3rd Down Defense

The Vikings have the top rated 3rd down defense in football after 5 weeks.

I guess it’s too bad they allow teams 4 downs.

Seriously though, this is one of those times where stats don’t tell anything close to the entire story.

And of Course Zimmer brings it up. This is a classic Zimmer move. If someone asks him at a press conference to comment on a stat that reflects poorly on his team, he says he pays no attention to that stuff. If there’s a stat out there that’s in his team’s favor, he’ll circle back to it several times and get defensive if you try to challenge the premiss.

Ironic, because I’m about to rip this statistic apart at its core.

I don’t have the privilege of interviewing my favorite head coach the Vikings have had in my lifetime. I don’t have a press credential or the right zoom password to jump in there and confront him. But I can easily hypothesize his answers based on his seven year past. They are so predictable and transparent. This is how it would play out:

Mike, if all you care about is wins and losses, what do you tell your team at this point in the season as you are 1-4 heading into this weeks game against the Falcons?

I tell them we gotta keep fighting, keep battling, until we get this thing figured out.

Mike, I’m wondering how you view your defense, just on a broad scale. Can you talk about some of the things you think these young guys do well and some of the things they need to work on?

Well I’m not gonna get into evaluating all the things we do in games or in practice, but a lot of that has to do with our scheme as a unit. I will tell you these guys are getting better, they’re doing what we’re asking them to do. Rick [Spielman, General Manager] and I brought all these guys here for a specific reason, they fit what we are about as an organization on all the levels, and it’s my job to work on things like technique and things like gap responsibility and being in the right coverages, and they’ll be some growing pains, but I like our guys. Now it’s just a matter of teaching them how to close out and win these games, and make big plays when they’re needed.

Mike, you talk about your team needing to possess the ability to know how to close out and win games, how much responsibility does your offense need to take in that area versus your defense? Or is it all just situational game by game?

Well the offense has to take a lot of the responsibility. If they’re on the field, which they have been a few times now, with a chance to step on the other team’s throat, I expect them to do that. Our defense has had several 3 and outs the past few weeks and when we get one of those, or a turnover, I expect our offense to take advantage and put some distance between us and our opponent in those spots so it doesn’t always come down to the last possession. At the same time if our defense is on the field at the end I expect them to compete and make plays. Youth is not an excuse. It’s a young man’s game.

Mike, you talk about youth not being an excuse, but since you’ve been here you’ve consistently had top 10, top 5, and even number 1 ranked defenses that consisted of a lot of veteran players. Many of the guys from those teams are no longer around. You’re the 2nd youngest defensive unit, on average, in the NFL. How much does that contribute to your team giving up just over 30 points per game so far this year and ranking 28th overall…?

Well I don’t put much stock in rankings. A lot of that has to do with yards and it racks up when teams are playing from behind so I’ve never worried about that. I’ve never had a bad defense and I believe by the end of the season this team will be no different. I mean, you say we have all these young guys, but Eric is still here, our safeties are both still back there, these guys take a tremendous amount of pride in teaching the young guys the right way to do things and get them lined up in the right spots in the right situations…I mean I think we lead the league in 3rd down defense, you left that out when you told me about our rankings there. And getting off the field on defense is the name of the game…so these guys are definitely progressing and keep getting better.

You THINK you lead the league in 3rd down defense?

Yeah somebody told me that.

Hmmm. Care if I broaden your horizons a little bit?

I don’t care, be my guest.

Opponents have only had 54 third down attempts against you this year, which is a small sample size compared to the rest of the league. It’s 6th lowest in the NFL. That stat can mean different things for different teams, but I’ll break down exactly what it means for the Vikings if you’ll bear with me for a second…In week 1 against Green Bay your defense gave up 43 points. Six of the nine Packer drives consisted of 8 plays or more, (2 fg, 3Td, 1 turnover) two others were 7 plays, (1 punt, 1Td) and one was 2 plays (Td). On those drives you forced a total of 13 third downs, of which Rodgers and Co. easily converted 8. They kept another one of the drives going by picking up a 4th down. In my book that negates any third down stop, if, as you say, getting off the field on defense is the name of the game. And on two of Green Bay’s touchdown drives they faced zero third downs.

I’m not gonna go through every game in that much detail with you right now, although I could, I certainly did the research. But aside from the Houston game, and the first half of the Seattle contest, your defense’s third down numbers pretty much follow a pattern consistent with week 1. Third down defensive rankings are misleading when teams are getting most of their first downs against you on first and second downs, during long scoring drives. For example, your defense has given up 116 total first downs this year, that ranks 22nd in the league. Of those, only 15 were given up on third down. That’s insane. That means in 5 games this year your defense has given up 101 first downs on 1st and 2nd down. There are 9 defenses that haven’t given up 101 first downs total yet.

You do lead the league in third down conversation percentage, only giving up first downs at a 27.8% clip. By far the best in the league. But the defenses giving up the fewest points, like the Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Rams, and Patriots, are all somewhere between 37-50%. Why? Well, the simple answer is they have better defenses. Better defenses force more 3rd downs. So naturally more 3rd downs are going to be converted against them. At the same time they are giving their team more chances to get off the field. These teams are not allowing long sustained drives where opposing offenses face hardly any third downs. As evidenced by the fact they are allowing, on average, 10-15 points less per game than your Vikings.

And I didn’t even mention the fact that opponents have converted 6 of 8 on 4th downs against you, two of them coming for Seattle to keep their game-winning drive alive on Sunday night. Again, negating any third down stoppages in my mind, but not on the stat sheet.

So let’s not go crazy with this statistic just because it’s convenient for you. Figure it out for what it really is. You’d be right to do your trademark ignoring of the stats on this one. Just go back to the only two that count: 30.4 points per game, 1-4 record. And get back to work.

Thanks Jordan. You have wisdom beyond your years.