EAGAN, Minn. — “D” is for “disguise” within Denver’s defense.
The Broncos (3-6) have an ability within the back end of their defense to keep cards close to the vest and create confusion under Head Coach Vic Fangio, whose successful scheme as defensive coordinator in Chicago helped the Bears win the NFC North last season.
“They give us a lot of different looks, very similar to what Chicago did a year ago,” Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. “Big, thick bodies in the middle, two edge rushers when they’re in their 3-4, aggressive, get up the field and try and knock people back. The linebackers can really flow. … I think their secondary does a great job of disguising, which they did again in Chicago as well with Ed Donatell, same guy, same coach.”
Denver ranks in the top seven in the following major defensive categories this season:
Yards allowed/game: 309.4 (fourth)
Passing yards allowed/game: 202.1 (fourth)
First downs by other teams/game: 18.1 (tied for fourth)
Third-down conversion rate % allowed: 34.2 (seventh)
Fourth-down conversion rate % allowed: 37.5 (tied for fifth)
Red zone %: 37.0 (second)
Goal to go %: 58.3 (tied for seventh)
Points allowed/game: 18.9 (tied for fifth)
Minnesota’s coaches and players have seen those stats, as well as film that has commanded respect of the 7-3 Vikings.
Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski described defenses under Fangio as “extremely sound groups” that haven’t put “many mistakes on tape.”
“They do a lot — multiple fronts, multiple coverages, but they all complement each other,” Stefanski said. “I think it’s an outstanding scheme.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins faced Bears defenses under Fangio a total of four times. He and Washington recorded wins in 2015 and 2016, but the Vikings suffered a sweep last season, his first with Minnesota.
“I’ve gone against [the defense] a handful of times now, and just every time I go against him, I’m very impressed with the way he calls games and defends you and prepares for you,” Cousins said. “I think it starts with him and the scheme, and then when you add some really good players … it’s going to give you a challenge.’’
Tight end Kyle Rudolph also is quite familiar with Fangio defenses. He said one can see “Vic’s fingerprint all over” Denver’s defense this year.
“They not only have an incredible scheme and a great defensive coach, but they’ve got great personnel to do it, too,” Rudolph said.
Rookie receiver Bisi Johnson will see it in person for the first time Sunday. The Colorado native who was drafted in the seventh round out of Colorado State has been studying film, looking for possible ways that he and teammates can decode Denver’s disguises that he said are the best that he’s seen.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do pre-snap — I think it’s a matter of understanding your job so well that when the ball is snapped, you can figure it out pretty quickly,” Johnson said. “The safeties aren’t going to move until the ball is snapped, so when the ball is snapped is when you have to really figure it out on the go.”
Johnson said Denver excels at it “because they have a lot of good players and players who understand their system very well.”
Johnson said no one is taking the Broncos as if their record is an indicator, and Rudolph agreed.
The tight end compared Sunday’s game to the 2017 regular-season finale when Minnesota finished 13-3 after defeating a 5-11 Bears team by a 23-10 score, but only after a struggle.
“To this point, this is the best defense that we’ve faced from a statistics standpoint,” Rudolph said. “If we think we’re just going to show up on Sunday and it’s going to be easy, we’ll be in for a long day.”
Watts shines in limited action
The stage was grand and the lights were bright, but the moment wasn’t too big for Armon Watts, a rookie who made an impact in his professional debut on Sunday at Dallas.
“It made it bigger that it was prime time, Sunday Night Football, against a good team like the Cowboys. It was a lot of adrenaline,” Watts said. “I played in that stadium every year that we played [Texas] A&M, so I was used to it and the environment. It was good to have that experience.”
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds, the sixth-round pick out of Arkansas helped fill the void caused by a knee injury to veteran captain Linval Joseph (6-4, 329 pounds).
“Very big shoes. He prepared me for it,” Watts said. “He’s always in my ear, trying to get me better week-in and week-out, no matter what it is, so for me to go in there and not slack off from what he does week-in and week-out, it was good.”
The Vikings started Shamar Stephen (41 snaps) and Jaleel Johnson (43). Jalyn Holmes played nine snaps, and Watts logged three tackles and split a sack on seven snaps.
Minnesota also used Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo on the inside. Both players played 21 snaps and were in the game late.
The collective effort limited Dallas’ RB Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 rush attempts, his lowest output in a game in which he’s had 20 or more carries.
“I think for the defensive line, we knew what we were going up against coming into the week,” Watts said. “We knew we had to be the more physical group of that team. I think we just trusted our technique, played well and did what we had to do to win — and that was stuffing the run.”
Collins added to 53-man roster | By Eric Smith
Aviante Collins’ long and winding road back to the Vikings 53-man roster is complete.
Minnesota added the offensive lineman to the 53-man roster Thursday, marking his first time on it since the end of the 2017 season.
Collins made the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2017, appearing in three games. He then missed the entire 2018 season with an elbow injury suffered just before the season opener.
During Minnesota’s 2019 training camp, the former TCU standout suffered a knee injury.
“God works in mysterious ways. All you have to do is trust the process,” Collins said. “In due time, everything will work itself out. It’s always tough to stay patient.
“But it’s never a bad thing to have another year to sit and learn behind people, get back in the weight room and get stronger,” Collins added. “I didn’t see it as a downgrade; it was a time for me to get myself back right and get myself prepared to help this team out.”
Collins took the spot of Brett Jones, who suffered a knee injury in Wednesday’s practice and is now on Injured Reserve.
“We lost Jonesy, and he’s a good, vital part of this team,” Collins said. “It sucks losing him, but I’m ready to help support him any way I can.
“He was there when I tore my MCL back in camp,” Collins said. “We want to support him like he supported us.”
Collins said he is open to working at both tackle and guard on the offensive line.
“I’ve played both,” Collins said. “I’m willing to help out wherever I’m needed at.”