Vikings Defense: Balancing Communication vs Age

Photo: Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr & Eric Kendrics
Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr & Eric Kendrics. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

Much of the hand-wringing among Vikings fans this year has been over the apparent decline in secondary play generally and by Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes in particular.

Head coach Mike Zimmer was clearly prioritizing keeping his existing defensive roster intact prior to the season when the team did not trade either cornerback to free up cap space for other priorities.

Despite rumors the team was shopping Waynes and Rhodes, they obviously didn’t like what offers were proposed or simply did not want to part with either player.

The notion that Zimmer didn’t want to break up the band was reinforced when Rick Spielman stole back linebacker Anthony Barr from under the New York Jets’ nose.

Beyond believing in the talent of individual players, the primary reason to keep a defensive roster intact is due to their existing experience together in a system and, as a result of that experience, the efficiency with which they communicate as a unit.

In Zimmer’s defense, communication is especially important because it relies so heavily on disguise; in order for the deception to work, players must be able to flawlessly communicate their roles based on a given offensive look.

The Risk: Players Age Fast

Photo: Xavier Rhodes
Xavier Rhodes. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

The risk with such an approach is that players tend to age fast with a drop-off in performance noticable in a short span of time. This dynamic is particularly acute in running backs and cornerbacks.

It really feels like Rhodes in particular has lost a step and that he’s being picked on by opposing quarterbacks. It also feels like Waynes is being picked on.

The frequency with which both Rhodes and Waynes give up short passes would seem to be evidence of a degredation in speed.

It looks as if opposing receivers are selling the deep route and then pulling up to take advantage of the seven to ten yards our corners are giving up to prevent getting burned deep.

And there have been several instances on double moves where Rhodes in particular has not shown the makeup speed he’s had in the past.

Arif Hasan of The Athletic addressed this in his most recent Mail Bag column:

If it’s the case that the insistence on preventing deep passing plays is allowing underneath routes, then it still doesn’t provide much of an explanation — a number of defensive philosophies prioritize cornerbacks limiting deep attempts, including every variant of the Seahawks Cover-3 we’ve seen in the NFL, and they don’t seem to automatically give up short passes.

Vikings Mailbag, Week 11: What should we make of the defense right now?