Let’s start with the offensive scheme. Leslie Frazier worked under Andy Reid, who worked under Mike Holmgren (because they’re the same person).
Mike Holmgren worked under Bill Walsh (the godfather of the west coast offense), so with Frazier being in the Bill Walsh coaching tree, of course the Vikings employ the west coast offense. Here’s a description of the scheme:
Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense differs from traditional offense by emphasizing a short, horizontal passing attack to help stretch the defense out, thus opening up options for longer running plays and longer passes that can achieve greater gains. The West Coast Offense as implemented under Walsh features precisely run pass patterns by the receivers that make up about 65% to 80% of the offensive scheme. With the defense stretched out, the offense is then free to focus the remaining plays on longer throws of more than 14 yards and mid to long yard rushes.
The Vikings use a lot of heavy formations within this scheme; rather than 3 or 4 wide receivers, they prefer to use multiple tight ends and occasionally a fullback. By doing this, they have guys that are both receiving threats and capable blockers. In short, the offense is based around tons of running and some short passing. They also like to use Percy Harvin on “gadget” plays, similar to how Dexter McCluster is used by the Chiefs or how Stefan Logan is used by the Lions. They hit him with quick passes, get him to the outside on runs, let him return kicks, and run end arounds to him to try to get him in space.
On the defensive side, you can also trace Frazier’s lineage. Frazier worked under Tony Dungy, who played for Chuck Noll (godfather of the Cover 2) in the 70s. Here’s a description of the scheme.
In traditional Cover 2 schemes the free safety (FS) and strong safety (SS) have deep coverage responsibilities, each guarding half of the field…In the Tampa 2 defense, a third player (usually the middle linebacker) plays a middle zone, guarding an area closer to the line of scrimmage than the safeties but farther out from typical “underneath” pass coverages.
They must have the most boring practices ever. It’s a short passing game against a defense that forces you into short passes. It’s like fighting fire with fire but less awesome—like fighting patience with patience.
Here’s a picture of what it would typically look like.
This is what I would consider their base defense, but in reviewing their game film, they also like to blitz a lot, something not quite conducive to playing zone coverage. When they blitz, they typically do so with 1 or 2 linebackers and their 4 down linemen, while the corners play man coverage on the wide receivers. With their safeties, one drops down to cover either a slot receiver or a tight end man-to-man, while the other safety plays a single deep zone. This is called a Cover 1 (because of the 1 deep safety). Here’s a typical Cover 1 blitz.
On occasion, they’ll also sprinkle in some zone blitzes, so that just when you were getting used to thinking underneath throws were open with only one safety over the top, they show you a different look. These blitzes usually bring heavy pressure to one place on the line while dropping out all the pressure from somewhere else. Here’s a picture:
Here, you can see that the defensive end and linebacker from the left side are dropping into zone coverage while the blitz is coming heavily to the right side. If you compare it to the man blitz above, you can see that the right side of the line will still have the same issues trying to block it, but they’ll be able to still drop into zone coverage.
How to beat the defense:
To attack the cover 2, you typically make either underneath throws or deep throws down the middle when the middle linebacker doesn’t get deep enough. This is the reason that the Chargers’ top 2 WR were held to a total of 5 catches, while their top 2 running backs and their top TE combined for 20 catches (RBs also got another 24 rushes). You also typically are able to run on cover 2 teams since they only keep 7 men in the box. However, with the amount of blitzing that the Vikings do and the quality of their defensive linemen, it’s pretty disruptive to the running game (I was panicking with LeGarrette Blount on my fantasy team when the Vikings held him to 4 yards on 5 carries in the first half last week).
Against their blitzing Cover 1 scheme, from Wikipedia:
The main weakness of Cover 1 schemes is the lone deep defender that must cover a large amount of field and provide help on any deep threats. Offenses can attack Cover 1 schemes with a vertical stretch by sending two receivers on deep routes, provided that the quarterback has enough time for his receivers to get open. The deep defender must decide which receiver to help out on, leaving the other in man coverage which may be a mismatch.
A secondary weakness is inherent in its design: the use of man coverage opens up yards after catch lanes. Man coverage is attacked by offenses in various ways that try to isolate their best athletes on defenders by passing them the ball quickly before the defender can react or designing plays that clear defenders from certain areas thus opening yards after catch lanes.
So the obvious way to attack this would be to send CJ and Burleson deep. If Calvin is one-on-one with the cornerback, game over.
Against the zone blitz, you would usually try to exploit the defensive lineman that’s dropping into coverage, but usually the Vikings drop Jared Allen. In the 3 games that I’ve watched, Allen has recorded 2 interceptions and he completely flattened Antonio Gates in Week 1. Another way that zone blitzes are weak is against the run. If you drop a guy off the line of scrimmage, that side will be more susceptible against the run.
How to stop the offense:
Sure, the Vikings aren’t exactly dominant to start the year. However, the Lions will have the toughest test at RB they’ve seen yet this year (arguable with Jamaal Charles, but as you know the Lions’ secret weapon Roary destroyed his knee).
Adrian Peterson is the biggest threat on either side of the ball this week, so I’ve been reviewing game tape all week in anticipation of how the Lions would fare against AP. I started with the Vikings’ first two games of the season and saw AP roll over his opponents to the tune of 98 and 120 yards. I saw a lot of evidence that Adrian Peterson was completely unstoppable, including more rushing yards with someone hanging onto his ankle than I’ve ever seen before. When I began to share this opinion on twitter, I was met with the response that the Lions held Peterson to 31 yards on 14 carries in week 17 last year. Say WHAAAA? I had completely forgotten this fact, instead remembering the countless times I have seen AP break tackles, smash through defenders, and then find 30 yards of open space. So I went back to week 17 to begin my analysis.
Week 17: Vikings at Lions
The Vikings had Joe Webb at QB due to a Favre injury or something (I’m pretty sure Favre got more camera time anyway). Considering that Joe Webb is no longer the starting quarterback, I’ll ignore his performance to a degree and focus on the game plan and the dominant guy lined up behind him.
It was clear from the start of this game that the Lions did not respect Webb’s arm. Aside from 3rd and long, they packed the box on just about every down. For every blocker (lineman, tight end, or fullback), the Lions had at least one defender to take him on. Here’s a chart of men in the box vs Vikings blockers for each of Peterson’s runs. (Some data points overlap, which is why the trendline is skewed towards the higher points)
Basically what this graph says is that on average, the Lions kept almost one more guy in the box than the Vikings could block, no matter how many blockers they had, which sometimes even meant bringing 9 guys into the box. For a lot of plays, the Lions were essentially in a 4-4-3 or a 4-5-2. Louis Delmas was practically a linebacker in this game because he played close to the line so much.
This next graph shows the running success based on the number of blockers in on the play.
As you can see, the more blockers in front of AP, the more yards he gained. Expect to see a heavy usage of tight ends and fullbacks on Sunday.
With the Lions packing the box, the linebackers (and Delmas) would basically all drop into short zones on passing plays, while the corners played man-to-man. This should have meant that Joe Webb would be shredding the secondary with deep throws. As it turned out, the Lions lack of respect for Webb was completely correct. He was inaccurate and really the only threat he presented other than his ability to turn around and give the ball away was scrambling out of the pocket. Using this formula, the Vikings offense didn’t score a touchdown all day (Jared Allen had a pick 6 for their only touchdown).
Week 1: Vikings at Chargers
Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, sooo…Jason Hanson, let’s just kick it out of the endzone, okay? Also on that play, Harvin juked the ligaments right out of Nate Kaeding’s left knee (or something). So the Vikings were spotted a score and had to use a punter as their kicker (which caused them to go for it on 4th and 20 from the Vikings 25 at one point). Still, the Chargers won 24-17. Other than that, the Chargers typically only put 7 men in the box on most plays and Adrian Peterson responded with 98 yards rushing on just 16 carries. McNabb looked inaccurate on his intermediate and deep throws, especially when pressured, but hit most of the short throws pretty well. He also used his legs freely to scramble, to the tune of 32 rushing yards. On offense, the Chargers attacked with surgical precision, methodically exploiting the weak points of the Vikings defense with running backs and tight ends. They also used a lot of pre-snap motion on offense, possibly to try and determine if the Vikings were in man or zone, and a lot of hard counts on the last drive to draw the Vikings offsides. This game probably shouldn’t have been as close as it was.
Week 2: Buccaneers at Vikings
The Bucs came out looking like they had a young quarterback and play caller at the helm. Their tight ends and running backs combined for 10 catches, while they kept trying to force the running game and deep passes to their wide receivers, neither of which was there for the taking. Only in the 4th quarter, when the Vikings decided to stop blitzing and drop into Cover 2 almost exclusively, was Freeman able to take his time and push the ball downfield. On defense, the Bucs played some kind of Cover 2 scheme, as we saw against the Lions and were even less successful that the Chargers at having 7 men in the box, allowing Adrian Peterson to rush for 120 yards on 25 carries. McNabb looked even less accurate on his intermediate and deep throws.
McNabb shouldn’t be able to do much more than hit short throws all day long, so I expect the Lions to play the same sort of scheme they used last year to pack the box. From an article on Mlive.com:
Through two games, McNabb has only had one pass play of more than 20 yards — a designed 42-yard screen to backup running back Toby Gerhart.
If that’s the case, AP will have a rough day. Against Peterson, the only real strategy is to hope to get a hand on him and then hold on for dear life until the 2nd and 3rd guy can come in and take him down. With a lot of defenders close to the line of scrimmage, that should mean a lot of short runs for Peterson. If McNabb is able to hit some of his deep throws, this game could get interesting for the defense.
On offense, the Lions will have tons of weapons that they didn’t have available last year. Not only will they still have Burleson and Scheffler, who shredded the defense the last time out, but they’ll also have Matt Stafford (instead of Shaun Hill with a broken finger), Megatron (instead of Bryant Johnson) and Titus Young (instead of…well they’ll also have Titus Young). I expect them to beat the blitz a few times with CJ or Burleson going deep, but I also expect the running backs and tight ends to have a great game catching the football. I don’t believe Stafford will remain un-sacked throughout this game (because of both the blitzes and Jared Allen), but the short throws should keep him out of trouble for the most part. Stafford is well-versed enough in this offense to use a lot of pre-snap motion and hard counts like Rivers did in San Diego, and I believe he’ll make smart choices and shred this Vikings defense.