For the Minnesota Vikings defense on Sunday, simpler was better.
At least that seemed to be the message that head coach Mike Zimmer was sending when asked about his halftime adjustments against a Tennessee Titans offense that had plenty of motion, misdirection and other distracting eye candy for Zimmer’s defense in Week 1.
Despite issues in the first half, the Vikings only gave up 10 points, allowing them to stay within striking range in a second-half comeback that saw the Vikings score 25 unanswered points in a 25-16 win that was only that close because of a prevent defense that allowed a touchdown with 28 seconds to go.
“I was extremely aggressive,” Zimmer said of his defensive calls in the first half, adding: “I was giving our guys a lot of calls the first half.”
Titans QB Marcus Mariota attempted 21 passes in the first half Sunday and the Vikings had a standard four-man rush on only eight of those. Nine times the Vikings brought five defenders on the pass rush, and four other times they brought six in the first 30 minutes of play.
That’s “extremely aggressive,” as Zimmer said, blitzing almost two-thirds of the time.
Because Mariota is an athletic quarterback, the Vikings looked to be in more read-and-react mode with their pass rush rather than doing everything they could to get to him.
“Every guy has got to be in their gap. If I’m supposed to be outside blitzing, I’ve got to stay outside,” said Captain Munnerlyn, who blitzed once from his nickel cornerback spot. “You can’t try to go and try to blast him because he can escape and find the open guy. You’ve definitely got to control it and as (defensive backs) be prepared to stay covering. Don’t ever take your eyes off your guy. Aaron Rodgers, he’ll find the open guy easy.”
We posed the “controlled pass rush” theory when facing an athletic quarterback to a number of defensive players. Many agreed that’s how it should be to avoid creating an escape route that leads to a big gain.
“I think that’s every team, really. You’ve got the notable guys that consistently break down the pocket and run and look to throw the ball. But I think every team you really want to be disciplined because I think every team has a quarterback who understands, ‘All right, these guys are giving me this lane and I’ll take it,’” said veteran cornerback Terence Newman. “You see time and time every week where guys will extend plays and they’re making things happen with their arm and their legs.”
Zimmer dialed way back in the second half against Mariota. While Mariota connected for pass plays of 29, 16, 14, 12 and 12 (with other smaller gains) when the Vikings blitzed in the first half, the Vikings only sent an extra man two times in Mariota’s 20 second-half pass attempts, according to our film review.
“You have to be smart with the way you rush. You can’t run by the quarterback and open up the lanes,” Zimmer said. “The guy on the weak side has to be very conscious of collapsing the pocket. I thought we did, for the most part, a good job with that (on Sunday).”
This Sunday will provide a much greater test. Like Mariota, Aaron Rodgers is athletic, but there is no questioning who the better quarterback is. Rodgers is on a Hall of Fame career path. Mariota’s career is only in its infancy.
Even a question comparing their running ability drew the stink-eye look from Munnerlyn.
“He’s a young fella, man, Mariota. He’s a young fella. He’s working,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s getting better, but Aaron Rodgers, his game is already on a thousand. I don’t think there’s any comparison there at all.”
Certainly not when it comes to their passing prowess.
Rodgers has 34 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his 16 games against the Vikings, along with an 11-5 record.
“He can get the ball out of his hand at any angle. When he gets hit, he’s going to look for guys. He’s going to get out of the pocket. He can throw it deep,” DE Everson Griffen said of Rodgers. “He’s got Jordy Nelson, and that’s his deep threat. They’ve got (Randall) Cobb in the slot, so there’s a lot of stuff they have. A lot of athletes there. So what we have to do is keep it basic. Go out there and rush and cover well and make the tackles and have contested throws and have PBUs (passes broken up) and knock down balls and get interceptions.”
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While Rodgers has an overall passer rating of 113.2 against the Vikings, his rating was under 90 in each game against the Vikings last year. Munnerlyn is looking forward to seeing the game plan this week.
“We haven’t got to that point yet, but I’m anxious to see it,” Munnerlyn said on Monday. “He’s one of the best at that, game-planning wise and making adjustments. Our coaching staff, they do a great job of that.”
Will it be a controlled pass rush? Will it mean pulling away from the blitz like they did in the second half in Tennessee? Or will it be more aggressive while trying to at least disrupt the timing between Rodgers and receivers?
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No matter what, the Vikings will want to keep him in the pocket, preferably while dragging him down to the ground.
“Rodgers has been doing this for a long time,” Newman said. “He’s obviously a guy that you look for. Ben Roethlisberger. They just have an (innate) ability to extend plays and get the ball out of their hands and run.”