Friday, January 10, 2020

Film Preview: Vikings’ pass rush could be an x-factor against the 49ers

Photos and Article Videos: NFL Game Pass

On the eve of a huge NFC Divisional round showdown with the 49ers, Daniel House explains why the Vikings' pass rush could be an x-factor. 

By: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

When preparing for the 49ers, a defensive coordinator has to be ready for everything. This week, Mike Zimmer and his staff are tasked with adjusting to the wrinkles San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan will throw their way. The detail and sophistication of this offensive system pose so many challenges.

After analyzing All-22, I noticed the subtle tweaks Shanahan will make over the course of a game. For example, he might run a specific design once and modify the alignment later. Misdirection and small route adjustments may cause the play to move in a different direction. Shanahan also beautifully interchanges fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle. These small amendments can mess with an opponent’s second level discipline. I was watching the Saints-49ers game last week and quickly noticed this. Near the red zone, Kittle motions across the formation and Juszczyk is in-line. Jimmy Garoppolo uses play-action and Juszczyk leaks out to the backside. On the next play, Kittle and Juszczyk swapped positions. Juszczyk motions and Kittle pops into the flat for an effortless touchdown reception. I also recommend checking out this Athletic piece from my friend Arif Hasan. He discussed a few of these trends and highlighted where they fit within Shanahan's past offensive trends.

After seeing this film tendency, my goal was to find plays where Juszczyk and Kittle were used in a similar fashion. I quickly noticed the value of these two players within the 49ers’ offensive scheme. There are instances where Shanahan designs screens, deep over routes, wheels and leaks for Kittle. Occasionally, he’ll use the same type of play with Juszczyk. Tendencies an opponent noticed during film study may be completely modified. Sometimes, Shanahan will call a screen to Kittle, but the running back or fullback also runs a wheel route out of the backfield. As defenders start committing to Kittle, the play design is often tweaked. Whether it’s the play/backside design, a different route, alignment or personnel modification, there are so many small nuances to the system. Just when a defense believes they have figured things out, the new design will slap them across the face. You can see this in the example videos below (specifically the first clip of Kittle’s film cut).

One small lapse in communication or awareness will result in a big play for San Francisco. With the unlimited amount of ways Kittle and Juszczyk can be used, the defense is left constantly guessing. It’s so difficult because Kittle is one of the most dynamic players in the league. When a defense starts providing too much help and attention to Kittle, you’ll get exploited by Juszczyk or Deebo Samuel/Emmanuel Sanders. During my Gopher football coverage, I actually wrote about "Y-Throwback," a design Shanahan will occasionally use with Juszczyk.  

Shanahan will also split Kittle out wide and he can run smooth routes against a defensive back. When Kittle is in-line, he threatens a defense with throwbacks, leaks and other elaborate route designs. His dynamic ability after the catch opens up so many options for the entire San Francisco offense. The Vikings’ linebackers will be tasked with covering both Kittle and Juszczyk.

Zimmer may occasionally provide help over the top with a safety to keep Kittle in check. However, with the threat of Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel on the perimeter, you have to be careful when allocating coverage resources.

Based upon tendencies, the Vikings likely won’t be in the nickel package as much. San Francisco has the highest 21 personnel (1 RB, 1 FB, 2 WRs, 1 TE) frequency (22%) in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats. The 49ers utilize 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) at a 57 percent clip, which is the fifth-lowest frequency in the NFL. Due to all of the injuries within the Vikings’ secondary, it is advantageous to heavily rely upon the linebackers in this game. Eric Kendricks is one of the best coverage linebackers in the game. Not only that, but Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson are also viable in the same category. Perhaps Shanahan will dial up more creative 11 personnel packages that feature Kittle, Samuel and Sanders. However, such a strong part of San Francisco’s identity revolves around the versatility of Juszczyk and Kittle. The misdirection, play-action, alignment and assignment tweaks make this offense really difficult to defend. Every week, there are new wrinkles, so Mike Zimmer and his staff will need to adapt on the fly. The chess match between Zimmer and Shanahan will be one of the most fascinating aspects of Saturday’s game.

The X-Factor:

During this matchup, the biggest x-factor could be the Vikings’ pass rush. If Minnesota’s defensive line can push the pocket, it will limit the available time for concepts to develop downfield. In 2019, Garoppolo has been less than impressive under pressure. When teams deployed stunts, many quick throws, pressures, or sacks often followed. As I watched film, I was noticing how opposing linebackers, defensive tackles and edge rushers were all used creatively. There were several instances where teams overloaded one side of a formation, sent a blitz or stunted from the edge.

The Seahawks stunted both interior defensive tackles and got extensive pressure. Los Angeles was also creative with the alignment of its linebackers and edge rushers. Carolina made last-second pre-snap shifts that caused headaches for San Francisco’s offensive line. I expect the Vikings will design exotic fronts and blitz packages to create pressure. The NASCAR interior look with Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter could be effective again. Zimmer may also utilize a similar rotational package with Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the impact of these sub-packages with Odenigbo. Based upon trends I’ve noticed on film, similar looks could be very effective. Center Ben Garland was named the starter after Weston Richburg tore his patellar tendon in Week 14. Since that point in time, stunts and exotic packages have been even more successful.

If the defensive line can create pressure and force Garoppolo to get the ball out quick, San Francisco’s deep passing game may be slowed. The team that can grab an early takeaway will put themselves in a position to control the game. In order for the Vikings to snatch an upset, they will need to create one or two takeaways. Last week, Minnesota witnessed the value of capitalizing upon turnovers. If the pass rush can put heat on Garoppolo, it will help every layer of the Vikings’ defense.

Extra Analysis:

Last week, I wrote about how to attack single-high safety looks with play-action route designs. Many of these themes are also relevant against the 49ers. San Francisco will play even more single-high coverage, so the Yankee Concept could be very effective.

For my breakdown of the New Orleans game, click here! 

Video credit: NFL Game Pass (fair use)

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