EAGAN, Minn. – Earlier this season, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he’s had to adjust his usual blitz packages after the league had copied his A-gap blitzing scheme and the blitzes became an NFL norm.
With more teams using similar blitzes, offenses learned to adapt more quickly, leaving Zimmer unable to bring his favorite pressure on quarterbacks as often. Zimmer counter-adapted and is running a blitz package that again has opposing quarterbacks running for safety while Minnesota’s pass defense is wreaking weekly havoc.
Entering Sunday’s game at Detroit, the Vikings lead the league with 47 sacks. It’s already the most in one season for Minnesota since Zimmer took over as coach in 2014.
“As the season’s gone on, we’ve changed a few up,” Zimmer said of his blitz packages. “There were a couple, maybe four or five (last week) that we haven’t really shown much of. It’s part of the game plan thing, just seeing what we feel like what we can do and how we can attack certain players. Sometimes it’s just we’re going to do this blitz so that we can throw some of these chips off the defensive ends.”
Detroit knows all about the pressure the Vikings can bring. Minnesota battered Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford when the two teams met in November, with the Vikings registering a franchise-record 10 sacks.
Minnesota posted nine sacks of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill last week, becoming just the second team since 1990 and the seventh since the 1970 merger to have at least nine sacks in two games of a season.
“We’re just playing more aggressive,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “I think we know our backs are against the wall. I think we play best in those situations, when we know we have to have it. I think we’ve definitely reached a new level the last few weeks, and hopefully we can keep that momentum riding.”
Far past their early-season struggles, the Vikings are now fourth in the league in total defense, giving up just 314.3 yards per game. Minnesota has given up 180 gross yards passing the past two games, a glaring total in this year’s pass-happy NFL.
But that’s before accounting for the sacks, 11 coming in the past two games. Minnesota gave up 37 net passing yards to Miami and 60 against Seattle.
One new wrinkle has been using Anthony Barr more as pass rusher. He’s had his only three sacks of the season in the past two games, including two last week.
“Yeah, always extra attention,” Barr said. “I think protection turns to me a lot and that allows other people to get matchups, favorable matchups. I’m all for that. It is what it is. The scouting report is out. Teams know what we like to do. They know what I do well. We try and combat that.”
It’s hard for opponents to account for what Zimmer can bring every down.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter is second in the league with 14.5 sacks. Everson Griffen has been one of the top pass rushers in the league since becoming a full-time starter and has 4.5 sacks despite missing five games. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has 4.5 sacks in his first season in Minnesota.
And then there’s cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the added element many opponents aren’t ready for when he makes a surprise run at the quarterback from his nickel spot. Alexander has four sacks this season, a single-season team record for a defensive back.
“I think it adds an extra problem for them,” Hunter said. “We got us up front and then we got Barr. And sometimes they’ll be focused on us five and then Mackensie comes up free. So, we’ve got guys on all levels that are just able to go out there and be able to rush the quarterback.”
Stafford has faced Minnesota 17 times in his career, one fewer than his matchups with Chicago and one more than he’s faced Green Bay. Stafford has been on the turf much more against the Vikings, though.
Minnesota has sacked Stafford 61 times in the 17 games, an average of 3.6 times per game. The Bears have got Stafford on the ground 46 times in the 18 contests.
Asked if there’s a reason the Vikings have had such success against Stafford, Zimmer replied, “We have good players.”
But it’s more than that, such as the last meeting when he went down 10 times, 3.5 times by Hunter.
“We were probably lucky in that game to get that many sacks,” Zimmer said. “We had him flustered a couple of times. One time, he was scrambling out of there. I’m sure they are going to do a better job with keeping guys in.”
Expect Minnesota to follow a similar game plan on Sunday.
“We stop the run,” Griffen said. “We know Detroit likes to throw the ball down the field, Stafford likes to throw the ball down field. If we can get him in passing situations, then we’re able to rush the passer.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings