Vikings Can Fix Mired Defense en Route to Division Title

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Vikings Can Fix Mired Defense en Route to Division Title

In his first year as Vikings head coach, Kevin O’Connell has been the ultimate diplomat who does not publicly call out his coaches or players. That is until this week after the Vikings defense was gashed for over 400 yards in a fifth straight game.

The Vikings managed to win three of those games due to a prolific offense led by Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson putting up lots of yards and points in wins over the Bills, Patriots, and Jets, along with the defense forcing four turnovers in Buffalo and two turnovers against the Jets. No turnovers in the Dallas and Detroit losses spelled trouble.   

Vikings Can Fix Mired Defense en Route to Division Title

Going into Saturday’s home game against the Colts with the NFC North title on the line, O’Connell has put defensive coordinator Ed Donatell on notice by answering a press conference question on whether Donatell will keep his job as play-caller for the defense. O’Connell said he’s not considering it “right now.” And O’Connell added that changes were necessary schematically and talked of more blitzing. 

Vikings Can Fix Mired Defense en Route to Division Title
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I’m sure there have been pointed discussions the past few weeks between O’Connell and Donatell, with assistant head coach Mike Pettine, a long-time successful NFL defensive coordinator, weighing in. This isn’t Donatell’s first rodeo (11 years as an NFL DC among his 31 coaching seasons in the league), so he understands the defense must improve quickly, or O’Connell may shake things up by handing over the DC reins to Pettine over the last few regular season games and into the playoffs.

There is good news on a couple of fronts for Donatell and the D. First, Harrison Smith’s neck injury has healed, so he can return to the lineup this week. The secondary was clearly out of sync without his leadership and playmaking (five interceptions this season rank second in the league) as Jared Goff threw for 330 yards and 3 TDs in Detroit with a huge coverage bust in the Vikings zone scheme on the opening 41 yard TD pass to Jameson Williams.

The other good news is the Colts are coming to town with the 25th-ranked offense and a quarterback in Matt Ryan, who leads the league with 13 interceptions. The Colts O-line has allowed 46 quarterback sacks which should be a boon to the Vikings pass rushers, who were shut out in Detroit.

Za’Darius Smith, the Vikings leading sacker (9 ½), who has been without a sack the past four games as he’s battled a sore knee, is said to be recovered from that injury. We know Za’Darius and Danielle Hunter must be impact pass rushers with a good number of sacks and/or pressures on a weekly basis for the Vikings to be successful on defense. 

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It will be interesting to watch the Vikings defense this week with the pressure on the coordinator and the players. 

I will add that I’ve seen plenty of teams succeed in the playoffs, with dominant offenses making up for shaky defenses. That happened with the Chargers in the Dan Fouts/Air Coryell era (named after their head coach Don Coryell) and the Dolphins in a few of the years when Dan Marino was a TD pass machine.

Perhaps that’s what has to happen for the Vikings with their superstar Jefferson and a hot Cousins (if he has good protection) leading a deep playoff run. We’ll see in January. First things first—the Vikings need to wrap up the division title on Saturday vs. the 4-8-1 Colts, who were dominated by Dallas 54-19 in their last game two weeks ago (they’re now coming off a bye).

Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Colts:

1. Win the turnover battle by stopping the run and putting the heat on Matt Ryan: the Vikings are plus 6 in turnover ratio to rank fourth best leaguewide. The Colts at minus 14 are the worst. Ryan must be pressured into interceptions. But first, the Vikings D must stop last year’s leading rusher in the NFL—Jonathan Taylor (who has been less productive this season with 861 rushing yards and 4 TDs after 1,811/18 last year). The Vikings run D is better with Dalvin Tomlinson back from his calf injury.

2. Home crowd needs to play a role: the Vikings are 6-1 at home this season, and the full-throated fans have helped to disrupt opposing offenses. Ryan is a grizzled vet, but the noise factor should help Za’Darius Smith, Hunter, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Tomlinson, and the other Vikings rushers, including Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Hicks, on some timely blitzes.

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3. On offense, run the ball, which also will help the Vikings defense stay off the field. Last week was bad for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison (17 carries for 22 yards between them). Indy ranks No. 21 against the run and No. 3 vs. the pass. Not to say the Vikings should ignore their prolific passing game, but a better balance will help the cause. It will help the Vikings running game and pass blocking to have tackle Christian Darrisaw and center Garrett Bradbury back in the lineup after they missed the Lions game, which was a big factor.

4. Cousins and J.J. always must connect: Jefferson, as usual, will attract lots of attention, including from one of the NFL’s better corners in five-time Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore. Doesn’t matter — O’Connell and Cousins still must give J.J. double-digit targets and contested catch opportunities which he wins more often than not. And continue to move the chains with throws to Thielen, Hockenson, and Osborn, along with Cook, out of the backfield. Colts starting corner Kenny Moore will miss the game (ankle), so that should help the Vikings passing attack.  

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5. Keep DeForest Buckner from wrecking the game: he dominated the Vikings O-line when he was a 49er in the 2019 playoffs, and the two-time Pro Bowler continues to be a top defensive tackle (5.5 sacks and 57 tackles). He’ll surely line up over Ed Ingram, and the Vikings need to double-team Buckner. 

6. Win on special teams, unlike last week: the 42-yard fake punt executed by the Lions was a huge play in the game. That can’t happen again, nor can any long kick returns (Indy leads the league with a 27-yard kickoff return average, so Isaiah Rodgers must be contained, or better yet, Greg Joseph should just boot all his kickoffs too deep for a return). And he needs to make his place kicks which he’s been better at doing the last few weeks. Perhaps it’s time for another big Kene Nwangwu return too.  

Jeff’s Prediction: The Vikings are 4-0 against AFC teams after sweeping the AFC East. The Colts are not as good as any of those teams the Vikings beat, but this is the NFL, and anything can happen.

Indy has had a rough season, but they’ve played a lot of teams tough, including the Eagles, who beat the Colts 17-16 three weeks ago. Interim Coach Jeff Saturday injected some energy into a team with plenty of talented players, but turnovers have killed the Colts this season. I expect the Vikings to make enough plays on offense and combine it with forcing a couple of Ryan interceptions to win in front of a loud U.S. Bank Stadium crowd looking to celebrate an NFC North title. I see a 27-17 Vikings win.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. If the Vikings are upset by the Colts, they can still win the division if the hot Lions (5-1 in their last six games) are knocked off by the Jets in the Meadowlands. Both teams need a win to stay on track toward a playoff spot. I think Detroit and Goff are playing with so much confidence that they’ll win this game.

2. Another big game in the playoff picture sends the Giants to Washington. The teams tied two weeks ago, but even though both teams are currently holding wild card spots at 7-5-1, they’re headed in different directions. The Commanders are 3-0-1, and the Giants are 0-3-1 over the last four games. I’m picking Washington to win, with their strong defense leading the way.

3. Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa comes off two bad games in losses out west to the 49ers and Chargers. Now he must face the Bills in wintry Buffalo on Sunday. Buffalo can basically wrap up the AFC East with a win, and I think Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Company will do just that.

4. The 5-8 Packers will try to stay alive for at least one more week as they host the Rams on Monday night in a matchup of the NFL’s two most disappointing teams this season. The Vikings will hope for a Rams win, so they would likely face Jordan Love instead of Aaron Rodgers on New Year’s Day in Lambeau, but I think the Pack wins this game and then gets eliminated from the playoff race in Miami next week, so Love does get the call against the Purple. 

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl