Mike Zimmer said he can do a “better job” with the young Vikings cornerbacks after Sunday’s 43-34 loss to the Packers. Coaches can fix finer aspects like standing in the right spot before the snap, and technique once the ball is snapped.
But how Zimmer deploys the safety tandem of Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris in coverage can also impact the younger players. ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen noted he was “really surprised” at how much single-high safety coverage Zimmer called against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who consistently hit deep throws over isolated corners.
Single-high safety was the Vikings’ primary coverage form (73%), and was striking during big plays (although Rodgers beat two-deep safety coverages, too). Some of the throws were just “perfect,” as rookie corner Cameron Dantzler said, but they were also consistently aimed away from the safety help and effectively neutralized the strength of the Vikings’ secondary.
Comeback hopes evaporated off Rodgers’ third and fourth touchdowns, both preceded by deep shots on third downs, when Zimmer stuck with single-high coverage on 7 of 9 such throws.
“Not only third down,” safety Harrison Smith said, “which we were not good on, but first and second down, giving up first downs on those downs and not getting into the third-and-mediums, the third-and-longs when you have the advantage, is kind of how we lived.”
1. When the Vikings paid extra attention to Davante Adams, Rodgers threw away from him with similar results. Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (#83) benefited with this 39-yard catch in the third quarter. The throw would set up Rodgers’ third touchdown and the Vikings’ 29-10 deficit.
The third-down coverage below shows just how much Adams (#17) was a problem. A typical and aggressive Zimmer front has everyone at the line but Smith (#22), the lone deep safety aligning over Adams and cornerback Holton Hill (#24). The runway is wide open behind cornerback Mike Hughes (#21) on the near side, and Rodgers sees it the whole way on a free play.
The Vikings’ aggression shows in Zimmer’s third-down call and the execution as blitzing linebacker Anthony Barr jumps early.
2. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur attacked with vertical routes throughout the game, and by the fourth quarter it was well established the Vikings weren’t covering with a two-deep shell.
With Smith again over Adams on the opposite side, Rodgers looks away from his favorite target. He quickly finds receiver Allen Lazard (#13) for this 38-yard completion that would set up Rodgers’ fourth score and the Vikings’ 36-18 deficit.
Looking at two Packers slot receivers, safety Anthony Harris (#41) aligns in shallower coverage near the first-down marker, clearly expecting another quick throw to the sticks. But Lazard goes deep, throwing his arm up to Rodgers calling for the ball. Harris seemingly hesitates and breaks on the wrong target in Valdes-Scantling’s (#83) along the first-down line.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks passes off Lazard as if he’s expecting help, but the coverage busts.
3. The defense was also plenty vulnerable in the slot, and the Vikings need better from Mike Hughes, who was only in his sixth career NFL start on Sunday. But the third-year cornerback allowed separation on quicker out-breaking routes, including two third-down conversions to Lazard (12 yards) and Adams (8 yards). In passes thrown to slot receivers, Rodgers went 13 of 14 for 160 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus.
Hughes has the quick feet and has shown the instincts to defend the “slot,” the toughest area of the field for cornerbacks as a receiver can run virtually any route. But facing the 6-foot-5-inch Lazard (#13) is obviously a mismatch, and Hughes (#21) isn’t particularly close on this one.
Breaking up Rodgers’ timing on these throws is a tall task, and this version of the Vikings secondary was not up for the task in their 2020 debut.
4. Dantzler, the third-round rookie, got his first NFL start, and a learning experience during the 45-yard touchdown just before halftime.
Dantzler (#27) is man-to-man against Valdes-Scantling (#83) and stands two yards away. He’s too close, doesn’t jam the receiver and is trailing quickly. His safety help, Harris, appears occupied by another vertical route, and Dantzler is on his own.
"There's 25 seconds left in the half and he's trying to play bump and run on the receiver instead of understanding the situation there," Zimmer said. "Other than that, I thought he did a pretty good job."
“I felt like I was there, he just made a perfect throw and the guy made a perfect catch,” Dantzler said.
"I should've known that a guy like Aaron Rodgers, he always goes for the deep ball and the touchdown," he added. "It's just something I have to put past me and learn from. When I get into that situation again, I'll know what to do."
5. The defense got finessed, too. It wasn’t just great-throw, great-catch. Zimmer noted some pick plays, where Packers receivers beat man-to-man coverage from bunch sets designed to entangle defenders. Under LaFleur, Green Bay has also leaned into run-pass options (RPOs). The problem last year, despite being 13-3 in the regular season, was they weren’t very good at RPOs, according to Sharp Football.
The Vikings defense allowed their good start in 2020. Adams (#17) picked up 10 yards in the red zone on this RPO, which sends Adams into pre-snap motion (green) from right to left across the formation. Because Dantzler (#27) doesn’t move with Adams, Rodgers knows the Vikings are in zone coverage, and the defense will be at a numbers disadvantage to Adams’ side.
Rodgers pulls the ball from running back Aaron Jones (orange) and the run option, throwing the quick pass to Adams for an easy 10 yards.