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After Further Review: Improved pass defense has helped turn Vikings into a contender


The Minnesota Vikings were a joke against the pass in 2011, so bad they made Tim Tebow look good throwing the ball when he faced them late last season.

That's not the case anymore. The Vikings are good against the pass now, and that's a big reason why they are 5-2 and actually a playoff contender.

The Vikings were 25th in yards per pass play last season, but now rank sixth. They were 31st in scoring defense in 2011, and now rank sixth.

There are several reasons for the change, most notably an improvement in personnel.

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Only one starter from the end of the 2011 season starts in the secondary now, safety Jamarca Sanford. The other three starters are corners Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield and rookie safety Harrison Smith.

Winfield played in just five games in 2011 because of neck problems and a broken collarbone. Cook was banned from the team for the final 11 games last season after a domestic dispute arrest. The Vikings kept him around, and they have to be glad they did.

Winfield and Cook helped limit Larry Fitzgerald to four catches for 29 yards Sunday. Smith, the team's second-round pick, had an interception for a touchdown and has the range you need for a free safety. There were several plays against the Cardinals that highlighted his ability to run and showed off his knack for finding the football. I will show some of them here later.

With Winfield and Cook capable of playing tough, physical man coverage, the Vikings no longer just sit back and play soft zones. That doesn't mean they are blitzing like crazy.

Why? They don't need to. They have done a great job of getting pressure from their down four, which makes covering in the back end a lot easier.

The Vikings had seven sacks, all but one -- by Winfield -- coming from the defensive line. End Brian Robison had one, forcing a fumble, and Jared Allen had two. Those two are relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback.

That doesn't mean the Vikings defense is without flaws. They have had trouble getting off the field on third down, ranking 24th in the league. That has to be better.

With Cook and Smith and fellow young players at linebacker in Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, it should get better as they get more experience playing together.

One thing that definitely seemed to hurt them was the short passes the Cardinals threw. It seemed as if they missed responsibilities in zone coverage. Linebacker Chad Greenway, a steady veteran, seemed to get caught out of position on some of his drops, which led to easy completions.

After last season, that's nitpicky stuff. The Vikings couldn't stop any quarterback last season. Now they're doing a much better job, which is why they are so much better on defense.

Below you will see some images from their game last week that show why.

The first three shots are of Smith's interception return for a score. As you can see, Smith (yellow circle) was lined up in the middle of the field behind Brinkley. At the snap, he read the eyes of quarterback John Skelton. Robison, (blue circle) got a good jump off the ball and helped force Skelton to step up. The second picture shows Skelton being forced to step up by Robison, head up as he looked at receiver Early Doucet, who was blanketed by Winfield. The third shows Winfield on Doucet and Smith jumping the pass to make a nice two-handed grab before cutting it back to the right for a score.





One of the things I mentioned above was the Vikings playing more man coverage. One thing they did against Fitzgerald at times was to be physical with him at the line, making it tougher for him to release. As the pictures that follow show, the Vikings did a nice job when matched in man coverage across the field with the Arizona receivers.

Two different plays, but both feature Arizona receivers -- including Fitzgerald -- locked in man coverage.



Film study

1. The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. One of the players who really stood out against the Seahawks was center Jonathan Goodwin. Last week, I praised Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane for the way he was playing. But Goodwin handled him last week in the 49ers' victory. He was physical and was able to move Mebane off the ball or seal him to a side to help open up running lanes for Frank Gore. Goodwin signed with the 49ers last year as a free agent when the Saints didn't think he was worth a big contract. He was solid in 2011, but he has really elevated his play this season. Here are two examples.

The first is a run by Gore where Goodwin sealed off Mebane (white circle) to help open up the lane. With Goodwin getting the push on Mebane, it allowed left guard Mike Iupati to pull around and get the trap block to help make the hole. Right guard Alex Boone also got a good block on Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. But it all started with Goodwin's push on Mebane.


In the next picture, Goodwin helped create a huge lane for Gore. Goodwin, in the yellow circle, moved Mebane out of the play with a powerful block that took him nearly outside the tackle box. Gore ran for 20 yards through the huge hole.


2. So what's wrong with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton? That's one of the most-asked questions in the league today. After studying his game against the Cowboys, there are several things wrong. It starts with the design of the offense. The read-option principles help Newton make plays with his legs, but I see it hurting his fundamentals. His footwork has regressed. He threw too much off-balance against the Cowboys and it hurt his accuracy. The Panthers needs to just let him play quarterback. He also had some key drops, two of the five linemen struggled in front of him and he failed to hit on a few shots. I will say this: He looked much more comfortable when he played a more conventional style of offense in this game. It might be time to ditch that read-option and let him become a pocket passer.

The pictures below are an example of Newton's poor mechanics costing him a big play.

Newton has running back Mike Tolbert wide open in the middle of the field. But take a look at Newton's balance as he threw. There was none. He looked awkward and he didn't seem to follow through. His pass sailed. As you can see in the second picture, the ball was high and outside and Tolbert couldn't pull it in. This is a throw that all good quarterbacks have to hit. But I believe the read-option garbage the Panthers run is bringing on bad habits for Newton. The mechanics of the position are not what they should be for him, which is why his accuracy isn't as good as it should be.



3. When the Giants played the 49ers two weeks ago, Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made a big stink when he said 49ers defensive end Justin Smith holds on run plays. The 49ers were furious that he pointed it out. But I talked with another league personnel man this week who said they are as good as any team in the league at doing it. "It gets called once every three games, so why not?" the personnel man said. I looked through some of the 49ers tape and they do it, but it's hard to detect. Smith does it some, but nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is the best at it. His ability to hold on helps free up linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Sopoaga is so good at it that he often makes it look as if he's being held when he's the one doing the holding. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but if a defensive lineman can pull down an offensive lineman, it means they can't get out on the linebackers or pull around to the outside. It is a big deal. And the 49ers, much to their credit, are damn good at it. Here's an example of Sopoaga (yellow circle) holding Seahawks center Max Unger.


4. Play zone against Drew Brees without a great pass rush and you are asking for it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were foolish enough to try that last week and Brees carved them to shreds in the first half before they made some adjustments. It was as if Brees and his receivers were playing pitch-and-catch before the Bucs made some second-half adjustments. Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. That was a bad idea. The Bucs also had a lot of busts, but the defensive choice made no sense. If you see teams doing that against the Saints again, Brees should be in for a huge day.

5. With injuries to safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung, the Patriots moved corner Devin McCourty inside to safety against the Jets. He did that three times last season and this time it came on the heels of poor safety play by Tavon Wilson two weeks ago that cost the Patriots a game at Seattle. McCourty did a good job at safety against the Jets, even though Mark Sanchez threw for 308 yards. He didn't let anything get over his head and he also came up and made a few stops in the run game. The Patriots played young corners Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling a lot in this game. They had some struggles, but get them now because both flashed the ability to become good players.

6. I found it surprising that some ripped on Sanchez last week for his role in the loss to the Patriots. Did he make a couple of major mistakes? Yes. But he also did some good things. As for the mistakes, the interception he threw to Dennard was a horrible throw, compounded by the fact he had Shonn Greene wide open in the flat to this right for a play that would have went for about 30 yards. There was nobody in the area. As for his fumble in overtime, it's hard to put that on Sanchez. At the snap, Jermaine Cunningham beat right guard Brandon Moore with a hard inside move and he was at Sanchez's feet almost as he finished his drop. Then outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich came in and finished the play off by hitting him and knocking the ball free. The Jets ran all deep routes and there was nobody open. So blame Sanchez for the pick. But it's hard to blame him for that fumble.

7. Why can't the Packers run? Take a look at center Jeff Saturday. He's a big part of the problem. Saturday, who signed as a free agent, really struggles to get a push at the point of attack. On the Packers' first play last week against the Rams, defensive tackle Kendall Langford ripped right through him and dropped Alex Green for a 1-yard loss. Later in the quarter, it was rookie Michael Brockers who fought off a Saturday block to limit Green to a 1-yard gain. It has been that way a lot for the Packers. Saturday is a smart center who can make the calls, but he isn't nearly physical enough to help the run game. He has struggled some in pass protection as well.

8. The thing you have to love about good rookie corners is their aggressive approach. The thing you have to hate is their aggressive approach. That's the case with Rams rookie corner Janoris Jenkins. He has the tools to become one of the better cover corners in the game down the road. But right now, he's guessing and gambling too much. He makes plays, but he also gets beat because of it. The Packers got him last week with a double move for a touchdown. On the play, Jenkins was in the slot in man coverage on Randall Cobb. At the snap, Cobb faked running an out and then turned it up into the end zone where he was wide open for a score. Jenkins tried to jump the outside route and was nowhere near being in the picture on the touchdown. Jenkins got beat a couple of other times, once on a long pass on a free play because of the Rams being offside. But there are a lot of things to like about his game. He just needs to quit gambling as much.

9. Packers rookie corner Casey Hayward has four picks on the season, getting one last week against the Rams. He plays a lot of man coverage, but he seems much less apt to take the chances that Jenkins takes. He might not be as flashy as Jenkins, and might not be as good down the road, but Hayward is impressive. His pick against Sam Bradford came when he was locked in press-man coverage on fellow rookie Chris Givens. He ran with Givens on the long route and made a nice play on the ball to stop and pick it off. Earlier in the game, matched up in man coverage with veteran Brandon Gibson on a crossing route, Hayward battled him step-for-step, but Gibson was able to push him off and make a catch. You could see the anger from Hayward after the catch for what he thought was a push-off by Gibson. He is a competitive rookie who likes to lock up with receivers. Packers general manager Ted Thompson has hit another one with this second-round pick. With Charles Woodson now out with a broken clavicle, there will be more pressure on Heyward to continue his impressive start. He is tied for the league lead with those four interceptions.

10. It has to be maddening with the game on the line to see a receiver split two secondary players for a touchdown. But that's exactly what we had when Victor Cruz caught a 77-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to beat the Redskins. The Redskins were actually doubling him with corner Josh Wilson and safety Madieu Williams. But Cruz split them and raced untouched into the end zone. Wilson appeared to have inside coverage with Williams outside of Cruz. But Williams seemed to hesitate for a split second and couldn't get over in time. Wilson tried to lunge at Cruz's feet as he pulled in the football, but couldn't bring him down and Cruz raced into the end zone for the game-winning score. Sometimes a team can be in the right defense, but the players simply don't execute what is called.

Hot tub

1. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: Slump? What slump? Nine touchdown passes in two games?

2. Texans CB Johnathan Joseph: He battled a groin injury for two weeks and had trouble covering. Last week, he played through it and had a pick-six.

3. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson: Forget the numbers. He looked like the same pre-injury Adrian Peterson against the Cardinals.

4. Cowboys CB Brandon Carr: He did a nice job on Steve Smith against the Panthers.

5. Rams DE Robert Quinn: He spent a lot of time in the Packers backfield last week, abusing left tackle Marshall Newhouse.

Cold tub

1. Ravens QB Joe Flacco: With the defense struggling, he has to be better. He wasn't against the Texans.

2. Steelers WR Mike Wallace: No wonder he wanted a new contract. He must have known he would have the drops this season.

3. Jets Gs Matt Slauson and Vladimar Ducasse: They were abused last week by Vince Wilfork and the gang in the middle of the line.

4. Packers LT Marshall Newhouse: It's amazing Rodgers did what he did since Newhouse played the Matador to Quinn all day.

5. Panthers C Geoff Hangartner: When Ryan Kalil went down for the season it meant Hangartner had to take over. He really struggled last week against the Cowboys.

Three and outs

Three top Coach of the Year candidates

1. Leslie Frazier, Vikings: At 5-2, the Vikes are a true playoff contender.

2. Mike Smith, Falcons: Hey, we thought they would be good, but undefeated?

3. Joe Philbin, Dolphins: Yeah, like you expected them to be 3-3.

Three impressive quarterback ratings

1. 117.8: Aaron Rodgers' third-down passer rating. He's also averaging 9.59 yards per attempt on third down.

2. 116.0: Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating on third down. He has five touchdown passes and no picks on third down.

3. 125.0: Jay Cutler's passer rating in the fourth quarter, tops in the NFL. Mr. Clutch?

Three college players rising up scouts' lists

1. Texans A&M DE Damontre Moore: He is having the type of pass-rush season that opens scouts' eyes.

2. Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert: In a league where pass-catching tight ends have become a hot commodity, he can be that. I love this kid's game. Too bad Notre Dame doesn't throw it that well.

3. Auburn DE Corey Lemonair: He has that explosive first step teams love. Auburn isn't good, but he is. He needs to gain some weight at 245 pounds at defensive end.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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