A game with 36 pass plays left Vikings defensive linemen feeling like there weren’t enough chances to attack Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
About half of those plays — 17 — were play-action passes, many of which involved a bootleg or line shift that had players like defensive end Stephen Weatherly first reading the run, then often fighting “against the grain” to rush the quarterback.
“There weren’t many, I think maybe a handful of actual dropback passes where he’d get off the ball and it’s you vs. your tackle,” Weatherly said Monday. “It was a lot of sliding the whole front, play-action pass, boot-type stuff. Trying to get us all going one way so they can come back against the grain and have opportunities to throw, which really limits your chances to pass rush.”
If there is a ‘blueprint’ strategy that’s stood above others to beat the Vikings defense, it has been the misdirection concepts through play-action passes that have stifled a fierce one-on-one pass rush and forced Vikings linebackers and defensive backs to scramble.
For the third time in four weeks, an opposing quarterback was among that week’s leaders in play-action yardage against the Vikings defense. The only one who hasn’t been — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — simply doesn’t use play action in the offense.
Below we’ll break down a defense-only film review focusing on Goff’s 465 yards (326 off play-action) and elements that matter for Sunday’s upcoming NFC title game rematch in Philadelphia.
1. A neutralized pass rush: Danielle Hunter and company had some chances. There were Goff’s 3-second drops in which Hunter came a swipe away from affecting his throw. There was the third-quarter sack when Hunter sped around left tackle Andrew Whitworth and engulfed Goff. But more often than not, the Vikings’ defensive front and blitzers were unable to throw the quarterback off the mark. Weatherly, who led the Vikings with five pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, was just one of four players to apply pressure on Goff with Hunter (4 pressures), defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (3) and linebacker Anthony Barr (2).
When the Rams let Goff just drop back and throw, the Vikings were unable to take advantage. He was sacked just once despite holding onto the ball for a league-high 2.78 seconds per throw. The clock ticked the longest with head coach Sean McVay’s crafty misdirection schemes that played off the Vikings’ eagerness to pounce on Todd Gurley.
The Rams also baited the Vikings’ disciplined approach, which has the front four looking to play the run before shooting gaps to attack the quarterback.
“When you’re able to eliminate two, maybe three of us because we’re playing the run when it’s actually a pass,” Weatherly said. “Or you get some type of misdirection, that definitely helps the offense.”
Goff reset the bar with Bills quarterback Josh Allen (10-15, 144 yards, TD) and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (5-10, 118 yards) as successful play-action passers vs. the Vikings.
2. Opportunity ahead: Vikings’ blitzes were initially successful against the Rams, netting incompletions on back-to-back early throws. The rest resembled the 36-yard strike to Robert Woods, who shook cornerback Trae Waynes to become an easy target for Goff while Barr barreled down from the blind side.
Head coach Mike Zimmer might be enticed to put his foot on the gas pedal this Sunday against the Eagles. The reigning Super Bowl champions are coming off a 26-23 overtime loss to the Titans in which they struggled to protect Carson Wentz from Tennessee’s blitzes.
Wentz was sacked four times by the Titans, the first three via five-man rushes by Tennessee. The Titans schemed free runners at Wentz, aided somewhat by Eagles miscues. The final strip-sack, which set up a late Titans field goal, was rookie LB Harold Landry speeding past Eagles RT Lane Johnson.
The Eagles offensive line is better than it played against the Titans, but it was an overall bad day across the entire line. Three linemen — left tackle Jason Peters, right guard Brandon Brooks and Johnson — were flagged.
3. Anatomy of a play: The Rams’ 70-yard touchdown to receiver Cooper Kupp was a derivative of a formation Sean McVay had deployed a couple times on the opening drive.
The key setup, as you’ll see below, is a simple switch of assignments. On this 10-yard pass to Kupp (circled in green), he’s aligned as the front-side receiver asked to “leak” out the back side for the catch. Kupp beats Barr to the perimeter for a first down.
The formation appears five plays later in the same drive. This time, Kupp is aligned as the back-side receiver (circled in yellow) asked to block while tight end Gerald Everett (green) leaks to the back side for a 13-yard gain against linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Notice the change below. Same formation, similar play. The key difference on the Rams’ second play of their next drive is the assignment switch. This time, the play-side leak (circled in yellow) blocks while the front-side receiver Kupp (green) fakes a block and takes off past Barr for what ends up a 70-yard touchdown.
Andrew Sendejo is the lone deep safety. He makes a bad gamble by floating over the opposite-field vertical route by Brandin Cooks, leaving Kupp with nothing but grass in front of him after beating Barr.
“We didn’t help [Barr] with the back side,” Zimmer said after the game.
4. Here comes tight end Zach Ertz: There were plenty of Vikings’ coverage breakdowns beyond the Rams’ play-action passes. Rams targets found holes in the Vikings’ coverage schemes, including a 27-yard grab by Kupp as he drifted into a pocket between Kendricks and cornerback Mike Hughes.
The Vikings’ pattern-matching zone scheme is designed to prevent such lapses found in archaic zone coverage where players were assigned spaces on the field opposed to the players entering those spaces. Whatever caused such breakdowns against the Rams, the Vikings will need to shore up against one of the NFL’s best space finders in Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.
Ertz had 10 catches for 112 yards against the Titans without a gain longer than 24 yards. He consistently ate up the Titans’ mid-level coverage by drifting between defenders into open spaces where Wentz looked wired to find him.
5. The Vikings need better from Xavier Rhodes: Before you wonder if the Vikings can prioritize covering Ertz, remember receiver Alshon Jeffery just returned to the Eagles offense and looked just like the guy who dominated Vikings defensive backs for years in Chicago.
This is where the Vikings need much better from Rhodes, who had more penalties (3) than tackles (1) against the Rams and was not on the field for a couple of touchdowns. Zimmer pulled Rhodes from the game after he kicked a flag thrown at him for holding, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct. The next play, Goff found Cooks — whom Rhodes had been shadowing — for a 47-yard touchdown over Waynes.
Up next is Jeffery, who had 8 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Titans last week. Jeffery did it in all the old ways Vikings fans should be used to seeing — a back-shoulder grab to convert 3rd-and-6 against press coverage by Titans corner Malcolm Butler and then a leaping, contested touchdown grab on 3rd-and-16 over six-foot corner LeShaun Sims.