The Vikings’ defensive performance Sunday was the best of the Mike Zimmer era.
Well, if your ruler measures only the opponent’s ability to move the ball. The broken Ravens managed just 208 yards on 64 plays, the fewest yards allowed by a Vikings defense under Zimmer. Baltimore’s biggest gain was an illegal hit by safety Andrew Sendejo, which netted 27 yards in total and a one-game suspension for Sendejo.
The Ravens didn’t even reach the Vikings’ red zone until the 11th drive, when only 74 seconds remained on the scoreboard. Much of the Vikings’ success derived from pouncing on underneath plays designed to beat their pass rush, and then unleashing said pass rush.
Four of the Vikings’ five sacks on Joe Flacco came on third down.
“I still feel like the strength of our defense is being able to rush the quarterback,” Zimmer said. “We backed off the blitzes there late in the game just because we’re trying to milk the clock.”
It was the fewest yards allowed by a Zimmer-coached defense since the Cincinnati Bengals held, yes, the Ravens to 189 yards in November 2013.
Let’s take a look at four examples of the Vikings’ defensive dominance, the driving force in their 24-16 win against the Ravens on Sunday. Here to help is Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout and Director of Scouting Development at The Scouting Academy. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @Dan_Hatman.
Speed is a killer for defenses in an age where many offenses need their playmakers to create after the catch, making up for often unreliable protection. Enter Everson Griffen, one of the NFL’s best edge rushers with nine sacks this season. The Vikings defensive end doesn’t get to show off his incredible range too often. Only when an opponent has the fortitude to test him in the open field. It often ends up like this, with the listed 270-pound defensive lineman chasing down the back like the lion and antelope.
Vikings 0, Ravens 0
2nd-and-8, 11:21 left in 1Q
“As the backside C-gap player, Griffen is responsible for the pitch. That said, as he flattens with the offensive tackle, which he needs to do, it gives the running back a tremendous angle to get to the outside,” Hatman said. “As such, it took fantastic eye discipline, redirection, foot speed, and angles from Griffen to track down the running back and get him down for only a 5-yard gain.”
Proper angles are an underrated habit of smart defenses, and the nuance needed can be easy to miss from the television and press box alike. On this third down, linebacker Eric Kendricks shows off his agility and discipline by adjusting once running back Javorius Allen escapes into the flat as an outlet for Flacco. As Hatman notes, Kendricks then “stays on the upfield hip” of Allen by widening his steps just enough to make the diving tackle, saving what would’ve been a first down and a lot more.
Vikings 6, Ravens 3
3rd-and-6, 10:46 left in 2Q
“Again, angles and speed are highlighted here,” Hatman said. “With the running back in check-release mode, and Kendricks stacked right over him, the running back gets the early advantage out to the flat. The pass required an adjustment by the running back to secure, which slows him down. Kendricks does a great job staying on the upfield hip, so when the running back transitions upfield, he is not left grasping for air, and instead, is able to secure an ankle and get him down.”
Pre-snap disguises are another example of a disciplined defense. On linebacker Anthony Barr’s first sack of the season, both Barr and Kendricks time the Ravens snap well. They remain about five yards apart with four Ravens offensive linemen between them, even though both linebackers are blitzing through the B gap between left guard and left tackle. Kendricks only crosses over once he sees the Ravens center bob his head a second time.
Vikings 12, Ravens 6
3rd-and-8, 10:05 left in 3Q
“Blitzing is not the same as pass rush. You blitz to bring more than they can protect. Barr and Kendricks do a good job of holding disguise until the end, which keeps the Ravens from being able to set the protection to the weakside where the pressure comes from,” Hatman said. “That coupled with an issue between the left tackle and running back both accounting for Griffen — many coaches like to get big on big, so the running back would most likely have needed to take Barr — allows Barr to come unblocked.”
Play recognition is easy to say, and typically requires hours of work to successfully do. Safety Harrison Smith drops from a two-deep safety look before the snap, and picks up stride once a Ravens offensive lineman leaks out for a backside screen to Ravens running back Bobby Rainey. As Hatman notes, Smith’s closing speed is impeccable and the way the coverage is drawn up shows the trust in Xavier Rhodes to jump on a receiver and lock him down by himself.
Vikings 18, Ravens 6
1st-and-10, 4:18 left in 3Q
“One of the added benefits of a player like Xavier Rhodes,” Hatman said. “You can truly ‘man’ him in the boundary and free up players like Smith and Barr to make life really hard on the offense. Smith is able to insert over the running back with Barr as a low-hole player. Smith is so much fun to watch when he diagnoses a play. His click and close is impressive and he was on top of the running back in no time at all.”