‘Free runners’ designed key of Minnesota Vikings defense

The Minnesota Vikings are eighth in sacks per pass play, using a perfect match of scheme and athletes understanding the big picture.

After a rocky start, both the Minnesota Vikings offense and defense were able to settle down and fight their way back from a 14-3 deficit for a 28-19 win over the Detroit Lions. After allowing 17 points in the first half the defense did not allow the Lions’ offense to score for the remainder of the game – the team recorded two more points when Vikings punter Jeff Locke intentionally ran out the back of the end zone for a safety.

A big reason why the Vikings defense was able to shut things down was because of the pressure that they were able to get on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. They sacked him seven different times throughout the game and hit him another 13 times. 

Of those, 4½ of the sacks came from either linebackers or defensive backs blitzing in from behind the defensive line. The team’s defensive line was able to get after Stafford without much help when the teams met during the second week of the season and Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen thinks that’s a big reason as to why the blitzes worked so well.

“I feel that they were so worried about our front four that when coach started dialing up the blitzes that we just came free,” he said. “I’ve never seen that many free runners in my life. We just do our job and that’s what coach preaches, just do your job every play.”

Head coach Mike Zimmer has preached that players need be unselfish for his scheme to work properly, and that is what the defense was able to do on Sunday. The defensive line took on blockers, which then opened things up for the players coming in on a blitz.

“I think it’s everybody having an understanding of what they need to do,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “Everybody has a job, everybody knows if they’re not in their position at that time it’s going to break down. So you’ve got a group of guys that have bought into the scheme and are athletic enough to beat their man. If you beat your man everything’s going to pan out.”

Another key to Zimmer’s defense, though, has been getting the right guys in place. Blitzes vary from team to team, depending on the personnel of the team, and in his second year Zimmer seems to be getting the type of players he wants. Since he arrived, he has brought in fast, athletic players who have the versatility to do a multitude of things.

Johnson sees that in the linebackers playing behind him and said it was fun being able to see them get after the quarterback the way they did.


“We got to utilize those guys,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some young linebackers that’s really talented, use their speed and then everybody’s going to pretty much make a play when it’s their time. So they took advantage.”

Getting after the quarterback and getting sacks is what a lot of defensive linemen feed on and when they start to see the quarterback getting knocked around and it often amps them up a little more. That’s why it can be hard to get them to buy into a system that asks them to do the dirty work and not always reap the individual rewards.

But this Vikings team seems to understand that each player will get their time in the spotlight. Griffen currently leads the team with 4½ sacks, but that is only half a sack in front of rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks. He enjoys that, though, because he knows that as the linebackers continue to have success, offenses will start to key on them and then that will open things up for the defensive line.

“You sacrifice yourself for the team, and as long as we do that then they can’t withstand us for four quarters,” Griffen said. “So I believe if they focus on the D-line then other people will come free and if they focus on them then we’re going to come free. It’s a win-win situation.”

Griffen loves being able to get sacks, but at the end of the day the thing that he worries about most is coming away with the win. The Vikings did that Sunday, with the pressure applied to Stafford being one of the big keys.

“Sacks are a good thing in this league, pressure is a good thing, hitting the quarterback is good, but winning is even better,” he said. “Once you win ballgames it takes care of everything else.”

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