The popularization of Mike Zimmer’s double-A gap blitz within NFL circles caused the Vikings coach to veer in a different direction as offenses caught on and devised schemes to counter that defensive alignment.
“I don’t think we’ve run hardly any double-A blitzes [this season],” Zimmer noted recently.
He showed that familiar look plenty of times Sunday night, but he also unveiled a new concept: crowding three defenders — two linebackers and a safety — in that area near the center in an attempt to fool old nemesis Aaron Rodgers.
That new wrinkle, combined with the return of linebacker Anthony Barr and a relentless pass rush, stymied Rodgers in a 24-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Safety Harrison Smith, who lined up with linebackers in the A gap on occasion, gave a wry smile when asked about that alignment.
“You’ll have to ask Zim,” he said, laughing. “I’ll let him speak on it.”
Zimmer’s defense slammed the door shut after Rodgers engineered back-to-back touchdown drives spanning the first and second quarters to give Green Bay a 14-7 lead.
The pass rush cranked up and kept Rodgers on the move and out of rhythm. Part of the game plan involved moving bodies around the formation so that the defense didn’t become predictable.
“It’s fun for us,” Smith said. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. Pieces you can move around. Guys who can blitz and cover and run around. And Zim is like a mad scientist.”
The experiment worked. Rodgers had 71 yards passing in the first quarter but managed only 127 the rest of the game — and 82 of those yards came on a hurry-up final drive.
The Vikings sacked Rodgers four times, hit him five times and smothered him like a blanket in the pocket. Sheldon Richardson was a force in the interior, notching two sacks and seven tackles in perhaps his best game in a Vikings uniform.
“[Rodgers] is going to make plays so we knew had to get to him,” Richardson said. “It’s that simple. We were getting to him. We could sense [him feeling uncomfortable].”
The game appeared destined to become a shootout at the start. On Green Bay’s first scoring drive, Rodgers hit Davante Adams on a back-shoulder throw along the sideline. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes didn’t recognize it and Adams tightroped the sideline into the end zone for a 15-yard score.
Rodgers went 5-for-5 passing for 60 yards on the next drive, which ended on Aaron Jones’ 6-yard touchdown run for a 14-7 lead.
Felt like a vintage Rodgers performance brewing. The Vikings defense rose to the challenge.
The pass rush came alive, forcing hurried throws. Tom Johnson had a third-down sack. Everson Griffen got a hit on Rodgers. Richardson was everywhere. The front four dominated.
“We always smell blood in the water,” Richardson said.
Barr’s return from a hamstring injury gave Zimmer more ammunition to dig into his bag of trick. He shuffled players all over the place. Sometimes they rushed, sometimes they dropped into coverage.
“The game plan worked to perfection,” Richardson said.
A key moment came after Dan Bailey missed a 48-yard field goal in the first half, giving the Packers possession at the 38. They managed only one first down before having to punt.
The defense’s finest moment came on a fourth-down stop in Green Bay territory in the third quarter. The Packers faced a third-and-1 at their 44. Richardson stuffed a run for no gain.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy gambled and went for it on fourth down. Smith and Danielle Hunter converged to smother Jones at the line for no gain.
The Packers converted only two of 10 third-down chances and managed only 254 total yards. The Vikings’ dominance started with their pass rush.
“A lot of the [pressures] were just our guys up front, the big guys,” Smith said. “When rush and coverage can match up like that, you’ve got a pretty good shot.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org