Monday, January 15, 2018

Situational work had the Vikings prepared in crunch time


In the aftermath of a miraculous win, it’s hard to put into words what happened as Stefon Diggs sprinted into the end zone and completed one of the greatest plays in franchise history. Daniel House explains why practicing situational football paid off. 

In the aftermath of a miraculous win, it’s hard to put into words what happened as Stefon Diggs sprinted into the end zone and completed one of the greatest plays in franchise history. The game was a constant ebb and flow as New Orleans went on a 24-3 scoring streak in the second half. Quarterback Drew Brees was making difficult throws all over the field, leading his team back from a 17-0 deficit.

When a team works so hard all season, the outcome can be shaped by one or two plays. This is magnified in the playoffs when the margin for error is so slim. The best coaches have their teams ready for every possible scenario thrown their way. Head coach Mike Zimmer spent the offseason preaching the importance of situational success to his players. It was something that plagued the team in past seasons. Practices in June and July featured extensive work in this area, including staged situations where the offense and defense needed to display awareness.

“End of the game situations [are] where it’s about learning how to play the game, so people understand at the end of the game this is what we’re going to do,” Zimmer said in June OTAs.

This emphasis paid off for the Vikings in their miraculous 29-24 win on Sunday night. This first situation came with just over three minutes left in the game. Minnesota needed points after a Wil Lutz field goal gave the Saints a one-point advantage. A key 24-yard connection to Adam Thielen and a 5-yard pass to Kyle Rudolph placed kicker Kai Forbath in a situation to boot a 53-yard field goal. The coaches emphasized getting to the target line throughout training camp practices and managed to choose the correct plays to give Forbath a chance to execute.

This was just the beginning.

On the next drive, New Orleans completed a 4th-and-10 pass and were quickly in field goal range with under a minute remaining. Two quick passing plays had the Saints in a 3rd-and-1 situation with 33 seconds left. Safety Andrew Sendejo went down with an injury and Anthony Harris was called upon to step up in the biggest moment of the season. The defensive players had enough awareness to understand the importance of a third down stop. A first down by the Saints would have allowed New Orleans to run the clock down and kick the game-winning field goal. However, a brilliant tackle in the box by Anthony Harris forced New Orleans to kick with 29 seconds remaining on the clock. Even with time left, Minnesota had a 2.2 percent win probability, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Of course, nobody expected the Vikings could pull off a storybook ending to advance to the NFC Championship. With 25 seconds left on the clock, a false start penalty had Minnesota in an extremely unfavorable situation. It didn’t phase quarterback Case Keenum and the offense, though. A 19-yard pass from Keenum to Diggs resulted in head coach Mike Zimmer taking his final timeout. Just like practice, the players could hear Zimmer in their head: “18 seconds left, on our own 39, we need points to win. Go.” This is what you would hear throughout practices Zimmer held all offseason. Two incompletions had the Vikings in a 3rd-and-10 situation with ten seconds left. Pat Shurmur called “Buffalo Right, Seven Heaven” to hopefully create enough yardage to get into field goal range or draw a pass interference penalty.

“Buffalo” signaled the bunch set and “seven” triggered the corner route. A defender picked up Kyle Rudolph in the flat as linebackers were playing at normal depth. Case Keenum tossed the pass deep and wide receiver Stefon Diggs made a phenomenal play. In most situations, everyone would want Diggs to get out of bounds to set up a field goal try. However, he had the awareness and sense to sprint up the sideline for a walk-off score.

Not only that, but he managed to maintain his balance to be sure time didn’t expire. Everyone on the field was relaxed under pressure because they were prepared for the moment. Practicing similar situations this offseason has paid off all season. Meetings each week for third down defense and sessions on red zone offense have elevated weaknesses that plagued the Vikings in 2016.

Sure, there are always areas to improve, including allowing a 4th-and-10 conversion, surrendering a blocked punt, and electing to punt in a 4th-and-short situation. Those are all areas the team must improve when they travel to Philadelphia to square off with an Eagles team featuring a talented front-seven. On the road, the margin for error becomes even smaller. Mike Zimmer has corrected mistakes all season and will have his team ready to play in one of the biggest games in franchise history.

The difference from past teams has been well-known – it’s coaching. Head coach Mike Zimmer will place his players in advantageous situations and can dial up schemes based upon each opponent tendency.

His focus on situational work built a foundation the team continued to bolster as the season progressed. If your players have developed the habit in practice, it can become instinct in the game.

Nobody can practice a 61-yard walk-off touchdown in the playoffs, but moments leading up to the play can be controlled. Practices throughout the season had everyone on the same page in a critical moment.

The Vikings quietly executed in three different situations and it allowed Stefon Diggs to complete the “Minneapolis Miracle,” a moment people across the world will never forget.

As Mike Zimmer said when he was hired, “I want our fans to be proud of the way we play - tough, resilient, physical football and a team that makes big plays.”

They sure made the tough, resilient and physical play on Sunday night.

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