Nose tackle Linval Joseph was asked after the Vikings’ 24-17 win against the Packers on Sunday night whether the defense made key adjustments at halftime to keep Green Bay out of the end zone.
The reality is the groundwork had been laid at the beginning against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who lost his third straight start at U.S. Bank Stadium. There was only one figure that stood out to Joseph after the game.
“Two for 10, that was a big stat,” Joseph said.
The Vikings defense held the Packers to just 2 of 10 third-down conversions, leading to six punts and the critical turnover on downs in the third quarter.
If the Vikings can force an offense into third down, the chances are becoming historically great that they’ll keep the chains right where they rest.
With five games to go, the Vikings defense is on pace to become the first (since the NFL officially tracked third downs in 1991) to lead the league in third-down defense during back-to-back seasons. If they keep the clip below 30 percent, they’ll be just the second NFL franchise to ever record two sub-30 percent seasons on third downs, joining the Ravens (2003, 2006); of course, the Vikings would become the first defense to do it consecutively.
They’re currently at 28 percent allowed.
Defensive sub-30% seasons on third down (since ’91)
Let’s take a look below at relevant takeaways from the Vikings’ win against the Packers.
1. Pressure report: There’s a good reason Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer backed off the blitzes on Rodgers. Out of four total blitzes, two came in the first quarter and resulted in cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ 26-yard pass interference and a 23-yard completion to receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Those were the Packers’ biggest plays of the game prior to the desperation, no-huddle drive at the very end.
So the Vikings’ pressure on Rodgers, which included four sacks and four throwaways, came almost exclusively from a 4-man rush. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was too much to handle for Packers guards Byron Bell and Lane Taylor. Richardson walked Taylor into the backfield on a 2nd-and-7 snap in the third quarter, forcing one Rodgers’ throwaway. His two sacks came on back-to-back third downs in the second half.
Richardson’s first sack was set up by defensive end Danielle Hunter, who spearheaded the Vikings’ 4-man rush against a 7-man protection on this ridiculous play below. It’s 3rd-and-13, and the Packers prioritized protection.
Nobody told Hunter, who shoots the ‘B’ gap inside of Packers left tackle Jason Spriggs (in for the injured David Bakhtiari) and runs through running back Jamaal Williams. Richardson twists around Hunter and gets credit for the sack.
2. Safety Harrison Smith’s usage was one of Mike Zimmer’s adjustments after the Packers scored two touchdowns. The Vikings initially put Smith in the box on the majority of his plays (9 of 17) on the first three possessions. After the Packers’ second touchdown of the first half, Zimmer adjusted his coverages to have Smith almost exclusively in deep-half coverage (24 of 34). Solid coverage across the board, including the third-year Mackensie Alexander, was a big reason why Rodgers held onto the ball as long as he did en route to four sacks and four throwaways.
Of course, Smith was a key in a new wrinkle featuring three defenders — Smith and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks — hovering over the center on third downs. While the design is likely intended to get 1-on-1 matchups for a spread-out defensive line, it had little impact on the two plays Zimmer called. On both third downs, Rodgers had Davante Adams deep but either overthrew him or the receiver stepped out of bounds.
Perhaps Alexander’s most impressive play was his tackle to stall a 5-yard jet sweep by St. Brown. Alexander doesn’t have a reputation as the best tackler in the secondary, so those kinds of plays are noteworthy. Alexander (40 snaps, 75%) also didn’t fall for the play-action fake and stuck to St. Brown on one of those throwaways.
3. Anatomy of a play: For the first time since 2014, Rodgers did not record a rushing attempt on Sunday night. There isn’t one factor that deserves all the credit for that oddity. But Hunter and Griffen helped contain Rodgers with disciplined outside rush lanes that often matched exactly to Rodgers’ depth in the pocket.
“He never ran tonight. Not one time,” Zimmer said. “Our guys did a nice job of understanding the rush plan, and that was part of it. And there were a couple times that I kind of turned them loose.”
On this third-and-5 play in the second quarter, defensive tackle Tom Johnson gets sack No. 1 of 4 for the Vikings defense. Rodgers initially flees from pressure caused by Richardson and Griffen before Johnson chases him down.
The Vikings defensive line can often create havoc with a four-man rush in part because of how well they execute twists like the one run by Johnson and Richardson on this play.
From the wide all-22 angle, you can see the Vikings’ pass rush saved the coverage. Tight end Jimmy Graham emerges wide open on a shallow crossing route along the 35-yard line, but Rodgers is already fleeing the pocket at that point.
4. The Vikings could use more Dalvin Cook in the receiving game. Cook’s hamstring injury and absence this season makes it easy to forget he tied for the league lead in forced missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, when he went down in overtime of Week 2. He looks fully healthy now, shedding five Packers tacklers while picking up 76 yards on 13 touches (5.8 yards per). Heading into New England, where the Patriots have allowed receiving touchdowns to Frank Gore, Kareem Hunt and Tarik Cohen this season, the Vikings should look to get Cook the ball in the open field even more.
5. It wasn’t Kirk Cousins’ best game as a Viking, but it was the type of efficiency they need from him. Cousins’ 129.5 quarterback rating — his best in Minnesota — deserves to come with some context. Cousins played within an effective approach that called for the ball to come out quickly, and to set up the Vikings’ playmakers for yards after the catch. Nearly half of Cousins’ 342 yards (155 of them) came after catches by Thielen, Diggs, Cook, Rudolph all the way down to fullback C.J. Ham’s 13-yard catch and run on the closing drive. Two of Cousins’ three touchdowns were also picked up after the catch: Cook’s 26-yard screen and Thielen’s 14-yard catch and collision into the end zone. The best part about Cousins’ night is that it was mistake-(turnover)-free.
The second quarter is when Cousins was at his best. He read a Packers cornerback blitz, threw into it and found Diggs for a big third-and-5 conversion. The next play was Diggs’ 30-yard touchdown; Diggs was wide open because Tramon Williams fell while Diggs and Thielen crossed routes. On the next drive, Cousins threw the ridiculous 33-yard pass to Thielen, who was double covered but still came down with the catch over Jaire Alexander’s helmet.