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Vikings secondary, linebackers have one option — adjust or fall prey again to run-pass option threat

September 1, 2018

The NFC Championship Game was tied 7-7 when Eagles quarterback Nick Foles pulled the ball from Jay Ajayi and threw to tight end Zach Ertz, converting a critical third-and-1 play. LeGarrette Blount rumbled in for an 11-yard touchdown on the next play and the rout of the Vikings was on in Philadelphia.

The Vikings’ loaded secondary — and their linebackers — spent this offseason studying run-pass option plays after the Eagles used the concept to perfection en route to a Lombardi Trophy. On that play, the Eagles used their biggest receiver, 6-foot-4 Mack Hollins, to run interference on Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who had been assigned man-to-man coverage on Ertz.

Foles made the right read while Ertz slipped under Hollins’ faux block and ran free for the easy first down.

The Vikings expect to see more run-pass option plays during the 2018 season — so much so they made it a point of emphasis this offseason to study how to defend those plays with the help of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who served as Eagles quarterbacks coach last season.

“I think it’s past anticipation,” Smith said. “I think everyone, or a lot of teams, are doing it in the preseason. So, it’s kind of the trend right now. It’s how football goes.”

With DeFilippo at the offense’s controls, the Vikings defense practiced its adjustments during specific run-pass option periods in training camp. Linebacker Anthony Barr said he’s got “a pretty good idea now, having studied it all offseason” of when they’re coming. Defending RPOs is about identifying the offense’s targeted defender — it was Smith in the aforementioned play against the Eagles — and adjusting to provide help.

“It could be anyone on a given play,” Barr said. “It’s all really about formations, understanding formations and where kind of the hole in the defense is when they start attacking you with RPOs and trying to help one another out. That’s a big thing.”

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