Mike Zimmer had the Vikings on a hot streak.
Three straight blitz calls, spanning the end of Sunday’s first quarter into the first drive of the second half, landed a sack on Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen. Three for three.
All three designs varied in which linebackers, cornerbacks or safeties, blitzed. Each call sent a different player into a different gap. Two of the three plays led Rosen, the rookie quarterback making his third ever NFL start, and his rookie center, Mason Cole, into bad protection schemes that left open lanes for the Vikings.
Lanes so open that all four sacks on Rosen happened in less than 2.5 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. No other quarterback was sacked more than once in 2.5 seconds or less in Week 6.
“The whole game is about adjusting and talking about the blitzes, the protections and ‘all right, now we have to run this one,'” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “So, you have to have enough bullets in your holster that you can pull some out and you hope you pull the right ones out.”
Blitzing wasn’t a massive part of the Vikings’ game plan. Zimmer called 10 blitzes on Rosen’s 35 dropbacks (28.6 percent). But it was a particularly effective part. Extra Vikings rushers at key moments stopped three Cardinals drives on third downs, helped derail a fourth down and threw a hapless offense into a further tailspin.
The Vikings held the Cardinals to without a third-down conversion on 10 attempts, meaning Minnesota once again has the league’s top-rated third down defense at 25 percent allowed (16 of 64) through six games.
1. Pressure report: Timing and disguise were critical elements toward the Vikings winning 6 of 10 blitzes against a rookie quarterback. Linebacker Anthony Barr led the extra pass rush with a disruptive seven attempts, netting two hurries, a hit and a deflection on a rare Cover-0 blitz we’ll break down later. The rest of the blitz attempts broke down as such: linebacker Eric Kendricks (4), safety Harrison Smith (4), cornerback Mackensie Alexander (2) and safety George Iloka (1). It didn’t always work. Running back David Johnson’s longest run went for 10 yards as the Cardinals caught the blitzing Vikings off guard with a run on 2nd-and-10.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter had the only standout game as a pass rusher among Vikings linemen. His two sacks, both one-on-one wins against left tackle D.J. Humphries, puts him atop the NFL leaderboard with seven on the season, tied with Texans star J.J. Watt. He added a hit and four hurries on Rosen.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins took seven hits on 41 dropbacks, which should be considered a successful day behind this Vikings offensive line. Rashod Hill, starting at left tackle for the injured Riley Reiff, surrendered two of those hits, a pass deflection and a forced fumble to All-Pro defensive end Chandler Jones. The Cardinals made a clear emphasis on getting their arms up to bat down Cousins’ quick throws. Arizona deflected six passes at the line of scrimmage, while Cousins’ 2.44 seconds to throw was the 8th fastest on Sunday, according to PFF.
Hill, making his second-ever NFL start at left tackle, was the Vikings’ biggest liability with the toughest matchup. Jones’ disruption vs. Hill led to more than the aforementioned woes as Jones also blew up a 3rd-and-12 attempt and forced pressure on a third-down sack by defensive tackle Corey Peters. Left guard Tom Compton had another uneven day. One of the four sacks on Cousins could be pegged on the quarterback as he didn’t get the ball out in time. Making his first NFL start, rookie tackle Brian O’Neill held up well in pass protection by allowing just one hit — when defensive end Benson Mayowa got a hand in Cousins’ collar on a 5-yard completion to Adam Thielen.
Cousins’ interception was one of his worst decisions of the season, lobbing a prayer over the arms of defensive end Benson Mayowa that was easily picked off by safety Tre Boston.
2. Defenders had a remarkably good day against Cardinals running back David Johnson, who took his first eight carries for 15 yards and a fumble forced by Barr. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly contributed to three run stops, showing some power against the flimsy ex-Vikings tackle Andre Smith on the right side. Hunter shot into the inside gap on the 4th-and-goal stop, with cornerback Xavier Rhodes cleaning up the tackle on Johnson.
Vikings defensive backs missed just a couple tackles in front of them. Four — Iloka, Alexander, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Jayron Kearse — had open-field stops of 2 yards or less. They played nearly as well in coverage. The Cardinals’ biggest play, a 40-yard throw to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, was an underthrown ball by Rosen that Smith lost in coverage. The 35-yard pass to Christian Kirk also appeared to be an issue with safety coverage.
The Vikings, oddly enough, had Rhodes shadow Cardinals receiver Chad Williams, who entered Sunday with four catches on the season. He was targeted twice Sunday, catching one pass for five yards vs. Rhodes.
3. Anatomy of a play: Backed up to their own end zone, the Vikings get the first blitz call from Zimmer on the game’s fifth snap. Notice safety George Iloka (circled) and the play clock (circled with 7 seconds left). At this point, Rosen and Cole, the rookie center, have little time to adjust the play or protection against what looks like a standard blitz.
As the play clock ticks down to one second (circled below), Iloka has already crept from his centerfield alignment down into the box. Iloka and Smith (both circled in green) stand next to each other, disguising which safety is coming. The surprise to the Cardinals: they both will, along with Kendricks and Barr off the opposite side in a rare Cover-0 blitz that leaves no deep defender and only three corners to cover three receivers. It’s an aggressive move that perhaps Zimmer wouldn’t make against a more experienced quarterback.
Watch the Vikings’ red-zone stop below. Both Barr and Iloka rush unblocked, despite the Vikings only outnumbering Cardinals blockers 8 to 7. That’s the sign of a successfully designed and disguised blitz. The result is a Barr pass deflection as Rosen tries to get rid of the ball.
If you’ll recall from the game, Smith got a third-down sack in the third quarter while blitzing untouched off left tackle.
On the Cardinals’ next third down, the Vikings baited Rosen off the previous result.
On this third-and-6, Smith faked a pass rush from the opposite end until about four seconds remained on the play clock. He darted backward into deep coverage, and safety Anthony Harris crept forward toward Arizona’s bunch formation of three receivers.
The Cardinals have a clear-out pattern drawn up designed to have two receivers carry Vikings corners out of the shallow space and let receiver Larry Fitzgerald make a quick grab on an inside move.
Rosen apparently never saw Harris coming downhill. Since Harris stayed in his single-high safety look until the last possible seconds, Rosen threw right to him as Harris made an excellent break on Fitzgerald’s inside route.
Harris came away with his first career NFL interception.
“Part of it is just knowing the situation, down and distance, usually offenses try to wait until the last second to get you to show their hand,” Harris said. “So, we just try to use the play clock when we disguise. Harrison did a good job of showing down. He’s down a good bit. [I was] just coming with the late rotation and dropping in, was able to make a play.”
4. Cornerback Patrick Peterson again shadowed Stefon Diggs for the majority of the game. Peterson, the seven-time Pro Bowler, wasn’t thrown at very often. Diggs had one true one-on-one route vs. Peterson that was targeted, which turned into a 10-yard tiptoe grab on the sideline. Diggs had three catches on four targets for 33 yards as nearly half of Cousins’ throws went to receiver Adam Thielen.
Thielen couldn’t be contained by Cardinals cornerback Bene Benwikere or any defensive back thrown on him. His most impressive catch during his sixth 100-yard game this season was a diving 13-yard grab to convert on 3rd-and-13. He also ran a marvelous stop-and-go route down the seam for a 13-yard touchdown on the same drive after halftime.
5. Give some credit to the maligned O-line for Latavius Murray’s career-high 155 rushing yards. Murray was decisive, hitting the holes hard for four runs of at least 20 yards. The key is there were holes to run through against an aggressively positioned Cardinals defense. Arizona flooded eight in the box on Murray’s 21-yard touchdown run, made possible by his sharp cut outside of Jones and toward the gap between tight ends Kyle Rudolph and David Morgan. His 26-yard run saw a solid trio of blocks from center Pat Elflein and guards Mike Remmers and Compton. Running back Mike Boone found a hole between Remmers and Elflein for his 20-yard run in the third quarter. Remmers, in his first full season at guard, was involved in the most positive run plays of any lineman.