Matt Ryan missed some throws. A couple passes went through hands of his receivers. The Falcons offense was penalized five times in the first half alone. Atlanta wasn’t firing on all cylinders Sunday, which keeps happening for dynamic offenses against the Vikings defense.
Two other reasons weren’t always visible on the broadcast in safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
“Both of them played very well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Harrison made some outstanding plays. Sendejo as well. The back end played really well yesterday. I think that was a credit to them. I thought Trae Waynes played real good, obviously Xavier [Rhodes] played well. They understood the plan that we had to try to do.”
Throwing Rhodes on Julio Jones was the obvious part of the Vikings’ plan. Jones’ two catches for 24 yards was the quietest day in his last 24 regular season games. There are some factors easily overlooked. His dropped slant pass on the first play of the game illustrated two: the Falcons’ inopportune sloppiness and Atlanta’s plan to not often test their protection against the Vikings’ pass rush.
But whenever Jones took off on a vertical route, Rhodes had help over the top from either Smith or Sendejo. Both safeties were strong in coverage during Sunday’s 14-9 win in Atlanta. The duo also caused havoc at the line of scrimmage, drawing three Falcons penalties for illegal blocks in the back while charging in for run stops.
Let’s take a look at how both Vikings safeties helped ground a dynamic Falcons offense. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hatman.
Jones received attention from more than just Rhodes, though the Vikings’ top cornerback was the man following the All-Pro receiver throughout the game and both inside and outside the Falcons formations. Ryan didn’t try many deep shots at all, whether by design against the pass rush or by product of the coverage. Two of Ryan’s deep throws came when he saw Harrison Smith blitzing, including the one below.
As Hatman notes, the downfield matchup of Sendejo at centerfield might’ve been one the Falcons wanted. But the outcome wasn’t. Watch the bottom of the screen where Jones is aligned inside the two Falcons receivers.
“Those increased-protection, play-action deep shots are a staple for the Falcons, and seeing Sendejo deep would have probably gotten them excited about the matchup,” Hatman said. “Sendejo did a hell of a job on this play of taking good angles, timing his jump and playing the ball.”
The Vikings didn’t shy from single-high safety coverages despite facing the NFL’s reigning MVP and one of its best receivers. Both Smith and Sendejo were involved often near the line of scrimmage, especially on first downs — when Jones entered Sunday with more than half of his 1,000-plus yards. Minnesota has some things to clean up in run defense, which Zimmer put on himself for misalignment. The Vikings still largely stopped perimeter runs like this one below, in part, because of their safeties. This first-down run stop in Vikings territory eventually led to Matt Bryant’s missed field goal.
“Smith is so disruptive when he inserts in the run game,” Hatman said. “Heat-seeking missile comes to mind. The fullback and Sanu have to adjust to Smith’s path, and Xavier Rhodes has to clean it up, which he does. Well done.”
Vikings safeties drew three blocks in the back just with their downhill speed. Falcons receiver Justin Hardy, at the bottom of the screen, has no chance to get in front of Sendejo before he crashes onto Freeman. Trae Waynes and Brian Robison clean up for a gain of two yards. Zimmer declined the penalty, sticking with a third-and-8 that led to a Falcons punt.
“The receiver is almost always going to be responsible for the safety in those situations as you want to get the running back on the cornerback,” Hatman said. “With Sendejo being so tight to the formation and the receiver split outside of him, I’m not sure how they expect to get that done. Excellent use of the eighth defender in the box by Minnesota. Sendejo has proven himself functional enough in many phases to allow them to mix up Smith’s usage, which makes him more dangerous.”