Breaking Down the Minnesota Vikings' Woes in the Trenches
In the Minnesota Vikings' loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 1, the difference came down to one aspect in the game—the play in the trenches. All right, that's really two things when you consider the offensive line allowed too much pressure on quarterback Christian Ponder and the defensive line was unable to put much of any pressure on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
On offense, outside of the first play of the game when Adrian Peterson sprinted untouched for a 78-yard touchdown, the Lions controlled the line of scrimmage. The following really shows how the Detroit defensive line was able to penetrate and control the game.
The Vikings were in a three-wide receiver, single-back set, with Peterson seven yards deep—a common formation the team uses. The Lions countered with seven men in the box and a defensive back covering each of the receivers with a single safety playing deep (off screen).
On this play, we're going to pick on right guard Brandon Fusco. As the play developed, tight end Kyle Rudolph got a block on the Lions' defensive end, and right tackle Phil Loadholt blocked to his left, picking up the defensive tackle. With the play designed to go to the right, it makes sense that Fusco should have been pulling to his right and sealed the outside, or picked up the outside linebacker.
Center John Sullivan was beyond the line to cover the middle linebacker, and left tackle Matt Kalil was looking for the other linebacker. That left Fusco, who started to move to his right to find linebacker Travis Lewis, circled in blue.
It appears from this shot that all Fusco needed to do was get around Rudolph.
By the time Peterson got the ball, the Lions had pushed the line of scrimmage back by a yard. The penetration backed up Rudolph into Fusco, and there was no room for Peterson as the linebacker was able to come in behind the penetration of the defensive end.
Peterson was wrapped up and thrown for a three-yard loss on the play.
This was a common occurrence in the game. After Peterson's first run of 78 yards, he only gained another 15 yards on 17 carries.
The Lions didn't only shut down the Vikings' running game, they also were able to put plenty of pressure on the Vikings' passing game. A quick scan of the stats show that Ponder was only sacked twice, but he was constantly being pressured. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ponder dropped back 34 times and was under pressure on 17 of them.
Here's a look at one of the plays that resulted in a sack. Again, the problem is the penetration the Lions were able to get at the point of attack, and again we'll pick on Fusco.
The Vikings, facing a 3rd-and-8 on their first drive of the third quarter, had Ponder in the shotgun and flanked by tight end Kyle Rudolph on his left and Peterson on his right. With the Lions not blitzing on the play, both would go out on pass patterns.
The key of this play is Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He delayed his rush and circled behind the other interior lineman.
Fusco, who slid to his left, helped Sullivan on his block. This is exactly what Fairley needed, as it opened up a clear path to Ponder.
In this game, wide receiver Jerome Simpson was Ponder's favorite target. He finished with seven catches for 140 yards. On this play, he was lined up wide right, and Ponder appeared to be keying on him, while to Ponder's left, Rudolph was uncovered and wide open at the 20-yard line.
Unfortunately, without anyone getting in his way, Fairley was able to sack Ponder before he even had a chance to look to any other receivers. If Fusco had kept his head up, perhaps he would have seen Fairley, and even if he had just got a piece of him, it could have given Ponder that split second to find another receiver.
Let's take a look at how the Detroit offense was able to slow down Jared Allen and the Vikings pass rush. On this play, running back Reggie Bush was lined up in the slot with Joique Bell deep in the backfield.
With Bush coming in motion, the ball was snapped and Stafford first faked the handoff to Bell then to Bush and dropped 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Notice that both Allen and Brian Robison were wrapped up with a single blocker and that Fred Evans and Letroy Guion both followed the fake to Bush as Bell slid in behind them. There were no defenders within five yards of Stafford, giving him plenty of time and space to complete the play.
The linemen who had been "blocking" Evans and Guion were now just beyond the line of scrimmage as Stafford completed the pass to Bell.
The play gained 29 yards for the Lions. On the day, Bell and Bush combined for 10 receptions for 179 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown pass to Bush in the third quarter.
With an effective passing game, the Lions had plenty of success with the running game. They finished with 117 net rushing yards on Sunday.
On this play, the Lions spread out their offense with four receivers and Bush standing eight yards deep on the goal line.
The Vikings gambled and decided to blitz with slot corner Josh Robinson and middle linebacker Erin Henderson looking to put pressure on Stafford. Notice that the Detroit offensive line had every one of the Vikings' defensive line stood up.
Unfortunately, it was a draw to Bush as Robinson penetrated the from the left side to an empty backfield, and Bush hit a hole at the line of scrimmage.
This play only gained five yards, but it gave the Lions a little breathing room from their own end zone.
These are just four plays that show how Detroit—by controlling the line of scrimmage—was able to control the game. They out-gained the Vikings in total yards 469 to 330 and won the time-of-possession battle by more than 12 minutes—36:19 to 23:41.
The Vikings will need to find a way to win these battles in Chicago if they are to even their record in Week 2.
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