On a day when Pat and Kevin of ‘Williams Wall’ fame were honorary captains for the Vikings, current defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson paid homage with their own play.
The duo’s play started the disruption of the Packers’ zone runs while Mike Zimmer kept the Vikings in the smaller, nickel personnel (five defensive backs) for all 66 snaps.
Even with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers gained 25 yards on eight plays before his injury. Green Bay’s run was particularly ineffective against the Vikings defense as Rodgers handed off for gains of 0, 1, 1 and 5 yards.
Look no further than the play of the Vikings’ front, which defensive end Everson Griffen explains takes collective pride in “attention to detail.”
“I trust on you to cover your gap. I’m going to cover my gap. That’s how it works,” Griffen said. “I trust in Tom [Johnson] when he’s playing 3-technique that he’s going to be in the B gap. Or if he gets a power scoop, he’s going to flatten them out. He trusts me when a tight end comes in to try to cut me off, I’m going to pressure the inside shoulder and be in the C gap. And we trust [Linval Joseph] that he’s going to set the wall in the middle like he always does. We trust the 5-technique, he’s going to press him on the backside when he get the alley hinge or any type of reach over there. It all works together.”
Neither Packers quarterback got help from running the ball, which gained Green Bay just two first downs and 3.0 yards per carry.
“Overall, it was a solid, fundamental defensive front,” Zimmer said.
Let’s take a look at three Rodgers handoffs and one blitz on Brett Hundley, both keys to the Vikings establishing an early lead in the 23-10 win. 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.
On the second snap, the Packers look to take advantage of the Vikings’ aggressive rush with a draw play. Joseph (98), Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks read, react and converge on Ty Montgomery for no gain.
“Looks like a Cover-1 style coverage with the linebackers banjo-ing [like a switch in basketball] the running back,” Hatman said. “The coverage gets Harrison Smith to insert over Kendricks, who aligns in the backfield. Smith and Kendricks insert aggressively. Joseph gets the double based on being the 1-technique. He does a great job to lock out the left guard, get his vision in the backfield and time his shed from the block to tackle the ball. Great team defense, but Joseph really stands out. He shows what amounts to 2-gap technique, which is harder to execute and does a good job.”
On second-and-2, Johnson (92) is three yards in the backfield, in a critical spot, by the time Jones cuts on his first run for a gain of just 1 yard. As left tackle David Bakhtiari turns his back to “widen” Griffen, as Hatman said, Johnson is attacking the space directly behind him to close an initial lane.
“It may have been drawn up [for Johnson] to attack the B gap with Bakhtiari widening Griffen,” Hatman said. “With Tom Johnson quickly resetting the line of scrimmage versus the left guard’s reach block, Ripkowski [fullback] adjusts and takes it outside, trying to pin Griffen in. Jones [running back] peeks outside, but Smith had set the edge and forces Jones back inside to the teeth of the defense. Kudos to Johnson on this one.”
On this first-and-10, Johnson knifes through the line again to help stall this Jones run for 1 yard.
“I remember asking Jim Washburn about why he taught run defense through the lens of ‘stop the running back on the way to the quarterback,'” Hatman said. “He talked about the fact the passing game is bigger than ever and everyone runs inside zone. The biggest destructor of a zone run play is penetration. Johnson explodes upfield, attacks Evans’ playside shoulder, gets tremendous push upfield and even is able to shed the block and almost make a play on the ball himself. At the very least, he bubbles the play, forcing Jones to widen laterally and giving the DBs time to insert and make the tackle. Another impressive snap for Johnson.”
Make no mistake, the Vikings were plenty aggressive when Rodgers was in the game. Linebacker Anthony Barr appeared to be a key on Rodgers’ scrambles, spying the quarterback on the opening third down and later ditching his coverage immediately to hit Rodgers once he left the pocket. But when quarterback Brett Hundley entered, Zimmer called three of the Vikings’ only four blitzes within Hundley’s first nine dropbacks.
They worked, netting two sacks and a QB hit, including this third-and-5 below.
“The DBs on the line of scrimmage help here as it gives the blitzers the flexibility to hide their intentions,” Hatman said, “as the coverage screams man-to-man regardless of what they do. So Smith inserting over the tight end makes even more sense. Not sure Hundley gives Smith a second thought. With Smith being the second rusher off that side [Barr the first], the quarterback usually has to throw hot off that defender. Hundley is looking at the other side of the field and only comes to the pressure once he feels [Brian] Robison.”