The Minnesota Vikings have eight interceptions on the season, ranking them 20th in the NFL. Seven of those interceptions came in the first four games. Following their bye in Week 5, the defense has only picked off one pass over the last six games.
So, what has changed?
Perhaps it was the loss of starting safety Harrison Smith, who suffered a severe turf-toe injury in Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers. The injury landed him on the injured reserve list. Smith seems to have taken the desire to pick off opposing quarterbacks with him.
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Only A.J. Jefferson, a backup pressed into duty because of even more injuries to the Vikings' defensive backfield, has found the courage to step in front of a pass and actually catch it.
What keeps going through my mind is the Tom Cruise-Craig T. Nelson movie All the Right Moves.
Cruise plays a high school football player, and Nelson is his coach. They have a difference in philosophy on the best way to defend the pass. Cruise, a cornerback, wants to go for the ball, Nelson insists to play the man.
It's risk versus reward. Miss the ball, and the result is a big gain for the offense. Sticking to the man is safer. You may give up some short passes, but it prevents the big play.
The Vikings secondary seems to do neither.
They have failed to come up with a big play, yet they have given up plenty of big plays. The Vikings are currently ranked 29th in the NFL, yielding 280.1 passing yards per game and allowing quarterbacks to complete 66.9 percent of their passes.
Vikings secondary leads the NFL in turf pounding following interceptions that might have been— Brian Murphy (@murphPPress) November 3, 2013
As Brian Murphy from the St.Paul Pioneer Press so cleverly points out, the defense has dropped some sure interceptions. Everyone knows there is a reason these guys are not on offense, but some of these hit them right in the hands.
Against the Giants, sure-handed punt returner, Marcus Sherels dropped a sure pick-six.
So, let's take a look at Smith's first interception this season and figure out what he does right.
Marshall runs a flag pattern. Smith, turning slightly sideways, maintains enough of a cushion to keep an eye on Marshall and an eye on Jay Cutler.
As the ball arrives, Smith is able to turn fully up field and step in front of Marshall, positioning himself between Marshall and the ball.
With two hands on the ball, Smith is able to make the interception and foil the Bears' drive.
Even though the images are fuzzy, it's clear that Smith took the right route on the ball and had enough speed to close on Marshall and make the interception.
Of course, as a safety, Smith had the luxury of playing well off the line of scrimmage and was able to keep the play in front of him.
Here's a look at Greenway's first interception of the season, a week later against the Browns.
The Browns have the ball on a 1st-and-10 in Vikings' territory. Third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer is in the shotgun, and his primary target is tight end Jordan Cameron, who is lined up in the slot to his right.
On the snap, Hoyer must be eyeing Cameron the entire way. Greenway slides to his left, leaving another receiver open on the backside of the play.
Just like Smith's interception, Greenway is able to step in front of the receiver and pick off the ball.
The key must be for the Vikings defenders to keep the play in front of them in order to be able to react to the ball and be able to make the interception.
That would also explain why the Vikings' cornerbacks are having such a difficult time coming up with an interception. They spend too much time turning and chasing receivers that they don't typically see the ball coming.
Here's an example from the Seattle game that demonstrates the problem.
Xavier Rhodes is lined up on the outside across from wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Andrew Sendejo, starting in place of Smith, has the coverage from the safety position.
As Baldwin runs past Rhodes, Sendejo does not move enough to his left to pick him up. Rhodes finds himself turning away from Russell Wilson as he goes into chase mode.
Wilson is able to place the ball between Rhodes and Sendejo, right into Baldwin's waiting arms for the touchdown.
This demonstrates the wrong approach that seems to be taken by the Vikings' cornerbacks all too often and the reason why Sendejo is Smith's backup: He is not able to cover enough ground to break up the play.