Sacks definitely aren’t overrated. But they do tell only a small part of the pass rushing story.
Or, as Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson puts it, “You might beat your dude every time in a game and never get a sack. Or you might not beat your dude and get a sack because the quarterback fell” and the defender taps him down.
Sunday in Chicago, the Vikings were credited with only one sack. But if you look at some of the critical pressure moments in the game, the team’s pass rushing story starts to add a few more bruises to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
Case in point: The Bears had a three-point lead and were facing third-and-6 from the Vikings’ 33-yard line with two minutes left in the third quarter. The Vikings countered with a new look that’s becoming effective in the absence of injured defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.
Six defenders hugged the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks were in their now-customary Double A-gap launching pads. But Danielle Hunter was at left end, while Brian Robison slid inside to tackle in a role he played more frequently early in his career. On the right side were Johnson and end Everson Griffen, a duo that has developed nice chemistry in their 22 games together.
The look in Cutler’s eyes before the snap of the ball suggested he knew he wouldn’t have much time. The eyes didn’t lie.
When Barr rushed into his A-gap, the left guard took him. When Johnson rushed straight ahead, the left tackle had to take him. When Griffen rushed off the edge, the Bears had no tight end to that side, an empty backfield and nobody to account for the fastest pass rusher on the field.
Presumably, the Bears must have gambled that Cutler could make the short pass the other way to tight end Martellus Bennett. But that was made more difficult when Hunter followed Bennett rather than rush Cutler.
The result was a hurried throw that fell incomplete as Griffen blasted Cutler to the ground. That led to Robbie Gould having to attempt a 51-yard field goal into windy conditions at the tougher end of the field.
Gould missed for the only time this season and the Vikings won by three points on a last-second field goal. And that pass rush on third-and-6 gets forgotten because there was no sack dance.
The Vikings were in a similar defensive front with two minutes left in the second quarter. The Bears were facing third-and-7 from their 46-yard line.
Before the snap, Cutler pointed at Barr and screamed, “Big Red Young!” several times.
In layman’s terms, that must mean, “Help!”
Cutler threw to his left to running back Matt Forte. Only this time, Griffen didn’t rush the passer. He slid into coverage and was fast enough to drop one of the league’s best pass-catching backs for no gain.
“He’s very talented athletically,” Zimmer said of Griffen. “He’s becoming a much, much smarter football player in everything. But yeah, we can do a lot of different things with him. I think as we move forward, you’ll probably see some more of it.
“Both of our guys really, Brian and Everson, and Hunter, they all have a lot of different qualities that I think we can use as we continue to go forward.”
Hearing that, the first thoughts were Zimmer has some 3-4 schemes brewing inside his brain. Perhaps the Vikings will be able to mix 4-3 and 3-4 fronts the way the Patriots have been able to do so successfully.
Looking at what he has in Johnson and Griffen, it’s not a reach to picture Zimmer sprinkling in a few play calls with Griffen standing up as an outside linebacker and Johnson as the right end in a three-man line.
Since the start of last season, Griffen and Johnson rank fifth among end-tackle tandems in combined sacks (25). Griffen has 16½ while Johnson has 8½.
First on that list with 34½ is Houston’s J.J. Watt and Jared Crick. Miami’s Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh are tied for second with St. Louis’ Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald (29), while Buffalo’s Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus (28) are fourth.
“Tom benefits a lot from Everson’s speed,” Zimmer said. “[Griffen forces] the [tackle] to get up the field a little bit more, so it creates a little bit more space between the tackle and the guard, especially if the protection is going the other way. They both have a good chemistry between them.”