The Vikings' strong start to the season has legitimately put them in contention for a playoff spot in what many had argued was the strongest division in football. Before that can happen, though, the Vikings need to prove they can take care of the types of teams that playoff teams regularly beat.
If Charlie Johnson is right that the team "can beat anyone," then they'll need to prove it against a mercurial and explosive Washington team. Starting off with a celebrated win over New Orleans, the Redskins' hype slowly fell off the national media map.
The Redskins have found themselves around 20th on a number of power rankings. Our own Matt Miller sees fit to put Washington at 17th overall. The Vikings are a neutral-ground favorite, but look to be susceptible to the home field advantage, with the market-driven lines giving Washington the 1.5 point advantage.
However, if NFL fans learned anything from last year, it's that powerful offenses can cover up for terrible defenses.
Offensive Game Plan
There isn't much of a reason that the Vikings can't torch the Redskins secondary through the air, except that they also haven't forced the two other abysmal pass defenses they've face this year into giving up big yardage gains through the air.
Unlike those other defenses, however, the Vikings may be playing it safer by going deeper this time.
The Redskins play a lot of man coverage, but, unlike the Colts and the Lions, will play underneath instead of over the top. This is designed to generate turnovers, although the Redskins have benefited more by forcing fumbles than grabbing interceptions. The safeties have combined to grab two interceptions, while the cornerbacks have combined for only one.
These corners will play a trailing technique in order to bracket receivers with the safety (usually only one of whom will be covering the deep pass) in order to best jump the route on passes with poor ball placement. This means that shorter passes are higher risk than usual, and longer passes carry less of chance of going awry than usual.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, they do not have the speed in their secondary to cover either Jerome Simpson or Percy Harvin, so routes that send the two of them across the field should not only stress their terrible free safety (the familiar Madieu Williams), but take advantage of speed matchups.
Ponder's touch on deeper passes hasn't been bad, and should be tested against corners who have allowed a passer rating of 133.7 (Richard Crawford, their nickel), 110.7 (Josh Wilson) and 103.7 (DeAngelo Hall). The injury to Cedric Griffin may be a blessing in disguise for the Redskins, as he has allowed a passer rating of 152.1 when thrown to.
Madieu Williams is, unsurprisingly, not much better, having given up a passer rating of 122.5 when thrown to. DeJeon Gomes is the only member of their secondary to have had passable coverage, but has also not been tested against very good receivers or deep threats as the strong safety. Kyle Rudolph should win the matchup battle here in a big way.
The Vikings shouldn't need to scheme any differently to deal with the pass rush, despite the prodigious skill of second year linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. The Redskins have been feeling the loss of Brian Orakpo, and haven't been able to consistently generate pass rushing pressure. Nose tackle Barry Cofield has had surprising consistency generating interior pressure, but cannot make up for the ineffectual efforts of defensive ends Jarvis Jenkins, Kedric Golston, Stephen Bowen or linebacker Rob Jackson.
As run-stuffers, Washington is one of the more untested teams in the league, only having had to deal with 111 attempts, over 30 of which were during garbage time, clock-eating drives.
Outside of the fourth quarter, Washington has given up over 5.2 yards a carry and has a defensive run success rate of 57 percent—that is, their defense has contributed positively to their win probability 57 percent of the time against the run, good for 21st in the league.
The Redskins are weaker against the run than most pundits have speculated, and the Vikings should once again put up great numbers with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart.
What's odd is that Perry Riley has been a better run-stuffer than London Fletcher so far this year, but the offense should scheme their runs one way or the other because of it. The Vikings will likely expand their run game once again this week, but will also try to stay between the tackles. Stephen Bowen seems to be their best run defender on the line so far, but no one stands out in that regard. Nose tackle Cofield looks to be a liability if anything.
The Vikings will be able to use the run to set-up the pass, even though the Redskins linebackers bite a little less on play action than most of the linebackers in the league. The Redskins' passing game is weak enough that the Vikings should open up their playbook, then punish the Redskins defense when they go to a nickel package by running up the gut.
Defensive Game Plan
The general consensus seems to be that if the Vikings defense can significantly impede the Washington offense, that the deliberate and steady Vikings offense can finish up the game. The Vikings will need to change their general defensive philosophy in order to best contain the Redskins, but not by much.
Much has been written about the Redskins' offense, including by the inestimable Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland, Dan Graziano of ESPN and the SBNation partner blog Hogs Haven. Each of the articles contain some fascinating information and they all do a better job than I can do, so I won't rehash every detail.
There are, however, a number of things that do stand out. The first is that the Washington offense relies on the concept of "packaged plays," where each play-call includes passing concepts and a run play. The quarterback makes a decision about how the play will progress at the mesh point of the handoff on the run, but doesn't transmit the information to anyone else.
The receiver will run his route regardless, and the line will engage in inside zone blocking to create lanes. They don't know if the running back is coming, or if it's a pass, so they will endeavor to take out offensive linemen without marching too far downfield, usually by crashing down or doubling.
The read could be as simple as reading one player—the Will linebacker for example—or reading the defense overall. If Griffin finds that his receivers are uncovered with space (or that a safety has rotated too far into the box), he may pull up from the handoff and target them immediately for cheap yardage. This is effective against man coverage, but they have plays set up for zone coverage as well.
The offensive line could create a lane for the running back in the designated gap for a linebacker. If, at the mesh, the linebacker crashes forward to stop the run, Griffin pulls up and targets a receiver entering the linebacker's zone. If the linebacker stays in coverage, the running back gets the ball and grabs a good amount of yardage before the running back makes contact with a defender.
More recently, they've introduced a "triple option" that does not operate like a true triple option, but an option with an additional "pitch key."
Urban Meyer's triple option at Florida included two running backs rushing on either side of the quarterback, who reads the defenders and pitches either right or left. The more conventional version ran by Washington involves two decisions instead of one. The first is at the mesh point right after the snap, where Griffin reads an unblocked backside end, just like most option plays. If the end decides to attack the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball. If the end attacks the quarterback, the running back takes the handoff.
Here, under the condition that Griffin keeps the ball because of his read, he has a "pitch man" running alongside him as he runs outside to turn the corner. If confronted by a defender—referred to as the pitch key—Griffin can pitch it to his pitch man if the defender commits to attacking Griffin.
There are a lot of nuances to these plays, but the fundamentals are there. Receivers don't block, they run routes. Linemen always run block, but laterally (which fits some zone blocking schemes well, but not others) in case they violate rules about ineligible downfield receivers. Many of the weaknesses involved in the initial package design can—and have—been schemed out. The addition of the pitch (called a speed option) to the run package's initial option (called the read option) can make up for the fact that a receiver won't block, for example.
So, how do the Vikings respond?
The play package concepts work well against defenses that play man coverage, particularly off-man coverage, but could find problems against some zone systems (despite the offense having zone specific calls, as mentioned above). Minnesota can employ their normal zone system, with variable Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3 and quarters coverage as they see fit.
But as an added wrinkle, they can borrow from the "scrape exchange" evolution in option defense. Generally, the scrape exchange refers to a linebacker moving in to cover the unblocked backside end, while the backside end charges for the running back. The quarterback's read on the end will run them right into the linebacker that occupied the defensive end's old space.
The Vikings can't deploy this tool without changing it, however, particularly because they won't know which player is going to be read on a particular play—every member of the front seven could be targeted. Instead, the Vikings can rotate coverage assignments like they did against Jacksonville to confuse reads while still maintaining gap discipline.
These rotated zones were usually run on blitzes, but were also occasionally run without any additional men rushing the passer. These relatively confusing calls can slow down the rookie quarterback, particularly because the QB has spent much more time reading individual players than the field.
With that, the Vikings' linebackers may want to slow down their run blitzes, too. In a number of situations, Greenway and Brinkley have shot through their run gaps at the snap in order to grab a tackle for loss, a strategy that has been effective. On Sunday, this sort of aggressiveness may end up hurting more than helping.
Alfred Morris is having a big year, but reducing the cutback lanes by maintaining gap control and discipline should limit him significantly.
The Redskins are almost as reliant on yards after the catch as the Vikings, so maintaining intermediate zones with an emphasis on gang tackling—just like every other game—should severely restrict their passing ability. RGIII and Ponder have nearly the same "air yards," and Griffin benefits a little more from YAC than Ponder. Believe it or not, Ponder has one more deep attempt than Griffin.
If the Vikings play a single-high safety, with a robber set to spy Griffin's eyes, the Redskins passing game should suffer in a big way.
The Redskins are home favorites to the betting market and only slight underdogs to some of the statistical predictors on the market, including Brian Burke's efficiency metrics, Accuscore's game predictor (which gives Minnesota the best chance, at 55 percent) and TeamRankings' Recent Games predictor.
The game is likely to be close, and the Vikings will need a solid gameplan in order to pull away. The Redskins may not have a stellar record, but they know how to stay in games.