The Minnesota Vikings have temporarily staved off their free fall with a win against Washington, but with the end of the season looming ahead of them and certain practices clearly not working, it's up to the coaches to make some significant changes.
The Vikings offense has been wildly inconsistent but for the most part has found ways to put points on the board. While this isn't necessarily an indication of the unit's overall talent or level of execution, it's clear that the defense requires more attention.
For the most part, the required changes are impossible. At some level, the Vikings defense either doesn't have the talent or the schematic support to improve a position—the team can't do much about the fact that Harrison Smith is out for the year, for example.
But in other ways, the Vikings can test out the players they have while simultaneously finding ways to improve. In some cases, the backups need to start.
Kevin Williams is the starting 3-technique but plays a backup role at nose tackle, at least for right now.
It would be a mistake to assume that the reason Kevin Williams had his most productive pass-rushing game in years was only because he was the starting nose tackle against the Washington Redskins.
But neither was that fact irrelevant.
As Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus notes, this change was partially brought on because of something the Vikings couldn't really expect to repeat—Washington's unwillingness to double-team Kevin Williams at 1-technique—and a few other things that may be sustainable.
For one, Williams is well-practiced at taking on double-teams and seems to have the technique down better than the other nose tackles on the roster, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans. Still strong at 33, he's difficult to move around in the run game and still fast enough to close in on opposing running backs.
Beyond that, he does a very good job splitting the linemen and making plays as a pure pass-rusher, making him particularly difficult to account for as he creates awkward blocking angles.
Even when he doesn't knife the gap, he has the ability to occupy blockers and free up the rushing lanes for Jared Allen and Brian Robison, as well as the other defensive tackle.
He'll be a solid run-stuffing nose tackle who won't only eat up blocks and make tackles but also occupy running lanes and divert running backs away from that gap—something that neither Guion nor Evans could do consistently.
In order to reclaim the defensive line, Williams should move to nose tackle.
With Williams moving to nose tackle, it only makes sense that the primary backup—the exciting but somewhat disappointing Sharrif Floyd—to under tackle, the primarily pass-rushing defensive tackle who lines up in the B-gap between the guard and tackle.
Floyd's injury in the preseason seems to be limiting his play and has constrained his explosiveness, but that doesn't mean he hasn't found ways to be disruptive.
He's wanting as a run defender, but as a pass-rusher he ranks as Pro Football Focus' 18th-most productive defensive tackle, and he is the most disruptive defensive tackle on the Vikings roster (including Kevin Williams).
All this despite limited snaps bodes well for the young rookie.
He can make an immediate impact as an under tackle and begin to revive Minnesota's pass rush. The fact that he's been able to get nearly identical numbers in sacks, hits and hurries on the quarterback as Kevin Williams in half as many pass-rushing snaps demands attention from the Vikings' coaching staff.
He needs to play better against the run and exhibit more awareness on those plays as well as draws and screens, but he'll be an immediate upgrade and could even add four sacks for the next six games as a defensive tackle should he start.
In three cornerback packages, Xavier Rhodes is an outside cornerback while Josh Robinson slots inside, which means he plays a significant amount of snaps in the slot.
Josh Robinson isn't actually a poor cornerback on the outside. Per PFF, he's only been targeted on 24 of his 170 snaps in coverage, which is good for 10th best in the league.
Some of this is due to the fact that when he plays outside (in nickel packages), defenses have the opportunity to target Marcus Sherels, but many times he's playing outside in base packages.
But the reason Rhodes needs to supplant him is simply so he can focus on a position that he had never played a snap of before the season. Focusing on two different types of cornerback play—wildly different in many ways—has clearly stunted his growth as a slot cornerback.
The Vikings plan for Rhodes to be their eventual outside starter at cornerback, but they also need to get him reps to have him play comfortably. Right now, he's functionally a press coverage specialist who needs to work more on zone coverage as well as play better in off coverage.
As a press cornerback, he's been great, but miscommunication and discomfort have created serious problems on the outside in certain coverages.
These are inevitable because the Vikings shift to their nickel look often, but they can be minimized with more play, not less. It will familiarize Rhodes with the system far faster but prevent the mistakes that occur in the nickel packages.
Rhodes should play to improve both Rhodes and Robinson's coverage skills, even if Robinson is technically the better outside cornerback at the moment.
Cordarrelle Patterson is woefully unprepared to start at wide receiver, despite what fans think of his kick return ability.
The reason he needs to start is not because of his long-term development as a receiver or because he "needs to see the field," and it's not because he is a better player than the receivers ahead of him on the roster.
It's because he's the only alternative to Jerome Simpson, who could be facing a suspension and prison time for violating his parole.
While Simpson will play on Sunday against Seattle, Patterson should start ahead of him in order to allow the rest of the offense to better accommodate his abilities.
Christian Ponder, if he remains the Vikings quarterback for much longer, will develop much-needed chemistry with Patterson, who is missing it in spades with the former Florida State signal-caller.
Patterson's abysmal route-running is characterized by mistimed releases, poor separation despite high-end speed and extraordinarily rounded routes. Tipping off defensive backs and alerting others to what route he's running is incredibly dangerous and could lead to interceptions, but it more than anything else means that he'll be functionally eliminated from the play.
None of that will matter, however, as the only other split end on the roster is the also unseasoned Rodney Smith, who was only just recently activated from the practice squad. Aside from him, quarterback convert Joe Webb could fill the role, and he even flashes some superior technique, especially at the release.
But the Vikings have a lot more invested in Patterson and need him to perform at a high level. It starts in Seattle, where they may need to lean on him in order to get things done. Even if he proves to be a liability at first, it will allow them to ease the transition away from Simpson.
Given that the Vikings refuse to tell us whether Simpson will start, Patterson's opportunity could come sooner rather than later.