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.
Play No. One
Early in the game (on the Raiders’ first offensive drive), Minnesota established its presence early. The Raiders ran the football twice to start the drive, and on third down, Zimmer expected Derek Carr to throw the football. He subbed out his base defensive line for a smaller, faster unit.
Danielle Hunter lined up outside of the right tackle, Brian Robison bumped to a 3-technique (outside shade of the guard), Tom Johnson a 2i (inside shade of the guard), and Everson Griffen on the outside shoulder of the opposite tackle. At the snap, Hunter crashed inside, occupying both the right tackle and right guard. As soon as the guard turned his shoulders, Robison looped outside — an “Exit” stunt to take advantage of Robison’s speed against the slower interior lineman. On the other side of the line, Johnson and Griffen rush their gaps by design.
I can only assume that Zimmer schemed this stunt for two reasons; one, Derek Carr is a right-armed quarterback, and right-armed quarterbacks are more comfortable throwing to their right. Two, the field is to Carr’s right, increasing the probability he’d throw to the direction of the stunt. It worked, and Robison flushed Carr to the sideline before Carr could set his feet, leading to the first of many three-and-outs for the Raiders that afternoon.
Play No. Two
Zimmer was especially creative on this play, confusing Carr to the point of leaving the pocket in the face of little “real” pressure. Before the snap, Harrison Smith inverted over the outside shade of the left tackle, with Danielle Hunter lined up in space. Tom Jonson was in a 3-technique, and Anthony Barr threatened in the A-gap. On the opposite side of the line, Linval Joseph played head-up on the right guard, Chad Greenway was head-up over the tackle at linebacker depth, and Brian Robison was in lined up much like Hunter.
It’s nearly impossible to tell who will blitz, who will drop, and who will stunt, and at the snap, the Vikings executed perfectly. From left-to-right: Hunter rushed, Smith blitzed, Barr dropped into coverage, Joesph rushed, Joesph and Greenway ran a stunt, and Robison dropped into coverage. What originally looked like an overload blitz from the left of the defense became much more complicated, speeding up Carr’s internal clock.
Because of this, Carr drifted in his drop, feeling pressure that wasn’t actually there. He vacated the pocket, running right into Zimmer’s looping stunt with Joesph. Much like the first play, Joseph flushed Carr before Greenway eventually drove him to the sideline. The threat of the sack, created by the chaos of Mike Zimmer’s front, led to a negative play by Carr and yet another stalled drive.
Play No. One
Before the snap, Carr moved Latavius Murray to the right of the formation in anticipation of extra pressure from that side of the field. At the snap, the defensive ends rushed hard to the outside, and the interior defensive linemen slanted to the left of the formation. Their movement negated Carr’s adjustment, but the sack was a result of pure athletic ability from Griffen, not necessarily the design of the rush.
At the top of his drop, Carr’s pocket had already collapsed. Both Joesph and Floyd used bull rushes to force the middle of the offensive line into Carr’s lap, and Griffen’s speed-to-power transition overwhelmed left tackle Donald Penn. Griffen initially rushed to the inside, and once Penn stopped his feet, he converted to a bull rush, finding just enough room for the sack. Most defensive lines have struggled to get to Carr, but the Vikings proved their talent and technique were enough to overcome Oakland’s biggest strength on offense. Zimmer didn’t always get exotic with his looks, and he was still able to pressure the Raiders’ quarterback.
Play No. Two
Again, Zimmer sent a simple four-man rush to pressure Carr, and his defensive line’s athleticism created yet another sack. Danielle Hunter got the better of Penn, rushing hard outside and using his long arms to bring Carr to the ground. Carr was initially down, but the refs let the play continue. Below, a look at the result.
Linval Joseph is the last person you want hitting your quarterback, and that’s exactly what happened on the play. As soon as Carr recovered from his initial fall, Joseph met him in the backfield with a vicious hit. Win number two for Mike Zimmer and the Vikings.
It’s encouraging when a defense can create pressure against one of the league’s best offensive lines, but it’s an even better sign when they can do so without veering from their normal schemes and alignments. Throughout the game, Zimmer kept his strategy simple, and it paid off. As Andrew Krammer noted earlier this week, the Vikings blitzed less than they have all season against the Raiders. Although the blitz may be effective against the Packers this week, Everson Griffen and Co. should have no problem getting after Aaron Rodgers with a four-man rush.