It seemed only fitting the Vikings would seize control of the Bengals by confusing quarterback Andy Dalton with a wrinkle to the Double A Gap blitz package that Mike Zimmer concocted in Cincinnati and parlayed into his first head coaching job in Minnesota.
“Zim’s always got something going,” safety Harrison Smith said when asked about linebacker Eric Kendricks’ 31-yard pick-six early in Sunday’s 34-7 NFC North-clinching rout at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Fifty-one minutes after Kendricks’ interception, Zimmer and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, friends since the early 1980s, shook hands at midfield.
“Good luck to you,” Lewis said to Zimmer.
Moments later, Lewis was denying an ESPN report that he and the Bengals have agreed to part ways after the season. As for Zimmer, he was being asked about being 11-3 and winning his second NFC North title in four seasons since spending six years helping Lewis avoid humiliating losses like the one on Sunday.
“All Zim does is come up with things,” Newman said. “He’s a football guru genius. He’s super smart. And when you got guys like we have up front, you can do a lot of different things.”
Cincinnati’s humiliation began with six minutes left in the opening quarter when Dalton surveyed Zimmer’s defense on third-and-6 at the Bengals 23-yard line.
It was Zimmer’s vaunted Double A Gap look. But defensive tackle Tom Johnson was lined up on the nose. Kendricks was in the A gap right of center. And defensive end Brian Robison was in the A gap left of center. Linebacker Anthony Barr, who typically lines up in an A gap, was the middle backer, 6 yards deep.
At the snap, Robison and Kendricks dropped to their left and right, respectively. That left a three-man rush, seven defenders reading Dalton’s eyes in a short zone and safety Andrew Sendejo deep.
Asked if that was a tweak to his normal Double A Gap look, Zimmer said, “Yeah, I believe it was. We had a couple different looks this week.
“They know me pretty well. Their defense is very similar to our defense. Dalton has seen [it in] practice. And we practiced against them as well [last year]. … You’re always trying to come up with a couple new wrinkles here and there that can help.”
Receiver Alex Erickson ran a slant into the right side of the defense. An area that already was congested with Newman in good position. Dalton never saw Kendricks and threw the ball.
Kendricks grabbed the second pick of his career, ran down the right sideline and scored the second touchdown of his career.
“I guess he didn’t see me because I was like this,” said Kendricks, illustrating how low a 6-foot linebacker looks when he’s backpedaling into zone coverage.
That wasn’t Kendricks’ first important play.
After the Vikings took the opening kickoff and marched to a 7-0 lead, the Bengals gained 9 yards on their first play from scrimmage. They took star receiver A.J. Green out of the game to use a power formation to just get the first down.
Kendricks ruined that by slicing into the backfield and dropping running back Giovani Bernard for a 2-yard loss.
The Bengals went three-and-out. It was one of five three-and-outs and eight punts in 13 possessions. The Bengals also threw two interceptions and turned the ball over on downs twice, including once at their 38 while trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter.
“That’s the type of defense we want to play,” Robison said after the Vikings held the Bengals to 161 yards and one third-down conversion in 13 tries.
Yes, there were 51 minutes remaining when Kendricks scored. But the lead certainly seemed insurmountable for the Bengals the moment Zimmer unleashed the wrinkle on a scheme the Bengals know oh so well.
“We got a bunch of stuff that hasn’t really been put out there yet,” Robison said. “That was just one wrinkle that we were able to throw out there today.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL