Losing at home isn’t a normal occurrence for Russell Wilson; the Seattle Seahawks quarterback has dropped just five games at Century Link Field since 2012. Outside of his own brilliance and the strength of his supporting cast, Wilson owes some of his success to fans known as “The 12.”
Without Seattle’s raucous crowds, Century Link isn’t one of the league’s loudest, most intimidating stadiums. Sure, the architecture projects the roar in such a way, but its the fans who give life to the Seahawks’ infectious playing style. To win in Seattle takes nerves of steel; the ability to focus in the face deafening noise and outthink a team bred for the chaos. In the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer has built such a team.
It’s only the preseason, but if the first half of Thursday’s game is any indication, the Vikings are built to ignore the noise. And against the Seahawks’ first-string offense, the Vikings silenced the crowd.
Mobile quarterback? No problem.
Last season, Minnesota’s bugaboo was mobile quarterbacks. Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and even Colin Kaepernick made life difficult for Zimmer’s normally sound defense. They extended plays and escaped the grasp of countless Vikings pass rushers, turning negative plays into surprisingly positive gains.
Wilson was the biggest thorn in Zimmer’s side, digging deeper when it mattered most. Late in the regular season, Wilson made a fool of Danielle Hunter, spinning away from the sinewy defensive end to escape a would-be sack. And in the teams’ NFC Wild Card matchup, he shocked the Vikings by turning a botched snap into a game-changing play.
Preventing plays like that has been a focus for Zimmer, who spoke to reporters after Minnesota’s four-sack effort on Thursday night. He explained how the mindset has changed for the Vikings when facing a quarterback like Wilson.
“Most of the time what happens is you start peeking and you quit rushing,” he said, per Matt Vensel and Jason Gonzalez. “So instead of maintaining and trying to beat the guy you’re on, you’re looking around for the quarterback and then you don’t rush.”
On Thursday, the Vikings didn’t peek, look for the quarterback, or stop rushing; they attacked and harassed the Seahawks. With each of the four first half sacks, cheers in the stands of Century Link became whispers of doubt and frustration.
The impressive showing was the result of a defense working completely in-sync. Tight coverage downfield forced Wilson to hold the football, step up further in the pocket, or use his legs to make something happen. It backfired, and Wilson often found himself with nowhere to run. In other instances, Minnesota’s blitzes confused Seattle’s offensive line, resulting in laughably easy takedowns of the quarterback.
Sack No. 1
- 1st and 10 at SEA 39
- (7:46 – 1st) (Shotgun) R.Wilson sacked at SEA 37 for -2 yards (L.Joseph)
The Vikings are known as an A-Gap blitzing team, but the defensive line has the talent to get to the quarterback without added pressure. In a perfect world, a defense should be able to sack the quarterback without sacrificing defenders in the secondary. Here, Wilson has nowhere to go with the football. He gets to the top of his drop, double clutches, and tries to climb the pocket.
He’s forced to move because of the pressure created by Everson Griffen on the back side. Griffen sets the left tackle up with an outside speed rush, getting him to turn his shoulders and throw a punch. As soon as the tackle punches, Griffen swats his hands away and spins inside, using his back as leverage to accelerate to the quarterback.
Wilson feels the rush and attempts to sprint behind his left guard, but is met in the backfield by Linval Joseph. The right guard anchors at the snap, but Joseph uses his hands to separate, locate the quarterback, and drive himself into the pocket. He pushes and pulls with power by thrusting his hands into the guard’s chest; it gives Joseph a balance advantage and a sightline on the quarterback. As soon as Wilson is within arm’s reach, Joseph extends his left arm and swallows Wilson for the sack.
Sack No. 2
- 2nd and 10 at SEA 20
- (2:03 – 1st) (Shotgun) R.Wilson sacked at SEA 10 for -10 yards (E.Griffen)
No blitz, no problem on the Seahawks’ very next drive. While Joseph and Tom Johnson do their best to collapse the pocket, it’s Brian Robison and Griffen who force Wilson to flee. But like the first example, their job is made easier by the coverage down the field.
Pay attention to the linebackers and cornerbacks, who recognize the routes and immediately clamp down in coverage. Wilson’s drop from the shotgun indicates a one-step read; he’s supposed to drop, plant, and throw as quickly as possible. His apparent target, the tight end running in the flat, is taken away by Terence Newman, who would’ve been able to make a play on the ball had it been thrown.
As Wilson hesitates, Robison and Griffen bull rush their respective tackles. They understand that it’s second-and-long — a situation where offenses rarely run — allowing them to commit fully to the pass rush move. By the time Wilson cycles through his progressions (his eyes move from the right to the left of the field), he’s nearly trapped. He spins out of the pocket but underestimates the speed of Griffen.
Griffen sheds the tackle with ease and tracks Wilson from behind, bringing down the mobile quarterback for a ten-yard loss. Last year, Griffen may not have caught Wilson, but an offseason of intense training means Griffen now has the speed, explosion, and acceleration to close the gap.
Sack No. 3
- 1st and 10 at SEA 49
- (11:37 – 2nd) R.Wilson sacked at SEA 38 for -11 yards (A.Barr)
The Vikings line up in what appears to be man coverage across the board. Anthony Barr rotates to the end of the defensive line, positioning himself in a Wide-9 alignment outside of the right tackle. He’s an extra pass rusher in this situation, giving the Vikings one-on-one matchups across the board.
But right before the snap, Harrison Smith begins to creep toward the line of scrimmage. He intends to blitz and overload the right side of Seattle’s line, freeing up himself or Barr en route to the quarterback. What appears to be man coverage to the Seahawks is actually a zone blitz, with Justin Trattou dropping into coverage and Audie Cole picking up Smith’s slot receiver.
At the snap, Trattou drops, Cole sprints to the slot, and Greenway helps on the tight end running down the field. On the opposite side of the line, Barr and Smith attack the lone offensive tackle, while it appears the running back misses his blocking assignment. The Seahawks run a play action, and instead of blocking, the running back sprints through the line of scrimmage; he completely ignores the blitzes and leaves Wilson on an island in the backfield.
Barr cuts inside of the tackle and Smith attacks the outside shoulder. The tackle chooses Smith, giving Barr a free run to the quarterback. And like Griffen before him, Barr shows off the speed and closing ability to bring down the scrambling Wilson. Although it’s an ankle tackle, it’s enough to force the Seahawks into a third-and-long situation — something Zimmer emphasized following the game.
Sack No. 4
- 3rd and 7 at SEA 41
- (1:28 – 2nd) (No Huddle, Shotgun) R.Wilson sacked at SEA 23 for -18 yards (A.Sendejo)
Zimmer may love third-and-long because it allows him to “release the hounds.” It’s a situation where offenses almost always throw the football, and it’s a situation where defenses can be their most aggressive. Zimmer shows an aggressive look before the snap by putting Emmanuel Lamur and Audie Cole in either A-Gap.
This puts extreme pressure on the interior offensive linemen, as they don’t know who is blitzing, who is dropping, and in that case, who to block. Like the look that created Barr’s sack, Zimmer also overloads the right side of the offensive line. Hunter is in a Wide-9 on the right tackle and Andrew Sendejo is on the outside of Hunter. To counteract this, Wilson sets his running back to the right, where he’ll (try to) block one of the anticipated blitzers.
At the snap, both Cole and Trattou drop into zone coverage. The other blitzing linebacker, Lamur, doesn’t get to the quarterback, but he occupies enough manpower to free up the blitzes on the outside. Tom Johnson,Hunter, and Sendejo attack the outside and get to Wilson before he can begin to read the defense.
Hunter occupies the running back, Johnson swims past the tackle, and Sendejo easily runs around the traffic up front. He locates Wilson, corners him nearly 20 yards in the backfield, and brings the quarterback down to force the short-field punt.
Whether they’re blitzing or rushing four, Zimmer’s defenders have the ability to pressure the quarterback. Early on in the game, Zimmer relied heavily on coverage and effort from his front four to get after Wilson; it worked, but Zimmer continued to tinker as the game wore on.
Twice, he overloaded the right side of Seattle’s offensive line and asked his best athletes to win in one-on-one situations. They did, overpowering smaller running backs or outrunning Wilson to finish the play. He also revealed a few different zone blitzes, which are sure to make an appearance next Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
Take it with a grain of salt, but defensively, the Vikings are already showing flashes of dominance. Zimmer’s multi-faceted blitzes are in their early stages and the unit as a whole is still getting healthy. With time, this is a group of players who can carry the Vikings into January and through the playoffs.