Minnesota Vikings, analytics explain why blitzes aren’t getting home

The Minnesota Vikings blitzed plenty but produced only one sack on Sunday. Why? Players, coaches and analytics provide some answers.

The Minnesota Vikings were trying hard to pressure Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins on Sunday, but the quarterback may have outfoxed Vikings defensive play-caller and head coach Mike Zimmer.

Zimmer admitted he might have been trying to do too much on Sunday in an effort to end the Vikings’ three-game losing streak, one that extended to four games in part because the Vikings didn’t get to Cousins as much as they had been getting to opposing quarterbacks during their winning streak.

During their five-game winning streak to start the season, the Vikings sacked quarterbacks 19 times, including eight times against Cam Newton and a combined 13 times against Newton and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back games. In their last four games, they have only four sacks.

“Everybody’s working on pressures, as well, and actually, we had a couple we should have had some freebees on (Sunday) and we messed them up,” Zimmer said. “But again, that could be partly me, too.”

The Vikings blitzed on 45.7 percent of Washington’s passing plays, according to Pro Football Focus, a number that is high for them and the NFL in general – the league average is 30.8 percent. But Cousins was only sacked once for a 2-yard loss, and that one came as the Redskins were trying to bleed time with less than 3 minutes to play and forced Minnesota to burn its final timeout.

In other words, some of the credit has to go to the Redskins’ game plan. Washington head coach Jay Gruden surely had to know that Zimmer might dial up the blitz often and try to create big plays to stop a losing streak. After all, Gruden and Zimmer were coordinators together in Cincinnati before getting their respective head-coaching jobs in 2014.

Still, the blitzes didn’t get home. But why?

“That’s a good question. I think that they picked it up pretty well, I guess,” veteran cornerback Terence Newman said. “Oftentimes, teams are not getting five-out, they’re not getting five guys in a route. They’re maxing up a little bit protecting, trying to keep the quarterback upright. When that happens, you’re going to have more time, for sure advantageous to the offense because they’re going to have more time to get the balls, and routes are going to progress more and he can go through check-downs. It’s a little different when guys start to max up a little bit.”

Cousins’ time to release the ball on average was 2.63 seconds, 17th in the NFL for Week 10, according to PFF. The Vikings’ average time to get to him was a quick 2.38, which was .12 seconds faster than they were against Carolina, when they sacked Newton eight times.

The Vikings got 14 pressures on Cousins, per PFF’s tracking, but Cousins took advantage of the times when he could hold onto the ball longer, throwing both of his touchdowns on those instances and compiling a 143.9 passer rating when he held the ball longer than 2.6 seconds.

“The biggest thing is that I counted about every throw that was made on us yesterday and if the quarterback was in the pocket, he had the ball out in 2.5 (seconds), around there, almost,” Zimmer said. “Very rarely was it longer than that, and so they’re getting the ball out.”

Going into the game, one of the key matchups was Vikings DE Everson Griffen going against a new starter at left tackle, Ty Nsehke. Griffen didn’t have a sack and, according to NFL game statistics, didn’t force a quarterback hurry.

The Vikings were forced to shuffle their defensive backfield because nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was left at home to watch the game with a sprained ankle. He said he was kicking boxes while watching at home because he wasn’t out there and able to help.

Instead, Newman played nickel and Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes were on the outside. When Rhodes left with a concussion, rookie Mackensie Alexander was called upon.

“I think we just have to go back to winning our one-on-ones. As a football player, you’ve got to go back and say, ‘Man, I’m going to win this one-on-one. You’re not going to be free all the time,’” Munnerlyn said. “Sometimes you have to have an extra push to win one-on-ones. That’s something we have to get back to doing – winning one-on-ones, getting off blocks, making plays on the football.”

Zimmer said both he and his players were trying to do too much. The players said the same thing on Monday in the locker room while reflecting on their fourth straight loss.

The adjustment in waiting: back to basics.

“We’re going to have to adjust how we do some things with the pass rush. We’re going to have to adjust some things with some of the other areas that we can do so that we can take advantage of that, but when they’re getting the ball out that quick, then you’ve got to adjust,” Zimmer said. “It’s hard to ... every year you go through this. This isn’t anything new. We’ll just keep getting to work with it.”


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