tom Brady to an astonishingly low 147 yards through the air and 47.3 completion percentage. It is likely no surprise that these are steep declines from Brady’s 2013 average of 271 yards and 60.5 completion percentage.

Most importantly, though, is the fact that Cincinnati walked away with victories in both games.

Success against some of the best is always noteworthy, especially when you play Rodgers a minimum of twice a year.

PERSONNEL:
Not only will Zimmer’s strategy help the secondary in 2014, new additions to the depth chart will aid in drastic improvement in stopping the pass.

The addition of Captain Munnerlyn via free agency from Carolina will help sure up the secondary, especially within the slot coverage. The Vikings were aggressive when pursuing Munnerlyn after struggling mightily in stopping slot receivers after the departure of veteran leader Antoine Winfield.

Attempting to replace Winfield with second year player Josh Robinson was absolutely disastrous.  Robinson received an overall grade of -8.8 from profootballfocus.com, ranking him 99th out of 110 possible cornerbacks.  Standing at 5’8”, Munnerlyn is an expert in defending the slot, playing 40% of his snaps inside and allowed 0 TDs in 2013. Munnerlyn will help immediately not only in the slot, but can also play on the outside when needed. Not only did Munnerlyn post an impressive 10.1 PFF grade, he and Brent Grimes were the only two defensive backs in the NFL with more than 90 targets but 1 or fewer TDs.

As Munnerlyn told Brian Hall of Fox Sports, he’s styled his game after the likeness of Winfield:

“Actually when I first got to the NFL, my coach showed me tape of him, making plays, flying around. So I started watching film on him. I kind of stole some of his game and brought it to my game.”

Munnerlyn also resembles Winfield in his tackling ability. Munnerlyn missed only 4 tackles in 2013, ranking him third overall, and brings impressive physicality for a cornerback weighing 195lbs. As seen below, Munnerlyn is not afraid to go after bigger ball carriers to bring them to the ground.

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Source: NFL Game Rewind via Bleacher Report

To add some additional color here, there is a 98lb difference between Munnerlyn and 49ers Will Tukuafu. The tackle isn’t pretty, but it got the job done.  Doesn’t it remind you of countless plays Winfield made when wearing purple and gold? Munnerlyn’s eagerness to be aggressive will be fun to watch and will add a breath of fresh air to a secondary who, at times, seemed unsure of themselves.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Munnerlyn will bring much needed slot coverage ability and physicality to the 2014 Vikings secondary, but he won’t be able to do it all by himself.  The Vikings will also count heavily on second year player Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes started to turn heads in the second half of his rookie campaign after being drafted in the 1st round of the 2013 draft.

Rhodes has all of the tools and size needed to be the top cornerback on the depth chart and excels in man coverage where he can us his long arms to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage and make late breaks on the ball to break up passes. After investing a 1st round pick in Rhodes, he will be expected to make big strides in his second season and is already starting to get national attention as someone slated for a breakout season.

Rhodes size seems to be a perfect fit to man up against the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Using his long arms, Rhodes can bump receivers off the line of scrimmage and use the sideline to his advantage. If Rhodes can begin to trust his instincts more, he will be able to leverage his size more and more.

A more comfortable Rhodes can be a difference maker in the secondary. This was evident during the second half of the 2013 season, in which Rhodes displayed a knack for stepping in front of receivers in order to make nice plays to break up passes. Rhodes finished 2013 9th overall in pass deflections among all cornerbacks, but will have to turn a few of those into interceptions to help the secondary force more turnovers.

Last but not least, third year safety Harrison Smith will be relied on heavily and in my opinion, be given more freedom to make plays and use his ball hawk instincts to have a greater impact. Smith immediately turned heads by making an impact in the secondary in 2012 as a hard-hitting rookie who helped take away large portions of the field with his ball hawk skills.

Missing 8 games due to injury, Smith didn’t produce nearly the types of numbers he did in 2012, yet his impact on the secondary cannot be minimized. Looking at 2013, with Smith on the field, the Vikings secondary surrendered a QB passing rating of 97.5.  Without Smith, the secondary struggled and opposing QBs averaged a passer rating of 106.8.

Don’t get me wrong, 97.5 isn’t a fantastic QB rating to hold opposing quarterbacks to, but it certainly is improved from the number of 106.8. Although Smith is a safety who isn’t afraid to get into the mix in the run game, he has also earned the nickname ‘The Eraser’ for his ability to help fill in for mistakes made by others in the secondary.

MORE HELP ON THE WAY:
Prior to the 2012 NFL draft there was a lot of speculation as to who the Vikings would draft to provide then quarterback Christian Ponder enough tools on offense.  When asked, Spielman answered coyly as usual in saying that you could help a quarterback in other ways than just drafting a wide receiver.

Although many believed Spielman was bluffing, he was not and drafted USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil 4th overall.

I believe the Vikings are using a similar strategy with hopes of improving the secondary.  The defensive line has seen nearly a complete makeover with new faces all over the depth chart. In fact, the defensive line will have 5 new contributors in 2014 if you count Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd who will be asked to make larger contributions than they did in 2013.

As mentioned above, Zimmer will likely use a hybrid defense that will call for increased blitzing and pressure from the front seven of the defense.  When doing so, you can reduce the total time the quarterback has to make progressions through his reads.

This strategy was further enforced when the Vikings decided to trade back 1 spot with Cleveland to take UCLA Linebacker Anthony Barr. The Vikings decided at that moment that a tremendously strong front seven can immediately help your back four.

When you look at the depth chart of the Vikings defensive line, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer athleticism. I would be tempted to say the Vikings actually have the most athletic defensive line in the league, but I am sure other would beg to differ. One commonality you will note, however, is the versatility the defensive line now carries.

Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are both versatile enough to play at defensive end and could play downs upright in an outside linebacker pass rushing role if the Vikings decide to play some sequences in a pure 3-4 scheme.

Adding to the athleticism and versatility are Scott Crichton and Corey Wootton.  Crichton, a third round rookie from Oregon State was viewed as one of the top defensive linemen in the draft and is already getting strong reviews from the Vikings coaching staff.  Wootton, a former Chicago Bear, has shown flashes of dominance, but has lacked the consistency to take his game to the next level.  Viking fans are likely familiar with Wootton as the Bear defensive lineman who crushed Brett Favre into the frozen turf of TCF Bank Stadium and ultimately ended Favre’s career.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Generally speaking, a disruptive defensive line can impact the secondary by getting in the head of the opposing quarterback. When under pressure, even the best of the best typically see a 10 point swing in terms of completion percentage. The top three quarterbacks in terms of completion percentage when under pressure were Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers in 2013. On average, those three saw an 11.6 percent decrease in completed passes when pressured.

It is interesting to note the production of the best quarterback in the division when pressured as well. Rodgers posted a completion percentage of 41.8 and also took the eighth most sacks in the NFL when defenses got in his face.

Not only does pressure seem to drive down completion percentage, it also helps create turnovers. Manning and Rivers both threw about 30% of their interceptions when pressured, Ryan and Rodgers on the other hand, threw half of their interceptions when the defense brought pressure.

For a defensive secondary who has seemingly struggled to accumulate interceptions in recent years, adding pressure might be just what the doctor ordered.

WHAT TO EXPECT:
With Zimmer at the helm, I expect the Vikings defense as a whole to be improved. This improvement starts in the secondary and Zimmer will have his work cut out for him. The addition of Munnerlyn will help close the gap, but he can’t do it by himself and the Vikings will need to rely heavily on Rhodes and Smith to deliver even more of an impact.

Improving the secondary can be done by improving the defensive line, as well. A defense that can get in the fact of the quarterback is bound to limit the opportunities to complete passes and force turnovers. Although this might force the defensive backs to play more man coverage, there should be less time for quarterbacks to make their progressions, and even less time for wide receivers to stretch the field as a whole.

Winning in 2014 will start by improving the performance of the secondary and the Vikings have overhauled not only their defensive strategy, but also the personnel to find success. Although I don’t think they’ve solved the puzzle completely, they are well on their way to fielding a defensive secondary that will no longer dwell in the basement of the league.