Mike Zimmer didn’t bank on the wind.
Nearly two months after the Vikings defense was torched by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with Zimmer often calling for single-high safety coverages that helped expose young corners, they brought a different approach to Lambeau Field during Sunday’s 28-22 win.
Even with up to 40 mile-per-hour wind gusts challenging throws, the Vikings seemingly deployed more conservative coverages with safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris spending more time away from the line of scrimmage.
Rodgers held onto the ball longer. The Packers offense sputtered after two opening touchdown drives, a change coach Mike Zimmer credited to better run defense after Green Bay ran wild for 73 yards on 14 carries to start the game. The Vikings’ many young defenders also took time to get settled.
“We made some adjustments in the run game,” Zimmer said. “We added some calls in there at halftime once we got a feel for what they were trying to do in the running game. We had first and 20 and a cover-2 blitz, because I’m trying to protect the corners. So we had a cover-2 blitz, and they throw it in the flat and we miss the tackle and it goes for 20-some yards. You know, it’s things like that that’s just so frustrating.”
Zimmer’s altered approach and some standout plays, which we’ll break down below, led to one of the most improbable wins of this NFL season. Mounting injuries at cornerback made the victory all the more unlikely, as the Vikings lost three corners during a game they entered already down two starters.
“It really tested the group as a whole,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said, “to communicate, talk through things on the sideline, make adjustments, play things a little bit differently than we may have drawn up.”
1. Zimmer called a form of two-deep safety coverages on 61.5% of the Packers plays, by my rough count, and leaned on zones, which is a huge contrast to the Week 1 loss when safeties spent a lot of time near the line of scrimmage with a 73% single-high rate. Corners were burned deep. Rodgers threw for 364 yards. Zimmer said he could do a “better job” with the young cornerbacks.
He gave them more help on Sunday, which made Rodgers hold the ball. Rodgers’ 2.75-second average before throwing was a full 1/2 second longer than Week 1, which is an eternity in the NFL. Rodgers was limited to just one completion over 20 yards before the final few minutes.
On this first-and-10 play below, the Vikings tilt a two-deep coverage shell over the Packers’ true deep threats in receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling (#83) and Davante Adams (#17). This leaves cornerback Mark Fields isolated at the top of the frame with receiver Darrius Shepherd, who is not a speed threat.
Watch both Vikings safeties stay over Adams (#17) and Valdes-Scantling (#83). Cornerback Kris Boyd (#29) shades to Adams’ outside, knowing he has help inside with the zone coverage. This puts Boyd in position to get underneath Adams when he breaks toward the near sideline.
Rodgers wants to throw to Adams, but has to take an incompletion. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (#95) gives a bonus on this play with a power rush that draws a holding call, forcing 1st and 20.
2. The following play was the Packers’ biggest gain of the first half, and illustrated some basic inconsistencies in a young defense.
Zimmer maintained aggressive moments in a more conservative coverage style, peppering Rodgers with blitzes, even on 1st and 20. This is the cover-2 blitz Zimmer referenced as “frustrating,” because right after Boyd fared well in assisted coverage of Adams, he misses the tackle on running back A.J. Dillon for a 16-yard gain.
Safeties Harrison Smith (#22) and Anthony Harris (#41) sell the split-safety coverage with Smith faking a blitz and Harris at centerfield, trying to disguise corner Jeff Gladney (#20) blitzing from the slot.
Rodgers reads the blitz, throws to Dillon (#28) in the area vacated by Smith, who is dropping deep “to protect the corners,” Zimmer said, in the cover-2 call. Boyd (#29) makes the read but misses the tackle, and with the coverage call, has no shallow help.
3. The Vikings defensive line had a strong second half, when Packers running backs were limited to a 3.4-yard average on eight attempts. While they don’t provide much in the way of a four-man pass rush, even as the Packers were without left tackle David Bakhtiari on Sunday, the Vikings’ D-line had to handle a load in the running game without much safety help.
Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (#94) thoroughly beat Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins (#74) on multiple plays in the second half, and he bullied his way through right guard Lucas Patrick (#62) and center Corey Linsley (#63) on this run stop in the third quarter.
Against this Packers inside zone run, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (#93) benches Jenkins, the right guard, into the backfield, leading running back Jamaal Williams (#30) to cut outside where Johnson makes the stop. Johnson later drew a holding penalty on Jenkins, helping to stall this Packers drive.
4. Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa (#51) went from being demoted to the practice squad to making Rodgers feel his presence in the win.
For all that the Vikings’ pass rush lacks, which is a lot, without Danielle Hunter (for now) and Everson Griffen, this coaching staff has shown a strong ability to manufacture it with well-designed blitzes and stunts. Mata’afa, the former standout Washington State defensive tackle, is now playing some end, from where he got one of his four pressures on Rodgers during this second-and-10 play below.
Coaches could be feeling out roles, but just about every defensive end moved inside to rush on obvious passing downs like this with 3:36 left in the game. Wonnum (#98) stands up over the right guard and sets up this pressure by occupying Patrick (#62).
5. The Vikings’ red-zone defense struggled early, starting with rookie corner Jeff Gladney giving up the first touchdown to Adams in the latest growing pain for a young secondary.
Zimmer called out this play Monday during a press conference with local reporters, noting that Gladney (#20) gives up his outside leverage on Adams (#17) while falling for a head fake during the receiver’s release.
“Seventeen is a guy we’re obviously paying a whole bunch of attention to,” Zimmer said. “He’s lined up on the outside shoulder of him. He’s got Anthony Harris [#41] on the inside. The ball is snapped, [Adams] gives [Gladney] a little shake, [Gladney] looks inside and then he gets beat to the outside, where that’s where he should’ve been all the way. There’s a lot of little things like that I’m trying so hard to get these young kids to understand not only about their position, but the guy they’re playing against, where their help is.”