Safety Harrison Smith shrugged, caught between the logical half of his brain and the passionate side that badly wanted a shutout after his Vikings defense surrendered 444 yards and four touchdowns on a Monday night in Seattle.
Lions quarterback David Blough, the rookie making his second NFL start, had few answers for Vikings blitzes that were put on the back burner once the Vikings led 20-0. Otherwise unable to sustain a drive longer than 38 yards, Blough marched 75 yards against mostly soft zones for a touchdown with two minutes left.
“I get it,” said Smith, siding with Zimmer. “You’re playing the numbers game, time and stuff like that. But you always want to pitch shutouts as a defense, especially when you’d had a couple bad games and need to bounce back, and we did bounce back.”
Had Zimmer continued his game plan of peppering aggressive, varied pressure schemes, a shutout should’ve been had. One of defensive end Danielle Hunter’s three sacks in the first half showed how Vikings pass rushers set each other up for success through blitz designs. The end result for Detroit led to questions such as, “Why was a tight end blocking Hunter?”
“Most of these teams don’t want to get blitzed,” Zimmer said. “So that’s their way to help, help in protection and things like that. So, you know, pick your poison.”
1. For one key snap, the Lions chose Hunter as their poison.
It was against Blough, the undrafted rookie from Purdue, and therefore an underwhelming Lions offense, but the Vikings defense has continually been one of the NFL’s most effective blitzing groups and this season is no different. This is the product of savvy defenders and creative schemes, which Blough noted when discussing how linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks toy with opposing centers and quarterbacks in blitz disguises.
So far this season, these teams have been making it difficult for opposing passers when their defense decides to blitz! #RavensFlock #Skol #GoPats #Seahawks#ChiefsKingdom #GoBills #LARams #Browns #BoltUp #Bears100 @gregcosell | @MattBowen41 pic.twitter.com/CK2VRkgrOn
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 9, 2019
This 3rd-and-10 blitz on the game’s opening third down did not work because of trickery. The Vikings got the desired matchup with defensive end Danielle Hunter (#99), whose first of three sacks came by breezing past Lions tight end Jesse James.
Hunter only gets to rush James — and James alone — because the Lions slide protection toward the overloaded blitz on the left from cornerback Mackensie Alexander and defensive end Everson Griffen. It’s a six-man blitz with everyone at the line rushing except for defensive end Stephen Weatherly (#91), who drops into coverage. Hunter cruises past James with speed and a rip move for the sack in roughly 2.5 seconds.
2. Zimmer is judicious with Vikings blitzes, which come at a rate of 26.6 percent (19th highest in the NFL) despite being among the NFL’s most effective with extra pressure. Blitz rate according to Pro Football Reference.
The Vikings blitzed Blough around average (24.4 percent) during Sunday’s win, but not all five-man rushes are equal. Take Griffen’s fourth-quarter sack for example.
Kendricks (#54) and Barr (#55) align over center in a typical double A-gap front. Perhaps the Vikings’ use of zone blitzes (dropping a defensive end in coverage) this season helped set this up, or maybe they just got one over on a second-year center Frank Ragnow and rookie quarterback. But Griffen (#97) ends up unaccounted for as the sixth man on the line against a five-man protection (empty backfield).
The Vikings’ pre-snap front seemingly leads to a Lions miscommunication as left tackle Taylor Decker shifts right, toward the double A-gap front, and away from Griffen. Kendricks (#54) drops into coverage and Barr (#55) looks only interested in occupying the left guard while Griffen tees off on Blough.
Barr and Kendricks, effective pass rushers in their own right, once again helped set up the Vikings’ edge duo.
3. Griffen is playing through a knee injury, and he’s seen his two smallest workloads of the season (57 percent in Seattle and 77 percent vs. Detroit) since popping up on the injury report.
The injury, and the Vikings’ in-game management of it, makes the current eight-man rotation all the more important during this playoff push. Griffen, who turns 32 on Dec. 22, was playing nearly 90 percent of snaps before the Vikings’ bye week.
Not coincidentally, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo played a career-high 42 snaps — primarily as an interior pass rusher while Blough threw nearly every play after halftime. The Vikings have another defensive end, Stephen Weatherly, who reminded everyone he’s pretty good from his normal spot at end. The fourth-year pro has spent much of this season rushing from inside on third downs, which he admitted is a work in progress.
Weatherly was closer to a finished product on his third-and-1 run stop in the second quarter.
“Third downs, a lot of people think of pass rush and sacks like D [Hunter] just did and has done his whole career,” Weatherly said Monday. “But on those short ones, I was able to do my job because Barr shot the ‘B’ gap inside of me, taking the tackle down. That freed up a gap just big enough for me to get through into the backfield.”
4. Fortunately for the Vikings defense, nose tackle Linval Joseph (#98) looks healthy about a month after knee surgery.
Joseph, who played around his season low at 52 percent against the Lions, was not limited because of health, but because of game flow as Detroit threw often in a blowout loss.
The Vikings’ run-stopping anchor was very effective against a Lions offensive line that often doubled him, because when they didn’t, Joseph made plays like this for a 2-yard loss.
Joseph bullies Ragnow, who gets no help from his right guard on this attempted reach block, for the run stop.
5. A go-to play produced again for running back Dalvin Cook, who scored his 13th rushing touchdown of the season on a toss right, which coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Vikings coaches continue to deploy from various formations and alignments.
In Dallas, fullback C.J. Ham led the way on the toss right for a touchdown. On Sunday, Ham was on the sideline when the Vikings showed pass with three receivers before running for the score and 17-0 lead at halftime.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins goes under center with three receivers and tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) spread out, giving the appearance of a pass. But, as colleague Ben Goessling pointed out on Monday, the Vikings run in the red zone more than any NFL team.
Cook’s speed to the pylon, even on the ‘short’ side of the field as the ball starts on the right hash, enables the Vikings offense to lean on him despite limited space. Right tackle Brian O’Neill (#75) and Rudolph pull as lead blockers, while Cook is untouched.