Mike Zimmer's Blitz Packages Are Going To Come In Handy

Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson (USA Today Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings have a big problem to contend with as they enter the bye week. Patrick Peterson is out for at least the next three games with a hamstring injury. Bashaud Breeland and Cameron Dantzler have both been inconsistent (to be generous). They’re going to need to help those two out against a gauntlet of Dak Prescott (probably), Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert. You may want to use your safeties to that end, but that takes them out of run defense. Pressure is a cornerback’s best friend. And luckily for the Vikings, their head coach is famous for his pressure packages.

Blitzing is an artform. If you only rush extra players directly at the quarterback, the blitz will get picked up. To understand the blitz, you have to understand the way offensive lines call protections (here are the basics). In short, centers (and sometimes quarterbacks) will choose a side to “slide” the protection to. That means walling everyone on that side up to help cover each other. If you’re part of the wall, you have help on either shoulder and can plan your pass blocking accordingly. From the defense’s perspective, drawing these protection slides is vital to the blitz design.

The Vikings went to the blitz a whopping 17 times against Sam Darnold. Many of them looked the same, with different players rushing or backing into coverage post-snap. The game provides us with a great sampling of Mike Zimmer’s favorite techniques and tricks to pressure the quarterback. Blitzes are risky: If they don’t work, the defense is stuck relying on depleted coverage. They don’t have time to win long reps of attrition. The tricks the Vikings use to avoid those are worth examining in detail.

Here, the Vikings threaten two blitzers, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr, before backing both of them off into coverage. That’s called a “simulated” or “sim” pressure, while Eric Kendricks is the real threat. Bait the offense into sliding one way and then blitz from the other way. Good luck to young centers and quarterbacks everywhere trying to keep up with it.

The few seconds before the snap are crucial real estate for deceptive tricks. It’s a waste to have every blitzer line up in some alignment or other and play. Why not confuse it further? Zimmer’s blitzes often feature players threatening, backing off, and otherwise shifting around pre-snap. As the center, it forces you and your fellow linemen to adjust on the fly. You can’t yell out a play call while the quarterback is going through his cadence. So you have to hope everyone knows the rules well enough.

Everything in football has its pros and cons. Simulating pressure with a player means you have to start closer to the line of scrimmage. That means that much less ground you can cover once the play begins. That means a savvy quarterback can quickly identify the space you’d usually be able to get to and throw the ball there. Big problem, right?

Not if you’re Eric Kendricks.

Offensive linemen have eyes and brains, too, however, and they get to keep reading you even after the snap. That makes the few moments immediately after the snap a place for deception as well. The first step or two can go a long way toward selling the blitz you want the offense to buy. Of course, you can only commit so much to a fake blitz without sacrificing coverage efficacy. But the whole point of a blitz is to render the coverage moot, right?

After a long day of confusing blitzes and sacks, you can wear a center into going against his best instincts. Here, the Vikings tip their hand pre-snap with their alignment, but creeping players tell a different story. It causes the Carolina Panthers to go against their best instincts and fall directly into Zimmer’s trap.

Sam Darnold has always had trouble countering the blitz. Perhaps famously so. Minnesota’s success blitzing probably overrates their efficacy against stronger opponents. But everyone is weak somewhere. The Vikings may not be able to get pressure with four against better offensive lines than the Panthers have. The blitz may be their only way to help a thinning group of cornerbacks keep up against an absolute gauntlet of November passing offenses.

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