Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has made for himself a long, prosperous career as a defensive mind due in large part to his creative blitz schemes. Zimmer hand-picked the Vikings defensive personnel to fit into his style of pass-rush chaos, hence the reason fans so often see Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks in the faces of opposing quarterbacks.
Barr and Kendricks especially are ideal components to Zimmer’s system. His most-used brand of blitz is the double-A-gap look, which means two non-lineman players, typically the linebackers, line up in the gaps between the center and the two guards. Having linebackers like Barr and Kendricks who could moonlight as pass-rush 3-4 linebackers forces opponents to always be accounting for the pressure to cave the interior line.
Offensive coordinators concern for this blitz has been a big reason for the Vikings run to 9-2 this year. It limits what teams do offensively as they are forced to make quicker throws with fewer progressions. It prevents running draw plays on third-down passing scenarios. And it has given Everson Griffen more space to operate on the outside as he makes a run at the Defensive Player of the Year award.
All that having been said, there was one play in particular that stuck out to me from last Thursday’s win over the Detroit Lions. The Vikings were up 13-0 and had absolutely dominated the opening quarter. But early in the second, Detroit put forth a drive and had second-and-10 on the Minnesota 14. The Vikings brought the double-A-gap look as they frequently do against shotgun, this time with a late show and with Smith and Kendricks coming through the middle. Barr came off the edge on Matthew Stafford’s face side. Here is what happened next:
Look at all that space. A better throw and that is the most walk-in of walk-in touchdowns. Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had Zimmer’s scheme pegged on that play and it should have resulted in a game-swinging touchdown. As it happened, however, the Lions settled for a field goal.
This play got me wondering: Have some coordinators figured out, at least in part, how to counter Zimmer’s blitzes?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is not at all and I was foolish for thinking otherwise.
There were 12 plays where the Vikings at least showed a dual-linebacker blitz and they brought a blitz on nine of those. Of those 12 plays, 11 were passes with one swing pass that was effectively a run, a run that Barr blew up. On those 11 pass plays, Stafford completed six passes for 56 yards and one interception. That is a passer rating of just 30.9. Even if he had completed the aforementioned screen pass, that would only bump his rating to 74.1.
Minnesota did not sack Stafford on any of these blitzes but they did record either a pressure or a run stop on six of the 12 plays. Plus, Zimmer ramped up the blitz calls after Stafford tweaked his knee on a long touchdown early in the fourth. After that play, they allowed just five yards passing on five snaps with double linebacker blitz looks.
What this shows is, like with any blitz-heavy scheme, there are going to be plays that slip through the cracks. But with the right personnel and the creativity to alter blitz looks, Zimmer forces opponents to account for everything. The Lions did not run one more effective screen over a blitz after that near-miss in the second quarter. It is not as if the Vikigns stopped bringing blitzes. In fact, they brought more. But they dropped Barr out of the A-gap and blitzed Mackensie Alexander instead. Or they dropped both linebackers into coverage. When opponents see linebackers staring down their guards, they cannot just prepare for them to charge through those gaps.
That is what makes this scheme so successful: The versatility. There is versatility in the pass rush and versatility in the coverage. And it works because of the versatility of the players.