When the Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer as their new head coach, one of the calling cards he brought with him is an aggressive defense that is known for creating pressure on the quarterback and creating turnovers off of that pressure.
Inheriting a team of players that he didn’t draft, it was understandable that it would take some time for the players to dial in to his philosophy and become the kind of defense built in Zimmer’s image and philosophy.
Early on in the season, it was clear that the Vikings had their growing pains in the system. Players would get out of position. Their aggression led to some early-season penalties and the sacks weren’t coming as quickly as hoped. Through the first five games, the Vikings defense had just 10 sacks.
But all that has changed over the last month. In the last four games, the Vikings have amassed 20 sacks and have moved near the top of the league in that category. Everson Griffen leads the hit parade with nine sacks and he believes that it took a while for the light to come on, but once it did the entire defensive line rotation has been working on the same page.
“We’ve been working together as a whole on the defensive line,” Griffen said. “The best pass-rushing teams in the league, they work together. They feel where each other is and we know how to work off each other and play off each other. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been listening to our coaches, keeping our rush plan and just going out there and using what we do at practice and apply it to the field (during games).”
The sacks have been coming much more frequently and on a handful of instances have come on back-to-back plays or multiple times in the same series. Brian Robison has seen how the line has transformed itself by making sure to stick to their own responsibility on each given play and, with the pass-rushing of rookie linebacker Anthony Barr mixed in, the team has consistently been flushing quarterbacks off their spot.
Getting a quarterback uncomfortable is a hallmark of any good defense. When he has to wonder where the pressure is coming from, sacks can come from anywhere, as well as poorly thrown, rushed passes.
“All four of us are rushing together really well,” Robison said. “I think when we add Barr in the mix as that fifth guy – he’s learned to rush off us a little bit – it’s one of those deals where we’ve really been able to get around the quarterback’s feet. All we have to do is keep working off each other the way we have and everything will work out.”
The improvement of the pass rush has gone hand in hand with the improvement of the secondary. The team is creating more turnover opportunities and the two aren’t mutually exclusive. As Josh Robinson explained, when the pass rush is working, it benefits the players on the back end and the same goes for the defensive backs having tight coverage that prevents the quarterback from going to his first read on a pass play.
“Guys are starting to understand their responsibilities and executing them more frequently,” Robinson said. “That’s going to show when we start getting more sacks and more interceptions and it will help in the long run. It can work from both ends. If we have good coverage and receivers out open, the quarterback has to hold the ball longer and we can get sacks. If our pass rush is getting to the quarterback quickly, he doesn’t have the time to hold onto the ball and will throw passes sooner than he wants to and that’s how you get turnovers. The whole defense is working together as a group now.”
As the Vikings finalize their preparation for Jay Cutler, he may be the ideal kind of quarterback to run their defense against. He takes deep drops. He holds onto the ball too long at times and has always been susceptible to taking sacks and throwing the ill-advised pass.
As is always the case, if the Vikings can keep versatile running back Matt Forte from being effective and allowing the Bears to choose whether to run or pass, then Minnesota’s defense can dictate the tempo of the game. That’s what they have been able to do over the last few games, and if they can keep that blueprint operational Sunday it could be another long day for the frustrated Bears players and their fans.
“It’s just continuing what we’ve been doing the last few weeks,” Robison said. “Number one is stopping the run and getting them into the position that they have to throw the ball. Once we get them in a situation where they do that, then we have to get after Cutler, get around his feet and don’t let him sit back there. Both our coverage and our pass rush need to work together, and the bottom line is that we have to hit him. As long as we can do that, we can keep this thing rolling.”
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