Washington faces a very tough stretch of games coming out of the bye week. It all starts with the Minnesota Vikings, who bring one of the top defenses in football to town on Sunday. Head coach Mike Zimmer has constructed an incredibly versatile and complex defense that can be very hard to decipher for opposing offenses.
One of the trademarks of the Zimmer defense is the use of double-A-gap blitzes. A standard defense on an obvious passing down will line up with four down defensive lineman and two linebackers about five yards off the line of scrimmage. But Zimmer will spread the defensive linemen wider and put both linebackers in the A gaps either side of the center. Sometimes he’ll involve safety Harrison Smith as well, using him in place of one of the linebackers in the A gaps, or on the edge.
With so many players on the line of scrimmage, the offense has to be prepared to account for all of them, even if they don’t all blitz. This is where Zimmer is excellent at taking advantage of protection schemes. Sometimes he’ll blitz everyone, forcing extra blockers like tight ends and running backs to stay in to block. But there are plenty of times where Zimmer will only send four or five of the defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage, but it’s almost impossible to tell which ones. On this play in particular, Zimmer sends both inside linebackers and Smith, while dropping a defensive lineman into coverage.
The Panthers keep six blockers in, which should be able to account for the six rushers. But the running back steps up to the line of scrimmage, anticipating he’ll have to pick up one of the inside linebackers. But with a defensive lineman dropping into coverage, the right guard and center are able to pick up the linebackers. This leaves the safety free off the edge. Smith quickly turns the corner and brings down Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for the sack.
Smith is a key defender for the Vikings in this scheme. His versatility, both as a coverage defender and a pass rusher, allows the Vikings to draw up creative looks that will confuse a quarterback after the snap.
Here against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings show a blitz look similar to what we saw in the previous play. Two linebackers occupy the A gaps, while Smith looks set to blitz off the edge. But the Vikings are actually setting a trap for quarterback Carson Wentz. With the other safety so far on the opposite side of the field, they’re trying to give the illusion that wide receiver to the right of the formation is in pure man coverage without any safety help. But after the snap, the outside corner rotates over the top to replace Smith as a deep safety. Smith sinks and undercuts the outside receiver’s route.
As Wentz receives the snap, he appears to look to his right while stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure. But he recognizes that Smith undercuts the route and takes it away. Wentz then opts to throw to the receiver coming from the other side of the field and is intercepted, though Smith nearly tipped the ball while diving to break it up.
Occasionally, the Vikings will show this look and fall back out of it, rushing just four.
This time, they show Wentz the same blitz-heavy look, but actually bail out of it into a basic cover-three scheme with only four rushers.
Watch the reaction of the center after the snap. He works behind the left guard, expecting a blitzer to attack that gap. Instead, he’s left blocking air while the left guard struggles with a defender stunting inside to the area vacated by the center.
The Vikings profit off of creating havoc via panic and confusion. They do an excellent job disguising blitzes and hiding their true intentions. Often, they’ll move around the defenders on the line of scrimmage before the snap just to try and confuse the offense, hiding a blitz from elsewhere in the process.
Watch all of the movement from the Vikings defensive linemen and linebackers before the snap. They all switch gaps and depths from the line of scrimmage. They cause quarterback Eli Manning to walk up to the line of scrimmage and change the protection call, and then move around again. All of it is just to disguise the fact that Smith is coming on a safety blitz. After the snap, both linebackers drop into coverage and Smith blitzes.
The running back actually does a good job identifying the blitz from Smith and picking him up on that play. But it still meant the Giants couldn’t allow the back a free release into a route and it’s a good thing they didn’t because he appeared to be the only one that spotted Smith blitzing.
Zimmer and his Viking defense are very aggressive when it comes to blitzing. They’ll do it on any down and distance and aren’t particularly shy about it. They’re also perfectly happy to audible into a big blitz, when most defenses would prefer to audible out of one.
Manning and the Vikings play a game of cat-and-mouse here. Initially, the Vikings appear to show a blitz from one linebacker and Smith from the edge. Manning doesn’t like what he sees and walks up to the line of scrimmage to call an audible. He moves his tight end inside as an extra blocker on the edge while the running back also stays in and helps secure the A gap.
The Vikings defense calls an audible of its own, adding the slot corner to the blitz from the left of the offense while dropping a defensive end and linebacker into coverage. The slot corner gets around the tackle quickly and forces Manning to get rid of the ball early. He takes a deep shot to Odell Beckham Jr., but wildly overthrows him and is intercepted.
Washington are in for a real test on Sunday. On top of the almost-excessive blitzing schemes from the Vikings, Washington is without star left tackle Trent Williams while starting right tackle Morgan Moses is doubtful with an ankle injury. Not having a fully settled offensive line could lead to protection schemes being exploited by the Vikings. But Washington is coming off a bye week, giving it an extra week to prepare for the scheme. On Sunday, we’ll see if that extra preparation pays off or if the Vikings can take advantage of an inexperienced offensive line.
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