VikesCentric is written by Twin Cities football writers Bo Mitchell of SportsData, Arif Hasan of Vikings Territory, Aj Mansour, who hosts Minnesota Vikings Overtime on KFAN, and Joe Oberle a long-time Minnesota based writer. The VikesCentric crew crunches numbers, watches video and isn't shy about saying what's on their minds.

Posts about Vikings

VikesCentric: Opposition Outlook - Matt Ryan to Julio Jones

Posted by: AJ Mansour Updated: September 25, 2014 - 11:16 AM

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Minnesota Vikings. A tough opening schedule combined with some pretty heavy off the field distractions and The Purple find themselves 1-2 with one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL heading into TCF Bank Stadium this weekend.

Oh, did I mention that three starters went under the knife this week as well?

The Atlanta Falcons come to Minnesota this weekend with a record of 2-1 on the season. Having scored a league best 103 points through the first three weeks, the Falcons high powered offense is led by and unshaken quarterback Matt Ryan and their über talented wide receiver Julio Jones.

Ryan enters Week 4 with the second most passing yards in the league (965) and the third most touchdown passes this season (7). With passer rating of 105.1, Matt’s on field play helped lead the Falcons to a blowout 56-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers one week ago.

With confidence riding high, the guy they call “Matty Ice” strolls into Minnesota to face a defense that is surprisingly ranked in the top half of the league already. But you don’t get a nickname like Matt Ice for no reason. Ryan’s cool, calm and collected persona has aided the Falcons on many occasions throughout his career and his late game heroics have made him a man of legend in Atlanta.

Pressure situations don’t get to Matt Ryan. Throughout his career, he has led the Falcons on 24 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. His 22 game winning drives between 2008 and 2012 were the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons since 1966.

Ryan’s situational records speak for themselves as well. Ryan has led the Falcons to a 36-2 record when he records a passer rating of 100-or-better. He has the team at 20-1 when he throws three-or-more touchdowns.

As the franchise records continue to stack up for Ryan within the Falcons organization, it’s increasingly clear that containing Matt Ryan and trying to fluster Matty Ice will be one of the keys for the Vikings if they want to win on Sunday.

Aiding Ryan along the way has been superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. Like Ryan, Jones is coming off of a gigantic game last week against the Bucs (9 catches, 161 yards and 2TDs).

Looking back at some of Jones’ career numbers, it becomes incredibly clear why Julio is playing with such a high level of confidence.

Throughout the span of his three-year NFL career, Jones is averaging 83.8 yards and 5.3 receptions PER GAME! His 15.7 yards per catch average ranks him at fifth among receivers with at least 175 catches since 2011. And he’s at it again this year with 23 catches and a league leading 365 yards.

The interesting thing to note about the Jones/Ryan connection is that they look for each other often in first down situations. Already this season, Ryan has looked to jump start the offense and catch a defense off guard by hitting Jones early on first down 16 times through three games.

A deep threat with dynamic open field moves, Jones is a perfect compliment to Ryan at quarterback and, when healthy, the duo is one of the most dangerous in the league.

I don’t mean to act like this is a secret family recipe to beating the Falcons, but stopping Matt Ryan and Julio Jones is a great place to start. It’s unlikely that you will completely stop them, so start with slowing them down and then take advantage of a Falcons secondary that is very susceptible to yielding points of their own and you’re off to a good start.

For more on the Vikings/Falcons including quotes from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, CLICK HERE to read the full article at VikingsJournal.com.

Join in on the conversation! Head over to the forums on VikingsJournal.com to break down the Vikings play, complain about the officials and take part in intelligent Vikings analysis!

VikesCentric: Minnesota Vikings fall short in all three phases against Patriots

Posted by: Updated: September 15, 2014 - 4:48 PM

The Vikings finished out one of the most depressing weekends in recent franchise history with an embarrassing showing against a New England Patriots team that looked as good this week as the Vikings did last week.

It’s difficult to properly characterize the game, but there were failure in all three phases of the game. While it might be intuitive to argue that the defense was not as bad as their field positioning made them, it’s important not to overcorrect and recognize how, after the first quarter, New England was extremely efficient at moving the ball.



Offense

On offense, Minnesota had a promising first drive that was washed away almost entirely by the subsequent drives, plagued by turnovers and bad decisionmaking.

Like most offenses, it starts and stops with the quarterback. While not having Adrian Peterson may be a blow, Cassel’s inclination to hold on to the ball for too long, lock on to receivers or make bad decisions isn’t because of Peterson. While it may be the case that Peterson affects coverage—an effect that is likely overstated—31 other teams don’t have Peterson and their quarterbacks do not tend to throw four interceptions.

It may be pedantic to point out that not every interception was his fault—indeed, he shared blame with Asiata and Jennings for two of his interceptions—it would be missing the point to emphasize the nuances. Cassel had little feel for the pocket, missed open receivers and was effectively blistered by New England’s different defensive looks.

As for the running backs, the Vikings couldn’t get much done on the ground. The Vikings’ longest run was 13 yards, picked up not on a designed run, but a Cassel scramble. The second-longest was a seven-yard direct snap to Matt Asiata, more the function of a trick play than genuine running ability.

This isn’t as much because of the offensive line or blocking as it is the talent of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. Because McKinnon didn’t get much play, most of the offensive running woes can be lain at the feet of Asiata, who averaged only 2.8 yards a carry. His vision and decisionmaking at the line was good, but there were more than a few times that his limited burst really hurt him, especially on runs to the outside.

On the other hand, Asiata is excellent in the passing game, both as a pass-catcher and as a pass blocker. While Asiata doesn’t have an extraordinary skills resume when it comes to route running and so on, he has very good hands and can move around in zones to find open spaces.

As for the offensive line itself, there was not much interior pressure given up by Charlie Johnson, John Sullivan or Brandon Fusco, though all three could have done more to create better alleys in the running game, largely putting together an average run blocking night. Penalties on Sullivan and Fusco could make Johnson the better look lineman of the three, although they ran behind Johnson less than they did the other two.

On the outside, Matt Kalil was abysmal. Giving up several sacks and pressure, Kalil had perhaps the worst game of his career. Typically not a sustained worry if a tackle happens to have a bad game, this continues the trend of subpar play since his rookie year, which is increasingly long ago. He perhaps put in the worst performance of the day.

On the other side of the line, Phil Loadholt had some good stretches of play, punctuated with occasional lapses, both as a pass protector and run blocker. Though this is how you would characterize most average offensive linemen, it’s significant to point out that his highs were higher than most offensive tackles.

The receivers were not a lot of help. Greg Jennings is a very, very good receiver, but he’s not good enough to consistently beat Darrelle Revis, who’s cobbling together his resume to resurge as the league’s best cornerback. With Revis on Jennings almost all night, there wasn’t much Jennings could do to get open. The interception Revis grabbed was in part due to Jennings pulling up mid-route, too.

Cordarrelle Patterson had his share of wins and losses in the passing game, losing out against Logan Ryan twice after a good gain for a first down against the very same. He had a spectacular run after catch, as he’s due to have at least one a game, but his impact was largely marginal and that in part has to do with the fact that he still has a lot of trouble with receiver fundamentals.

Jarius Wright, aside from a baffling run near the beginning of the game, was alright, but still had a lot of mistakes. He was certainly open far more than he was targeted, but his targets did not produce particularly rich outcomes.

Kyle Rudolph started out with a fantastic game, but three drops (though I imagine that total will be different for different people, given how involved defenders were on some of them) and though I have consistently argued that Rudolph’s hands are more inconsistent than he’s given credit for (his drop rate is league average; he makes up for his spectacular catches with routine drops at times), this was extremely uncharacteristic for him, and he even seemed rattled.

Both Rudolph and Ellison had good games as blockers as far as I could tell. Marqueis Gray received a few snaps, but not enough to really evaluate.



Defense

The defense will be penalized in the box score more than is fair, but that doesn’t mean they did well. ESPN 1500's Andrew Krammer did do a good job, however, of contextualizing the importance that field positions and turnovers played by pointing out the Vikings only gave up six points on drives started by punts or the kickoff, and gave up 24 points on drives from turnovers.

Still, field position is interdependent, and the defense giving up bad field position to the offense will lead to a bad field position on the following drive for the defense. In this case, the defense, outside of the first quarter, was particularly scary. Tom Brady ended with a passer rating of 102.3, and an adjusted net yards per attempt of 7.0. Compared to his former backup, Matt Cassel, the difference is stark (39.1, 0.1). For context, the league average last year was 5.9.

Despite abysmal play by the interior offensive line last week from the Patriots, the Vikings couldn’t find ways to create pressure with their front four. Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph were both quiet in the game, and it wasn’t until Tom Johnson arrived that interior pressure manifested itself, not just with a sack but with pressure. Linval Joseph couldn’t get off his blocks as quickly as he did last week and Floyd was quiet.

On the edge, both Robison and Griffen let high-profile edge runs get by them, though Robison in general was the better of the two—he produced more pressure and needed to be manipulated more by his opposing tackle than Griffen, who had not just a bad game against the run, but a silent game against the pass, with very few pressures if any at all.

Chad Greenway had a good game. Aside from a high-profile pass deflection, he racked up smart play and generally solid tackles (though again it would behoove analysts not to simply count up his tackles as a few were downfield). With a quarterback hit and a tackle for loss, Greenway’s all-around game was better than his peers around him.

Jasper Brinkley didn’t take too many snaps after the first drives, but still played very well against the run without having to worry too much about being targeted in the passing game. Anthony Barr on the other hand, had a much worse game, especially early on. The Patriots were finding ways to target him by either scheming receivers into his zone or willing to gamble that Gronkowski was the better player than him with the ball in the air. The Patriots were often right.

When Gerald Hodges entered, he couldn’t do as much as his specialty would demand in terms of making sure that players like Gronkowski were obviated from the game.

In the secondary, things were a bit more iffy. On the positive side of things, Josh Robinson and Harrison Smith clearly had very good games, with Robinson virtually absent of targets while Harrison Smith only looked questionable when in man coverage against Edelman in the slot. Harrison did a very good job against the run, with two highlight stops and eight overall tackles. He was difficult to run against.

Robert Blanton was better than worse, and performed a myriad of roles well, bracketing Gronkowski at times, while at other times carrying individual receivers. He was a pass-rusher, deep safety and in-the-box defender, depending on the play, and performed well enough if not spectacularly.

On the other hand, corners Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn were liabilities. Munnerlyn gave up a few receptions, spotlighted by a touchdown, and had some issues working off the edge to make a presence in the run game. Rhodes had more problems in pass coverage, and though at least one of his three penalties was perhaps poorly called, there’s no question that the aggregate of the play was dismal.

Aside from being massively out of position or playing with surprisingly poor recovery speed, he missed tackles and allowed some fairly large gains on the ground for receivers.

All in all, the good defensive players could not make up for the anemic performance from the rest of the corps, and despite the fact that the Patriots scored almost entirely off of turnovers, it would be wrong to call that acceptable play from the defense.


Special Teams

While it normally is a rather perfunctory note, special teams played a big role in the Vikings loss, with a few of Jeff Locke's punts, a 57-yard boomer aside, causing issues in the field position battle. With that, Ellison (my bad, it was Matt Kalil, which is appropriate)—despite his good blocking in plays from scrimmage—was the one who gave up Jones' unreal block, scoop and score on the field goal try. In one punt return attempt, the Vikings only had nine men on the field.

It was a disaster.

Check out VikingsJournal.com for a discussion on the broader impact of Adrian Peterson's case, read On Nausea and Outrage, and for how the Vikings should respond, Where Do We Go From Here?

Arif Hasan is the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory, and host of the Norse Code Podcast at the Daily Norseman.

VikesCentric: Where Do We Go From Here?

Posted by: AJ Mansour Updated: September 13, 2014 - 7:31 AM

Yesterday morning we all woke up with Adrian Peterson as one of our “favorite” football players. Sure he has his personal issues off the field, just as we all do, but on the field, he was the man. Then the news breaks yesterday afternoon and terms like “reckless negligence” and “child abuse” begin to be thrown around pretty loosely. By the end of the night, when the actual story starts to form, we’re left with a perplexing situation, a couple of them in fact.

What’s your stance on corporal punishment? What should the government’s stance on corporal punishment be? How does the NFL react to something like this? How do fans react to something like this?

There are many specific questions that all lead towards one that envelopes them all. Where do we go from here?


Adrian Peterson:
What a difference a day can make. Since the news of alleged child abuse broke yesterday afternoon, Adrian has gone from scheming a way to beat the Patriots on the field to long phone calls with his lawyer attempting to avoid potential jail time. The least of his worries may be coming from a league that, amidst one of their worst weeks in history, is ready to throw down the hammer on offenders if only just to prove a point.

On the heels of the Ray Rice situation the NFL has enacted and put into place a more strict, cut and dry policy against domestic abuse. The policy states that a player could be subject to six games without pay after a first offense and that mitigating circumstances could push the penalty longer.

In its infancy, the focus of this policy has been directed towards violence against women. The video release of Ray Rice’s elevator tirade made it all the more real and incredibly necessary this week. But to a person with some semblance of common sense, child abuse would likely fall under the umbrella of domestic abuse as well which means that, pending the outcome of the investigation, Adrian could be facing a six game penalty from the league.

For this week, the Vikings did the right thing and on their own volition deactivated Peterson from their game against the Patriots.

The NFL:
At least the NFL doesn’t have a whole lot on their plate right now.

We all know that’s actually not the case and Peterson’s situation likely rounded out what will forever go down as one of the worst week’s in the history of the league.

With Goodell’s feet firmly placed against the fire already, he will be forced to act on this Peterson case and the fallout will likely pin Adrian as his sacrificial lamb.

But the new NFL policy was not developed for this sort of a situation. It was put in place to protect women from an epidemic of domestic abuse that was and is running through a league of overly empowered, testosterone driven men. But if the policy protects adult women from the men in their lives, it would only make sense that it also protects young children, four-year-old boys, from those same men.

There is still a lot that we have to learn about this case as it goes through court system. Peterson, who turned himself in to Houston police last night, has an uphill battle to fight against not only the prosecutors but a society enraged by violence and empowerment from professional athletes.

Society:
Corporal punishment has long been a hot button topic of conversation in this country. Generations of past were raised with spankings, belts and paddles as a regular part of their childhood. It was simply part of life. But it might be time for our country, as a nation, to instill some level of federal distinction on what is and what isn’t considered child abuse.

No matter your view on spanking, when yesterday’s news broke about Adrian beating his 4-year old son with a tree branch, how did it make you feel?

If you’re anything like me, your eyebrows were raised. If you’re from the south, where punishment via switch is a little more common, it may have seemed like nothing to you…at least until the pictures came out. When those photos depicting the wounds left on the poor 4-year old boy came out, I hope that the opinion changed for everybody. There’s no way you will convince me that it wasn’t too far and we all should have jumped up and been outraged. Red backsides were present in my Minnesota childhood, but bruises and lacerations are when you’ve crossed the line.

As a boy who witnessed my own parents mentally struggle with their own corporal punishment dilemma, and saw first hand the shift from spankings, away from “hitting” their kids and towards other forms of punishment, isn’t it time that America puts some sort of standard together?

I’m not calling for the outlawing of spankings, but when part of the country thinks it’s okay to hit your child with a stick and the other is outraged by it, truly how united are we?

----------------------------------------------

As I mentioned above, there’s a lot more to this story that will play out and answer some of these questions for us.  By all accounts, Adrian is cooperating with authorities in Houston as we speak. He’s not running from the situation and he’s not denying that the wounds in question were left there by him. But as this continues to play out, as Adrian re-assesses his actions, as the NFL attempts to handle the situation and as the court system determines the difference between corporal punishment and child abuse, I hope that we as a society are paying attention. I hope that conversations are being had about all of these situations. We are a nation that has long since learned from the mistakes of our past and unfortunately for them, the mistakes of celebrities play out in the public far too often. I hope that we can learn from this, change the way we operate, if only a little, and stand up tall on the other side better people, better families and a better nation. 

JOIN THE DISCUSSION over at VikingsJournal.com. What are your opinions on corporal punishment? DId Peterson go too far? Should he be suspended?

VikesCentric: Patriots feature dynamic duo of galactic proportions

Posted by: AJ Mansour Updated: September 11, 2014 - 7:30 AM

It’s been equated before that the New England Patriots are to football what the New York Yankees have been to baseball.  The dominant team of their era, led by their captain who is so cool, so calm, that winning almost seems to a part of his biological makeup. They’re the evil empire that looms over top the league for years at a time, forming a dynasty and having their way with almost every foe that stands in their way.

While the Yankees did so primarily through a loophole in the salary cap/luxury tax relationship, the Patriots did it on the backs of a duo, so daunted, so unparalleled that the artists might already be in the early stages of molding each of their bronze busts in Canton, Ohio.

Even if it is only because of their grandiose success, many refer to the Patriots as the NFL’s “Evil Empire.” Breaking it one step deeper, giving them this Star Wars themed nickname makes a bit more sense, and it also gives me an excuse to completely nerd out on too of my favorite things, the NFL and Star Wars. It then immediately becomes clear to me that if New England is the Evil Empire, then Bill Belichik is the scheming and powerful Darth Sidious while Tom Brady is his pimped out, über talented Sith Lord (insert Darth Vader here).

On the matter of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, you have a man who is sitting on the cusp of history as he enters TCF Bank Stadium this weekend. With 199 regular season wins in his pocket, Belichick is looking to become the sixth NFL coach to hit the milestone (Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry, Curly Lambeau and Marty Schottenheimer).

In 14 seasons as the head coach of the Patriots Belichick has accounted for thirteen winning seasons (2001-2013). One of only three coaches with 100 more wins than losses over his career, he has three Super Bowl rings and an undefeated season under his belt as well.

Recently, Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning had this to say about Belichick. “Coach Belichick is the best coach that I’ve ever competed against. I think it’s safe to say he’ll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all-time. His teams are always well-coached, always well-disciplined, and you know it’s going to be a 60-minute fight. To me, that speaks to his coaching.”

As Peyton said, Belichick coached teams are always disciplined and tough. One other thing that they are, at least during his time in New England, is Bill Belichick teams have always been led by their Darth Maul, their Darth Vader…Tom Brady.

Outside of three attempted pass during a 2000 fill-in job, their careers have almost completely overlapped in New England. With Belichick taking over as coach in 2001 and Brady taking over as starting quarterback the same year, two of the best the game has ever seen teamed up to form a dynasty that will always be remembered as one of the league’s most dominant.

Brady has lead the Patriots to 148 victories in 192 regular season starts since 2001, compiling a .771 winning percentage and giving him the best record of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). Leading his teams to all three of the New England Super Bowls under Belichick, Brady sits on the verge of crossing the 50,000 yards passing mark (602 away) and becoming just the sixth quarterback in NFL history to join that club.

Lethal, yet stunning, Brady finds ways to silence his opponents in a way that only he can. With four 30 touchdown seasons, six 4,000 yard passing seasons and 19 career 4-TD games, Brady is a dangerous combination of attitude and athleticism and he brings it onto the football field on a weekly basis.

Together, Darth Sidious and Darth Vader, er Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have put together one of the most potent offensive attacks in the history of the league. Calculated and precise, they pick apart defenses on the legs of Bill’s defensive genius (the force) and the precision of Tom Brady’s arm (a sick, red colored light saber).

In fact, the duo of Belichick/Brady are the winningest tandem of head coach/starting quarterback since the 1970 merger. Their 148 wins tops Dan Marino and Don Shula (116) for the most victories while their .771 winning percentage tops Ken Stabler and John Madden (.756) as well. With 192 starts and counting under Belichick’s tutelage, Brady looks to extend his all-time marks against the Vikings this weekend.

While it would be easy to sit back and roll over for the Evil Empire this weekend at The Bank, the Vikings need check the blueprints and fly along the Death Star’s trench this week to exploit any and all weaknesses in the super weapon’s armor that they can find.

With Matt Cassel (Obi Wan Kenobi) under center, Adrian Peterson (Luke Skywalker), Greg Jennings (Han Solo) and Cordarrelle Patterson (Yoda, because of all the cool flips and stuff) led by head coach Mike Zimmer (Admiral Ackbar), the galaxy has never before been more convinced that the Vikings may very well be equipped to battle the Empire this weekend in a Galaxy far, far away (aka, TCF Bank Stadium).

Join in the fun! CLICK HERE and participate in this week's top forum "If the Vikings Were Star Wars Characters"

CLICK HERE to see this week's Fantasy Football Player Rankings...

VikesCentric: Bridled optimism

Posted by: Bo Mitchell Updated: September 10, 2014 - 7:54 AM

On one hand, Vikings fans need to take a deep breath and realize their squad just manhandled a Rams team that doesn’t appear to be very good and was using their second and third-string quarterbacks. On the other hand, the Week 1 victory was different for many reasons and should be cause for a dash or two of optimism.

Those who watched Sunday’s 34-6 dismantling of the Rams knew they were watching a different product on the field – from the aggressiveness and improved tackling on defense to the imagination on offense.

This is a different-looking Vikings team that’s already starting to produce some different results.

I mean seriously, when was the last time the Vikings even won a road game? Um, that would be Dec. 23, 2012 when they inexplicably pounded a 12-2 Texans team 23-6. That’s also the last time the Vikings held any opponent to six points or less. The last time before that was their 34-3 shellacking of the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs following the 2009 season. And the last time the Vikings held an opponent to six points or less in a regular season game prior to 2012 was their 24-3 win over the Falcons to open the 2007 season.

Here’s a few more “last times” from Week 1.

The last time the Vikings won by as many as 28 points on the road was Sept. 28, 1994 at Chicago.

The last time the Vikings won by 28 points on the road in Week 1 was their 40-9 victory over the Saints to open the 1976 season. That’s 38 years ago. No current Vikings player was even alive 38 years ago. Not even Cullen Loeffler (he’s the Vikings’ elder statesman at 33).

The last time the Vikings won by 28 points under a first-year head coach was 22 years ago under Denny Green when they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sept. 27, 1992. Rich Gannon threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns in that game. Terry Allen rushed for two touchdowns and caught another. Cris Carter had 11 receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns. And the Vikings picked off Boomer Esiason four times. Yeah, that was a while ago.

I love this one despite the meaningless nature of preseason games: the last time the Vikings won all four of their preseason games and then won in Week 1 was – wait for it – the 1998 season. Yes, that season. You know, the one in which they went 15-1 and then made it to the NFC Championship Game and… I’ll stop there. No, I’m not comparing the 2014 Vikings to the 1998 Vikings.

The last time the Vikings had a wide receiver gain 100 yards rushing in a game, as Cordarrelle Patterson did on Sunday, was… never. Not even Percy Harvin managed that trick in a Vikings uniform.

The last time the Vikings returned an interception for a touchdown, as Harrison Smith did on Sunday, was Dec. 16, 2012 by Everson Griffen against the Rams. The last time a Vikings player returned an interception for a touchdown against someone other than the Rams was… Harrison Smith, who did it twice in 2012, against the Bears and the Cardinals at home. The last time someone other than Smith returned an interception for a touchdown against someone other than the Rams was in 2010 when Jared Allen did it in the last game of the season against the Lions.

The last time the Vikings won on the road without getting either 100 rushing yards or a touchdown from Adrian Peterson was, once again, that 23-6 game against Houston in December 2012. Since Peterson came into the league in 2007, the Vikings have now won just four road games in which he has been held under 100 yards and out of the end zone.

So yeah, Sunday’s game against the Rams was definitely different.

Give yourself permission to feel good about that first victory, Vikings fans.  Optimism, yes. Unbridled merriment, not yet. We’ll hold off on saving up money for playoff tickets or planning a Super Bowl parade route for now. However, we might revisit that notion if the Vikings find a way to take out the Patriots on Sunday.

On that note, one more “last time” stat: the last time the New England Patriots (0-1) started a season 0-2 was 2001. That’s a long time ago. They also won the Super Bowl that year, beating (kind of ironically) the Rams 20—17.


Head on over to VikingsJournal.com for a detailed breakdown on how Sugaring the A-Gap is head coach Mike Zimmer’s Pressure Du Jour and a fun look at Cordarrelle Patterson’s epic 67-yard touchdown run against the Rams.

Bo Mitchell is the Vice President of Content at SportsData, head writer at VikingsJournal.com, co-host of the Fantasy Football Pants Party at 1500ESPN.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

VikesCentric: Zimmer's pressure du jour

Posted by: Updated: September 11, 2014 - 11:22 AM

Mike Zimmer is neither the kind of defensive coordinator to rely on the predictive playcalling of the previous regime, nor the kind of coordinator that relies on aggressive blitzing, like Houston, Arizona and Oakland did last year.
 
And though the defenses haven’t been “revealed” in the preseason, a lot of what Mike Zimmer has done in Cincinnati has shown up in camp and in the exhibition games that give us some clue as to his philosophy, and they appeared in the game against St. Louis.
 
On first and second down, Zimmer defenses tend to play to the fundamentals, but when they encounter a “passing down,” Zimmer really likes to let go.
 
One of the best ways to create unbalanced pressure while still dropping enough players into coverage—something that inspired the creation of the zone blitz—is to fake pressure and create pressure from somewhere else. Generally speaking, this is best done through showing pressure up the middle, often called “sugaring the A gap,” the two gaps between the center and the guards.
 
This is an extension of the nomenclature used to designate gap assignments, with the B gaps between the guards and tackles and the C gaps between the tackles and the tight end (or the sideline). Sometimes, the alley between the tight end and the sideline is referred to as the D gap, or simply the alley.
 
The important point here, though, is that showing “double A gap pressure,” or presenting a possible blitz through both A gaps, causes the most trouble for offensive lines and quarterbacks in determining blocking assignments.
 
The double A gap blitz is a product of Jim Johnson, the legendary former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, and it developed as a consistent defensive tactic in response to the increasing effectiveness of the West Coast Offense. Famously, Steve Spagnuolo used the tactic to great effect as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in 2007, responsible for New England’s ominous Week 17 close game and their famous loss in the Super Bowl that same, record-setting year.
 
Mike Zimmer’s use of the blitz package mirrors its most common usage patterns in recent history, as Tim Layden writes in Sports Illustrated:

It begins most often with the defense's nickel personnel—five defensive backs—on the field with four down linemen and two linebackers in a 4-2-5 configuration (although it can be run from various other sets). As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."

In terms of how it affects pass protection schemes, it’s pretty simple. The defense is showing a seven-man blitz, which creates issues. If the protection unit is in man protection, then there’s a man that’s free (because the Raiders here are in 6-man protection, at best). If the protection unit is in slide, or “area” protection, then a running back is responsible to cover the backside of the slide because the offensive linemen move into the gaps (zones) they are assigned to protect, leaving the backside free.
 
Usually, full-slide protection is used to protect on bootlegs and rollouts. It also leads to mismatches—though slide protection theoretically makes assignments easier to deal with stunts and twists, it can create issues if the defense has schemed a mismatch with a quicker defender attacking a slow-footed guard, or a tight end dealing with a powerful tackle.
 
The bigger difference in assignment is for the running back—offensive linemen in man protection will still swap stunting defenders. Instead, the running back is responsible for following a linebacker and protecting the quarterback from that specific person regardless of the gap they go through.
 
More often than not, offensive lines will engage in some sort of combo protection, explicit or not, in order to figure out their pass protection. That is, even those nominally engaged in man protection will pick up defenders in their area and expect others to do the same when not engaged.
 
The final method of protection involves dual-reading, where a player must read two players and make a call about who to block. Most often this involves running backs in man (or combo) protection, where they will read the linebackers inside-out (Mike to Sam), covering their blitzes in that order (if both blitz, the running back blocks the Mike).
 
These become more complicated when safeties and slot corners threaten to blitz as they not only screw up the assignments but add players that need to be accounted for. Generally speaking, Mike Zimmer and defenses in general will not likely rush more than seven, as the offense is probably going to send four of its five eligible receivers out in routes, and that would leave players uncovered.
 
Blocking with more doesn’t usually result in more protection; as Aaron Rodgers noted not too long ago, you may be able to better protect the quarterback by giving him enough receiving options. In the case of dealing with seven or eight-man looks, six-man protection is usually fine because a receiver will get a free release, and in an offense with sight adjustments (Schottenheimer’s offense with St. Louis includes them, though not to the degree that McDaniel’s offense with New England does), that receiver should adjust their route to be wide open.
 
In this way, the quarterback is “responsible” for the extra rushers. In the example above, where the running back dual-reads the Mike and the Sam and both rush, the quarterback is the one who accounts for the Sam by throwing it hot to the checkdown or hot route—the new route that the receiver runs in response to the blitz.
 
Sugaring the A gap was responsible for the first third down success in the preseason, when Schaub’s receiver failed to adjust to the blitz look and ran his normal route while Schaub expected him to run a comeback. The pressure and the failure to respond led to the incompletion.

In the end, the Vikings only ended up rushing five and confused coverage calls by dropping players like Brian Robison into coverage (if, for example, the tight end was supposed to be the hot route, Robison would have been able to cover it).
 

There are some clear issues with man blocking, which include the fact that a stunting Sharrif Floyd would have been very difficult to handle on a stunt. But slide protection would have caused issues, too:

That leaves the running back to either block a defensive end (something Norv Turner has expressed a few times something he doesn't want his offense to do) or the safety. Two free rushers are a little too much to handle.
 
In the end, the Oakland Raiders chose half-slide, half-man protection like the vast majority of teams on the vast majority of snaps. Though this would generally have done well against a greater number of rushers than the Vikings eventually sent, Minnesota still put pressure on the quarterback while dropping six in coverage.
 
Against the Rams, the Vikings showed double A gap pressure again, this time leading to a sack by Harrison Smith, coming off the edge again, which you can watch at the 1:27 mark of this video.

The Vikings showed eight-person pressure and rushed seven, leaving one defender to cover each receiver running routes, also known as "man-free" coverage. If the Rams kept a tight end in to block the seventh person (which would have shifted the assignments down the right side of the line), then the safety up top, Robert Blanton, would have rotated into a Cover-1 look shaded to the strength of the formation (where two receivers are lined up).
 
Instead, he picks up crossing receiver. Because of the added difficulties of this kind of pressure, defensive linemen who do not immediately penetrate drop back into short zones in order to disrupt any hot routes. The pressure package looked like this, and it was designed to put the center in a bind.
 

And though the center determined who to block quickly enough, the other A gap rusher needed to be picked up. With the running back occupied with Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith had a free release off the edge—both the left tackle and left guard had assignments with Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd.
 
The biggest beauty to this play design, however, is who the quarterback is responsible for: Harrison Smith.
 
Generally speaking, the person the quarterback is responsible for with seven- or eight-man pressure is a person who is playing on the same side of the formation as his progression. In his pre-snap reads, the quarterback needs to make a determination as to which half of the field he will begin his progressions (where the first and second reads almost always are) before he scans the rest of the field.
 
That creates an issue in this case because Harrison is coming off the open side of the formation (the "1" in the 3x1 alignment the Rams played on that down), where the quarterback wasn't beginning his reads. While in a broad sense this is the quarterback's fault (the Vikings were signalling off-man, which they ended up playing)—the receiver on that side of the field breaks inside to get open against that look—it's situationally still a loss because the Rams were on 3rd and 8, and that likely would not have converted.
 
In either case, the Vikings come out ahead. The protection scheme had an answer for everybody, even if the quarterback didn't execute that answer, but those responses would have led to a quick, short gain on third and long. Further, there's a chance Robert Blanton could have peeled off of his man to intercept the ball thrown to the open side of the formation.
 
Other solutions could have put the running back on Harrison and slid the center, right guard and right tackle inside, with the quarterback throwing hot against Captain Munnerlyn. Unfortunately for the Rams, it creates the same problems, as Tavon Austin ran a route depth at two yards and Lance Kendricks runs his spot route three yards from the line of scrimmage.
 
It still would have been better to dump off to Tavon Austin and hope for yards after the catch—that's why he was drafted—but the Vikings will consistently take short yardage passes on third and long and be happy to do so.
 
In large part, this was successful because the Rams' third string quarterback, and undrafted sophomore from Southern Miss, wasn't ready to handle that kind of pressure, and he couldn't direct the offensive line to maximize his time in the pocket. Some quarterbacks like to call for a rollout there, but that likely would have caused issues, as the Vikings on the strong side (Munnerlyn and Robison) would likely not have bit on play-action on third and long, or at the very least would play contain before reverting to rushing an unprotected passer.
 
Zimmer doesn't always send linebackers to rush the A gaps when showing six, seven or eight man pressure, but the threat of the blitz confuses blocking assignments enough that twists will be particularly effective.
 
That's another wrinkle to that specific rush the Vikings put on Austin Davis, with Robison and Johnson both taking a step upfield in the gaps they traditionally attack before moving inside—Greenway abandoning the A gap shortly before Johnson attacks it can often lead to unaware blockers allowing pressure. In fact, Johnson does get inside and gets to the quarterback; he may have been able to take him down if Harrison didn't do it first.
 
Sugaring the A gap doesn't have to lead to linebacker blitzes in order to be effective, and there are other instances when the Vikings dropped both linebackers in coverage while still getting pressure as a result of this tactic.

The Vikings can drop both linebackers and only rush four, and are still able to get the one-on-one matchups they want in order to force the quarterback to throw quickly—the center doesn't double anyone.

Like any blitz or pressure package, it isn't magic. But it's definitely a weapon in the Vikings' arsenal, especially on third down, when the sticks are seven to twelve yards away from the line of scrimmage. The Vikings sacrifice some speed on their pass drops and occasionally will sacrifice players in coverage, but the payoff seems to be well worth it.

Though the Vikings haven't done anything in this regard that hasn't been done hundreds of times in the NFL (Jim Johnson brought it into the fore in 1994), but it's a healthy addition to a defense that badly needed a shot in the arm.

Check out VikingsJournal.com for a reason to stay upbeat with Bridled Optimism and a fun look at Cordarrelle Patterson’s epic 67-yard touchdown run against the Rams.

Arif Hasan is the editor-in-chief of Vikings Territory, and host of the Norse Code Podcast at the Daily Norseman.

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