Philip Rivers, the fiery, trash-talking San Diego Chargers quarterback, was speechless for once.
Rivers wobbled his way to the line of scrimmage and tried to call another play. But the crushing hit by blitzing linebacker Anthony Barr, the one that sent Rivers flying back 15 feet, had knocked the wind out of him. With Rivers unable to get his breath or his bearings, the Chargers were forced to call a timeout and the quarterback dropped to a knee.
For the second consecutive week, the Vikings made playing the quarterback position painful for the poor soul who dared to take a snap from his center. And hits like Barr’s took their toll.
The Vikings sacked Rivers four times and were credited with a dozen hits on the quarterback during Sunday’s 31-14 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. They forced him to cough up a fumble and, eight plays after Barr’s big hit, flustered him into throwing a fourth-quarter interception that linebacker Chad Greenway returned 91 yards for for a touchdown.
“Obviously [the pressure] affected him,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “That is why quarterbacks wear the red jerseys during practice.”
The Vikings followed the same script as they did against the Detroit Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had to get his ribs and chest X-rayed last weekend after the Vikings similarly battered him in their 26-16 victory. They got a two-score lead, discouraged the Chargers from running the ball then, teed off on their quarterback.
“I felt like today was important that we went after this quarterback,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I did not want him to sit in there and throw the football.”
Against a Chargers team that likes to spread defenses out with four or five receivers along the line of scrimmage, the Vikings dug deep into the blitz portion of Zimmer’s playbook, specifically the creative double-A-gap pressures that garner him a great deal of respect in coaching circles.
In that look, the Vikings walk both of their nickel linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and stand one in each of the gaps between the center and guards, which are known as the A gaps. With seven or eight Vikings threatening to blitz, the Chargers had to account for all of them.
Sometimes the Vikings brought the house. Other times they only rushed a few players, the rest dropping into coverage. The Chargers, who lost a trio of offensive linemen that included center Chris Watt, had no answers, often blocking air while Vikings defenders rendezvoused at Rivers’ rib cage.
“[Those blitzes were] very helpful in this game to create pressure on Rivers,” Barr said. “They got confused a couple times. A lot of free runners on the quarterback, and any time you do that, the quarterback starts to feel that and get a little antsy back there.”
At least three sacks and several of the hits on Rivers came when the Vikings crowded the A gaps with Barr and fellow nickel linebacker Eric Kendricks. And “we have quite a few blitzes left in the package if we need them,” Zimmer assured.
Rivers finally found shelter when the Chargers, having seen their $84 million man get hammered enough, yanked him midway through the fourth quarter, down 31-7. He finished the game with 246 passing yards and one touchdown.
The Vikings’ first score, a first-quarter Blair Walsh field goal, was set up by a strip-sack by Barr. They expanded their lead to 10-0 when running back Adrian Peterson scored his first touchdown in 22 months.
The Chargers cut into the lead with a touchdown before the half, but a vintage touchdown run by Peterson gave the Vikings the cushion they needed. Peterson broke three tackles, including one in the backfield, before reversing field from right to left for a 43-yard touchdown.
Peterson finished with 126 yards on the ground, reaching triple digits for the second consecutive week.
“I thought this week in practice was the first time [he] looked like the Adrian that I remembered,” Greenway said.
Greenway, too, delivered a throwback play in the win. With the Chargers in the red zone early in the fourth quarter and threatening to get back into the game, Rivers’ pass deflected off wide receiver Stevie Johnson right to Greenway. The veteran intercepted it and headed down the right sideline, where a convoy of Vikings defenders led him to the end zone for his first touchdown since 2007.
Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was picked off once and threw for just 121 yards in a pedestrian passing performance. But with the way the Vikings made Sunday afternoon miserable for his counterpart, it didn’t matter.
“[Rivers] is an unbelievable quarterback,” Barr said. “So we knew we had to do anything possible to slow him down if we wanted to win the game.”
Matt Vensel firstname.lastname@example.org