Safety Anthony Harris had at least one eye on Titans running back Derrick Henry when receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine sprinted past him for what could’ve been another huge play for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But safety Harrison Smith made a bigger play.
“An unbelievable interception,” head coach Mike Zimmer said moments after the 31-30 loss. “But the front-side safety should’ve been there.”
Smith, the All-Pro in the dynamic safety duo, still was not immune to mistakes for a Vikings secondary continually torn between stopping Henry or scrambling to find which routes to cover off deep play-action throws. The defense’s big-play problem persisted as the safeties have carried a heavier load in run support for a weakened defensive front. The Vikings rank 31st allowing eight yards per throw through three games.
“We gave up three catches for 143 yards,” Zimmer said. “That’s kind of been the Achilles heel the last three weeks.”
1. Play-action passes thrashed the Vikings secondary from tight end Jonnu Smith streaking down the middle of the field to receiver Corey Davis’ 38-yard catch and run that sparked the Titans’ comeback while the Vikings led 24-12 in the third quarter. Tannehill averaged — averaged — 17.2 yards per throw after faking a handoff, compared to just 3.5 yards per throw when the Vikings got him into obvious passing situations, according to Pro Football Focus.
Vikings defenders were eager to bite on the Titans’ rushing attack, “but that’s the name of the game” against them, said linebacker Eric Kendricks. Even when Zimmer called a two-deep safety coverage, like on this first-and-10 play in the second quarter, they were positioned to get beat with a deep throw.
Harris (#41) said defenders put themselves in a “tight situation,” with both deep safeties aligning just 10 yards off the ball. The Titans give off many run signals here — receivers close to the formation, tight end Jonnu Smith (#81) in a similar motion out of I-formation as a 3-yard run earlier in the game. So Harris is caught in the middle, watching the run fake and an underneath crossing route while Westbrook-Ikhine (#15) runs past him.
“We had a two-high look. They’re a good run team, gave good run play-action,” Harris said. “Just taking a look at it and going with the flow of the game on some things that they were doing. Guys are just trying to play, put themselves in a position to limit them from gaining as much yards as possible, so we put ourselves in a tight situation.”
Smith saved the possible touchdown catch with a leaping interception, his first of the year.
2. Another first-and-10 play in the third quarter led to a Titans receiver running past a Vikings safety after a fake handoff.
Kalif Raymond’s 61-yard catch — the biggest pass play completed against the Vikings defense since Sept. 27, 2018 — appeared to be a case of beating rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney (#20) with a double move going deep. But Gladney should’ve had safety help over the top, according to Zimmer.
Before the snap, Smith (#22) seems to toy with the look the Vikings are giving by aligning in the box before dropping into his deep assignment. Whatever coverage the Vikings are playing (maybe quarters?), Smith loses Raymond (#14) behind him while appearing to watch the deep over route from the other side.
“We had two safeties bite,” Zimmer said of the 61-yard pass. “These guys have to got to do what they’re supposed to do, too.”
3. The Vikings’ pressure problems continued against the Titans offensive line, and Minnesota didn’t get sack Tannehill until beating backup left tackle Ty Sambrailo, who replaced the injured Taylor Lewan at the end of the first quarter.
But the “catch-22,” which is how Zimmer described scheming up defensive plays for a unit with new players, is within making calls that can stop the opponent but also not exposing yourself elsewhere.
So on this third-and-13 play below, the Vikings should be able — and have been for a long time — to rely on a four-man rush. It’s an empty backfield. It’s an obvious pass. The Vikings’ desired pass-rushing line for the moment is Yannick Ngakoue (#91), Ifeadi Odenigbo (#95), Jalyn Holmes (#90) and rookie D.J. Wonnum (#98).
Once again, Saffold (#76), the Titans left guard, reacts seamlessly to the twist run by Ngakoue (#91) and Odenigbo (#95) to prevent any pressure on Tannehill. The Titans quarterback has all afternoon to wait for the opening and complete this pass to Adam Humphries. Each rusher is stymied, including Odenigbo vs. the fill-in Sambrailo.
4. The Vikings had a chance to sign Titans left guard Rodger Saffold during 2019 free agency, but the front office took the budget option in taking Tennessee’s castoff in Josh Kline. That decision by general manager Rick Spielman stood out during Sunday’s loss, when the Titans better controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Some of Henry’s big gains came behind Saffold (#76), who helped spring the running back for this 12-yard run in the third quarter.
This is the kind of outside zone play the Vikings like to run with Dalvin Cook, and the 32-year-old Saffold could’ve fit well into Minnesota’s offensive line. Saffold has dealt with knee injuries throughout his career, and signed for $11 million per season in Tennessee, but it pays off when Henry sets up Saffold’s block on Kendricks (#54) like this.
5. Holton Hill was beaten on a double move for a 44-yard completion on Tannehill’s first pass, but the uneven Vikings cornerback nearly sealed the win when breaking onto this first-down throw just before the Titans’ game-winning field goal.
Biting on early moves has gotten Hill into hot water before, though it worked against this out route by receiver Corey Davis (#84). The Titans had three timeouts left and two minutes in the game, but the Vikings could’ve sealed a 30-28 win if Hill held onto the pick.