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Giants vs. Vikings, Week 16: When the Giants have the ball

What do the Giants have to look forward to with the Vikings’ defense?

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The New York Giants rose to 8-5-1 on the season after their win on Sunday Night Football last week. What’s more, they have the chance to clinch their first post-season berth since 2016 if they win this week.

Winning, however, might be easier said than done, as the Giants face the 11-3 Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Eve. The Giants came out on top of a hard-fought game against the Washington Commanders last week, while the Vikings executed the biggest comeback in NFL history against the Indianapolis Colts.

Most of the attention in this game will be paid to Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Kirk Cousins. But what about the Vikings’ defense?

Shifting philosophy

It’s been a while since the Giants have played the Vikings. The last time they played was 2019, when Mike Zimmer was the head coach and Minnesota fielded the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense. That game, the Giants suffered a 28-10 drubbing that saw them pick up just 211 total yards.

Since then, Zimmer was replaced by Kevin O’Connell as the Vikings’ head coach, with Ed Donatell calling the defense.

In some ways, that’s good news for the Giants. Zimmer was known for his double A-gap blitz schemes, which wreaked havoc on offenses in general and would be particularly threatening for the Giants’ weak interior offensive line.

Donatell, meanwhile, has spent much of his time in the NFL coaching under Vic Fangio and runs something akin to Fangio’s defense. He’s transitioned the Vikings defense from a classic 4-3 front to a more modern hybrid front that’s based on a 3-4. That’s forced Danielle Hunter to play from a 2-point stance for the first time in his career. Donatell primarily calls zone defenses, using Cover 2 or Cover 4 shells to stop teams from attacking downfield with explosive plays.

Donatell doesn’t blitz all that often, sending pressure 18.6 percent of the time, and the Vikings are in the middle of the pack as far as sacks, hurries, and hits are concerned.

Despite having talented veterans at every level, the Vikings’ defense is struggling in ways they just haven’t in some time. They are last in total defense, having given up more yards than any other team in the NFL. Most of that is coming through the air, where the Vikings have given up the second-most yards in the NFL, the most first downs, and the fourth-most adjusted yards per attempt.

The Vikings’ defense is in a tough spot. They’re an aging group that’s in transition, both in philosophy and in personnel. That said, they have too many savvy vets to take lightly (particularly by a team like the Giants), and they have things they do well that could sink this game for New York.

Dalvin Tomlinson and the Vikings’ run defense

Any matchup between the Giants offense and an opposing defense pretty much has to start with the running game. We’ll get to the passing game in a bit, but I think we know by now that if the Giants are going to move the ball, they’d much prefer to do so on the ground.

As mentioned above, the Vikings have been giving up a lot of yards this year. They’ve been better on the ground than through the air, and Minnesota has given up the 15th most yards, yards per game, and yards per carry.

Being almost perfectly average isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either.

The Vikings have faced some of the best rushing offenses in the NFL, so it isn’t much of a surprise that they’ve given up yardage. So far this year they’ve faced the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, Commanders, and Chicago Bears.

Interestingly, however, Football Outsiders lists the Vikings with the 11th-best run defense in terms of DVOA. And for the most part, their run defense has been better than that 11th overall ranking.

The Vikings are sixh in running back yardage (independent of yardage gained by the offensive line), seventh in rushing yardage allowed at the second level, and eighth in yardage allowed in the open field.

They’re 12th in percentage of runs that have been stuffed, but 21st in “power success”.

So what does that all mean? Well, the Vikings are very good at staying ahead of the chains on the ground and preventing runners from turning modest runs into bigger gains. They’re better than average at hitting runners at (or behind) the line of scrimmage. However, they’re relatively poor at stopping runs on third (or fourth) and short.

The Vikings are pretty stout across most of their defensive front. With players like Hunter, Tomlinson, Harrison Smith, and Za’Darius Smith in their front seven, they should be stout up front. Per Football Outsiders’ directional rankings, Minnesota is sixth in defending runs to the left end, 10th in runs behind the left tackle, and fifth in runs between the tackles.

However, they’re also 19th in defending runs to the right end and 31st to runs behind the right tackle.

Taken as a whole, the Giants might struggle to get consistent yardage on the ground, particularly if they try to run between the tackles or to the offensive left. Considering the strength of the Giants’ line is on the offensive left, that could be an issue.

Their best bet could be to use Nick Gates (or Ben Bredeson) and Andrew Thomas as pulling blockers on counter runs to the right. That would bring the Giants’ better linemen to bear on the weaker side of the Vikings’ defense. We could also see the Giants make use of zone-read plays on the right side to help freeze the defense for easier yardage.

We could also see the Giants continue to use their recent strategy of using their passing attack to supplement their running game and get to more of those short-yardage situations. Considering the Vikings are poor at stopping runs when they absolutely need to, that could be a viable strategy for the Giants.

Risk and reward through the air

Speaking about the passing attack, there might be opportunities for the Giants through the air, but there might also a significant risk.

The Vikings have one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. They’ve give up the second most yards per game and attempt, the fourth-most adjusted yards per attempt, and fifth-most yards per completion in the NFL. They’re about average in touchdowns allowed and touchdown percentage allowed.

However, the Vikings are also good at taking the ball away from opposing offenses. They’re third in the NFL in passes defensed and tied for eighth in interceptions. Veteran safety Harrison Smith leads the way with 10 passes defensed and five picks, while (also veteran) cornerback Patrick Peterson has 13 passes defensed and three interceptions.

Safetiy Camryn Bynum (six passes defensed, two interceptions) and linebacker Jordan Hicks (nine passes defensed, one interception) are also active in coverage.

The Vikings also have two good pass rushers in Smith and Hunter. Smith has 10.0 sacks, 21 QB hits, and two forced fumbles this year — and is leading the NFL in pressures. Hunter, meanwhile, has 8.5 sacks and 16 QB hits in his first full year back after suffering season-ending injuries in 2020 and 2021. Both are dangerous pass rushers who should be respected.

The Vikings primarily play zone coverages — in fact, they’ve had one of the lowest rates of man coverage in the NFL this year (13.4 percent, or 31st in the NFL through Week 11, per Pro Football Focus). As mentioned above, their defense is based on Fangio’s and as such uses lot of middle of field open (MOFO) calls with two deep safeties. So the Vikings are going to give up yards and some easy completions. However, that has also created opportunities for their veteran defensive backs to get takeaways.

Last week we saw the Giants take what Jack Del Rio’s defense gave them. They anticipated the Cover 2 and Cover 4 looks and used a traditional quick passing attack to get the ball out on short, high-percentage passes before Washington’s pass rush could get to Daniel Jones.

That’s fine when the opposing team (like Washington) isn’t able to get out of their own way or put up points.

The Vikings, however, have a potent offense, and the Giants have struggled when forced to press on offense. The Giants have averaged less than 19 offensive points per game in 2022 (not counting their garbage-time touchdown against the Eagles’ backups), while Minnesota has averaged 25 points per game. We might see the Giants forced into a more aggressive passing attack if they aren’t able to contain the Vikings’ offense. That would not only open the door for the Vikings’ defensive front to disrupt the Giants’ offense, it could also create opportunities for turnovers.

One of the Giants’ keys to success has been avoiding turnovers. That doesn’t mean they haven’t put the ball in danger — they have, far more often than the box score would suggest — but it hasn’t hurt them when they have. The Giants just aren’t good enough to beat the opposing team and themselves at the same time.

One thing to watch this game is whether the Vikings will tighten their coverage. They played more man coverage and blitzed more often against the Colts than they had previously this year. And despite the Vikings falling to a 33-0 deficit, the Colts only scored one offensive touchdown (and were held to five field goals). One of the tendencies we’ve seen from the Giants, is that when Jones reads one-on-one man coverage on Darius Slayton, they will take a shot downfield.

The Giants have attempted very few explosive passes this year, but it’s something we could see if the Vikings’ success last week motivated them to be more aggressive in coverage.