Third down dominance

Master of the defensive mind games
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Mike Zimmer’s defense is a labyrinth. Some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Cam Newton — wandered into Zimmer’s trap this season, only to leave battered, bruised, and most importantly, confused.

The Minnesota Vikings don’t just smother teams; they throw everything — including the kitchen sink — at opposing offenses. Blitzes and stunts come out of multiple personnel packages and alignments, putting extra pressure on offensive lines to diagnose rushes that may never come. Quarterbacks must determine if a linebacker in the A-gap is blitzing or dropping into coverage, which is almost impossible when nearly every “game” looks the same.

Zimmer knows how to attack a team’s most glaring weaknesses, and he has the players to exploit their greatest strengths. Through five weeks, it’s clear the Vikings are quarterback-proof; one-by-one, signal callers have fallen prey to Zimmer’s mind games, with Brock Osweiller suffering the most humiliating of defeats.

Against the Houston Texans, Zimmer and the defensive staff were at their best on third downs. The Texans finished the game 1-of-13 on third downs and didn’t convert their first opportunity until late in the fourth quarter. As Craig Peters pointed out, Houston was almost always “behind” in the down, needing more than five yards in nearly every situation.

Sam Ekstrom elaborated on Peters’ statistics, specifically highlighting Minnesota’s schematic advantage before the snap. “[Houston] didn’t try to run once on third down – even on attempts of 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2 – a testament to the Vikings’ improved rush defense, which entered the game in the top quarter of the league,” he wrote on Sunday.

The Texans asked Osweiler to carry the team when it mattered most, and he failed miserably. He was 3-of-11 on third downs, taking two sacks and throwing a costly interception to Andrew Sendejo. “It starts with me,” Osweiler said, per Drew Dougherty. “I need to do my job better. I need to play better. Especially on the road.”

The film reveals a different story; the loss doesn’t start with Osweiler — it belongs to Minnesota’s defense.

 

Third Down Stats: First 10 3rd down situations

(Excludes fifth 3rd down, an immediate screen to Braxton Miller)
  • 3rd and 7 at Houston 20: Incompletion
  • 3rd and 5 at Houston 30: Incompletion (PBU Kendricks)
  • 3rd and 5 at Minnesota 33: Incompletion
  • 3rd and 9 at Houston 22: Incompletion (PBU Munnerlyn)
  • 3rd and 6 at Minnesota 20: Incompletion (PBU Rhodes)
  • 3rd and 1 at Minnesota 45: Incompletion (PBU Kendricks)
  • 3rd and 10 at Minnesota 12: Incompletion
  • 3rd and 12 at Houston 29: Completion short of first down
  • 3rd and 9 at Houston 26: Interception (Sendejo)
  • 3rd and 7 at Minnesota 30: Sack (T. Johnson)
  • Average distance: 3rd and 7.1
  • 10 passes
  • 1 sack, 4 pass breakups, 1 interception
  • 0/10 conversion rate

When a team pays its quarterback $72 million, it expects some success, even against the league’s best defense. But Osweiler withered under the pressure, showing little patience in the pocket. His anxious feet were the direct result of Minnesota’s multiple looks, which muddled pre-snap reads and confused route combinations down the field. Right before the snap, players would shift or move into different gaps, adding to the chaos created inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Kitchen Sink

Zimmer didn’t always rely on the double A-gap blitzes so often associated with his defenses; that’s a misconception, as the Vikings can also generate pressure with straight four-man rushes. Instead, Zimmer attacked many of the same gaps with different looks and rush concepts. Barr and Kendricks may have started in the A-gaps, but often delayed their blitzes, dropped into coverage, or spied the quarterback.

Up front, defensive tackles looped outside, ends crashed down, and Minnesota dominated one-on-one matchups. Even when the Vikings relied on a four-man rush, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, and Danielle Hunter succeeded in collapsing the pocket or moving Osweiler off his “spot.”

Speaking of Robison, he spent most third downs inside, appearing in one of Zimmer’s more pass-heavy personnel packages. He replaced Linval Joseph at “nose,” giving the Vikings four players — Griffen, Robison, Johnson, Hunter — whose specialties include rushing the passer. In such situations, he lined up:

  • Robison Stand Up: 8/10
    • 1-technique: 0
    • 2i-technique: 3
    • 3-technique: 2
    • 4-technique: 3

In addition to switching personnel, Zimmer also switched responsibilities and gap assignments. When a defensive end lines up outside a tackle, his responsibility is almost always the C or D-Gap and outside contain. But if he loops or crashes inside, those responsibilities shift to the next “force” player — usually a linebacker or safety tasked with keeping running backs or quarterbacks inside.

That wasn’t the case on Sunday, when Zimmer called a few classic line games and stunts. Twice on third down, he asked Griffen and Johnson to execute an “Ex” stunt, with one such play resulting in a sack for Johnson.

The defense end works upfield, plants his outside foot, and crashes inside, turning the tackle inside and occupying the attention of the offensive guard. Once the end crosses the face of the guard, the defensive tackle — in this case, Johnson — loops around the corner and replaces Griffen as the edge defender.

These stunts work in two ways; they confuse offensive linemen and take advantage of Minnesota’s tremendous defensive speed. Griffen, with his burst off the ball, is powerful and quick enough to pull tackles and guards inside on a crash. And Johnson, despite his designation as a defensive tackle, is a deceptively agile pass rusher. He’s able to turn the corner like a defensive end, maintain balance, and locate the quarterback in an instant.

  • Stunts: 3/10
    • Twist: 1
    • ‘Ex:’ 2

As discussed above, Zimmer attacked the A-gaps, but did so in a way that kept Houston off-balance. On seven of the Texans’ first 10 third downs, his defense rushed both A-gaps, employing a number of concepts to put stress on the center and guards.

At times, Barr and a defensive tackle would rush opposite gaps. Sometimes, both middle linebackers would blitz at the snap. On other occasions, Zimmer would use a stunt to bring Griffen into one A-gap and rush Kendricks through the other. Osweiler failed to identify blitzers, making Zimmer’s job that much easier as the game wore on. He’d give Houston’s quarterback one look pre-snap, only to flip the script at the last moment.

  • Double A-Gap: 7/10
    • Stunt: 2
    • 1 LB and 1 DT: 3
    • 2 DTs: 1
    • 2 LBs: 1

On the topic of blitzers, Zimmer’s calls were relatively simple on Sunday. To generate pressure in these examples, he never rushed more than five players. On four of the 10 snaps, he only sent four, and a few of those included a mix of linebackers and linemen. This is where individual talent up front allows Zimmer welcome freedom on the back end.

In years past, the Vikings didn’t have the cornerbacks and secondary defenders to survive behind a four-man rush. But Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have built the team’s deepest group in years, one that matched up man-to-man with Houston’s receivers and shut them down.

Sure, Zimmer dropped his defensive ends into coverage once, but all of Minnesota’s third down pass breakups came from linebackers, safeties, and, corners in man coverage. Kendricks was the most impressive, transitioning from the A-gap to the flat on an early third down stop, all without losing speed.

  • 4-Man Rushes: 4/10

Third Down Rushes

Below, Minnesota’s first 10 third down snaps against the Texans. More often than not, Zimmer asked his defensive ends to rush outside, using the middle of his defense to confuse Osweiler and attacks Houston’s interior offensive line.

Notice the multiplicity of Robison’s alignments, Kendricks’ versatility, and Barr’s unusual role as a “mirror” to Osweiler. Zimmer didn’t show the Texans many conventional looks on third down and was relatively conservative in his play calls.

Still, the individual talent of his front-seven and the nuance of his scheme made Zimmer’s defensive dominance possible. Osweiler is the latest victim of the ‘Zim Reapers,’ and given Minnestoa’s Sunday performance, there are sure to be more.

If you’d like to discuss any of these plays, ask me a question on Twitter at @austincbelisle!