D-line rotation scuttled in tight game

The Vikings coaching staff wanted to rotate their defensive linemen more this year, but in a tightly contested opener it turned out to be a nice theory that turned impractical in the heat of a game. See what the snap counts and each of the starting defensive linemen had to say about the rotation that never really unfolded.

Defensive coordinator Alan Williams let it be known during the offseason that the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff would like have a hockey mentality when it came to rotating defensive linemen.

If the first game of the season was any indication, at the very least the defensive ends don't need to worry about losing too much playing time. The difference from last year's totals to the opening game this year was miniscule.

Although Jared Allen and Brian Robison were held out held out here and there Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Allen was only off the field for six of the defense's 81 plays and Robison was resting on only seven of the plays.

"There were some series where I didn't start out, but I played the majority of the game. Obviously we want to be out there the whole time. It wasn't too absurd, so whatever," Allen said Sunday.

If ever there was going to be a good excuse to rest the defensive linemen, it would have been during Jacksonville's first series, when the Jaguars used 17 plays (and two penalties on the defensive linemen) to drive 77 yards en route to the first points of the game. Instead, Allen and Robison stayed in the whole drive, but it must have had an effect on them.

"To be totally honest with you, after opening the game with a (17-play) drive, it's hard to feel fresh in the fourth quarter," Robison said. "Me, personally, I felt awesome in the fourth quarter, but that's because we've got good depth like Everson (Griffen) and D'Aundre (Reed) that can help us out and hopefully they can keep doing that throughout the season."

Indeed, the Vikings did use Griffen quite a bit, but he rotated outside and inside. He was inserted for Robison to start Jacksonville's second drive, but when it got to third down both Robison and Kevin Williams came back in the game to join Allen and Griffen to get their best pass rushers on the field.

As it turned out, the Vikings' defensive line wasn't credited with any sacks. Allen had one on the first drive that was negated by him jumping offside, and Letroy Guion just missed a sack late in the game that cornerback Chris Cook ended up getting when QB Blaine Gabbert tried to step away from Guion and found Cook waiting for him.

Sunday's season opener might have been the perfect opportunity to rotate linemen liberally with the 81 plays the defense was on the field, but it didn't happen too often for Allen and Robison.

"I know we had (81) plays in the game. And so it didn't feel like I came out at all. But we got to do that. We have to be able to be fresh in the fourth quarter," Robison said. "And if that means bringing us out on first and second every other couple series or whatever and then bringing us in on third down to put pressure on the quarterback, we've got to do what we've got to do to win. The competitor in you doesn't want to come off the field at all. But at the same time, you've got to trust your coaches that they're going to do the right thing."

So what about taking Robison off the field on third-and-long situations when rushing the quarterback is at a premium?

"That's not happening," Robison said quickly and emphatically. "They're going to get one of those waves to the sideline like, ‘Nah, you can stay over there.'"

Sunday's game might also have been a testament to the coach's best offseason plans getting quickly scuttled in the heat of the game.

Alan Williams wasn't the only one talking about the defensive line rotation in training camp. The theory was wholeheartedly endorsed by head coach Leslie Frazier.

"We do feel like we have good depth on the defensive line. Being able to rotate those guys and keep them fresh, in particular Jared and Brian Robison, that's a big deal," Frazier said last month. "Kevin, now he's getting a little bit older. We need to be able to rotate him, not have him to play 80 to 90 percent of the downs."

As it turned out, Williams played 79 percent of the snaps, Allen's play percentage decreased only 1 percent from his 2011 stats and Robison's increased 9 percent in the opener compared to last season as a whole.

In theory, resting here or there might sound good, but Allen knows he isn't going to come off the field much.

"I don't know who thinks if you rest two plays in a game you're going to all of the sudden get your wind back. Where you prepare for Sunday is during the week," he said. "If they're going to expend you during the week, that's where you gain your legs. Come Sunday, that's what we get paid to do. That's what we're trying so hard for, so what's the difference if you're out six plays or four plays? That's not going to make you fresher during the fourth quarter. That kind of stuff, that's just excuses."

Although Griffen played 41 percent of the snaps, more than half of those came at defensive tackle. Kevin Williams still played the majority of the game (79 percent), but the fourth starter, Guion, was in on only 53 percent of the defensive plays, prompting him to be a little more energetic in the post-game locker room.

"I think it was great. I'm not even tired right now. I feel good. It was a great rotation," he said. "I was fresh the whole game."

While it may have worked for Guion, he easily played the least of the four starting defensive linemen. For the rest of them – Williams, Robison and Allen – it ended up a nice offseason plan that turned out to be less practical to implement in a close game.

"I think once the game gets going, those things kind of get lost with how the game is going," Kevin Williams said. "They love to try to rotate us, but the game and the flow gets to moving and the next thing you know we have a 19-play drive like the first time."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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If ever there was going to be a good excuse to rest the defensive linemen, it would have been during Jacksonville's first series, when the Jaguars used 17 plays (and two penalties on the defensive linemen) to drive 77 yards en route to the first points of the game. Instead, Allen and Robison stayed in the whole drive, but it must have had an effect on them. \"To be totally honest with you, after opening the game with a (17-play) drive, it's hard to feel fresh in the fourth quarter,\" Robison said. \"Me, personally, I felt awesome in the fourth quarter, but that's because we've got good depth like Everson (Griffen) and D'Aundre (Reed) that can help us out and hopefully they can keep doing that throughout the season.\" Indeed, the Vikings did use Griffen quite a bit, but he rotated outside and inside. 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