Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Inside the Film Room: Mike Zimmer's Creative Masterpiece

Photo: NFL Game Pass

During Sunday's 26-20 overtime win, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer created one of his most innovative masterpieces. Daniel House analyzed how Minnesota left New Orleans with a huge playoff victory! 

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

When artists are in the creative process, they think about tweaks that will bring new life to their work. Of course, certain skills and techniques are foundational and make the specific artist unique. However, at the end of the day, the most creative minds will add new wrinkles to perk a spectator's curiosity.

On the biggest stage, head coach Mike Zimmer created one of those innovative masterpieces. With injuries filling the Vikings' secondary, Zimmer and his staff had to prepare the team for New Orleans' high-octane passing attack.

Nickel cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander (knee) and Mike Hughes (neck - placed on injured reserve) were unavailable for Sunday's game. Zimmer made personnel adjustments and shifted safety Andrew Sendejo to nickel cornerback. Sendejo had never played the position before and missed Wednesday and Thursday's practices with an illness. Zimmer indicated many responsibilities between the two positions are similar, which eased his transition. The coaches also provided help underneath by occasionally shading linebackers inside. In the clip below, pay attention to the leverage of linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson.

Throughout the year, slants were a bread and butter play for New Orleans. By providing help underneath and mixing coverages, Zimmer kept the Saints' offense guessing. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was occasionally manned up against wide receiver Michael Thomas and had a key third-down pass breakup. Other times, Sendejo covered him out of the slot. When the Saints tried to create favorable matchups for Thomas (by moving him inside), Minnesota either had help underneath (Barr or a safety) or held up in man coverage situations. As a result, Thomas had just seven catches for 70 yards. He also averaged just two yards of separation, which was the second-lowest output among Wild Card weekend pass catchers, according to NFL Next-Gen Stats.

Zimmer was blending in two-deep and single-high coverages throughout the day. At all levels, the defense frequently shifted pre-snap alignments to disguise various looks.

Quarterback Drew Brees finished with 5.55 adjusted yards per attempt, which was his lowest mark of the season (previous AY/A low: 6.38 - Week 10 vs. Atlanta). The Vikings' pass rush was the single biggest x-factor in this game. When watching film of New Orleans' past matchups, the offensive line struggled to consistently protect inside. If the pocket was pushed, Brees was far less effective. Zimmer made another key decision that altered the landscape of this game. He deployed a NASCAR pass-rushing package, which placed Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen inside at 3-technique. The physicality and speed was a mismatch for the interior of the Saints' offensive line. Zimmer also occasionally ran a stunt out of this package to create more confusion up front.

Minnesota only used this package a few times, but it was extremely effective on pass-rushing downs. In addition to the newest NASCAR front, defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly continued to occasionally kick inside on third down. Brees often had pressure in his lap, which forced him to get rid of the ball quickly. The Vikings' defense limited big plays and it was a direct result of the pass rush.

Griffen and Hunter were consistently creating disruptions and it drastically impacted the game. With 4:18 remaining, Minnesota led 20-17 and the Saints pushed to the Vikings' 20-yard-line. After using speed and edge rushing moves the entire day, Hunter jabbed outside, drove off his back foot and got an inside run at Brees. Hunter knocked the ball loose and created a key takeaway.

This year, New Orleans had committed just eight turnovers, which was the top mark in the NFL. Minnesota managed to create two takeaways, including a pivotal interception by Anthony Harris before halftime. The Vikings appeared to be in single-high (Cover-3) and Harris made a tremendous play while covering the deep half. By the time Brees gets set to release the ball, Harris is breaking on the deep post. While falling backward, he beautifully adjusted and tracked the ball over his shoulder. The interception helped fuel a quick 7-play, 45-yard scoring drive by the offense. It brought the Vikings into halftime with a 13-10 lead. This play felt like it gave Minnesota a huge amount of confidence down the stretch.

Minnesota also maintained gap discipline and linebackers were sound against the run. Running back Alvin Kamara had just seven carries for 21 yards and a touchdown. He was held in check throughout the day because of sound tackling and interior penetration. The Vikings' linebackers had several instinctive and impactful plays. In the first clip below, the Saints used jet-motion and linebacker Eric Kendricks appeared to read the play. He reacts and gets into the backfield to spark a tackle-for-loss.

In the second clip above, linebacker Anthony Barr splits Nick Easton, who was brought in as an extra offensive lineman. Barr reacts quick and Easton fans when trying to block him. The play of Minnesota's linebackers both against the run and in coverage, helped the Vikings slow an offense filled with multiple weapons and a top-tier quarterback.

Pre-snap motion and offensive line execution

Minnesota's offense executed at a high level, especially up front. The offensive line's movement and second-level blocking created many rushing creases for running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. Guard Josh Kline and center Garrett Bradbury had several reps where they reach blocked or scraped to find linebackers. During the goal line touchdown below, pre-snap motion widened Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (No. 22) and Rudolph beautifully sealed the edge. Cook put his foot in the ground and cut back for an effortless 5-yard touchdown run. Cook's vision, acceleration, agility and physicality, allow him to extend runs in tight spaces. When the offensive line can get these type of angles and push to the next level, the ground game takes off.

Many of these favorable angles were aided by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski's pre-snap motion usage. It messed with the discipline and awareness of the defense. There were a few instances where Adam Thielen was aligned at fullback and leaked into the flat. With all of the different looks, the defense had a tendency to over pursue or lose eye discipline. By subtly moving defenders, space and favorable numbers were created on the perimeter. After charting plays, Minnesota used pre-snap motion on 19 of its 74 plays (26%).

When breaking the motion usage down even further:

10 passing plays: (8-for-10, 95 yards)
9 rushing plays: (31 yards, TD)

During passing plays, moving defenders via motion can cause confusion and will often reveal the type of coverage the defense is utilizing. By using pre-snap movements, offensive players often receive better angles for their routes. The Saints were occasionally aggressive with blitzes, so the motion helped slow them down. If the defense gets aligned incorrectly because of motion, there is a strong possibility big plays will follow. Stefanski masterfully increased his motion usage and it helped create big plays for the Vikings' offense.
We're also seeing the benefit of offensive line coach/running game coordinator Rick Dennison's experience. The Vikings have continued to vary rushing concepts within the zone-blocking scheme. There are times where these variations have been successful, including when Stefanski has called crack tosses and lead rushing plays. Crack tosses involve the tight end and wide receivers coming downhill to crack linebackers and defensive backs in the alley. During the clips I included below, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr. and Adam Thielen all executed key blocks on the perimeter.

Within this design, the playside tackle is pulling, getting in space and searching for the run support cornerback. This is a dynamite play for right tackle Brian O'Neill, who is such an excellent athlete in space. Not only that, but it creates creases for running back Dalvin Cook to utilize his above average acceleration and vision. When teams are over committing to the run, this play can be very effective. These power-style looks have been a nice change of pace and nicely complement the Vikings' wide-zone blocking concepts.
All year, Minnesota has done an excellent job of executing screens. This week, I was in awe of the athleticism displayed by center Garrett Bradbury. Late in the first half, Stefanski called a swing pass to Dalvin Cook. Bradbury got downfield and engaged with the linebacker covering Cook. He used his athleticism to get out in front of the pass and finished the play with a monstrous pancake block. Bradbury's athleticism is one of his strengths and it's helped the offense in many different areas. He's so gifted in the screen game and makes many difficult reach blocks within the zone-blocking scheme. 
Finally, the game-winning drive was perfectly executed by quarterback Kirk Cousins. The quick slant to Stefon Diggs was released quickly and on time. A few plays later, Stefanski perfectly timed the running play to Cook. The Saints were bringing backside pressure and had two deep safeties helping over the top. This meant Cook was favorably running into a light box. Cook's 11-yard gain set the stage for a deep shot. Thielen angles inside and pops off a deep corner route. On the opposite side, Diggs fakes outside and runs a post over the middle. The single-high safety bites on Diggs' route and Cousins launches a very difficult throw to Thielen. This 43-yard pass was perfectly placed and Thielen tracked the ball over his shoulder. A few plays later, Cousins identified Cover-0 pressure and got the ball out quickly. Cornerback P.J. Williams was matched up man-to-man against Kyle Rudolph. Cousins delivered the touch pass and ended the game with a walk-off 4-yard touchdown.

The Vikings were heavy underdogs, but went into the Superdome and beautifully executed their scheme. Minnesota was well-prepared and managed to slow a dynamic offensive attack. Zimmer and his coaching staff deserve tremendous praise for installing new wrinkles that put players in the best possible situations.