Vikings Know Chargers' Weaknesses
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Everson Griffen said it best after sacking San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers last season: “I know you better than you know yourself!” The Minnesota Vikings defensive end was mocking left tackle King Dunlap, who’d fallen victim to one of Griffen’s vicious spin moves.

It was one of the Vikings’ four sacks that day, a Week 3 outing that saw Minnesota dominate the Chargers up front. On 38 drop backs, Rivers was pressured 12 times and hurried countless others. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer blitzed his way to 31-14 victory, harassing Rivers and the Chargers offense into submission.

On offense, Adrian Peterson ran roughshod through San Diego’s defense, rumbling for 126 yards and two touchdowns. His efforts, combined with those of an aggressive defense, set the stage for Minnesota’s winning ways in 2015. The Vikings would lean on Peterson and Zimmer’s defense the rest of the season, finishing with an 11-5 record and NFC North title. It’s a formula the Vikings will continue to adapt as they prepare for the 2016 season.

But first, a rematch of sorts with the Chargers, who come to town as the team’s first official opponent in U.S. Bank Stadium. And though it’s only a preseason game, it’s the third of Minnesota’s four-week tune-up; the game that most closely resembles the atmosphere of the regular season.

In the Chargers, the Vikings have an all-too-familar opponent. A year has passed since the last meeting, but both franchises remain on the same respective paths; the Vikings on their way to the NFC playoffs and the Chargers grasping to whatever greatness is left in Rivers’ right arm. A look at the tape from last week’s preseason action highlights just how familiar this matchup feels.

“I know your weakness!”

Offense

Everything runs through Rivers. He’s a master of the pre-snap read, the “hot” route, and identifying exactly where a defense is going to blitz. As Andy Benoit put it, he’s willing to throw with “unblocked defenders screaming at him.” River is a fearless leader and the reason San Diego stayed competitive in so many games last season. It was also River’s most productive season through the air, as he finished with 4,792 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Behind Rivers, Melvin Gordon is expected to rebound after an underwhelming rookie season. When healthy, he gives the Chargers a much-needed dimension on offense. He was drafted to serve as the team’s three-down back, but in that role, struggled. Dave Richard of CBS Sports had this to say of Gordon’s rookie campaign:

“Gordon stunk last year. His offensive line stunk, he ran with little confidence or juice and eventually ended his season with an injury and no touchdowns. “

Gordon’s flashed this preseason, giving the Chargers glimpses of the player they thought they’d drafted with the 15th-overall selection. He’s looked more explosive through the hole and more aggressive upon contact; an encouraging sign for a team that finished 31st in rushing yardage last season.

Another welcome addition to the offense is Keenan Allen. The 2013 third-round pick started last season off with a bang, catching 67 passes while playing in just half of the team’s games. He was named the Chargers’ offensive MVP and remains San Diego’s most dangerous receiver, especially when running out of the slot.

Play No. 1
  • 1st and 10 at SD 35
  • (14:00 – 1st) M.Gordon left end ran ob at SD 47 for 12 yards (T.Jefferson)

Gordon’s longest run of the night came on San Diego’s first offensive play. The Chargers lined up in traditional, “punch-you-in-the-mouth” 22-personnel. With two tight ends and two running backs in the formation, the Chargers are more than likely going to run the football.

They do, executing a staple in nearly every offensive playbook — the “Power” run play. The offensive line blocks down, the backside guard pulls and leads up the gap, and the fullback kicks out the most immediate outside threat. It’s a play designed to wash the first level of defenders out of the box, leaving the running back with two lead blockers and a potential one-on-one matchup in the secondary.

Here, Gordon hesitates rather than pressing the appropriate gap. While the pulling guard and fullback both get a “hat” on a defender, Gordon stems to his left out of the backfield and gets lost in the scrum on the line of scrimmage. He misses the hole and decides to bounce the play outside. Last year, Gordon may have struggled redirecting and beating defenses to the corner, but today, shows signs of a running back on the mend.

Gordon changes direction instantly and accelerates to the edge, outrunning the closing defender. The second-year back’s tendency is to bounce outside — a strategy that rarely works against faster perimeter defenders — but Gordon’s “second gear” is enough to counteract certain instances of poor vision. He struggled the rest of the night, accumulating just six yards on five carriers, but Gordon is talented enough to gash Minnesota.

Seeing as the Vikings continue to struggle defending the run, bottling up Gordon remains a priority when the Chargers line up in anything but a 3×1 look — three wide receivers to one side of the field and one receiver or tight end split to the other. When they do line up in pass-friendly formations, Danny Woodhead is a threat as a receiver and as a change-of-pace back between the tackles.

Play No. 2
  • 2nd and 7 at SD 20
  • (6:52 – 1st) (Shotgun) K.Clemens pass short left to K.Allen to SD 33 for 13 yards (B.Williams)

Rivers didn’t play against the Arizona Cardinals, but the offense operated as if he were under center. Andy Benoit calls San Diego’s offense a “quick strike” attack, which perfectly describes the theme of the Chargers’ passing game. That may have to do with San Diego’s atrocious offensive line and their paltry attempts to protect Rivers, but most of the “quick striking” comes by design.

Running backs release out of the backfield, receivers hitch in place, and the ball is rarely in the quarterback’s hands for more than three seconds. Benoit notes that Rivers is an elite mind who understands where to throw the football, how to determine who’s covered, and when to check the ball down. He also identifies “plus” matchups before the snap, and that’s a skill backup quarterback Kellen Clemens displayed against the Cardinals.

On this play, Clemens knows exactly where he’s going with the football, even before the ball is snapped. Allen, lined up in the slot (blue arrow) on the bottom of the screen, is matched up man-to-man with one of Arizona’s corners. Pro Football Focus’s 10th-best receiver is a surefire pick to win in this situation, and Clemens trusts Allen to come down with any throw in his general direction.

At the top of his drop — and surrounded by a collapsing pocket — Clemens heaves the ball down the field, underthrowing Allen by a few yards. Note the two outside receivers; they’re behind the line of scrimmage, holding the corners in place to make Allen’s job easier down the field. It’s just Allen and the cornerback past the sticks, and Allen adjusts beautifully to attack the football at its highest point and bring down the completion.

Allen enjoyed similar success against the Vikings last season and should give Captain Munnerlyn fits in the slot. Outside of Antonio Gates, River’s favorite target, Allen is capable of producing for the Chargers as a slot or split receiver. With his route running ability underneath and soft hands, he’s a top target for Rivers’ preferred style of “catch-and-throw” football.

Keys for the Vikings
  • Pressure the quarterback: Griffen is aiming for another strong performance against the Chargers. Hitting Rivers early and often disrupts his rhythm and throws off the timing of every pass. Pressure Rivers, and the Vikings should have no problem keeping San Diego in check.
  • Maintain gap responsibility: Melvin Gordon has the speed to bounce most running plays outside. Edge defenders, from Griffen to Xavier Rhodes and Terence Neman, will need to maintain outside leverage and force Gordon to the sideline. If he turns the corner, he’s gone; it’s an area the Vikings struggled with last season.
  • Lock down Keenan Allen: Munnerlyn and Mackensie Alexander must get physical with Allen. Given a free release, Allen is adept at finding holes in coverage and gaining yards after the catch. His footwork, flawless stem, and consistency make him difficult to defend in space. Jam or knock Allen around and give Rivers one less target underneath.

Defense

John Pagano’s defense is a 3-4, 4-3 hybrid that thrives on deception and disguise. Much like Mike Zimmer, he toys with blitzing linebackers and last-second adjustments to fool opposing quarterbacks. His unit is loaded with talent, from up-and-coming cornerback Jason Verrett to edge rusher Melvin Ingram and thumping middle linebacker Denzel Perryman. With young contributors at each level, Pagano’s defense should be better than it is.

His unit’s flaws were exposed in Week 1 of the preseason, when the Titans averaged 8.7 yards per carry en route to 288 total rushing yards. As ESPN’s Eric D. Williams pointed out, San Diego’s first team surrendered just a field goal to the Titans; most of the heavy-lifting came against the second and third-teamers. Still, the poor tackling at every level signals poor coaching and a lack of discipline. It’s a trait that separates the great defenses from those still trying to find their identity.

If the Chargers aren’t a run-stuffing team, then what are they? A closer look at the film reveals a defense that employs plenty of man coverage on the outside and isn’t afraid to take risks in the box. And fortunately for San Diego, those who flash are those who need to flash — rookies and free agent signings.

Play No. 1
  • 3rd and 8 at ARI 23
  • (14:17 – 1st) (Shotgun) C.Palmer pass incomplete deep right to M.Floyd (C.Hayward)

The Chargers start in an aggressive, blitzing look. Seeing as its third-and-seven, this approach makes sense; pressure the quarterback, force the quick throw, and tackle the ballcarrier in front of the sticks. However, this is only a matter of deception, as the left linebacker in the B-Gap is responsible for covering Arizona’s tight end.

On the outside, Verrett and Casey Hayward, a converted slot corner from Green Bay, are lined up in press-man coverage. They’re each in charge of covering the Cardinal’s receivers and jamming early at the line of scrimmage. Once the ball is snapped, they run with the receivers downfield and take themselves out of the play.

Only, these are the Cardinals, and the deep ball is never out of play on third down. Attempting such a throw is high-risk, high-reward, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians isn’t afraid to take the risk and reap the rewards. Carson Palmer hits the top of the drop and is locked in on Michael Floyd, who’s running stride for stride with Hayward down the field.

In aiming for the “shot” play, Palmer fails to recognize the blown coverage underneath. While the slot corner is blanketing his man, the linebacker assigned to the tight end is lost in the wash. He loses the tight end after running into his fellow defender, thus creating an easy pitch-and-catch opportunity for Palmer underneath.

Rather than play it safe and pick up the first down, Palmer airs the football down the right sideline in hope that his receiver can haul it in. Hayward closes on Floyd and swats the ball away at the last moment, forcing the Cardinals to punt. In situations like these, sometimes it pays to play it safe and take what the defense gives you.

Play No. 2

When an offense is backed up at its own goal line, a defense can afford to play “on the edge.” Normally, linebackers wouldn’t shoot gaps or read keys so quickly, but here, aggression results in a “win” for Pagano’s unit.

The Cardinals are in a clear run-first formation; 13-personnel with three tight ends to the right, giving the impression of an unbalanced line of scrimmage. The tight ends give the Cardinals the option to throw from the two-yard line, but the safe play is almost always to run. Hence, Palmer hands the ball to David Johnson on a quick blast up the middle.

San Diego benefits from sound gap discipline across the board and a showing of instincts from Perryman. Coming out of Miami, Perryman was regarded as the nation’s top run-defending prospect, and he shows exactly why on this play. He recognizes the situation and acts accordingly, reading his keys and reacting before the ball exchanges hands.

His path to the backfield is made clear by the nose tackle, who shoots the B-Gap and occupies two defenders. Once Arizona’s No. 74 turns his shoulder pads to double-team the nose, Perryman explodes forwards and sprints through the C-Gap. When Palmer finally hands the ball to Johnson, Perryman is already through the gap, waiting to make the tackle.

Keys for the Vikings
  • Attack underneath: San Diego’s corners have an advantage over Minnesota’s outside receivers, who’ve yet to prove they can beat man-to-man coverage. It’s underneath, against the Chargers’ linebackers, where players like Stefon Diggs, Jerick McKinnon, and Kyle Rudolph can thrive. They’re not only better athletes, but can benefit from savvy play calling that schemes them open.
  • Technique in the trenches: Matt Kalil and Alex Boone showed some chemistry against the Seahawks last week, passing off blitzes and communicating well on stunts. That kind of play prevents negative runs and misfires at the line of scrimmage. Where Arizona’s lineman opened the door for Perryman with poor technique, the Vikings have a chance to show they’ve grown as a unit by shutting down such freebies.
  • Establish the running game: The Titans showed the Chargers can be beat on the ground. The Vikings, meanwhile, have struggled to get anything going with their running backs this preseason. Part of that is Adrian Peterson’s absence, but Sunday provides an ample opportunity to shore up missed assignments, fix poor communication, and establish the line of scrimmage early.

Sunday’s game starts at 12 pm CST and marks the Vikings’ first game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Be sure to follow along for more updates from the Vikings Territory team.