Key Player Matchup: Vikings Linebackers vs. San Diego Chargers

The San Diego Chargers arrived in Minnesota with one of the league’s most potent offenses, a triple-headed attack led by wide receiver Keenan Allen, rookie running back Melvin Gordon, and veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. Their success starts with Rivers’s intelligence at the line of scrimmage and ends with his unorthodox throwing motion — a combination shot put, Tim Tebow release that’s led to a miraculous 81.2 percent completion percentage through two games in 2015.

Those three, however, are just a small piece of this West Coast puzzle. Next to Allen, Steve Johnson has solidified himself as the Chargers’ number two receiver with his quick feet and penchant for winning in the slot. Malcolm Floyd, San Diego’s deep threat, is averaging 28 yards per catch in 2015. And behind Gordon, Branden Oliver is contributing on special teams, in the passing game, and on the ground.

Even without veteran tight end Antonio Gates (lost to a four-game suspension) and his backup, Ladarius Green (progressing through concussion protocol and questionable for today’s game), the Chargers are finding ways to win, whether on the ground or through the air. More than that, they’re finding ways to win in all shapes and sizes, no matter how big or how small.

Danny Woodhead, for example, stands just 5’9″ and weighs 200 pounds. Next to Chargers left tackle King Dunlap, he looks like a child. But Woodhead’s ability with the football has been vital to San Diego’s success in 2015, and he’s one of the most important players to watch against the Vikings this afternoon.

If Woodhead’s streak of six-plus targets a game continues, and he continues to make linebackers miss in space, the trio of Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Gerald Hodges could be in for a long game.

Through two games, Woodhead is second among Chargers players with 13 targets and third with 10 catches. Of those receptions, three have come on third down, with one of those resulting in a first down. His added value in the passing game has contributed to San Diego’s ninth-best third down conversion rate of 45.5 percent, and he continues to prove that size is just a number in the NFL.

On the play below, from the Chargers’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Woodhead releases from the backfield and nearly picks up a critical first down thanks to shifty feet and deceptively-strong route running.

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

With the pass rush closing in and three of his receivers clearing out, Rivers is left with just two options — throw to an in-breaking Malcom Floyd (who’s well-covered) or dump the ball to Woodhead in the flat and hope for a first down. Rivers opts for the latter, his decision likely influenced by Woodhead’s reliability as a pass-catcher.

Woodhead runs a quick out, releasing immediately from the backfield as the outside linebacker races to the flat to pick him up. Like Wes Welker, who Woodhead played with in New England, the diminutive running back sets the linebacker up with a quick stutter step before breaking to the outside. The stutter freezes the linebacker’s feet and creates just enough space for Rivers to throw the football. His low center of gravity allows Woodhead to change direction almost instantaneously, and that same quickness brings him this close to crossing the third down marker.

How then, does this relate to the Vikings and their corps of young, athletic linebackers? Frankly, that group struggled defending the Lions’ Theo Riddick, Joique Bell, and Ameer Abdullah in coverage last week, and they may have their hands full with Woodhead and Gordon today.

On Thursday, Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards addressed the media and spoke to the development of one player in particular; second-year linebacker Anthony Barr. When asked about Barr’s growth, specifically in pass coverage, Edwards highlighted Barr’s steady adjustment to playing linebacker in the NFL:

[quote_box_center]”He’s done well with it, he’s come in and he’s taken the bull by the horns and accepted the challenges that we presented him with, whether it’s covering a back, whether it’s rushing, no matter what it’s been. I think he’s done a good job and you’ll continue to see him with more experience get better as we move down the road.”[/quote_box_center]

If Sunday’s game against the Lions was any indication, Barr will only continue improving as he plays more and more downs in the NFL. In Week 1, he led the team in tackles, and in Week 2, spent much more time chasing running backs and tight ends in coverage. He finished the day with just two tackles and some unfortunate game film, including a personal foul that was later judged a non-penalty by the NFL.

Below, a brief look at some of Barr’s struggles in coverage:

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Riddick releases to the left, and much like Danny Woodhead in the clip above, freezes Barr’s feet with a stutter step and a hard plant to the outside. Barr overcommits to the move and loses his balance, giving Riddick plenty of space to catch the ball and work upfield for an 11-yard gain. Because the Vikings had been getting so much pressure on Stafford throughout the day, the Lions’ passing attack was limited to the intermediate area of the field. Fortunately for Detroit, their running backs were winning on-on-one battles underneath and making the Vikings’ linebackers look silly in space.

These issues are correctable, and Mike Zimmer’s group likely worked much of the week against Adrian Peterson, Matt, Asiata, and Jerrick McKinnon in one-on-one drills. As you can see above, Barr spent far too much time looking in the backfield and relying on his athleticism to properly defend Riddick. Had he tracked Riddick’s hips and kept his head up, Barr may have been able to stick with Riddick and break up the pass. Like Edwards said, the transition will take time.

For Barr’s teammate, Gerald Hodges, a move to middle linebacker has also caused some growing pains, most noticeably in coverage. He had his moments in 2014, like his interception return off the Jets’ Geno Smith in Week 14, but Hodges is still learning the intricacies of manning Mike Zimmer’s defense. That was clear last Sunday, as Hodges was also beat badly by Lions running back Joique Bell on a simple option route out of the backfield.

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Hodges dances as soon as the ball is snapped, and like Barr, guesses wrong on Bell’s direction. His trigger finger leads to a sizable gain on the play, and at the very end of the clip, you can see Hodges emote with anger. Plays like this cannot,  should not happen, and Hodges knows it as soon as Bell runs past him.

Like Barr, Hodges plays with poor footwork, bouncing without settling his feet to react to Bell’s juke. Linebackers are taught to read an offensive player’s hips, as the hips and feet provide a good measure of a player’s direction. Hodges’s eyes are up and in the backfield, and he allows Stafford’s movement to dictate his play, rather than Bell’s movement into his zone.

Sunday will provide a demanding test for Barr, Hodges, and the rest of the Vikings linebackers as they try to stop the San Diego Chargers’ passing attack. Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon are excellent receiving threats in their own right, and Philip Rivers will likely involve them early as the Vikings’ pass rush causes problems against a depleted offensive line.

Much as the Lions did against the Vikings last week, look for the Chargers to speed the game up with no-huddle and exploit favorable matchups underneath. Will the linebackers improve enough to stop San Diego from dinking-and-dunking their way to a Week 3 victory?


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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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One Comment

  1. A spot on assessment of the LBs and their role in stopping the Chargers. Read the right keys and let their athleticism take over. If we can keep their short/intermediate game in check, we have an excellent chance…Skol!