Depending on the play, you might lose sight of Brian Robison.
Robison, the Vikings' veteran defensive end and first-year team captain, stared down the barrel of Aaron Rodgers. He stood over Packers center J.C. Tretter on third-and-8 with Rodgers once again threatening the Vikings' 10-7 lead in the middle of the third quarter.
"Yeah, I'm spying," Robison said.
An evolving role under the blueprints drawn up by Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff has changed the way Robison plays football. His right hand mostly remains on the turf, whether he's at home at left end or shifting inside to pressure the guard for the Vikings' effective pass-rush line.
This time, Robison stands on two feet. He along with Everson Griffen are the two versatile defensive ends the Vikings can use to confuse quarterbacks and their protectors. A shapeshifting defense requires players to forgo their comfort zones. And regardless of where he's lined up, offenses can be mistaken in assuming Robison is always going to move forward.
Covering tight ends and spying quarterbacks were two tricks Robison displayed on Sunday night. Though it was from his familiar post at left end where the 33-year-old veteran changed the game on two critical plays.
"I'm asked to do a lot of different things for this defense," Robison said. "But when I'm at left end, I know I can just rush. Obviously, rushing inside has become a forte of mine. That's how I made my money in the early years, but I know whenever I'm on the outside, I can let it loose."
Let's start on third-and-8 from the Vikings' 41-yard line.
Since Green Bay wasn't running the no-huddle offense at that moment, the Vikings had adequate time to sub in their nickel personnel. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn replaced linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive end Danielle Hunter took Robison's post at left end, shifting him inside where tackle Shamar Stephen exited the game. Their look aims to bring confusion, if not the slightest hesitation, as Packers linemen communicate.
"They're trying to decipher if we have a three-man or four-man front," Robison said.
Robison (above) is manned on Rodgers with linebackers set to cover the back and tight end. At the snap, Robison’s right hand whips forward, forcing Packers guard T.J. Lang to pause briefly. That gives defensive tackle Tom Johnson a single-block start on Tretter, which is how it's drawn up. Though that can't be said for the end result. Rodgers dodges the initial pressure from Hunter, which leads him to flee to his right, where Johnson rushes and Robison mirrors.
Rodgers ultimately gains nine yards on the 16-second play, after which Robison grabs both knees when the Packers fall on the second of three Rodgers fumbles.
"[Rodgers] breaks off Tom [Johnson] and is able to make a move to get away," Robison said. "Then the great play by Everson to knock the ball out. â¦ I'm dead tired at that point."
Four plays later, Packers coach Mike McCarthy matches a call the Vikings had made earlier in the game by forgoing a 31-yard field goal attempt for a fourth-and-2 try. Green Bay spreads things out, lining up in a trips right formation that doesn't gain too much attention from Vikings defenders. Zimmer dialed up a blitz that sent safety Andrew Sendejo off right tackle.
"Yeah, we're reading run," Robison said. "They're hoping for a downhill run on the front side, but our penetration up front forced him to cut back my way. Really, Linval [Joseph] got a good push that made it more of a fourth-and-4 instead of a fourth-and-2."
Joseph overpowers Tretter, benching him a yard or so into the backfield, which forces Starks to cut downhill earlier than intended. That's critical because Robison, who made the right read while unblocked on the backside of the play, is then able to contribute. Stephen holds his own against Lang, whom Starks runs into before Robison and Joseph converge for the stop.
"I felt like we had a good call," Robison said. "We were pretty much gapped out."
Once again, the Vikings held a three-point lead with Rodgers emerging in their territory. There are seven minutes left in the fourth quarter and Robison decided to execute a move he'd been setting up during the course of the game.
On the previous play, Robison allowed a 15-yard reception by tight end Richard Rodgers on a zone blitz. Aaron Rodgers barely got the ball out before safety Harrison Smith arrived. The roles reversed on the next snap as Smith covered the tight end and Robison rushed, fooling right tackle Bryan Bulaga with a rip move to net one of the Vikings' two fourth-quarter takeaways.
"I'd been bull rushing him throughout the game and could tell he was starting to duck his head," Robison said of Bulaga. "So I was able to put a move on him, get the edge and beat him on the outside."
Robison initially shuffled his feet, reading the backfield before placing his left hand on Bulaga's right shoulder then swinging his right arm underneath to get the edge. On his 49th snap of the game, Robison caught an unsuspecting Rodgers from behind. He went for the ball, not the sack. This time, Stephen and Joseph were both there to fall on it.
“It’s a calculated risk," Robison said. "It’s one of those deals where, when you see it enough, you understand when the time to go for it and when there’s time to make sure you secure the sack. … I felt like the ball was hanging out there, so there was an opportunity for me to get it out of his hands.”