For Tom Johnson, the quickest path was not a straight line.
Johnson, the Vikings' pass-rushing defensive tackle, shuffled sides of the center to point himself in the right direction. Overloading the strong side of the Texans' formation created the deception and space, about the width of the hash marks, between Johnson and Everson Griffen to snub what may have been Houston's last real chance on Sunday afternoon.
Trying to cut into the Vikings' 24-6 lead in the third quarter, the Texans faced third down only 30 yards from a touchdown.
"They were trying to get their tackles to help their guards, which eliminates the three-technique [defensive tackle]. Also, they were chipping on the outsides to try to slow down our ends," Johnson recalled Tuesday afternoon. "What we did was we started moving games to try and get them to play honest or they were going to have to put an extra guy in the pocket, which helps our DBs."
'Games,' or stunts and twists, helped the Vikings' vaunted pass rushers to apply pressure without minimizing their coverage. Brock Osweiler took 15 hits (four sacks) on 46 drop backs while consistently under duress by primarily a four-man rush. Thirteenof those hits came from Vikings defensive linemen, led by Johnson's six on 39 snaps.
And stunts were responsible for three of the six times Johnson knocked Osweiler to the ground. The snaps whenJohnson crossed paths with a teammate to confuse an offensive lineman are chosen by the players, Johnson said. They react to opponent blocking tendencies throughout the game and try things depending on their own play call.
That leeway boosts an already talented front whose 19 sacks is tied with Denver for the NFL lead. The Vikings’ rush has been impactful in a way that dictates approach. For the third time in five games, the opposing passer averaged fewer than six yards per attempt.
"Most guys respect what we do," Johnson said. "They don't want to take long, deep drops like Cam [Newton] was doing. Ultimately, he got hit a lot. Guys want to do more like Eli [Manning], even if they're not going to be as productive as they would want to. They'd rather the quarterback don't get hit, so they'd rather stay shallow, small, short throws and try to have screens to slow us down."
Let's start with Johnson’s sack in the third quarter at the Vikings' 30-yard line.
Brian Robison stands up, as he often does for the Vikings' nickel pass rush, and provides an overloaded look to the strong side of the Texans formation on third-and-7. The aim is to get Danielle Hunter, lined up at left defensive end, a one-on-one matchup on the outside, Johnson said, knowing their tackles often leaned inside to take away the three-technique defensive tackle. On the far side, Griffen (97) would lead the left tackle insidewhile Johnson (92) looped around.
"Most tackles are told don't get beat on the inside, which leaves me one-on-one with the guard," Johnson said. "So all I have to do is beat the guard on the outside. Everson is going to flush him to me."
Griffen accelerated toward the inside hand of Texans left tackle Duane Brown, forcing Osweiler to sidestep to the outside. Without other rushers on his side of the center, Brown sticks with Griffen as Johnson slips by for the third-down sack. On the next play, after pressure on consecutive snaps, Osweiler throws a screen on fourth-and-16 for a turnover on downs.
"When the play comes, I'm going to go across his face," Johnson said. "I'm going to bring the center with me, which puts the guard in a situation that he got to know I'm either going to hit the A gap or the B gap and Everson takes it underneath. He takes his tackle underneath and [the tackle] has to respect that."
Some of the Vikings’ twists require read and reaction. Facing an early third-and-7, Johnson and Robison (96) run a movepredicated on which way the center blocks. Should the center block away, that defender needs to rush at the center while the other defender loops around.
"This is the first quarter or second quarter, we had a lot of three-and-outs; still the beginning of the game," Johnson said. "So we're still trying to figure out what they're doing, how they're doing it and make adjustments off of it."
Stunts were used on 13 pass plays [28%], giving the Vikings four hits on the quarterback. This was not one of those hits as the center backpedals to gain depth, a counter to the coming twist, while the guards pinch inside. The Texans kept a back and tight end in to doubleGriffen, so the left tackle stalls Johnson in his tracks.
"We're just reading off of [the center]," Johnson said. "B-Rob went down, took the center since he's backing up. And since he's penetrated, see how hard the guard went down? But they still have the tackle giving him a hand. See how they're still trying to help the interior? So I was about to beat the guard, but the tackle ended up coming from way out there."
The Vikings often ran stunts on the weak side of the Texans’ protection schemes. Since the Texans again lined up to double Griffen on third-and-8, Johnson and Hunter (99) ran a move on the back side. Johnson's initial step toward center, along with the position of Anthony Barr (55), freezes the guard long enough to get around him.
"You see Anthony back there, so that means the guard has to respect me sitting in there," Johnson said.
Johnson's stutter step at the line creates enough time for Hunter to step toward an outside rush, creating valuable space, and then stem inside on right tackle Derek Newton to force him to chase. Johnson loops around for the hit on third down. On the next play, Marcus Sherels padded the lead with a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown.
"We're calling it off of what they've been doing," Johnson said. "That's what makes it so well for all of us because we're basically matched up with the offense in so many different ways from what we're seeing out of our opponent."