Minnesota Vikings’ key elements vs. mobile QBs

The Minnesota Vikings have to face their fair share of mobile quarterbacks early in the season, but the experience they gain in each game could help them out moving forward.

More and more dual-threat quarterbacks are arriving in the NFL each and every year. The Minnesota Vikings are getting their fair share of them in the first few weeks of the 2016 regular season as they are going up against Marcus Mariota, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, in that order, to start the season.

Mariota appeared to be giving the defense fits at the start of the game last Sunday, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 146 yards and a touchdown, while also running the ball two times for nine yards. His mobility also allowed him to evade pressure on multiple occasions, avoiding the sack and making a play downfield. 

The Vikings defense appeared to be able to settle down and control Mariota a little better in the second half of the game and a lot of that is because they were able to stay disciplined. 

Defensive ends are often the ones talked about when it comes to containing a mobile quarterback because they have to make sure they do not get too far upfield and that they don’t get too far inside with their rush. If they do either of those, they create a running lane for the quarterback to escape. 

Instead, defensive ends have to stay disciplined, perhaps hold back a little bit so they can contain the quarterback. The same also goes for defensive tackles, though. They also need to stay disciplined in their pass rush, shrink the pocket and maintain their gaps.

“You’ve got to be able to hold down your gap and your responsibility so that the quarterback can’t be able to make moves,” said defensive tackle Tom Johnson. “Most quarterbacks in this league want to be able to escape in the B gap, usually, away from the nose guard, so that’s the opening. He’s looking around his progression, that’s usually where he wants to escape. But when you’ve got a guy like Aaron Rodgers, a guy who’s very mobile, they might not take the B gap. They might be able to break the contain. So everybody’s got to be able to do their responsibility and stay in their gaps.”

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As Johnson mentioned, Rodgers is always a quarterback that defenses need to watch closely. He can hurt teams with both his arm and his legs and both those skills are often combined to create big plays downfield. The Vikings are going to need to contain him if they hope to have a shot at winning Sunday night, and they feel like their game against Mariota was a good warmup.

Both quarterbacks are very mobile, but Rodgers is simply more experienced and a better player at this point in his career.

“I think our first three games we’re going to deal with mobile quarterbacks,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to take your progression week by week, but we’ve got  things in our game plan to make sure we don’t let them to get out of contain and that we also are able to put pressure on them at the same time. So we are just going to go in, do our thing and if we beat our man everything will be OK.”

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While each quarterback may be a little different, there are some things that will always help out against a mobile guy. One is discipline, but another is rotation along the defensive line. A mobile quarterback can wear out the big linemen by having them chase him around, but rotating players in and out can help keep them fresh. 

The Vikings were using Johnson, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen and Sharrif Floyd at defensive tackle last Sunday, which really helped them out. The down side for them heading into the game against the Green Bay Packers, though, is that they will be without Floyd because of a knee injury.

“Guys can sell out, last long and be able to play quick for longer,” Johnson said when explaining why a good rotation of players helps. “We’ve got good guys that can play every down, in every situation and our coach is being able to let us eat by doing so. Everybody likes that in the fourth quarter you’re not as tired and able to get at the quarterback if need be, and also stay strong and be able to attack your man in the run game.”

Mobile quarterbacks affect all areas of a defense, not just the defensive line. They make things more difficult for linebackers and defensive backs as well. A quarterback will often draw the attention of all the defenders when running around and avoiding the pass rush. 

“That’s where most of the mistakes happen,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “Once he gets going your eyes shift to him and then you lose your man and they’re able to make big plays.”

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Linebackers will also have to decide when to go after a quarterback who is scrambling and when to stay in coverage. They could create a big play, dropping them for a loss, if they assist the defensive linemen, but by doing that they could leave gaps in the coverage. 

That’s why whether they go after the quarterback or not often is a case-by-case basis. 

“Really it depends on the coverage. Some coverages we have an extra guy and they can go, some coverages you got to - it depends on the progression that they’re in in zone, if they’re in man to man,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “It really depends on a lot of different things.”

One way that teams can counteract a mobile quarterback is design plays where they use a “spy” to watch them. One of the linebackers will hover around the line of scrimmage watching the quarterback and then run him down when they see him begin to scramble. This strategy does not leave a receiver open because the linebacker isn’t responsible for covering anyone but the quarterback. However, there could be some bigger holes in the secondary because they have fewer players dropping back into coverage.

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Barr didn’t want to specify how often the defense will run plays with a spy, but it is clear that is something they do against mobile quarterbacks. 

The Vikings defense ended up fairing well against Mariota in their first game of the season, but will surely have their hands full when they go up against Rodgers this Sunday night. Some of the things they did that made them successful Week 1 will transfer to this next game, but, at the same time, Rodgers is just at a different level than Mariota is.


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