Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
03 Jan 2013
by Andy Benoit
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There’s not a lot of mystery to this one. The analysis from our Week 17 Film Room still applies. The Packers can’t stop Adrian Peterson. Right now, no one can. Last Sunday, as expected, the Packers regularly brought safety Morgan Burnett into the box. B.J. Raji dominated right guard Brandon Fusco in the trenches. Linebacker A.J. Hawk staunchly took on blockers at the point of attack. The Packers as a whole tackled much better than they did against Peterson in Week 13. But, just like in Week 13, Peterson still got his yards.
The reason Minnesota got a win in Week 17 was, unlike in Week 13, Christian Ponder avoided mistakes and made just enough plays when needed. Though Ponder has now done this two weeks in a row, the Vikings aren’t about to put more on the young quarterback’s plate. Expect Minnesota to feed Peterson 25-plus times and protect Ponder with simple, defined reads on almost every dropback.
A great tactic for Minnesota would be to roll Ponder and give him the option to scramble. This will help neutralize Clay Matthews off the edge, not just physically but schematically, as Dom Capers likes his star to shadow mobile quarterbacks behind a three-man rush. It will be on Ponder to stay disciplined. With the Packers likely to play a lot of man coverage, running lanes will be available on the outside. However, with eight-man coverages, there will also be plenty of linebackers and safeties keeping eyes on the quarterback.
The Packers, knowing their offensive line can’t keep Minnesota's front four away from Aaron Rodgers, will frequently keep an extra tight end and a running back in as blockers. The interior line is an issue, as left guard T.J. Lang has struggled with short-area lateral movement while Evan Dietrich-Smith’s inexperience at center has shone through. But Green Bay’s biggest concern is on the edges. Jared Allen may now be Minnesota’s second most dangerous pass rusher, given the emergence of super athlete Everson Griffen. The Vikings usually play Griffen at defensive tackle in nickel. Leslie Frazier and defensive line coach Brendan Daly may want to considering flip-flopping him with Brian Robison a few times. Robison, a very capable rusher outside himself, probably doesn’t have the interior moves to thrive at defensive tackle -- especially against a formidable pass-blocker like Josh Sitton. But the Vikings must do all they can to maximize Griffen’s athletic dominance.
Even with six- and seven-man protections, Rodgers will find himself throwing under duress. That’s fine; he can still be great. The return of slot ace Randall Cobb should help the pass game. Greg Jennings was outstanding filling in at the slot last week, but Cobb is Rodgers’ go-to-guy late in the down. When Rodgers isn’t throwing quick screens and slants, he’ll likely be "sandlotting" in hopes of breaking down Minnesota’s zone coverages. Will veteran slot corner Antoine Winfield be able to play at full strength with a broken hand? If he can’t, the Vikings will have to decide whether to roll the dice with the clearly overmatched Marcus Sherels or play one of their outside corners –- Chris Cook, A.J. Jefferson, or Josh Robinson –- out of position inside.
The angle most media outlets will take for this game is "Hey look everybody! The meager third-round rookie quarterback for Seattle has actually been as good as the celebrity first-round rookie quarterback for Washington!" That’s fair –- Russell Wilson deserves the praise. But really, from a pure football standpoint, the most impressive story coming into this game is the job Jim Haslett has done with Washington’s defense. This is a defense that, after Brian Orakpo’s season-ending injury, was deprived of their only viable pass rusher. (And don’t say "Hey, what about Ryan Kerrigan?" Kerrigan is a good, versatile player. That’s it. He recorded a respectable 8.5 sacks on the season but never commanded regular double teams -– not even against right tackles.) Haslett has also had to manage a secondary that’s low on cover safeties and inconsistent wherever DeAngelo Hall lines up.
Hall’s journey in 2012 is a great illustration of how this defense has evolved. He began the year in the slot with hopes of being the next Charles Woodson. Thanks to improved tackling, he fulfilled these duties at times, but his coverage limitations inside were often too much of a problem. Around November, Haslett started playing Hall more towards centerfield as part of Washington’s base package -- which utilizes three corners and one safety. That was mostly successful. This past Sunday, Hall worked almost exclusively at his old outside corner position, where he had one of the best games of the year, holding Dez Bryant to four catches.
Sidney Rice has become Seattle’s clear cut No. 1 receiver, but unlike Bryant with the Cowboys, Seattle’s offense doesn’t hinge on the top receiver making explosive plays. Thus, there’s no telling how Washington will use Hall in this game, and there’s no telling whether Haslett will blitz as relentlessly as he did last Sunday night. The Redskins, with their litany of different personnel packages, pre-snap looks, and hybrid coverages, are very tough to predict.
Of course, the real key to beating Seattle is stopping Marshawn Lynch. Defensively, that means playing basic, fundamentally sound football and not giving up big momentum-shifting runs. Lately, the Seahawks have presented another dimension to their zone-running game for defenders to worry about: It’s the same dimension that Washington’s offense rode to an NFC East title.
The read-option is what everyone is talking about these days. It’s this year’s Wildcat, only it has a legitimate chance to actually revolutionize pro football in the long haul. The brilliance of Washington’s read-option is that it’s designed in a way that can render star edge-rushers obsolete without even being blocked. (This, by the way, is why it was unjust for left tackle Trent Williams to make the Pro Bowl ahead of Matt Kalil; Williams gets to avoid a lot of the toughest assignments.)
The Seahawks have an extremely athletic front seven. Those athletes, particularly sinewy defensive end Chris Clemons, will have to play with unnatural discipline by being thinkers first and reactors second.
In terms of raw yardage, Washington has the league’s most productive ground game. And even with Robert Griffin being hampered by a bum knee, it’s a ground game that’s getting better, as Alfred Morris is one of the few rookie workhorse running backs in history who has gotten stronger in the late season. That said, very few teams this season have been able to run the ball down Seattle’s throat for four quarters.
In all likelihood, Griffin and the Redskins will have to make some plays through the air. Their money play is the quick slant off a read-option fake. That’s a perfect play to run against a Cover-3 scheme, which Seattle loves.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The Seahawks play Cover-3 a vast majority of the time. There are two unique elements in their Cover-3 that explain why this defense is so good.
1. Corner strength. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner play with very little cushion. Often, they eschew their zone responsibilities and play outside man concepts instead. Most corners are incapable of this because it can involve toggling between inside and outside technique and press technique, but most corners aren’t as physical as Browner and Sherman.
2. Safety range. Sherman and Browner can play man concepts from zone because free safety Earl Thomas has terrific speed and horizontal range. Also, Kam Chancellor -– who, as a strong safety, is considered an "eighth man in the box" in Cover-3 –- has fantastic north/south range.
Let’s look at a play from Carolina’s Week 5 game at Seattle that shows what Seattle’s unique Cover-3 looks like, as well as how to beat it.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The key on this play was the blitz vacating the right side of the field and forcing Chancellor to follow Louis Murphy’s seam route. But even without the blitz, this design would have had a good chance of working because every defender was facing a north/south direction while Brandon LaFell was running east/west. Expect to see this type of play from the Redskins on Sunday; the Shanahans love to use crossing patterns in their route combinations.
56 comments, Last at 26 Mar 2013, 10:54pm by jam