Through the first two weeks of the season, the Vikings had blitzed opposing quarterbacks more than any team in the league, sending at least five pass rushers more than 52% of the time.
They increased that rate dramatically against the Chargers' Justin Herbert, who'd posted the lowest passing yardage total of his career against Brian Flores' defense in Miami three years ago. On Sunday, Herbert had answers for the Vikings' blitzes.
Herbert dropped back 50 times on Sunday, attempting 47 passes, taking one sack, scrambling once and swinging the ball out to Keenan Allen for the start of a double pass that went for a 49-yard Mike Williams touchdown.
On 43 of those plays (86%), the Vikings sent at least five pass rushers, according to a film review of the game. Roughly half of those blitzes involved at least six players, and the Vikings often lined up with seven or eight players along the line of scrimmage before dropping a would-be rusher into coverage once the Chargers had set their protection.
The Vikings' lone sack came off a five-man pressure, which started with eight players along the line of scrimmage and bought Danielle Hunter a free path into the backfield while three players dropped into coverage. But for much of the day, Herbert was able to do what he wanted.
He completed 34 of his 40 passes against Vikings blitzes, for 310 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings pressured him on just eight of those blitzes, as the quarterback repeatedly resorted to quick throws underneath cornerbacks playing off the line of scrimmage. Allen was the quarterback's favorite target on blitzes, catching 13 passes for 138 yards on 14 targets when the Vikings sent extra pressure after Herbert.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Herbert threw quicker than any quarterback in the league in Week 3, averaging just 2.26 seconds before releasing the ball.
"With our style of defense, they clearly came in with a plan to see if they could get pressure looks," coach Kevin O'Connell said Sunday. "They had some answers, to put the ball in play on bubble [screens] and block them up, receiver screens and one-step throws. They were not going to try to drop back in those scenarios. That's where we've got to just keep defeating blocks, getting off blocks. Hopefully, those blocks aren't happening illegally before the ball is caught, so we can try to rally and get people to the football and force them into situations where they can't just continue to call those plays.
"Danielle [Hunter] made a play getting the ball out on a critical third down. Just need to continue to get our ops, and when we get our ops to potentially [force offenses to] turn the football over, we'll start making some of those."
Veterans such as safety Harrison Smith pointed to execution over scheme on Sunday — "Calls aren't the issue; we just have to make plays," he said — and Hunter's strip sack of Herbert was the Vikings' only sack on a day when the quarterback slipped away from Josh Metellus and D.J. Wonnum.
"On a few scenarios there, we're close to having an impact on the quarterback before he's able to push the ball down the field," O'Connell said.
Hunter has all but one of the Vikings' sacks this season, and he is the only player on the roster with more than six pressures through three games. As enthused as Vikings players have seemed about Flores' scheme, they'll have to make more of their blitzes for the approach to work going forward — especially if they see teams copy what the Chargers did.
"As we put more on tape, we've got to be ready to adjust and be ready for the counterpunches," O'Connell said. "People are seeing based upon how we're building defensive plans earlier in the season. I think there's a evolution that will take place on both sides. It's always going to come down defensively to those one or two or three players that can really get you off the field and change the whole landscape of the game. I've got confidence in our guys to make those plays and [Flores] to get us in the right call."
ONE PLAYER WHO STOOD OUT
Jordan Hicks: The linebacker forced and recovered the Vikings' first fumble of the year, on a play where he was part of a blitz at the snap before peeling back into coverage and stripping the ball from Joshua Palmer in the middle of the field. He was one of two defenders to play every snap of the game (Camryn Bynum was the other), and Hicks finished with six tackles, in addition to the forced fumble and fumble recovery.