Linebacker Eric Kendricks spied Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray just before halftime of Sunday's loss in Arizona. It was one of the few times Kendricks was given that responsibility, as coach Mike Zimmer's varied game plan had Kendricks, linebacker Nick Vigil, and defensive end D.J. Wonnum assigned to mirror the mobile Murray.
The back-breaking part: it worked on the 77-yard touchdown to Cardinals receiver Rondale Moore.
During the play, Kendricks' rush-and-wait approach occupied Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries. This created an open lane for defensive end Stephen Weatherly, and a "disappointing" outcome, Zimmer said, when Murray spun away from Weatherly and threw a deep ball on the run to the wide-open Moore for a quick score.
"We need to make sure we keep him back inside where we need to," Zimmer said Monday. "He's a hard guy to sack. He scrambled ... on the first touchdown to Hopkins. So, we knew that there's a possibility he was going to get out a few times. He's just quick and fast, and he sees things. We'll continue to try to work at doing a better job there."
Murray often busted the Vikings' containment plans for him, giving Zimmer and his coaching staff plenty to digest ahead of this Sunday's similar challenge in Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
1. The Vikings did a decent job of "clouding" the escape lanes for Murray, deploying a variety of tactics with their four-man pass rush. There are six gaps to worry about when facing a standard five-man offensive line protection. Defensive linemen have to patiently rush this kind of quarterback, worrying about all the gaps. Only when an additional defender was designated a spy could Danielle Hunter really go full throttle, which we'll illustrate in a moment.
That patience was evident on the 15-yard touchdown throw to DeAndre Hopkins.
On this third-and-10 play, the Vikings have a standard four-man rush. But it's a wide rush as Kendricks and Vigil back off the line and into midfield coverage, keeping their eyes on Murray. The D-line can't let Murray escape to his left or right; the backers have the middle.
Hunter (#99) and Wonnum (#98) take wide paths, rushing the outside shoulder of the Cardinals right guard and right tackle.
But when Hunter (#99) and Wonnum (#98) reach Murray's depth in the backfield, the Cardinals quarterback looks to escape to his right. Hunter and Wonnum throttle down, changing gaps to the inside shoulders of the guard and tackle.
"When [Murray] does scramble and run around — if he doesn't [stay] inside, if he's outside the tackle box — he's looking to throw the ball," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "So our main focus was trying to keep those rush lanes cloudy for him."
This is where Murray's ridiculous athleticism and his rapport with Hopkins shined.
Murray reverses field. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly appears too deep in his rush, leaving a wide open lane to Murray's left. Hopkins (#10) sees Murray scrambling, and cuts off his dig route to mirror Murray. That split-second reaction leaves Patrick Peterson trailing on Hopkins' touchdown catch.
2. At least one Zimmer play call can be blamed, as Murray's 12-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw was the perfect counter when Zimmer opted to leave a four-man rush to handle Murray alone.
In addition to not assigning a spy on this play, the Vikings deployed a soft, off coverage as they tried to keep everything in front of them by the goal line. The linebackers execute a man-to-man coverage technique, turning away from the quarterback in pursuit of their receivers. They would do this a lot less after halftime, instead running zone technique where their eyes were often on the quarterback (like when Vigil had the pick-six).
Because Kendricks (bottom circle) is turned away, he can't see the Cardinals offensive lineman barreling downfield — a dead giveaway for the QB draw.
When Weatherly speed rushes the right tackle, Murray cuts underneath him into daylight. The linebackers have no chance of pursuit with the coverage and technique they're playing.
Safety Harrison Smith, standing at the goal line, is the Vikings' only chance to stop Murray.
"They had a good play called," Vigil said after the game. "They had a QB draw on for the coverage that we were in. Just in that situation, there's not much you can do."
3. Spying Murray offered a mixed bag of results, as that plan removes a defender from coverage against a Cardinals offense that goes five-wide like this second down below.
Vigil (#59) is assigned to spy Murray, an approach that puts more responsibility on the pass rushers to get home, since there's one fewer man in coverage.
The play call is why Hunter was able to unleash with a quick, outside pass rush that landed his first of three sacks in the game.
Since Hunter, or any of the outside rushers, don't have to man two gaps, they're able to apply quicker pressure while Vigil (#59) waits underneath and mirrors Murray.
4. Zimmer described the Cardinals offense as 'Helter Skelter,' with a whirlwind of personnel changes — even during no-huddle situations — and pre-snap motions and misdirections that can bait aggressive defenses.
It's why the Vikings defensive line had to take patient approaches to Murray, including this second down below. With a four-man rush and no spy, the edge defenders — Hunter and Weatherly — first play the run and take chips from the tight end and running back. Defensive tackles Michael Pierce (#58) and Sheldon Richardson (#90) have to cover both gaps on either sides of the guards.
Once Hunter and Weatherly identify its a pass, they vary their pass rushes. Hunter fakes an inside twist with Richardson, trying to get the outside edge. Weatherly, isolated on the left tackle, swipes Humphries' hands and gets free.
Weatherly actually gets a hand on Murray during the interception by safety Xavier Woods.
5. Before the ridiculous fourth-down conversion, when Murray backed up and tossed a dime for 35 yards to Christian Kirk, the Vikings again schemed a free runner at him.
A simple twist by Hunter (#99) and Weatherly (#91) works perfectly when Hunter barrels in between the right guard and right tackle. When the right tackle stays with Hunter, Weatherly is free to loop around to the outside.
Hunter gets such an interior push, Murray is forced to his right where Weatherly awaits. Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds practically avoids Weatherly, who forces Murray to throw this one away.