The Minnesota Vikings' new-look defense will take the field for the first time in 2014 against a St. Louis Rams offense with new pieces of their own. Many things remain the same though. The Rams offense is still led by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and will still feature Zac Stacy on the ground. Receivers Brian Quick, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens return with tight end Jared Cook and most of the offensive line.
The biggest difference is at starting quarterback for St. Louis. With Sam Bradford out for the year with a torn ACL, 34-year-old veteran Shaun Hill takes over. They added enigmatic receiver Kenny Britt over the offseason which may help offset the temporary loss of suspended receiver Stedman Bailey.
Minnesota should come into this Week 1 bout with three simple goals in mind to stop the Rams offensive attack. They must stop the run, match up in the secondary and pressure the quarterback. This is how they may go about accomplishing these three goals.
1. Stop the Run
With a three deep of Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham and Tre Mason, St. Louis will attempt to establish the run early in the game. How much they rely on their rushing attack remains to be seen. They finished below average in rushing attempts, rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns in 2013. Their yards per carry did take a jump up in home games last season, from 4.1 overall to 4.5.
The Rams may be more inclined to lean on their run game with the loss of Sam Bradford. Doing so would help ease Shaun Hill into the game in his first start since 2010. Stopping the run is the first step towards stifling the Rams offense and making Shaun Hill uncomfortable.
Minnesota matches up well with the Rams rushing attack with their front seven personnel. Limiting gains of 10 or more and keeping the yards per carry below that 4.5 mark should be the expectation for this run defense.
The biggest matchup of strength for Minnesota comes from the interior. Rams center Scott Wells is not a lauded run-blocker, and new signee Linval Joseph should have his way from the nose tackle position. If Joseph gives Wells trouble from the middle, the Rams guards will be delayed in getting up the field to linebackers. When Wells is left to his own devices, Joseph may be able to knife through and make plays in the backfield.
Athleticism is a feature of the Rams offensive line and they’ll utilize it, especially through offensive guards Rodger Saffold and Greg Robinson. The onus falls on the front four to win at the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to fill quickly. If Saffold and Robinson are easily leading to the second level on a regular basis, it will mean trouble for the Vikings.
The key to Minnesota stopping the run is Sharrif Floyd. From his 3-technique position, he can shoot into the backfield and disrupt plays before they ever begin. He may also see a number of double teams initially off the ball, so playing with proper technique and base strength will be important. If Floyd holds his ground against drive blocks and utilizes his quickness and hand usage to free himself from blocks, he can be a difference-maker up front. If the type of play in the following video from Floyd is happening, it’s bad news for the Vikings' run defense.
The linebackers also have a big job because of the athleticism of the Rams front and the position they’ll be put in by the Rams personnel. Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr will have an especially important job to do in run defense, but one they are capable of handling.
2. Match Up in the Secondary
Matchups are the most complicated part of the Vikings' plan for the Rams. The first and third goals are expectations with the players Minnesota has defensively. This goal is less cut and dry.
Two features of the Rams offensive personnel stand out as problematic. The first is that they have size at the receiver position. Kenny Britt is almost 6'3" and Brian Quick is close to 6'4". The other feature is the size, athleticism and versatility of Jared Cook.
Minnesota struggles to match these characteristics with ease. In a base 4-3, their cornerbacks are Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn. Rhodes can hold his own at 6'2", but Munnerlyn measures in at 5'9" on his best day. Josh Robinson may see the reps on the outside in the nickel package, but he's only 5'10".
Matching up with Jared Cook is the other issue. None of Minnesota’s linebackers are overly skilled in pass coverage and don’t possess the same athleticism as Cook does. If trying to man up, the Vikings may have issues with Cook.
The following are some of the offensive personnel packages the Rams seem partial to and how Minnesota should and probably will match up with them.
Expect St. Louis to utilize Posse/11 personnel more than any other package. This means one back, one tight end and three receivers.
St. Louis will align this personnel group in numerous ways. Hill will be under center at times with this grouping and in shotgun at times as well. Cook can be an in-line tight end or float out to the slot. Either way, the Vikings will want to be in their nickel set.
Being in the nickel allows Minnesota to match up Captain Munnerlyn with playmaking-dynamo Tavon Austin. From there they have better matchups on the outside as well. Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards will then play games with safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton to get the coverages they want. It’s possible Minnesota tries to play this grouping with their base defense on occasion, but the matchups are less optimal.
If Tavon Austin is not on the field and the Rams have two receivers out there, Minnesota will then just match up in their base defense. It’s Austin and Cook that the Vikings will have their eye on when they try to match personnel.
St. Louis may even use 10 personnel, especially if they end up chasing a lead. That means Cook comes off the field for another receiver.
Without Stedman Bailey available, St. Louis may keep Cook or Lance Kendricks on the field more often and not go to this. They still go four deep at receiver with quality though. There are a couple different ways Minnesota could try and match up with this, depending on how aggressive they wish to be with pressure.
The first is a like-for-like substitution that brings on a fourth cornerback. Who that cornerback is in this dime set remains to be seen. Jabari Price and Shaun Prater are prime candidates. If a more aggressive look is preferred, Minnesota could go back to their nickel set.
This takes the fourth cornerback off the field and puts the second linebacker back on. That could be Anthony Barr or Gerald Hodges, depending on what Zimmer and Edwards want to do with Barr as a rusher.
All of these permutations paint the picture of how complicated the matchups are because of both what St. Louis has at their skill positions and a bit of what the Vikings lack in the secondary and linebacker corps.
Finding ways to neutralize the athletic or size advantages of players like Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, Jared Cook and Tavon Austin is a great way for Minnesota to slow the Rams offense to a halt. There is a quicker way to stifle the St. Louis offense and it works in coordination with the matchups and defensive sets.
3. Bring Pressure
Pressuring the quarterback is the great equalizer for any defense. Mike Zimmer’s have shown a knack for it in the past. There are multiple ways that he manufactures pressure. It’s done through opportunistic personnel groupings, aggressive pre-snap alignments and timely blitz calls.
The base defense has the bodies to wreak havoc as is with accomplished ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, 3-technique Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Anthony Barr. The Vikings will take it a step further in sub-packages though substitutions. Zimmer and Edwards were particularly partial to the following grouping throughout the preseason.
If the substitutions come from the standard nickel package, linebacker Gerald Hodges enters the game for 3-technique Sharrif Floyd and 3-technique Tom Johnson enters for nose tackle Linval Joseph. Brian Robison kicks inside to rush from the interior and linebacker Anthony Barr walks down to rush end, normally on the right side. This puts numerous pass-rush threats on the field at the same time and allows the Vikings to create pressure without exotic or even simple blitzes.
Zimmer isn’t afraid to utilize those blitzes, though. In fact, he’s more likely to show blitz on key downs than he is to play it safe and give up space for the offense. His tendencies were no secret in Cincinnati, and they weren’t hidden in the preseason either. Zimmer wants to put numbers on the line of scrimmage and confuse the opposing offensive line and quarterback, even if he’s not bringing a big blitz.
It’s not unlike Zimmer to put six or seven rushing threats on the line of scrimmage. The key players and the constants in most blitz packages are the two linebackers in the A-gaps. In this case it’s Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr.
Having these two linebackers aligned in the A-gaps slows down the reactions of the interior offensive linemen and aids the rush even if they don’t in fact blitz. A lot of this is bluffing, but the offense has to respect the rushing threats.
The defense will of course use actual blitzes as well, utilizing some of the speed they have at linebacker. Finding multiple ways to use Anthony Barr beyond what was shown in the preseason seems likely as well.
These are all ways the Vikings will try to get after an average St. Louis offensive line and fluster Shaun Hill throughout the game. Creating pressure up front can offset the mismatches they have at the second and third levels of the defense. If Minnesota is able to stop the run and use their potent pass rush to pick up their secondary, they’ll be set up for a successful day in St. Louis.