I’m going to take a different approach with “What Went Right” this week and focus my attention on just one positive aspect of last week’s game — play-action passing. While a number of things went right for the Vikings — quarterback pressure, protecting the football, Blair Walsh’s field goal accuracy — none were as encouraging as the explosive passing plays created by the team’s running (or non-running) game.
As Ben Goessling wrote earlier this week, Teddy Bridgewater completed eight-of-nine play-action passes against the Lions for a career-high 142 yards. His quarterback rating of 99.8 on such plays was also a career-high, and what’s more important, seven of those throws traveled ten-plus yards down the field. For the game, Bridgewater completed 7-of-12 passes beyond 10 yards for 147 yards and a touchdown; his best showing this season pushing the ball down the field.
Even though Adrian Peterson struggled to find running room against the Lions, averaging just 1.16 yards per carry outside of a 75-yard scamper, it’s his sudden home run ability that creates opportunities through play-action. Defenses can’t predict whether Peterson will lose yards or break through the second level, and that insecurity forces them to respect the Vikings’ running game. Any play can turn into an explosive gain, keeping defenders aggressive when they see Peterson in the backfield.
On Sunday, Norv Turner exploited the Lions’ commitment to stopping Peterson, and it worked. Teddy Bridgewater finally carried the Vikings offense to victory, with or without a consistent running attack by his side.
Play No. 1
Although Peterson isn’t in the game on this snap, the Lions still over-commit to the play-action fake. At the snap, the two outside linebackers blitz, and both the middle linebacker and safety stop their feet when they see Bridgewater drop back to pass. The run blitz called by the Lions would have worked if Bridgewater had actually handed the ball to McKinnon, as the Lions outnumbered the Vikings at the line of scrimmage. Because the linebacker who would have been responsible for the fullback blitzes, Zach Line runs untouched into the left flat.
Bridgewater runs through his progressions before his eyes bring him to the wide-open Line. The easy pass leads to a huge gain down the sideline, thanks in large part to the Vikings’ identity as a running team. All day, the Lions had been showing run blitzes, bringing extra defenders into the box to contain Peterson, McKinnon, and Asiata. It worked, but well-timed play calls by Turner created opportunities like the one above and changed the outcome of the game.
Play No. 2
Like the first play, Detroit’s linebackers suck up to the line of scrimmage once they see Peterson “taking” the handoff. As you can see from the image above, four defenders stop their feet once they recognize the play-action fake. Before they can react, though, Adam Thielen bursts downfield into a huge hole in the zone defense. As a unit, you never want four players out of position and this close to the line of scrimmage, especially in a passing situation like 2nd-and-15. Giving Bridgewater a look like this — with a clean pocket — is only asking for trouble, and Bridgewater capitalizes by recognizing the coverage breakdown and finding the weakness down the field.
As in weakness, I mean broken zone. Look at that gap in coverage! I love Teddy, but any NFL quarterback could have made this throw. That’s the beauty of successful play-action passes. Even though Peterson wasn’t gashing the Lions, they still committed extra defenders to the box, putting themselves at risk for plays like this. When it works, it works to perfection, and Thielen nearly scored a touchdown after the catch. You’d think Detroit would’ve learned after yet another mishap, but the Vikings continued to throw the football late into the fourth quarter.
Play No. 3
Watch the linebackers at the snap. Once again, they fly to the line of scrimmage at the sight of Peterson “running” the football. The void that opens up ten yards downfield is exactly where Bridgewater throws the football, and Diggs hauls in the pass for a first down. Whether it’s respect for Peterson or poor coaching from the Lions staff, Detroit’s linebackers put the secondary in difficult situations throughout the game. Continuous run blitzes created clean pockets for Bridgewater, and he did exactly what was asked of him in the offense — protect the football, find the open man, and take exactly what the defense gives you.
The Vikings were successful in a number of areas last Sunday, from the pass rush to their lack of penalties to field goal accuracy. Even with Peterson bottled up, though, the offense had it’s most productive day of the season. If they’re going to be successful against the Bears this week, not only will they need to improve in the red zone, they’ll need to rely heavily on play-action passes. Teddy Bridgewater can indeed carry this offense, with or without a successful running game. Adrian Peterson’s name appears to be enough to warrant the attention from opposing defenses, and it’s working just fine for Mike Zimmer’s 4-2 team.