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Eagle Eye In The Sky: Vikings Preview

Posted Dec 12, 2013

The Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1) sit at the bottom of the NFC North, but this team is still very dangerous and has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Let’s take a look what you can expect to see from them on Sunday afternoon by looking at the All-22.

The Vikings are a team that looks to be very physical on the ground with running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. This is a downhill running game that wants to attack you between the tackles and hit you in the mouth. You’ll see the lead play (which we saw against the Giants), inside zone (a play Eagles fans should be familiar with) and other downhill runs. One you will certainly see is the “power” run play, which they love to run particularly out of the inverted wishbone. Let’s take a look.

The Vikings come out in 22 personnel, with two running backs (Peterson and No. 42 fullback Jerome Felton), two tight ends (No. 89 John Carlson in the backfield and No. 40 Rhett Ellison on the line of scrimmage) and one receiver split wide. The inverted wishbone, also described as a “Full House” backfield, gives the offense an extra blocker in the backfield in the form of an extra tight end. With two “upbacks” in the backfield to block for the tailback (Peterson), the Vikings now have the ability to run in either direction with good leverage and angles.

How does this help the passing game? Chicago has nine defenders near the line of scrimmage on first-and-10. There are just two defensive backs outside the tackle box. That gives your playmakers on the outside plenty of space to get open, and puts stress on opposing secondaries. It’s tough to disguise your coverages against a full house backfield. Having athletic tight ends such as Kyle Rudolph (on Injured Reserve), Carlson, Ellison and former Eagle Chase Ford also gives you the ability to hit on short and intermediate pass plays with them running out of the backfield freely. Now, to the play ...

On your basic “power” run, you’re going to get a guard from the backside pulling to the side of the play as a lead blocker, while the linemen and/or tight end block down against the grain. This is what you see above, with No. 63 Brandon Fusco pulling to the left, and the tight end, left tackle and left guard blocking down to the right.

But out of this inverted wishbone, you have extra blockers added into the scheme. Carlson (No. 89 in the backfield) is used as an extra puller, as he will follow Fusco at the snap of the ball. Felton (No. 42 in the backfield) will also serve as a lead blocker and attack the linebacker at the second level.

Fusco’s and Carlson’s blocks help create the lane for Peterson to run through. A wall has been created up front, and the lone Chicago defender left to make the play will be sealed off by Carlson. Peterson hits the hole and takes off for a 28-yard gain on first down.

This is something the Eagles will have to be ready for when the Vikings come out in “heavy” packages using more than one back and tight end. Even if they don’t come out in the inverted wishbone, they can motion to it before the snap at any point, as you can see here ...

It’s Week 11 against Green Bay. On this first-and-10 play, the Vikings motion Carlson from the slot to the backfield right before the snap.

This will be the same formation, and the same play, only this time to the right side. The other difference is that Gerhart is the ballcarrier. He’s a physical downhill runner who is incredibly tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam.

Just like on the previous play, the running back gets great blocking up front. A lane is created by the pulling guard (this time Charlie Johnson, No. 74) and Carlson. Gerhart runs through an arm tackle and breaks off a 26-yard run. Regardless of who the running back is, “power” is one of their staples in the run game, especially out of this look in the backfield.

With the way they run the football, Minnesota has the ability to be proficient in the play-action pass game. One of the concepts they like to run off of play-action is the three-level stretch, or “flood.”

At the snap of the ball, this will initially look like one of their staple run plays, the lead play, with Peterson following his lead blocker, in this case Ellison, through the hole.

Ellison will attack the line of scrimmage like he’s leading Peterson downhill, before putting his foot in the ground and running back to the other side of the field to the flat. He will be the quarterback’s check down option on this play. His first option will be receiver Jarius Wright, who is running a go route up the field. Jerome Simpson will be running an intermediate route across the middle.

Why is this called a three-level stretch? Because after the bootleg from quarterback Christian Ponder, you have an option at all three levels of the field: deep, middle and short.

Ponder is back to pass and his first option, Wright, is open. Wright ran a beautiful route, setting up cornerback Richard Sherman beautifully at the top of his stem, a rarity for Sherman. Wright creates separation and is open over the top. If he wasn’t open, Ponder’s next option would be Simpson running along the first down marker. If Simpson was out of the picture as well, then Ponder would theoretically have Ellison in the flat. Ponder hits Wright down the field for a 38-yard touchdown.

Let’s take a look at one of the Vikings’ other favorite plays off play-action, a double-post tight end curl combo.

It’s second-and-1 from the Minnesota 45-yard line and Vikings come out in 12 personnel with one back and two tight ends with two receivers lined to the left. Those two receivers will run post routes. The tight end, Carlson, will run a 10- to 12-yard curl route.

This route combination is a pretty easy read for quarterback Christian Ponder. All he has to do is read the cornerback to the tight end’s side of the field.

If the cornerback turns to protect the deep ball, the curl route will be the throw to make. If he crashes down on the tight end, then he will have the receiver over the top.

As you can see, this cornerback worked to get depth and protect himself over the top, allowing enough room for a 16-yard pickup for Carlson.

Same area of the field, same formation, different game. It’s second-and-12, and you have the double-post tight end curl combination.

Ponder steps up in the pocket, reads his key (the cornerback in the circle) and makes his decision.

The cornerback sits and stays with the tight end, giving Ponder the throw over the top for a 38-yard completion to Simpson.

In that play-action concept, the Vikings showed their tendency to “high-low” defenders. That means they like to put opposing players in a bind, by sending receivers behind them (high) and in front of them (low) and make them decide which one to defend.

This is a concept you see from Minnesota pretty consistently. First, they’ve mirrored their routes on both sides of the field. It’s the exact same combination on each side, this makes it even easier for the quarterback. This is a way to “high-low” defenders that is commonly referred to as the “China” concept. (How did that get its name? Well, it’s a high-low play that targets the opposing cornerback. Cornerback HIgh low).

The way the Vikings run it, they have their outside receivers take one step and turn to face the quarterback as if it were a quick screen. Ideally, that holds the cornerback defending them down in the flat, and creates plenty of space behind them for the quarterback to put the football for the slot receiver’s corner route.

The cornerback at the bottom was completely kept out of the play by the underneath route, and was in no position to help defend the corner. Ponder throws it to the outside (albeit a bit underthrown) and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson makes a play on the ball for a 24-yard gain.

Patterson, one of the team’s three first-round picks last April, has really come on lately and is making plays on both offense and special teams. On Sunday against Baltimore, he was responsible for the Vikings’ longest offensive play of the season in crunch time late in the fourth quarter, let’s take a look at how that play came to be.

It’s third-and-10 with just over a minute left in the game. The Vikings are down by three, and are in desperate need of a big play. They motion Patterson from the left to the right, and with a cornerback following him across the formation, the Vikings have a pretty good idea that they’re facing man coverage.

When you’re running a screen against man coverage, one of the things you try to do is block the defender who is directly responsible for the intended receiver. How do the Vikings do that? Send a running back directly at him at the snap of the ball, erasing him from the play. Patterson, theoretically, should have room to make a play.

Quarterback Matt Cassel gets the ball to Patterson, and with his man blocked and three linemen on the way to create a wall, the explosive rookie has blockers in front to turn this into a big play.

Patterson sticks his foot in the ground and gets into high gear, as he makes fellow rookie safety Matt Elam miss 40 yards downfield, and he runs it in for a 79-yard touchdown. This was a huge play for the Vikings that (temporarily) gave them the lead late in the fourth quarter over the Ravens.

THE DEFENSE: EAGLES WILL SEE SOME TAMPA 2

Now, let’s quickly dive into the Vikings defensive unit. This group has had its share of injuries throughout the season, including safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Desmond Bishop among others. Still, there is a lot of talent for head coach Leslie Frazier to work with, and they present a lot of different challenges to game plan for.

The Vikings employ two big, physical cornerbacks in rookie first-round pick Xavier Rhodes and veteran Chris Cook. They have a defensive line with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Kevin Williams that has shown in the past that they are able to pressure the quarterback by just bringing four rushers. They have smart linebackers who are good at reading opposing quarterbacks and getting to the football like Chad Greenway. Typically, when you have that type of personnel, you are able to utilize “Tampa-2” coverage when needed. Again, it’s not a primary defense like we saw with the Buccaneers under Monte Kiffin, but it’s a coverage the Vikings utilize often depending on the down and distance. I broke down the “Tampa-2” when the Eagles prepared to play the Bucs earlier this season, and I’ll dive a little further here.

First, look at the middle linebacker. Here, you’ll see that it’s Erin Henderson, who has since been replaced by Audie Cole. In the “Tampa-2” coverage it’s the job of the “mike” linebacker to drop down the seam and carry anything down the deep middle. The blue arrow signifies the side of the field to which he opens up to. The middle linebacker will always open his hips up to the side of the passing strength for the offense, and on this play that is to the defense’s right (bottom of the screen).

As I touched on in the piece I linked to above, the two safeties split the field into halves and are responsible for their half of the field. The corners, on the other hand, are responsible for the short routes in the flat. If there’s nothing in the flat, they will sink as deep as they can without allowing anything underneath for the first down. At the snap, the cornerbacks will try to re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage. They would typically like to funnel all of the receivers inside towards their help. This is why you want physical corners for this coverage.

The “help” I was referring to inside comes in the form of the two outside linebackers. These two drop as “hook” defenders between the hash and the numbers, and are responsible for reading the quarterback’s eyes, deterring underneath throws across the middle and chasing the football after it’s thrown. This entire coverage is built on creating pressure with a four-man rush and allowing your back seven to cover and then converge on the football after it’s thrown.

On this play, the corners are highlighted with arrows. If there’s nothing in the flats, they can drop as deep as 12 yards to take away intermediate throws towards the sideline. Their backs are turned to the sideline as they keep everything inside and in front of them.

The outside linebackers are reading the quarterback’s eyes. The middle linebacker is dropping down the seam. This play is well defended on the back end. The safeties are helping to cover the vertical routes and are squeezing the holes in the coverage with the corners. The rush gets to quarterback Jay Cutler, and he throws the ball out of bounds.

The Vikings aren’t a “Tampa 2” defense, and will play a good amount of man coverage as well. Here, they’re lined up in “man-free” coverage with one free safety and man coverage across the board underneath. I want to focus on cornerback Xavier Rhodes at the bottom of the screen, who was a first-round pick in April out of Florida State. Coming out of school he was billed by some analysts as the “next great press corner.” On this play, he shows why.

Rhodes wasn’t perfect on this play from the jump. Ideally, when you’re playing with safety help inside, you want to play to that help by forcing an inside release to the receiver. Usher him inside with your hands and body position and if he’s going to beat you over the top, have it be towards that safety in the middle of the field. If not, get him to the sideline as soon as possible, the sideline is your friend in this case, and if you get him tighter to the sideline it's a tougher throw to the quarterback. If the receiver beats you over the top and 'stacks' you (runs ahead of you and cuts you off), you're in a bad situation as a defensive back. He recovers, as he gets his hands on Green Bay wideout James Jones to keep up with him down the field.

Rhodes gets right on Jones’ inside hip and runs with him down the field. This is what is called being “in phase” as a cornerback. He’s looking at the ball, leaning on Jones down the field and is step for step with him. He’s recovered nicely and is in position to make a play on the football.

Quarterback Scott Tolzien puts the ball over top, where Rhodes can’t intercept it, but look at Rhodes leap and use his long arms to disrupt the pass, forcing third-and-long. Rhodes’ technique wasn’t perfect, but he showed off the traits that made him one of the most sought after defensive players of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen on 6abc Sundays at 11:30 AM. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the Head Video Coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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