Improving Pass Defense Must Be Vikings' Top Bye Week Priority

Will Ragatz

As they head into their bye week, the Vikings are faced with a problem they haven't had to confront in several years: a struggling pass defense. It's their number one weakness right now, and one that must be fixed in order for the Vikings to make a run in the playoffs.

Through 11 games, the Vikings are allowing 244.5 passing yards per game, 19th-most in the NFL. That may not seem horrible, but they've never finished worse than 12th in that statistic since Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014. It's been a shocking downturn for a team that spent each of the previous three seasons as one of the three stingiest defenses in the league to opposing passers in terms of yards allowed per game.

Other statistics like opponent passer rating and pass defense DVOA (an opponent-adjusted metric from Football Outsiders) help show the regression of something that has always been a strength of Zimmer's defenses.

Year
Passing Yards Allowed Per Game
Rank
Opponent Passer Rating
Rank
Pass Defense DVOA
Rank

2014

223.3

7th

92.9

23rd

8.8%

19th

2015

234.9

12th

88.9

16th

3.3%

11th

2016

207.9

3rd

83.0

5th

-2.8%

8th

2017

192.4

2nd

77.6

3rd

-11.8%

4th

2018

196.3

3rd

83.3

4th

-9.7%

5th

2019

244.5

19th

90.9

18th

2.0%

14th

It has been an especially concerning issue over the past six games; the Vikings gave up 278 passing yards per game during that span. They had virtually no answers for Matthew Stafford (364 yards, four TDs) or Dak Prescott (397 yards, three TDs), and also struggled at times against the Eagles, Chiefs, and Broncos.

"We need to get better in pass defense, so that’ll be a big emphasis for us as coaches and players as we start moving forward," Zimmer said on Monday. "We gotta get better."

There are undoubtedly a number of causes for the Vikings' mediocrity against the pass this season, but the most obvious one is the poor play of their cornerbacks. All four CBs who have played extensive snaps this season – Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, and Mackensie Alexander – have had a tough time finding consistency.

Most concerning has been the downfall of Rhodes. A pro-bowler in 2016 and 2017, Rhodes was genuinely one of the best shutdown corners in the league two years ago. He went through some rough patches in 2018 and appears to have gotten even worse this season. On the year, he has allowed 47 catches on 55 targets, which is an ugly 85.5 percent catch rate. 

In the past, the Vikings regularly deployed Rhodes as a shadow for the opponent's top receiver, but they abandoned that strategy early this season. He went back to shadowing against the Broncos, and it resulted in Courtland Sutton burning him on multiple occasions. Rhodes has frequently been a step slow this season, and even when he is in position to make a play, has often been unable to break up passes.

Rhodes also picked up a pass interference penalty while defending Sutton. Penalties have been a massive issue for him both this season and last. So what do the Vikings do going forward? It seems unlikely that Zimmer would bench Rhodes, given the talent he has displayed in the past. But if Rhodes – who has three more years left on his 5-year, $70 million contract – can't turn his season around after the bye week, the Vikings will have to seriously considering releasing him this offseason.

It hasn't been smooth sailing for the Vikings' other corners, either. Waynes has probably been their best this year, but he couldn't keep up with the speed of Tyreek Hill in Kansas City. Hughes has a lot of potential, but he had no chance against Amari Cooper in Dallas. Alexander has been up and down as a slot corner.

The struggles of his cornerbacks and his pass defense as a whole has to be frustrating for Zimmer, who has risen through the coaching ranks thanks to his ability to shut down opposing passing games. Zimmer began his coaching career as the Cowboys' defensive backs coach from 1994 to 1999, where he coached Deion Sanders. As the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys and Bengals for over a decade, Zimmer helped develop players like Terence Newman, Leon Hall, and Johnathan Joseph.

Zimmer's Bengals defenses in the early part of this decade were outstanding against the pass, and he worked miracles with the Vikings almost immediately after taking over as head coach. He took a Vikings secondary that was arguably the worst in the NFL from 2011-2013 and quickly turned it into one of the league's best. Vikings GM Rick Spielman is confident Zimmer and his coaching staff can solve this issue over the bye week and down the stretch run.

"I think that’s the one thing that’s great about Coach Zim is I know when he heads to the ranch, he’s not just going there and sitting in a deer stand," Spielman said. "He is sitting in a deer stand, but he’s trying to figure out how we do get better on pass defense, because that’s one of the things that was the staple of our defense in the past. We’ve had some struggles this year, and guys are in position, but aren’t making some of the plays that they’ve made in the past."

"The one thing about Coach Zim is that he’s a fixer. I know he’s very honed in and focused on getting things that we need to get fixed. Not only just that, but in general, that’s what our staff is doing up there right now – self scouting, what do we need to get better so we can hopefully make a strong push here this last five weeks.”

The right arm of Russell Wilson will provide a major test for this secondary on December 2nd. With Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers left on the schedule, not to mention any quarterbacks they could face in the playoffs, whether or not the Vikings can fix their pass defense is the number one question facing the team going forward.

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