The Giants returned familiar Vikings foe Golden Tate to the lineup on Sunday, but it was tight end Evan Engram who caught much of the defense’s attention throughout Sunday’s 28-10 win.
Engram entered the game second among all NFL tight ends in receiving yards. He was then held to a season-low 42 yards against the Vikings, despite 11 targets.
“We were aware of where he was and how he was going to play, and I think the guys did a nice job of understanding the coverage of what we had to do with him,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We knocked a couple balls out of his hands, which was big, but he’s a very, very good player.”
The Vikings’ aggressive coverage plan on Engram matched the intensity from the start (safety Harrison Smith blitzed on the first play). Safeties Smith and Anthony Harris played a critical role in capping a Giants offense that relies heavily on its most-targeted player in Engram.
It’s a good sign entering Sunday’s game against the Eagles and tight end Zach Ertz, who leads Philadelphia in catches, targets and receiving yards. Maybe there’s a thing or two the Vikings can carry over against the Eagles.
“Maybe,” Zimmer said.
1. Aggressive safety play was clearly part of Zimmer’s game plan against Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, who was hamstrung without much of a running game.
On this third-and-8 play in the first quarter, Smith gives Jones a look that suggests he might have Engram (#88) open on a deep crossing route. Smith (#22) is very good at toying with opposing quarterbacks through presnap movement, and that was especially true during Jones’ third NFL start on Sunday.
Smith drops about 10 yards around the snap, giving him the depth to jump on Engram’s route. His positioning prevents Jones from finding Engram before and after he scrambles to avoid pressure from defensive end Everson Griffen.
2. Engram drew double coverage on another third down in the third quarter. The Vikings show pressure on third-and-4, while playing man-to-man coverage underneath. Harris (#41) appears to be the lone deep safety, but he stands roughly 10 yards off the line directly in front of Engram.
The Vikings don’t actually blitz, bringing linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks up to the line to freeze the tight end and running back in pass protection — helping create one-on-one matchups for pass rushers. The look helps free defensive end Danielle Hunter, leading to a quick throw by Jones.
Harris (#41) was ready for the quick throw to Engram (#88), also guarded by cornerback Trae Waynes (#26). But Jones looks elsewhere and finds receiver Sterling Shepard for an 11-yard gain against cornerback Mike Hughes.
Smith and Harris pull off a bait and switch, with Smith dropping into the single-high coverage and Harris crashing onto Engram’s route.
But Jones and Shepard converted this one over Hughes.
Leading 25-10, the Vikings defense was backed up onto its own 27-yard line when Jones tried to find Engram again.
Smith ruins this connection, reacting with a properly-timed hit to jar the ball loose for an incompletion on first down.
3. Giants defenders were guessing, and were hardly right, throughout the game about the Vikings’ play-action passing attack.
“We did a really nice job scheme-wise with the offense,” Zimmer said. “The play-actions, the misdirection, the run game, the outside runs, the inside the runs, the whatever you want to call it, trying to hurt the [defenders’] eyes by some of the movements that we had.”
The Vikings ran this play-action bootleg a couple times in the first half, netting gains of 28 and 44 yards to receiver Adam Thielen (#19), who had seven catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
Cousins was pressured a season-low 29 percent in New York, due in large part to the Giants’ inability to pressure him on these play-action bootlegs. Fullback C.J. Ham (#30) stays to protect, but has no one to block on this first down in the first quarter.
Giants safety Jabrill Peppers (#21) is his secondary’s best, but he bites hard on the play-action handoff to Dalvin Cook. Thielen clears the Giants’ underneath defenders, which were torched in zone coverage throughout the game, and catches this one for 28
The Vikings came back to a similar play on the next drive, featuring the same downfield route combination with Thielen on a deep crosser and Diggs a go route from the opposite side. The Giants’ replacement linebackers, filling in for three players due to injury, again jumped on the fake handoff. Thielen beats the safety across and runs for 44 yards. It won’t be this easy all season.
4. By the third quarter, Giants defensive linemen started to guess pass, which directly led to running back Dalvin Cook’s 41-yard run.
On second and 10 in the third quarter, Giants defensive tackle B.J. Hill (#95) takes advantage of the room left by right guard Josh Kline (#64) and right tackle Brian O’Neill (#75) pulling on the sweep run.
Hill (#95) has a direct angle to Cousins, thundering past tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) while letting Cook slip by for the 41-yard gain. Kline’s return to right guard was welcomed for plays like this, which replacement Dakota Dozier doesn’t replicate as easily.
5. The Vikings’ red-zone passing game is the NFL’s least efficient outside of Cleveland through five games, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Sunday was a step toward balanced efficiency in the critical area, but the Vikings offense has seen lopsided success running (54%) in the red zone compared to passing (27%) this season. Coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s play calls (24 runs, 11 passes) reflect that.
Cousins threw two red-zone touchdowns — his first of the season — giving life to an offense that added two field goals in four red-zone trips.
But two red-zone plays, both sacks, by a hapless Giants defense (allowing 409 yards per game) should give the Vikings continued concern about the state of the offensive line.
On this second-and-11 play below, the Giants bring only a three-man rush. But the three defenders align tightly inside, creating one-on-one matchups against left guard Pat Elflein, center Garrett Bradbury and Kline as New York’s edge defenders drop into coverage.
Giants defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson (#94) and Hill (#95) run an interior twist that pressures Cousins, preventing the throw to an open Thielen, who was open against the Giants’ zone coverage on a crossing route.
In the clip below, Tomlinson bull rushes Bradbury into the backfield. He then slides behind Hill, who crosses in front of Kline (#64) to pressure Cousins. It seems weekly NFL defensive tackles, from Tomlinson to Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett to Chicago’s Eddie Goldman, have overpowered Bradbury at the start of his rookie season.