The Minnesota Vikings defense in 2017 was statistically one of the NFL’s best in recent years.
Ranking as the No. 1 overall defense in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed and being in the top five in first downs allowed, passing yards, rushing attempts and rushing yards, not many teams in the league had offensive success against these modern-day Purple People Eaters.
One of the keys to success for Mike Zimmer's defense was the ability to get off the field on third down with the use of various A gap pressures, specifically their double A gap pressure. The pressure and the appearance of pressure brought fear to opposing offenses and quarterbacks due to their inability to pick up the heat. Throughout the season, Zimmer brought several different looks to offenses, keeping them off-balance.
The Vikings love to use the A gap as their pressure point for an obvious reason: it is the most direct route and fastest way to get to the quarterback. Teams across all levels have notoriously struggled with the single or double A gap pressure on passing situations as it puts the offensive line in a bind on how they want to set their pass protection.
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One thing the Vikings did better than most every other team is set the center up for failure in showing double A gap pressure but then bailing out into coverage with one or both linebackers. An example is shown against the Detroit Lions quarterbacked by Matt Stafford. The Vikings line seven men up on the line of scrimmage to give a max pressure appearance. On the snap, linebacker Anthony Barr drops into coverage giving Eric Kendricks a free run and a one-on-one with the running back, which most teams will take when bringing pressure. Because the center has a linebacker in his gap in the direction they are sliding, he cannot pick up the blitzing linebacker. The running back, due to the pressure, has to work back to the A gap and the offensive line cannot pick up the double edge pressure with safety Harrison Smith coming unblocked off the edge.
After the appearance of bringing seven, the Vikings only bring five men in the blitz, but it is unblockable due to the appearance of pressure. A key component to teams that like to bring pressure is being able to bail out at the snap, which the Vikings did time and time again.
Another blitz scheme the Vikings use is bringing the double A gap blitz pairing it with a line stunt to prevent everyone getting picked up. Minnesota gives the appearance of a maximum pressure with seven men on the line of scrimmage. The Vikings bring a double A gap blitz with a nose tackle stunt all the way back to the center of the formation. The double A gap blitz occupies both guards and the center, leaving a giant hole in the middle of the offense and an unblockable defender bearing down on the quarterback.
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The hardest part about picking up blitzes and line stunts is that the appearance of defensive pressure means the ball must come out quick. With a majority of these blitzes, the Vikings are going to play cover one or another version of man coverage which creates tight windows for quarterbacks to fit the ball in while under major duress. Teams have no choice but to leave their running backs in to help with protection, but they are no match for the pass rush and the defensive players that are bringing the pressure.
Outside of bringing a double and a single A gap pressure, the Vikings love to line up in a maximum blitz look and bluff out of it, matching the linebackers up on receiving threats, mostly the tight end or a running back. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Vikings ran multiple simulated pressures so they could force the ball out quick while also accounting for a running back like LeVeon Bell in the pass game. On third down, the Vikings line up with six appearing in the rush, playing two deep safeties over the top of the coverage. On the snap, you see both A gap threats bluff the blitz and work for width toward the man they are covering. This turns into a two man coverage with all wide receivers being covered man to man and also having cover two safety help over the top.
The appearance of pressure makes the ball come out quick and you get the matchup you wanted with a linebacker on a running back working toward the sideline. Again, the A gap is threatened which gets Big Ben to check down immediately under the fear that a blitz is coming right in his face.
These types of pressures can be used at all levels of football where defenses want to have some variety in blitzing. If you keep your coverages simple on the back end of your defense, you can work the simulated look and give the appearance of pressure or bring the blitz and overload the offense and become unblockable. The 2017 Minnesota Vikings showed what happens when the appearance of pressure gets paired up with actual pressure.
For more football discussion & daily videos, follow Brady Grayvold on Twitter at @CoachGrayvold
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