EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has been taking a close look at his team while is has lost three of its past four games, and one aspect in particular is troubling the coach.
Frazier hardly recognizes the team’s once stout-run defense, a defense he coordinated before becoming coach.
Minnesota has long taken pride in having one of the NFL’s top run defenses. That standing took a hit last year when the Vikings slipped to 11th in the league. But through five games this season, they seemed to recapture their status. Now, for the past month, the run defense hasn’t been the unit Frazier has been able to rely on for years.
“Defensively, our run defense is not even, doesn’t even resemble the type of run defense we’re capable of playing and we have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some ways to defend the run better than we’re doing,” Frazier said. “And we’ve got to look at some things and try to get some things corrected, and really almost start from square one when it comes to our rush defense. It’s not up to par by any means.”
Missed tackles, especially Sunday against Seattle’s powerful running back Marshawn Lynch, have been a big reason for the letdown. The Vikings also say they’ve lost gap control, with players getting out of their assigned spots while trying to make a play.
As a result, Minnesota ranks 18th in the league in run defense, allowing a117.3 yards per game. This is the same Vikings unit that had held opponents to a 78.6-yard average the first five weeks of the season and entered a road game at Washington as the fourth-ranked run defense.
Since then, opponents have averaged 165.8 rushing yards per game. In the first five weeks, no opposing player surpassed 100 yards. The past four weeks, each opponent has had a player top 100 yards rushing. Last week at Seattle, Minnesota allowed a season-high 195 rushing yards to the Seahawks.
Linebacker Chad Greenway, who’s been a big part of Minnesota’s vaunted run defenses since being a first-round pick in 2006, said the Vikings weren’t always perfect fundamentally but were able to cover up mistakes with good team defense.
“Maybe I shoot my gun and missed the tackle, get out of my gap,” Greenway said. “But here comes (Ben) Leber to make a play and clean it up. Just little things like that, where we’re missing some tackles, yes. We’re missing some gaps, yes. But a lot of times, you can right those wrongs. And it seems we’ve been a little off in doing that.”
Greenway hasn’t known anything other than stout run defenses in Minnesota. He missed his rookie season in 2006 because of a knee injury as the Vikings allowed a staggering league-low 61.6 yards per game. Minnesota led the league from 2006-08 and was second in 2009. The Vikings slipped to ninth in 2010 before allowing an average of 107.0 yards per game last year, 11th in the league.
The past four weeks have been especially disturbing. Washington’s athletic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III had Minnesota’s defense flummoxed by his speed. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings missed 17 tackles the next week against Arizona. They missed eight tackles against Tampa Bay and 10 last week against Seattle.
“We had some missed tackles, for sure,” Frazier said. “And we had some occasions where we still were not where we needed to be sometimes in some of our fronts. Don’t want to keep coming back on Mondays and talking about our run defense. So, we’ve got to figure it out. But, yeah, we had a combination of things that are creating some problems for us.”
Frazier noted the Seahawks’ final drive was demoralizing, as they were able to run out the final 5 minutes, 27 seconds on the clock simply by running the ball.
Greenway maintains the breakdowns are small and that opponents are “seeming to find the holes that we’re leaving open.” He said the recent stretch has been frustrating, but also said he doesn’t believe there is a need to go back to “square one.”
“We put out there early who we wanted to be as a defense, and as a team,” Greenway said. “I think now we just have to go back and go see what we’ve done and know we can do that again. We’ve proven that. If you do it once, you can do it a million times. I don’t care what you’re doing. And I think it’s the same in this game.”