How Zimmer and the Vikings Defense are Stopping Teams on Third Down
The Vikings’ defense currently ranks first in the NFL in third down conversion percentage, with opposing teams obtaining a new set of downs on only 25% of third down opportunities. For context, that third down stop percentage doesn’t just rank first this year; it would rank first for any team in the past 25 years.
Quarterbacks passing against the Vikings’ third-down defense have gone 26/57 for two touchdowns, three interceptions and six sacks, good for a passer rating of just 48.4, and averaging out to only 4.4 yards per pass. Rushers fare even worse, going for 3.7 yards per carry and just a 22% third down conversion percentage.
Mike Zimmer has forged a career out of stopping opposing offenses on third downs. This article dives into what he’s doing to have such historic success.
This first play showcases the defensive playcall that made Mike Zimmer famous—the double A-gap blitz. The Vikings come out showing blitz on every gap in the line: the linebackers show blitz in the A-gaps between the center and guards, the defensive tackles show blitz in the B-gaps between the guards and tackles, and the defensive ends show blitz in the C-gap just outside the tackles.
What makes this playcall so effective is that it confuses the heck out of offensive linemen. Who blocks whom? What if they drop back into coverage? What if they stunt? There really isn’t a great answer.
Brett Hundley here sets the protection around #54 (Eric Kendricks), so that everyone is accounted for: the center blocks #55, the back blocks #54, the guards block the defensive tackles, and the tackles block the defensive ends. Simple enough, right?
Not in Mike Zimmer defense. Immediately after Hundley sets the protection and gets set to pass, Harrison Smith creeps down to show blitz in the D gap. Smith is a smart player, and he knows as soon as the protection is called that there will be no one to block him as he explodes off the edge. Hundley didn’t set anyone to block Smith because when he made the protection call, Smith was back in coverage (like he often is on third downs). And to top it off, both linebackers peel off into coverage to prevent Hundley from finding his hot routes.
Result? Harrison Smith blindside sack, end of drive:
On this second play, the Packers are facing third and only two, but the Packers go five wide because it makes the Vikings predictable for once. The Vikings initially show cover-1, likely cover-1 man based on the corners’ body language. Here’s the play, and a link to the broadcast view:
Hundley puts #81 (Geronimo Allison) in motion to see if #20 (Mackensie Alexander) follows him through—he does, and now the Packers have an advantage: they know the Vikings are very likely in man coverage. That’s perfect, because they’re running a pick play to the outside: the inside WR runs to the flat, while the outside receiver runs a slant to block off the man corner. Should be an easy first down.
But #20 reads the play perfectly—he probably recognized it from tape study. He weaves past the pick and reaches out just at the right time to deflect the pass. It helps that Hundley throws the pass slightly behind his receiver. Then #29 (Xavier Rhodes) makes a heads up play and secures the interception to set up the Vikings’ offense in field goal range.
One side note on the pass rush: Everson Griffen here is lined up as a nose tackle. He’s a defensive end. That’s pretty wild. On top of it, he gets a hit on the QB with a beautiful spin move to propel himself past the double team and into the QB. Versatility and unpredictability is the key to Mike Zimmer’s defense, and Griffen is a player who sees snaps everywhere from nose tackle to wide-9 and even drops back into coverage sometimes—he’s a huge part of what makes the defense tick.
The other guy that makes Mike Zimmer’s third-down defense tick is Xavier Rhodes. Quarterbacks targeting Xavier Rhodes this season have gone 16/33 for 157 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. That translates to a passer rating allowed of 49.7.
And that’s all despite shadowing Antonio Brown and Mike Evans (among others) this season.
Here’s a great example of what Rhodes brings to the defense.
On this play, the Steelers face third-and-long, and the Vikings are only showing one single-high safety. Naturally, Roethlisberger likes Antonio Brown’s chances one-on-one without safety help, so right after the snap he looks to Brown and throws the sideline fade. The only problem is that Rhodes is matching Brown step-for-step throughout the route, and manages to slow him down slightly along the way, causing the incompletion and bringing up fourth down.
Zimmer’s defense relies on Rhodes to shut down opposing team’s number one options without safety help. It’s a big ask, but so far this season, Rhodes has delivered, and it’s freed up Harrison Smith to disguise coverage and snag interceptions, or to blitz off the edge and get sacks.
And speaking of Harrison Smith interceptions, here is a diving one-handed pick Smith made against the Packers last week:
Looking at the end zone angle, Smith initially lines up here to blitz off the right edge, but right before the snap, he motions across the line to play the robber. On third and short, the Packers run a play action pass designed to get the linebackers to bite down and free up space for Jordy Nelson to get separation on a crossing route.
It’s not a bad playcall, because the linebackers do bite, and Nelson does get separation. The only problem is Harrison Smith doesn’t bite. Harrison Smith remembers this exact playcall from a few years back, as Mike Zimmer revealed in a press conference, and Harrison Smith was ready for the pass. Watch the broadcast view of the pick, which Smith makes diving, midair, with one arm:
It’s plays like these that make Smith not just the highest graded safety in the NFL right now, but the second-highest graded player in the entire NFL. Only Aaron Donald has a higher grade on the 2017 season so far.
The last two keys to making Mike Zimmer defense work are Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Barr and Kendricks are just essential, because the best way to attack the double A-gap look is to target the flats and the edge of the field, since the linebackers are stuck in the middle of the field. But with Barr and Kendricks, that’s not always the case, as you see on this play:
The Steelers are on third-and-four, and Roethlisberger sees Barr and Kendricks mugging the A-gaps and thinks this could be an easy conversion. Le’Veon Bell can get a head start running out into the flat, and by the time a linebacker gets over to him he should long gone, or at least have enough of a head start to move the chains.
The only problem with that playcall is Mike Zimmer knows that this is the obvious counter to the A-gap look, and he specifically drafted Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for plays like this. Both Barr and Kendricks are explosively athletic linebackers, and it’s that athleticism and length that make the difference here. At the snap, Bell explodes out to the flat, but Barr sees him and immediately begins to chase. Bell makes the catch and tries to turn the corner, but it’s too late—Barr already has his hands on him, and drags up down for a gain of only two, bringing up fourth down.
As a sidenote—the Vikings called a similar play against the Bears here:
The Vikings overload the left side of the line, giving Harrison Smith free chase to the quarterback. Meanwhile, defensive end Danielle Hunter drops back in coverage to cover the hot route. By scheming free pass rushers while taking away hot reads, Zimmer wedges QBs between a rock and a hard place—you either take a sack, or throw into coverage.
Overall, the key to the Vikings’ defense is unpredictability. On this next play, the Vikings again have their standard seven showing blitz, including both linebackers in the A-gaps and Harrison Smith on the edge:
The Lions have to set their protections as if everyone on the line is blitzing: the tackles will block the defensive ends, the guards will block the 3-techniques, and the center and back will block the linebackers. If Harrison Smith blitzes, Stafford just has to get rid of the ball quickly.
But instead of a seven-man blitz, two guys drop back into coverage, so the left tackle and the center end up blocking no one. Meanwhile, Harrison Smith goes unblocked. Stafford knows he has to get rid of the ball ASAP, so he looks to his hot route—#13 (TJ Jones) on a quick in route—but as Stafford gets ready to fire the bill, he looks up and realizes that defensive end Everson Griffen is sitting there, waiting to intercept the hot route:
Stafford was so surprised that the defensive end was sitting there in coverage that he pumped the ball so hard he fumbled it. Stafford then gets laid out by the unblocked Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks. The Lions recover the fumble, but it brings up 4th-and-31—all thanks to a playcall so unpredictable it caused a fumble.
The Vikings started off the Packers game holding Aaron Rodgers to a three-and-out. On this third down, the Packers only need two yards, and the Vikings come out showing cover-1 man, with Barr lining up at the 0-technique to blitz. The Packers are running man-beater concepts—slants and flats—and Rodgers is reading Kendricks and Smith to see who is guarding Bennett. As soon as he sees Kendricks go out to cover Ty Montgomery in the flat, Rodgers knows Bennett has inside leverage on Smith. Should be an easy first down, right?
Anthony Barr was *showing* blitz, but after faking a blitz he stood up to muck up the passing lanes. Barr is 6’5” with 34” arms, and just Dikembe Mutombo’s the pass to bring up fourth down.
Mike Zimmer loves to blitz on third and long. He loves to bet that his pass rush can get to the quarterback faster than the wide receivers can get to the first down markers. And he’s usually right.
Here, the Vikings blitz with seven defenders. The Lions bring in two extra blockers to help, and as soon as Stafford sets the protection call, the Vikings completely change their look—Harrison Smith will now try to knife through on the right instead of the left. Smith does just that and manages to hit the quarterback, while the rest of the defenders quickly collapse the pocket:
Stafford is forced to get rid of the ball quickly, and with the pocket collapsed, #99 (Danielle Hunter) with his 6’5” height and 34.5” arms is able to swat the ball down to end the drive:
And as good as the Vikings’ third-down defense has been against the pass, it’s been even better against the run. On this next play, the Packers only need one yard, so they call a dive play out of an offset pistol formation. It’s a playcall designed for short yardage—double team the nose, the H-back is the lead blocker, and the running back follows the H back and tries to battering ram for the first down.
It doesn’t go anywhere, though:
The defensive line simply outmuscles the blockers, and #54 and #22 (Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith) knife around the pile to stop the back in his tracks:
On this last play, the Saints face third-and-goal on the five-yard line. Sean Payton puts three receivers left to show pass, but then calls a trap run. It’s a smart play designed to punish over-aggressive defenses, and it might have worked, too, had somebody remembered to block Harrison Smith:
It looks like 65 might have missed his block and chose instead to double 55, and so Harrison Smith gets the run stop to save four points.
So overall, the Vikings’ third-down defense wins by disguising looks, scheming free pass rushing lanes, and applying pressure before receivers get open. Zimmer relies on Rhodes to shut down opposing #1 wide receivers, relies on Barr and Kendricks’ athleticism to cover from the A-gaps to the sidelines and relies on Everson Griffen and others to win their one-on-one matchups to get to the quarterback. That in turn frees up Harrison Smith to be the queen on Mike Zimmer’s chessboard and do everything from play single high coverage to blitz off the edge. It’s resulted in a defense that ranks first in the NFL in third down stop percentage so far this year, and could rank as the best of all time if the Vikings stay healthy and keep up the pace for the rest of the year.