When the opposing team puts up 34 points with only one relatively short field, it reflects poorly on the defense. There are many mistakes to lament in that defensive performance, but Mike Zimmer concocted an impressive game plan to slow down Kyler Murray. The Arizona Cardinals’ initial strategy didn’t work, but Murray made some incredible improvisational hero plays that rendered the coaching irrelevant. That’s unfortunate for the Vikings because Zimmer had Kliff Kingsbury figured out.
Throw out the above plays for now since they don’t have much to do with coaching. Murray made some insane plays. There’s nothing you can do to plan around that other than tell your guys to do a better job of chasing him down. So give credit to Murray, clean up the miscommunications where you can, and move on to the fundamentals.
Arizona’s offense is rooted in option plays. They use heavy doses of the classic Colin Kaepernick read-option plays (they’ve been around long before Kaepernick’s day, but he made them mainstream in the NFL) to the Doug Pederson run-pass options (RPOs, which have also been around forever). The idea is to design a play that could go to several different ball carriers and stress the defense by making them cover all of them.
There are many variations on this in Kingsbury’s Murray-led offense, but the key idea is that the defense’s positioning determines who gets the ball. Someone still has to make a play and win the rep, but schematically you can make it easier. If the Vikings can key on Murray, they can ensure that Murray always gives the ball to someone less talented than he is. You can’t keep it out of his hands every play, but you can at least limit him.
If the offense is going to let the defense dictate the play’s reads, the defense can choose the read it prefers to defend. So long as everyone executes on their assignment, that allows Zimmer to exert control over the offense. That was the crux of Zimmer’s game plan to limit the Cardinals, and it led to a huge number of failed plays.
The same logic applies to RPOs. If the defensive spacing dictates whether the play is run or pass, you get to start play-calling run or pass for the offense. If you can take advantage of that agency, you can force the offense right into your teeth.
This isn’t Kingsbury’s first rodeo. He knows about these counters to his staple plays, and the option has some things worked in to solve these problems. For one, most plays are designed to give the offense a numbers advantage if the defense keys the quarterback. If the defense takes Danielle Hunter out of the play, the offense will happily take the blocker assigned to him and put him on someone easier. To make up for this, you have to get creative in the way you “get the guy back.” If someone has to work themselves out of the play to dictate the call, someone else has to work their way in.
Part of defensive creativity is resource management. You have two corners and two receivers to cover. Most coaches would see that as a matchup problem and leave it where it is, schematically. But when you have a do-it-all safety like Harrison Smith, you can line him up deep, discouraging any sort of check or audible into a deep pass, and still have him help the run game by taking Bashaud Breeland‘s assignment off his hands. Breeland takes the quick pass and makes the tackle.
Beyond the numbers problem, there’s a spacing issue. If you’re sacrificing the player who usually pursues a run play from the backside (i.e., the side the play runs away from), that run play becomes harder to defend. The backside pursuit player puts a clock on the run play. The running back has to choose a lane upfield before the backside guy gets there to tackle him for a loss. Without that backside guy, the play can take as long as it wants to set up.
But again, you can take advantage of this on defense. Players who usually align away from the play can freely get involved now that you’ve chosen the area that your opponent will attack. And because of the slow nature of such a play, you’ve bought him time to get over there. Once again, you can fix the numbers game in your favor.
Murray can also read the pre-snap spacing and try to take advantage of it. Here he sees a thin presence on the weak side (left in this case) of the play. If the Vikings want to stop a run that way, Mackensie Alexander will have to get involved. If he gets involved, he has to abandon the slot receiver, who is running too quick of a route for the safety to save the day. But because the Vikings can force — and therefore predict — the area the play attacks, they can each shift a gap over and blow up the play without Alexander.
It doesn’t hurt when the Cardinals blow the protection and let a fearsome defensive tackle like Dalvin Tomlinson into the play.
The option is unique and difficult to defend. Zimmer’s defense put on a clinic on how to counter it. Maybe Murray made some incredible things happen on broken plays, but to break those plays in the first place, the Vikings had to be disciplined and prepared. If your team is preparing for the Cardinals, and you put on this game tape, you’ll undoubtedly see the blueprint to slowing Murray down. Don’t let the final result fool you: This was a fantastically schemed game by Mike Zimmer.
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