Cornerback Cameron Dantzler had a nightmare ending in what was shaping up to be a strong game for the Vikings’ young and vulnerable defense in Seattle.
Quarterback and MVP candidate Russell Wilson’s Seahawks ripped off 21 points in 97 seconds of game time, buoyed by two Vikings turnovers in the third quarter. But the Vikings turned Sunday night’s 27-26 loss into a slog for a high-flying offense.
With Mike Zimmer pulling his safeties back for much of the night, often two-deep coverages smothered downfield sparks and trusted the defensive front to win. Even with Wilson’s game-winning, 94-yard drive, he was held to season lows in passing yards (217) and average gain (6.8) to a depleted defense starting two rookie corners.
“Seattle was a little bit better,” Zimmer said Sunday night.
That’s not how it looked going into the game.
Wilson entered with a league-leading 9.4 yards per attempt, many to the dangerous duo of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Vikings were allowing deep throws left and right. But Wilson didn’t complete a deep ball to one of his favorite targets on Sunday night until the fateful fourth-and-10 play with 1:21 left, when Metcalf leapt over Dantzler for the 39-yard grab.
Dantzler would also get mixed up the game-winning touchdown to Metcalf, after which Zimmer preached patience and noted incremental growth; the rookie played off coverage in the obvious passing situation after trying to press on a deep Week 1 touchdown before halftime against the Packers.
“This time, understanding the situation, he was actually in great shape on the play,” Zimmer said Monday. “Just misjudged the ball. Instead of going up and getting it, he’s waiting for it to come down. They’ve got a good receiver and he came down with it. I think the more times you put them in these situations, unfortunately, you learn these kind of things.”
1. Zimmer often called an apparent form of ‘quarters’ coverage on first downs and passing situations, like the fourth-and-10 play on the Seahawks’ final drive. That coverage shell helped keep a lid on a vertical passing game, but Dantzler and the Vikings’ young corners would eventually get tested late in the game.
On the play, safety Harrison Smith (#22) is able to retreat to his deep coverage after faking the blitz, trying to set up slot corner Jeff Gladney (#20), who blitzes from the other side.
Dantzler (#27) plays about seven yards off Metcalf (#14) at the snap, providing a little bit of a cushion on fourth down. Likely expecting another ‘quarters’ coverage with four deep, Metcalf runs a double move, head-faking a move inside before fading to the sideline for a jump ball.
Metcalf’s double move turns around Dantzler, who “misjudged” the ball, according to Zimmer, and didn’t go up for it.
“I still feel good about Dantzler,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s going to be a heck of a player. I thought Gladney played really good in the slot last night and did some really nice things. So it’s just one of those things. We’re probably not the last team that Russell Wilson will come back in the fourth quarter on.”
2. Zimmer called two-deep safety coverages on 71% of first downs, and Wilson kept a shallow aim while completing 9 of 9 throws for 61 yards. He continually took underneath options and didn’t test the Vikings deep until a safety dropped (Wilson threw all three touchdowns against single-high safety coverages) or the game was on the line in the fourth quarter.
Keeping safeties deep means one fewer body in the tackle box, stressing the six up front (and the nickel corner). Linebacker Eric Wilson (#50) had a solid game as the go-to spy on Wilson, typically Anthony Barr’s job, but he and linebacker Eric Kendricks were also effective at what’s called a “green dog blitz.”
On this first-and-10 play below, Eric Wilson pressures Russell Wilson as he appears to “green dog blitz” after seeing his assigned target, the tight end, stay in to block.
Wilson doesn’t have anywhere quick to go, with Lockett (#16) covered downfield by another ‘quarters’ coverage that has safeties Smith (#22) and Harris (#41) near the logo.
3. Dantzler got mixed up on the game-losing touchdown, coming off his man-to-man assignment of Metcalf (#14) to cover another crossing route from receiver Freddie Swain (#18) on the opposite side. The only reason Metcalf had a defender near him, according to Zimmer, was due to Harris (#41) reading the quarterback and leaving his centerfield zone.
Wilson might’ve had another game-winning option in Lockett (#16), who was covered by Gladney but had space midfield as Harris went to cover Metcalf. Dantzler’s rookie mistake put other defensive backs in a bind, and gave Wilson the window for the win.
“You go back and you wonder about it all the time. What could we have done better?” Zimmer said Monday about the play. “Just going back through the process of thinking, you’ve got to have a guy on Russell Wilson because he’s possibly going to scramble in. Then we ended up actually having [Dantzler] come off another guy because there was a crossing route and he should’ve stayed on his guy and so on and so forth. They made a great play. They threw it in there. Anthony Harris ended up picking up the guy and they made a great throw and great catch.”
The NBC broadcast picked up Smith’s instant reaction.
4. Did it seem like the Vikings blitzed Wilson every play on the last drive? After Wilson started the drive with a 17-yard scramble from his own 6-yard line, Zimmer assigned a spy or blitzed him on nearly every play of the 13-yard drive.
Overall, it looked like five blitzes that led to just one completion at the worst time for the Vikings — the 39-yard throw to Metcalf on fourth and 10. The added pressure was otherwise effective in speeding up Wilson’s progressions, and Wilson (#50) as the linebacker spy worked when it was called.
The Vikings only forced fourth and 10 on the final drive because Wilson (#50) and Kendricks (#54), who played every snap through a foot injury, teamed to pressure Russell Wilson with a twist; Wilson rushes to occupy a blocker than looks to spy, while Kendricks blitzes.
While the Vikings’ four-man rush isn’t very effective, a linebacking corps without its top blitzer in Barr was able to generate some pressure.
5. While Dantzler had some bad moments, Jeff Gladney played a relatively clean game as the slot cornerback. This is particularly noteworthy because third-year corner Mike Hughes returned from a neck injury, but didn’t get his job back as the slot defender.
It was a key job against the Seahawks’ three-receiver offense, and not just against Wilson’s arm. Seattle has a battering ram in running back Chris Carson (#32) and stopping him while spread out to cover the pass isn’t easy. The Vikings’ front had mixed results, but one stop flashed Gladney’s potential as a tough corner unafraid to play the run.
The Seahawks go four wide on this early first down, spreading out the linebackers with both safeties deep. Gladney (#20) keeps his eyes on the backfield, staying disciplined in reading the run first while receiver David Moore (#83) tries to sell the pass. Gladney lets the play come to him and stays in his gap for the tackle.
Zimmer has stuck with Gladney and Dantzler as starters in back-to-back weeks while Mike Hughes and Holton Hill were each available for one of those games. It’s development season in Minnesota, and they’re hoping for more peaks like this than the late-game valleys.