Chargers head coach Brandon Staley received much praise league-wide for aggressive decision making and early wins, both on the field and in the press conference. But before kickoff, the 38-year-old Staley tossed a bouquet to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer with a pointed compliment that rang true in Sunday's 27-20 win.
"If it's a passing [play], he's one of the top third-down architects in the history of the game," Staley said last week. "When it's known pass, this guy is as good of a defensive coach as there's ever been. That's the truth. Wherever he's been, whether Minnesota, Cincinnati, you go back a long ways, this guy has stood the test of time. They're outstanding with their disguise plan, variety of pressure packages, variety of rushers."
Zimmer made life difficult in 23-year-old quarterback Justin Herbert's first game against him. Herbert was sacked on the first pass play — a well-timed blitz by linebacker Eric Kendricks designed to attack the play-action bootleg — which led to schematic counterpunches on both sides.
Vikings coaches knew Chargers play caller Joe Lombardi, the former Lions coordinator whom Adam Zimmer also worked with in New Orleans. They knew what worked and what didn't; in four games against Lombardi's Lions in 2014-15, the Vikings came away with sack totals of four, zero, one and seven.
"We'd played that coordinator before," Mike Zimmer said, "and we'd actually talked about it during the week with the coaches. We said, 'Do you think he's going to give us these two different protections?' They hadn't done it all year, and we'd actually sacked him a few times in the past. So we said, 'He's probably not going to do that.' Then we get right in the ballgame and we have to react and adjust."
1. Three straight Chargers pass plays over two second-half drives helped turn the game, and Zimmer had blitzes dialed up for all three. The Vikings got really strong linebacker play from both Eric Kendricks and Nick Vigil, who covered Chargers running back Austin Ekeler stride-for-stride on a wheel route down the sideline on second down before this play.
It's third down. The Vikings trail 17-13 after that Chargers touchdown drive out of halftime.
Vigil, predictably, lines up over the center with Kendricks looming toward the strong side of the offense. The Vikings did the same on a third-and-4 earlier in the game, and nobody blitzed. Like that time, Chargers running back Joshua Kelley (#27) is again directed to protect inside; his focus is interior and to the left where Vigil (#59) and Kendricks (#54) are threats.
Safety Camryn Bynum (#43) waits until Herbert settles in and creeps toward the line. Vigil (#59) holds the center with a dummy rush before dropping into coverage. Kendricks (#54) also blitzes, drawing the running back's attention in pass protection. The Vikings get the win with a five-man rush against a six-man protection.
Bynum said the Vikings' coverage tendency leading into that blitz likely kept Herbert from alerting anyone before the snap, as Bynum had been rolling downhill in Cover 3 all game.
"We were showing down safety weak [side] in any of our cover 3s," Bynum said. "So it probably looked like to him that I was just coming down, being the flat defender. And I came down pretty late to show the blitz and as soon he snapped the ball I was supposed to go B gap, but saw the A gap open so I was able to go right in the middle which kind of worked out perfectly. So it was something that we've been trying to set up all game, showing that cover 3 look and not me blitzing and that made it perfect, and I was able to make my first sack."
2. After a Vikings touchdown drive gave them a 20-17 lead, the Chargers got the ball back. Facing a second-and-7 play, this time Vigil (#59) goes untouched up the middle in another well-timed blitz and perfect counter to the Chargers' protection plan.
The Chargers offensive line appears to pinch with the three interior blockers focusing on the A gaps — either side of center — where Vigil loomed over before the snap. It's an empty backfield, so an obvious passing play.
But as Ekeler (#30) motions across, Vigil drifts that way and times the blitz perfectly to the snap. He starts creeping forward when Ekeler gets behind Herbert. Perhaps that's a blitz call made on the fly when they see that motion. Either way, Herbert is hit and throws incomplete.
3. On the following third down, the Vikings again pressure Herbert with a five-man rush — this time against a seven-man protection.
Showing six defenders at the line, including three standing in Kendricks (#54), Vigil (#59), and defensive end D.J. Wonnum (#98), the Vikings deploy a zone blitz. Kendricks and Wonnum drop, while Vigil and safety Xavier Woods (#23) rush.
The Chargers actually read this well, but their extra blockers don't fit it correctly. Tight end Jared Cook (#87) appears to try to block both Woods and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (#90), despite running back Joshua Kelley assisting to the right.
Richardson breaks through and hits Herbert on this incomplete, while corner Mackensie Alexander had strong coverage on Keenan Allen downfield. A third straight pass play, and a third straight hit on Herbert. The Chargers punt. Herbert doesn't get the ball back until they're down 27-17 with 9:29 left.