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Different defensive look gets Vikings back on track

November 9, 2018

The Monday morning film sessions begin at 5:30 a.m., when coach Mike Zimmer congregates with his coaching staff to study for the Vikings next opponent and review the previous days game in search of the plays that hurt them.

Early this season, those film sessions revealed a pattern: Every team the Vikings were about to play had the same approach.

I guess the best way to say it is when youre watching these other teams, the offenses youre getting ready to play, and theyre all attacking with basically the same combination, route combination and things, Zimmer said. You see its vs. that particular style of coverage. Thats when it really shows up. You see everybody game planning the same coverage every single week. Thats why weve had to change.

Embedded in those film sessions could be the secret to why the Vikings have turned their season around. Their three-game winless streak reached its nadir on Sept. 27, when Jared Goff threw for five touchdowns in a Thursday night game that prompted missives about whether the Vikings defense had been figured out. Since then, the Vikings have won four of five games, allowing only 274.8 yards and 18.8 points per game while reclaiming their title as the leagues best third-down defense.

While their defensive struggles could certainly be attributed in part to the absence of three-time Pro Bowler Everson Griffen and the adjustment period that came as they turned to young defensive backs like Mike Hughes and Mackensie Alexander, the Vikings also found themselves needing to adapt. As concepts theyd popularized, like double-A gap blitzes and pattern-match coverages, became common around the league, so did the formula for attacking those concepts. The Vikings, in some ways, had become victims of their own success.

I love watching film with Zim on Monday mornings as 5:30 because he is very smart on seeing whats happening, general manager Rick Spielman said, and I know he spent hours and hours on how offenses have adapted to some of the things were doing on defense and how other teams have copied. Theres a lot of smart people in this league and in order to keep moving forward, you just cant keep getting hit in the head with the same thing.

The Vikings began to depart from their double-A gap blitz package during the 2017 season; this year, Zimmer said, I dont think weve run hardly any double-A blitzes.

Instead, theyve incorporated a new suite of overload blitzes, taking advantage of the flexibility created by their increased use of various nickel packages. Harrison Smiths three sacks are the second-most in the NFL among safeties, and Alexanders three sacks tie him for the league lead at his position.

A new strategy

What thats allowing them to do is force that protection to slide to the overload slide, and now theyre getting free runners on the backside, said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, who played seven years in the league as a safety. The sack Alexander had against the Cardinals he was about seven yards off the ball. If Im a quarterback, I would not expect him to come from that alignment. No way. But he did. And thats why they didnt switch the protection because it looked like theyre in coverage. Eric Kendricks rolls down, he bounces back, and all of a sudden Alexander comes, and theres a wide-open lane.

Thats what theyre doing more theyre showing overload pressure, not just standard double-A pressure. A lot of teams around the NFL have seen that for so long. Everyones kind of caught on to that. So how are you going to use those linebackers? Now youve got a different look up front, and your entire theory behind that is to get the protection to slide to you and have guys assigned to you, and youre not coming. But to do that, youve got to hold those disguises, and theyre so talented at holding those disguises, and getting back.

Whats more, the Vikings only blitzed quarterback Matthew Stafford five times on their 10-sack day against the Lions, getting nine of their sacks from their four-man front thats improved now that Griffen has rejoined the group and Stephen Weatherly has established himself.

Thats the best thing in the world, Bowen said. You want to be creative. You want to challenge people but you dont have to. They have a deep rotation, and that, in my opinion, goes back to the team that won the Super Bowl last year: the Philadelphia Eagles. You can continue to throw fresh legs on the field, continue to rush the passer. At the end of the day, as a coach, youre loving that, because then you can protect yourself from a coverage perspective.

Still some flaws

Bowen didnt necessarily subscribe to the theory the Vikings defense had been figured out; the Rams had the perfect play call to exploit the Vikings on Cooper Kupps 70-yard touchdown in Week 4, he said, but many of the Vikings other issues that night were a product of the Rams exemplary talent.

A couple of those are just great throws, he said. You start with the first touchdown to [Todd] Gurley, where youve got him matched up against Anthony Barr. I would never expect a team to run the seam route that deep in the red zone but they did, and they got Anthony Barr.

Still, the Vikings are likely to be tested with some of the same misdirection concepts they saw early in the season once they return from the bye, facing a 5-3 Bears team that uses many of the concepts from the Chiefs jet-powered offense, now that former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is the head coach in Chicago.

Chicago is [Chiefs coach] Andy Reid and [Eagles coach] Doug Pedersons offense, Bowen said. Therell be a lot of movement. Therell be guys like Tarik Cohen, who go in jet motion and different formations, and a tight end in Trey Burton who can align anywhere on the field. When they use 21 personnel, which is two running backs in the game, itll be Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, to try to gain a pre-snap advantage one that helps the young quarterback in [Mitch] Trubisky, and gives them an opportunity to create some open windows.

Finding a new way

But if the Bears assume theyll be able to copy the blueprint the 49ers and Rams used against the Vikings or, for that matter, the one the Eagles used to beat them in the NFC Championship Game theyll find a Vikings defense that has evolved. When the Lions tried to run the type of rollout screen the Rams used on Goffs 56-yard completion to Gurley, the Vikings snuffed it out twice.

Weve had to make adjustments on how were playing that, Zimmer said. [Last Sunday] I think they [the Lions] lost yards on both of them.

The adaptation of the Vikings defense will have to continue. But as theyve shown already this season, they can reorient themselves in an effort to regain the upper hand.

Think about it this way: the Vikings had one of the best defenses in the NFL last year, Bowen said. So if youre an NFL offensive coordinator, one of the first tapes youre going to watch in the offseason is the Vikings. Im sure opposing offensive coordinators studied them like crazy this offseason.

Nothing is unbeatable in football. Were they figured out? I dont want to say they were figured out, but teams found a way to create matchups and open throwing windows against them. What happens from the perspective of the Vikings is, you go back and say, How are teams beating us? What can we do differently? What can we do to correct it?

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