Pressuring a quarterback can come in various forms. Sometimes the sacks don’t tell the whole story.
The Minnesota Vikings’ win Sunday against the Detroit Lions presented that case. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was only sacked once, but he was hit eight times as the Vikings spread their bruisers around.
Brian Robison led the way with a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and two passes defenses as he snuffed out play after play. Everson Griffen registered the team’s only sack of the game and added another quarterback hit. So did Sharrif Floyd, Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith.
“Absolutely you can see it (taking a toll),” Robison said. “That kid is a tough kid to take all those hits and just keep getting up and keep on ticking. I’ve said it over and over again: I’ve got a lot of respect for him because you watch him on tape and he does take a lot of hits. He just keeps on going. You definitely saw it in the fourth quarter. It started to wear down on him a little bit. It doesn’t matter who we play, that’s what we want to be able to do. We want to be able to stop the run, get them in a situation where they have to pass the ball and get some hits on the quarterback and hopefully some sacks as well.”
The Vikings were equal-opportunity blitzers and disguised the pressure well, showing blitz from one area and backing off, then bringing it elsewhere. The result was a slow-moving Stafford in the fourth quarter, and he was slower to pick himself off the turf with each ensuing hit.
“I think especially hitting him early and getting to him early. I saw a play where Anthony and Eric both hit him on one of the first third downs and got to him pretty hard,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “If you feel that early on, you’re hoping he’s going to get a full dose of that throughout the day and it seemed like we were running at him quite a bit and being pretty physical.”
Head coach Mike Zimmer preached that brand of physicality, even if Lions receiver Golden Tate said he thinks the Vikings “110 percent” were taking cheap shots.
“That doesn’t bother me. I know what kind of team we are. We’re not dirty,” said Zimmer, who called Barr’s penalty for a late hit stupid on Monday but retracted that on Wednesday. “I probably owe Anthony Barr an apology because I talked to the official last night and these quarterbacks now, they’re starting to slow down as they go out of bounds and kind of egging these things on. That was one of the things we talked about and he said, ‘Yeah, it probably should not have been called.’”
The Vikings took 10 penalties on Sunday, but only one of those was a late hit – the play when Barr pushed Stafford out of bounds. Zimmer said the official told him that quarterbacks shouldn’t be given protection if they slow down before they are out of bounds.
But the Vikings might not have had that many chances to hit Stafford if the Lions had committed more to running the ball. Instead, Detroit’s running backs were held to just 14 yards rushing on 12 carries. Stafford was the Lions’ leading rusher with 20 yards on four carries.
“The best way to do that is to stop the run and give yourself chances to hit him. That’s the first thing,” Greenway said. “And then second of all, if you get in good down-and-distance situations where you’re good on first and second down and you make him have a five-step drop and you have a chance to rush, that’s when you get yourself in good situations. But when it’s third-and-2, third-and-3, second-and-2, second-and-3, where he can just drop back and get rid of the ball, it’s favorable for them. It’s about us putting them in that situation.”
Detroit’s lack of a running game was a surprise given the Vikings gave up 230 yards on the ground to San Francisco in Week 1 and the Lions having an explosive rookie back in Ameer Abdullah. He rushed only six times for 12 yards while Stafford dropped back to pass 58 times, attempting 53 passes, running four times and getting sacked once.
Of course, Zimmer is rarely satisfied.
“We can rush the quarterback better than what we did. I know we hit him a lot, but there were times when I felt like we can do better than what we did,” Zimmer said. “… We always want to hit the quarterback as many times as we can. If they're going to throw the ball all day, we want to hit him.”
The opportunities might present themselves more on Sunday. San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has taken six sacks in two games.