Against a Rams offense with speedy threats accounting for the fourth-most explosive pass plays in the NFL, the Vikings attacked what they felt like was the source: Todd Gurley.
“If you stop the run, then you stop the bootleg,” nose tackle Linval Joseph said. “You pretty much have them bottled up.”
On early downs, you’d often see safety Harrison Smith or Anthony Harris roam near the line of scrimmage against Los Angeles on Sunday. And even after the Vikings took an early punch from Gurley via 31 yards and an opening-drive touchdown, the defense again became a brick wall.
With Gurley gaining little, the offense was forced into Jared Goff’s hands. Blitzes and a crafty Vikings secondary were waiting.
The Rams entered the game converting 47 percent on third downs. They went 3 of 11 on Sunday.
“They wanted to run downhill,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “So once we were able to [shore] up the interior, they had to bounce it outside. So we made them do things they didn’t want to do and our secondary was able to come in and make big plays.”
Let’s take a look at how the Vikings secondary manipulated and varied its coverage and pressures against Goff, a key to Sunday’s Vikings win over the Rams. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. You should follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman.
The Vikings secondary doesn’t tip its hand very quickly, and perhaps they waited a few extra seconds against a Rams offense that feeds info to its quarterback at the line of scrimmage. Goff, his hands covering the ear holes of his helmet, initially appears to be lining up across from a single-high safety Vikings defense. Smith waits 15 seconds before dropping quickly before the snap into a two-deep safety look more adept at covering outside vertical routes.
As Hatman notes, on this third-and-16, Goff’s first read appears to be his second receiver to the left: Robert Woods, who runs a shallow crossing route underneath two verticals. Linebacker Eric Kendricks (around the horns at midfield) jumps the route. Pressure from defensive end Danielle Hunter keeps Goff from another easy read, forcing a scramble. He finds Woods for a completion well short of the first-down marker.
Watch Goff look to his right after the initial read, toward Sammy Watkins vs. Trae Waynes (when Xavier Rhodes was briefly out). That’s the kind of move you might make if you think you’re facing a single-high safety defense (Cover 3), not the two-deep defense (Cover 4) the Vikings actually ran.
Situation: 3rd-and-16 // tie game, 7-7 // 11:40, 2nd quarter
“With the cushion Minnesota gives versus two in-breaking routes, it’s a good look for a quarterback,” Hatman said. “I think Goff is reading #2 coming in and Kendricks takes that way, so Goff goes to the single receiver side.”
The Vikings turned up the pressure on the young Goff, setting loose a blitzing linebacker and/or defensive back on some passing downs. Watch Smith as the Rams settle into their offense. He seems to set up second-year slot corner Mackensie Alexander, who blitzes behind Kendricks for the quick pressure. Goff was pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, completing just 5 of 13 passes for 40 yards when feeling heat.
Situation: 2nd-and-10 // Tie game, 7-7 // 7:06, 2nd quarter
“The field-side pressure was perfect versus that protection,” Hatman said.
Terence Newman is still at the right place at the right time. You’re not going to spin a lot past the NFL’s oldest defensive back, much less a simple corner route. As Hatman notes, Newman knows where his help is in the secondary, allowing him to give up the over-the-top throw to Cooper Kupp, 15 years younger than Newman, and stick to his back pocket. The Rams go max protection and Goff gets a clean pocket. The route concept, with the go route stretching the outside corner deep, should beat the Vikings coverage. But Newman is there, forcing a throw high for Kupp as it slips through his hands.
Situation: 3rd-and-10 // Vikings lead 14-7 // 12:51, 4th quarter
“You have to love smart players,” Hatman said. “Newman understands where his safety help is (middle of the field) and does a great job playing under Kupp’s route. You can hope for more playing the ball.”
A strong defensive effort started and ended on the ground. Down two scores and needing a yard to keep hopes alive, Gurley couldn’t get one. Watch Joseph work ex-Vikings center John Sullivan about three yards into the backfield. Hunter further forces Gurley outside, where Newman makes one of his two tackles for a loss. The 39-year-old cornerback had a strong day in just 26 snaps.
Situation: Third-and-1 // Vikings up 21-7 // 8:58, 4th Quarter
“I feel like every week we talk about the Vikings defensive line and knockback/penetration,” Hatman said. “The push from the one-tech [defensive tackle Linval Joseph] and five-tech [defensive end Danielle Hunter] bubble the play, and then Newman proves why slot defenders have to be competent run defenders. When you replace a linebacker, you replace his run gap. Great defense.”