Mike Zimmer teased some “out-of-the-box” defensive adjustments during the 2019 offseason. Zimmer lost pass-rushing stalwart Sheldon Richardson in free agency, but Vikings coaches gained a new scheme with which to unleash edge rushers.
They include linebacker Anthony Barr, who spurned the Jets’ pass-rusher money in March and signed the five-year, $67.5 million contract to stay in Minnesota.
A five-man front — deployed on first, second and third downs alike — is the Vikings’ latest defensive evolution. And from those looks, the defense forced Atlanta’s tailspin in the first quarter of Sunday’s 28-12 win.
“We did a good job getting pressure on the quarterback,” Zimmer said Monday. “They made it one-dimensional halfway through the second quarter, which is just a lot easier to lay your ears back and try to get after the quarterback.”
Defensive end Danielle Hunter led the feast, which included 10 quarterback pressures on Matt Ryan to lead all NFL edge defenders on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus.
Two defining plays began the blowout; both featured a look the Falcons could not have expected based on how the Vikings defense has played in the past.
1. Zimmer blitzed Matt Ryan on 7 of 22 (31.8%) pass plays in Sunday’s first half, a rate that would rank near the top of the league if kept throughout the season. That’s not how the Vikings and a strong four-man rush typically roll under Zimmer, who sent Barr on six of the seven first-half blitzes, including the first play of the game.
In the video below, you’ll see the defense shift from its typical 4-3 front to this 5-2 look just before the snap.
Barr (#55) stands opposite Hunter (#99). Also notice both Everson Griffen (#97) and Shamar Stephen (#93) aligned wide over left and right tackle — to occupy them, if only for a split second.
The aim is to get as many single-blocked rushers as possible, according to defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
“It gives everyone one-on-ones,” Weatherly said of the five-man front. “Everyone has to block a different guy. It’s either going to be Anthony Barr, Griff or D [Hunter] on the outside. I think one of our ends comes inside; that’s a mismatch just with athleticism. But then everyone has the ability to affect the passer, so for no one to get a double team, it really helps out a lot.”
On the game’s opening 1st-and-10 play, watch the Vikings’ front shift at the last second. The maneuver catches Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews off guard as Barr breezes past him for the sack.
A five-wide front like this, especially on first downs (the Vikings deployed this look on eight plays; five were first downs), may help defend the play-action rollouts that hurt the defense so often last season.
2. The five-man front appeared on the next series, when safety Anthony Harris intercepted Ryan.
Again, Hunter and Barr are stand-up rushers off the edges with Griffen sliding inside over the left tackle. Notice it’s another aggressive Cover-1 blitz (meaning safety Harrison Smith is the lone deep man) with man-to-man assignments underneath.
Safety Anthony Harris (#41) is assigned to Hooper (#81), but once Harris notices Hooper block, he starts to read Ryan’s eyes. They lead him to the impressive, leaping interception.
The Falcons’ call is a split zone play-action pass, which asks the tight end and running back to cross the formation and assist or outright block edge rushers.
These were terrible matchups for Atlanta. Barr and Hunter breezed past Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman, clamping onto Ryan like a vise.
With pressure in his face, Ryan throws to Julio Jones off his back foot. Pressure from Barr and Hunter is the overlooked factor on this play.
3. The Vikings manipulated this defensive look later in the first quarter on a third-and-5 play.
This version sees a lighter and pass-rush focused interior of Weatherly, Hercules Mata’afa and Hunter.
This time, Barr and Griffen stand up over the edges.
On this call, safety Harrison Smith (#22) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) are sent on a blitz up the middle. Barr drops into coverage. Jones catches a 6-yard pass to move the chains for Atlanta as the blitz leaves Barr as the only underneath defender to cover.
Griffen (#97) earned lofty praise from Zimmer after this game, describing his play as “violent,” “aggressive” and “Pro Bowl” caliber. This play, even as the Falcons convert for a first down, is a good example of Griffen’s heavy hands in a bull rush against Matthews. Griffen pushes Matthews open like a saloon door and hits Ryan while he’s throwing.
4. Nose tackle Linval Joseph looks healthy, and his low 40 snaps [51%] was likely dictated by game flow as opposed to a sign of things to come for the 30-year-old Pro Bowler.
Joseph started and played often until the Vikings, just 21 defensive plays in, already led 21-0 in the second quarter. Clear pass-rushing situations made opportunities for Weatherly [34 snaps] and Mata’afa [28 snaps]. Joseph’s health remains paramount after he played last season through upper and lower-body injuries that required offseason surgery. The Vikings have capable run stoppers in Shamar Stephen [42 snaps] and Jaleel Johnson [26 snaps], but Joseph is an all-world anchor they can’t afford to lose.
This was evident below when Joseph bodied Falcons’ Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, shed him and corralled Devonta Freeman for a short gain in the first quarter.
Freeman averaged 2.4 yards on eight carries because of plays like this by Joseph. Watch Freeman (#24) play chicken with Joseph while buying time behind Mack (#51) on this 3-yard run.
5. Our own Mark Craig broke down the Vikings’ blocked punt, which was a brand-new scheme, an overloaded inside rush, and a remarkable effort from linebacker Eric Wilson.
The Vikings entered Sunday knowing Falcons punter Matt Bosher was notoriously slow getting the ball off, so special team coordinator Marwan Maalouf installed an overloaded interior rush during the week of practices.
Three players, running back Ameer Abdullah (#31), linebacker Kentrell Brothers (#40) and linebacker Eric Wilson (#50), eventually overload the A gap to the left of the long snapper.
A key on this play was Wilson and Abdullah waiting to shift inside until just before the snap. Brothers takes out the Falcons’ backfield protector (#41) and Wilson is cleared to block the punt.
Because Wilson and Abdullah hid their plans before the snap, the Falcons’ blocker to the left of center slides left, creating a huge opening.