Thursday, November 26, 2015

brian robison

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At (just barely) 21 years old, defensive end Danielle Hunter is the youngest player in the NFL. A common word to describe him coming into the league was “raw.” And while that may have been true, Hunter is rapidly overcoming that label and demonstrating that he can play a big role in the Vikings defense. The Daily Norseman‘s Andrew Renschen said it well Sunday:

Minnesota drafted Hunter No. 88 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. The LSU alum had fairly limited football experience (two years high school + three years college), but general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer felt strongly on his character and maturity level when they brought him in.

“[Hunter’s] a physical specimen,” Spielman said after drafting him. “He plays extremely hard […] he’s raw. He’s a project. We’ll have to work with him […] but we feel that he has tremendous upside to grow as a football player.”

Upside is right. While it may not have been written into the blueprints to give Hunter so much playing time this season, the defensive end has gotten more than a few snaps under his belt and is showing exactly the potential Spielman spoke of.

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The focus this week is understandably the Green Bay Packers, who will look to come to Minnesota, defeat the Vikings at a home, and pull half a game ahead in a tightly-contested NFC North divisional race. But before Lindsey and Brent break down the key offensive and defensive matchups tomorrow, I want to look back on last week’s victory over the Oakland Raiders.

While the Vikings excelled in a number of areas — the running game, pass defense, turnover differential — one stands out in particular, because it may be the key to the Vikings taking a two-game lead over the Packers — the pass rush.

Before they hosted the Vikings, Oakland’s offense line hadn’t given up a sack since Week 7 against the New York Jets. According to Football Outsiders, they’re the best pass protecting unit in the league, having allowed just 12 sacks this season (2.9% adjusted sack rate). The Vikings, though, exploited what’s been a stout group up front, combining aggressive first steps, solid technique, and Mike Zimmer’s varied looks to create confusion and havoc at the line of scrimmage.

They sacked Derek Carr twice and flushed him from the pocket a number of times, forcing the second-year quarterback into bad decisions and even poorer throws. That’s been the blueprint to beat Aaron Rodgers this season, and against the Packers’ 17th-ranked offensive line, Minnesota’s front-seven should have little trouble doing just that to No. 12.

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In Minnesota, the usual suspects continue to carry the Viking ship. Adrian Peterson’s 372 rushing yards lead the league, Mike Zimmer’s defense is holding teams to less than 20 points per game, and Anthony Barr is making spectacular plays on a weekly basis, both against the run and in coverage.

On Thursday, the Vikings Territory staff will answer Lindsey’s Question of the Week and share our pick for the team’s most impressive player through the first four games of the season. A few obvious choices — Peterson, Barr, Harrison Smith — stand out, while a number of newcomers like Linval Joseph and Terence Newman could potentially make the list.

Today, I want to ask fans a similar question. As spectators, we expect greatness from the Vikings’ best players. It’s a given that Peterson can score whenever he touches the ball, or, that Xavier Rhodes will likely shut down an opponent’s number one receiver. But which players have exceeded expectations at the quarter mark of the season, and who is surprising you with their play?

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In this weekly series of articles, I’ll be breaking down what went RIGHT or what went WRONG each game for the Minnesota Vikings. This week, the Vikings punished the San Diego Chargers behind a strong running attack and consistent quarterback pressure from the defensive line.

These Minnesota Vikings have the look of a certain team approximately 1,660 miles to the West — the Seattle Seahawks. Before you comment or tweet in outrage, hear me out, because the similarities are too obvious to ignore.

Like their counterparts in the Pacific Northwest, the Vikings are built to succeed through two fundamental concepts; a strong running game and a fast, aggressive defense. General manager Rick Spielman’s draft strategies and recent free agent signings have helped him achieve the look and feel of the Seahawks on both sides of the ball, from the secondary to depth at running back.

That starts with Harrison Smith, who through three games is already considered the league’s best safety, per Pro Football Focus. He’s this team’s Earl Thomas, a “quarterback of the defense” who can cover sideline to sideline and attack the line of scrimmage in run support. At linebacker, Anthony Barr, Gerald Hodges, and Eric Kendricks exemplify many of the same traits that make Seattle’s mid-level defenders so dangerous — speed, versatility to blitz or cover, and instincts.

Beyond those position groups, the Vikings’ greatest defensive strength starts at the line of scrimmage. Everson Griffen is the anchor of the group, a force against the run and an elite edge rusher. He plays a similar role to the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, who lines up across the defensive line and is by far Seattle’s most consistent rusher, having tallied seven sacks in 2014. Joining Griffen are Brian Robison, Scott Crichton, Justin Trattou, and two of the league’s best interior linemen — Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph.

With a mix of double A-Gap blitzes, suffocating coverage from the secondary, and aggressive play from the front seven, Mike Zimmer’s defense passes the eye test. Like the Seahawks, they fly to the football and are an opportunistic bunch who have forced six turnovers through three games in 2015.

On the offensive side of the football, the Vikings are taking the Marshawn Lynch approach to moving the football, and fortunately, have the running back to do so. Adrian Peterson, the original “Beast Mode,” leads the league with 291 yards on the ground and in the past two games, rushed the ball 49 times. Last season, the Seahawks ran the football 53.63 percent of the time, and this year, the Vikings are on pace to surpass that. They’re rushing on 54.88 percent of their offensive snaps, taking the football out of Teddy Bridgewater’s hands and forcing defenses to commit to the run.

Hopefully, as they did for the Seahawks during their Super Bowl runs, the defense’s loaded boxes open up opportunities in the passing game. Russell Wilson, for example, finished the 2014 season with 3,475 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and seven interceptions in an offense tailored to the running game. When we take Teddy Bridgewater’s statistics through three games and extrapolate them to project a 16-game season, we get the following: 2,693 yards, 5 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. Underwhelming, yes, but Bridgewater is operating behind Adrian Peterson in Norv Turner’s offense, and he hasn’t been forced to win games with his arm.

As long as the formula — suffocating defense and a run-heavy offense — are leading to victories, the Vikings should stick to the plan. A similar one took the Seahawks to multiple Super Bowls, and the Vikings have a chance to get there very soon. If last week’s win over the Chargers was any indication, they’ve fully embraced this winning identity.

After the jump, Ill dive deeper into their performance and the building blocks being put into place for a successful playoff run.

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A new brand of "Vikings Football"

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Mike Zimmer laid the blueprint for success when he arrived in Minnesota last season, and those plans are finally becoming a reality for his young Vikings team after a dominating victory over the San Diego Chargers in Week 3.

The tape from their latest performance — and from their Week 2 demolition of the Detroit Lions — is covered in Zimmer’s fingerprints. A relentless pass rush, a grinding running game, and endless pressure packages paved the way for the Vikings’ 2-1 start on the field. The second-year head coach brought more than just schemes and concepts to Minnesota, though — he instilled a mentality that has permeated every player in the Vikings locker room.

Following yesterday’s win, Zimmer was asked what makes his defense “go”, and while success stems from stopping the run,  Zimmer believes a tough, physical mindset can impact a game from the very first snap:

“It is important to be able to do that. I know that our guys are starting to take a lot of pride. They came out in the three tight end set, which we have seen before and it was good that we shut it down early and it’s about a mindset and about physicality and about toughness and all the things that I really try to preach every single day. But when you can stop the run then eventually you can lay your ears back.”

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