What Went Right, Week 1
A comeback victory usually carries talk of halftime adjustments; the winning team did ‘x,’ ‘y,’ and ‘z’ to fix its mistakes and finish on top. Sometimes, the changes are as simple as a shift in coverage. Often times, coaches flip personnel to spark their teams to a ‘W.’
On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings got back to basics. After falling behind 10-0 in the first half, head coach Mike Zimmer scaled his play-calling back, asking his defense to “settle down” and “go play.” The Titans got the best of his unit early, throwing multiple shifts and formations their way, but Zimmer remained confident in his tried-and-true system.
“When they’re giving you a lot of complicated shifts and motions and movements, a shift and a motion and then a play that’s going back, two guys running this way and one guy running that way, the more you add, the more complicated it gets. So, it’s no different. I was giving our guys a lot of calls the first half.”
For all of Tennessee’s read-option looks, motions, and audibles before the snap, Minnesota had an answer in the second half. And most of the time, the answer was to line up and play sound, technical football. Zimmer didn’t add defensive wrinkles or send extra blitzes at Marcus Mariota; he trusted the talent and discipline of his defense to prevail, even with the simplest of calls.
“Trickery with trickery equals too much trickery,” defensive end Everson Griffen said Monday, per Lindsey Young.
Knowing the strengths of his quarterback, Titans head coach Mike Mularkey has crafted an offense suited to Marcus Mariota’s skill set. It features plenty of Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth,” but also caters to Mariota’s experiences as a read-option quarterback.
Much of Tennessee’s early success came off of these looks, which create running opportunities for the quarterback and put defenses in difficult-to-defend situations. When defensive ends in particular get overly aggressive, it simplifies the read for the quarterback, who more often than not makes a defense pay for its mistakes.
On paper, defending the read-option at its most basic is, in fact, a basic task. The defensive end, usually the quarterback’s first read, has the most difficult assignment. He’s in what baseball calls a ‘pickle;’ stuck crashing down the line of scrimmage and stopping the run or staying ‘home’ and hoping the quarterback pulls the football. If a quarterback has experience in such situations, he’ll almost always make the right decision.
If the end crashes, the quarterback pulls the football and runs outside. If he stays home, the quarterback gives and allows his running back to run up the middle. It’s a lose-lose for defensive ends unless they have the athleticism and situational understanding to counteract their natural disadvantage; something Everson Griffen has shown against more mobile quarterbacks.
These looks become more complicated when teams add passing options and lead blockers to the equation, but Tennessee strayed from such an approach. Instead, they added formation shift after formation shift, masking the simplicity of their scheme with the allusion of complex concepts. Their early success in the read option was the result of an over-aggressive Vikings defense, but the Titans fell behind as the result of Minnesota’s superior coaching and scheme.
- 3rd and 1 at TEN 38
- (13:29 – 1st) (Shotgun) M.Mariota left end to TEN 41 for 3 yards (T.Waynes)
On Tennessee’s first drive of the game, the Vikings forced a third-and short situation. The Titans came out in 11-personnel, with Mariota and Demarco Murray lined up offset left in the shotgun. Minnesota countered with their favored Nickel package, matching Tennessee’s wide receivers man-to-man across the board.
Vikings strong safety Andrew Sendejo dropped into the box, lining up at ‘backer depth on the outside shoulder of Titans tight end Delanie Walker. His presence near the line of scrimmage gave the Vikings a favorable matchup against the run, but the team failed to capitalize.
That’s because Everson Griffen anticipated a run inside and crashed explosively down the line of scrimmage. Eric Kendricks, one of Minnesota’s more instinctual defenders, also guessed that the Titans would pound the ball inside. He creeped up and got lost in the wash, something Mariota noticed as he executed the read-option exchange.
Because Griffen crashed, tackling Murray for a would-be loss, Mariota pulled the football and sprinted for the corner. Kendricks recognized the action late, recovering with a poor angle to Mariota’s inside shoulder. As a defender, keeping outside contain requires the proper angle, one that puts a defender’s path on the ballcarrier’s outside shoulder; that was not the case for Kendricks.
Despite his own speed and sudden play, Kendricks doesn’t have the acceleration to match Mariota’s own straight-line prowess. Mariota easily beat the linebacker to the edge and dove for the sticks, keeping Tennessee’s drive alive for another set of downs.
Griffen and Kendricks both lacked the eye discipline and situational understanding to stop the play, but learned from their mistakes in the second half to flip the game for the Vikings.
- 2nd and 3 at MIN 24
- (1:24 – 3rd) Eric Kendricks 77 Yd Interception Return (Blair Walsh PAT failed)
In another short-yardage situation, the Titans came out in a familiar shotgun look, with Derrick Henry offset to Mariota’s left. They lined up with three wide receivers to the left and a tight end to the right, aligning Minnesota’s “strength” to the closed side of the formation.
Minnesota again came out in a Nickel look, matching up in man-to-man coverage across the board. Kendricks adjusted his alignment, though, bumping out to play over the inside receiver at linebacker depth. On the far side of the field, Terence Newman reduced his split to play about eight yards away from the line of scrimmage and outside of the tight end.
Same look, near-identical running situation; it has to be a pass, right? Wrong. While the Titans executed the read-option, they tried to complete a pass play off of the fake. And unlike the example from the first half, Everson Griffen played assignment football. He sniffed out the read-option and blew through the receiver’s chip, keeping his shoulders square and eyes directly on the quarterback.
With his actions, Griffen puts Mariota in a bind. He was in perfect position to close on the running back or plant and explode to the outside shoulder of the quarterback. Thus, Mariota needed to make a decision — pull and beat Griffen to the edge or hand the ball off and hope Griffen doesn’t have the closing speed to stop Henry short (he does).
Mariota made the wrong decision by pulling the football. Griffen immediately located Mariota and changed speed in an instant, throwing off the timing and the rhythm of Tennessee’s play. Although Kendricks shuffled inside at the snap, Griffen’s pressure allowed him to recover and work back to the flat. That’s where Harry Douglas, who’d chipped Griffen earlier, was headed on a quick-out.
In a panic, Mariota tossed a pass to Douglas’s direction. He didn’t see Kendricks closing from the backside, and Kendricks jumped in front of the ball for a game-breaking 77-yard interception return touchdown. Unlike the first example, Griffen slowed his play, diagnosing Tennessee’s intentions from the snap and sticking to proper technique. Kendricks, though at fault early, worked in tandem with Griffen to force the turnover.
Adjustments? What adjustments?
Although adjustments often lead to second-half comebacks and victories, some are simpler than others. For a team like the Vikings, that means playing sound and disciplined football. It doesn’t require a “bag of tricks” or a complete change in scheme or strategy; it requires a reliance on certain building blocks and fundamentals.
More often than not in the first half, the Vikings tried to counter Tennessee’s complex approach with their own unique wrinkles — double A-gap pressures and zone blitzes. That backfired, as the Titans took advantage of Minnesota’s aggressiveness and scored 10 easy points. When the Vikings succeeded, they slowed the game down, relying on playmakers to do their jobs. And according to Zimmer, that meant having some fun.
“Hey, let’s do what we do and let’s go play.”