Minnesota Vikings’ loss isn’t as bad as it looked
Given the spate of injuries the team has suffered, I am surprised that it took this long
I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. As a cornerback, I am familiar with being blamed by media and fans for a deep pass caught on my side despite not being responsible for the deep zone. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and coaches’ game plan.
The Minnesota Vikings, the cream of the NFC North, have suffered their first loss of the season. Well, it is only their first loss if you don’t count losing their starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, their future Hall of Fame running back, Adrian Peterson, and a few offensive linemen. Honestly, given the spate of injuries that Minnesota has suffered, I am surprised that it took this long for them to get a tally in the “L” column.
So, how were the Philadelphia Eagles able to beat the last undefeated team in the NFL? The answer is in the film.
1. No safety for Sammy
Sam Bradford was sacked six times. That’s bad. You don’t need to watch the coach’s film to see that Bradford was under assault. Of course the offensive line deserves blame, but it is important to remember that the responsibility of protecting the quarterback is not the offensive line’s alone. Some of the sacks were the result of missed blocks by running backs.
Even when on first or second down, sacks are drive-killers, because it is incredibly difficult to overcome the lost yardage and loss of down. There are not great plays for second and 15 or third and 9, especially when you know your quarterback won’t have time for a 5-7-step drop. You’d better make sure you have a good punter. Sadly, many times on Sunday, the Vikings didn’t have the opportunity to send in their punter because the pressure on Bradford produced turnovers, not fourth downs. He fumbled four times, losing two of them to the defense.
But wait, it gets worse. On two occasions, the pressure on Bradford cost the Vikings points. While throwing into the end zone, Bradford, who hadn’t thrown an interception this season before Sunday, was hit. The pass fluttered into the hands of Eagles safety Rodney McCloud. Also in the first quarter, Bradford was hit in the arm while attempting to connect with Charles Johnson, who would have scored a deep touchdown. Instead the ball never made it to him.
2. Hands like feet
When Bradford wasn’t getting hit, he was releasing the ball early to the backs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. In the second half, the backs’ hands betrayed them, dropping important passes that would have kept the Vikings’ chances of winning alive.
3. First time for everything
The Vikings have won this season because of great defense and special teams. Against the Eagles, the special teams failed them. Punt returner Marcus Sherels leads the league with two touchdowns. But on Sunday he lost his first fumble of the season.
After taking a 3-0 lead, the Vikings experienced another, cruel special teams first. They gave up a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Eagles perfectly executed a kickoff return to the right side and took advantage of two mishaps in the Vikings’ kick coverage to score a touchdown. Kickoff coverage is very simple. There is a kicker in the middle of the field with five players on either side. Those players are identified by counting from the outside to the middle. The left side is L1-L5 and the right is R1-R5. I know: It’s not rocket science. The Eagles double-teamed both L2 and L4. The L5 tripped and fell when he tried to navigate the traffic created by the double-teams. Rather than keeping the returner, Josh Huff, inside, L1 lost containment and one of the Eagles backs blocked him. Huff read the block and bounced outside. The safety is normally in the L1 position, but the Vikings moved him to L3 in an attempt to confuse the Eagles’ blocking scheme. He jogged down the field slower than the rest of the team, as a safety should. Most return teams don’t block the safety, but the Eagles did. Huff was untouched until he broke the tackle of the kicker.
1. It could have been worse
The Vikings were not out of the game until late in the fourth quarter. I know there is no such thing as moral victories, but when your team turns the ball more than four times, they should be blown out. With the exception of one late drive, the Vikings defense was exceptional and the wheels never completely came off of the offense or special teams.
Bradford has had two season-ending injuries in his young NFL career. So, the fact that he was not placed on injured reserve after being sacked six times and hit more is somewhat of a victory for the Vikings, who can’t afford to lose another offensive player to injury.
2. Offensive line isn’t completely offensive
Though it doesn’t show in the stats, the Vikings were able to run the ball against seven- and eight-man boxes. The offensive line certainly wasn’t great, but they can be proud of running the ball reasonably well against a very good Eagles front.
3. Sammy sees all
The Eagles defense threw a lot at Bradford and the Vikings. When they weren’t blitzing, they were running some slightly more complicated coverages. Bradford routinely recognized the coverages and made the right decisions. Unfortunately, on many plays, the right decision was a checkdown to the backs, but on occasion he did go downfield. The best example of this was with 10:29 left in the second quarter. The Eagles were in a cover 4-cloud, which means they are playing cover 4 on the left side of the field and cover 2 on the right. It was third and 8 and the Vikings ran “All Go” from a spread formation. The primary receivers are the tight end or slot receiver up the seam. The seam should be well covered on the cover 4 side, but there is a hole between the linebacker and safety on the cover 2 side. Based on the two safeties’ pre-snap alignment, Bradford knew they were either playing Cover 4 or 4-Cloud. He should also know that, if it is 4-Cloud, the cover 2 side will most likely be on the tight end side. At the snap of the ball, he immediately looks to the right-side safety and sees that he is getting to a deep cover 2 zone and delivers a well-thrown ball to Rudolph for a first down.
4. Not what it seems
We all know that the Vikings defense is very talented, even if we are just starting to learn their names. But they are great because they can combine their talent with cunning deception. Throughout the game, the Vikings baffled Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz with unorthodox zone blitzes and coverages. My favorite play of the game was a first-quarter Xavier Rhodes interception. The result was due to the combination of talent and deception.
Before the snap, the Vikings were showing blitz with every defender at the line of scrimmage, except for one safety, in the deep middle, and the two cornerbacks split out covering the receivers. Given this look, Wentz is certainly thinking that he will have man coverage and he has enough protection to pick up the blitz. There is no way he could anticipate that the Vikings will be playing 2-man. At the snap of the ball, the middle safety sprints to his right and covers that deep half, allowing Rhodes to play more aggressively. The left cornerback sprints deep to cover the other half and the safety, who was showing blitz at the line of scrimmage, runs to the receiver and plays man-under. Those wrinkles alone are tough to handle, but the Vikings’ linebackers add another layer of complexity. The linebackers performed what is known as a “hug rush” or “blitz to coverage.” Rather than sit back and wait for the back and tight end to run routes and cover them, the linebackers ran across the line toward them. This gave the illusion of a blitz, so the back and tight end stayed in to block. Once the backers saw them block, they continued and became blitzers. Had the back and tight end released downfield, the linebackers would have covered them. But since they didn’t, Wentz was feeling the pressure and thought the dig route (deep in) should be open. He threw it and the talented Rhodes played man-under perfectly and made a beautiful diving interception.
Despite the fact that the Vikings lost and the overall ugliness of their offense, I believe that this season has a lot of promise for them, even more than the victorious Eagles.