Slowing Down A.J. Brown

Photo Credit: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press via USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt that Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown is one of the top offensive weapons in the game today. His run-after-catch ability is second only to Deebo Samuel‘s. The Minnesota Vikings’ defense will have to focus their defensive game plan around slowing down his connection with Jalen Hurts.

Last week, the Detroit Lions couldn’t figure out a way to contain Brown. He went off for 155 yards, good for second-most in the NFL, behind Justin Jefferson‘s 184. I went through every snap that Hurts targeted Brown to see how the Vikings can counter him.

The Eagles wanted to get the ball to Brown as often as possible. He was targeted 13 times, including three screen passes. Philadelphia made a concerted effort to get him the rock in open space, where he is most comfortable. The Detroit Lions often didn’t have rangy enough players to track him down and rally for a tackle.

The Vikings have an advantage here. Bringing players down into open space is one of the strongest parts of Eric Kendricks‘ game. While he is not as fast as he used to be, Harrison Smith is a student of the game and knows where he needs to be. Smith also showed that he still has the physicality to make a big tackle, as he did against A.J. Dillon on a clutch third-and-goal on the one-yard line last week, delivering a beautiful hit to stop the 247 lb. running back.

Additionally, the Vikings’ first draft pick, Lewis Cine, is a quick, bursty athlete. He sat out Week 1 with a knee injury, but if he’s healthy, he should be a huge help in disrupting Brown.

The Eagles also used a lot of play-action to set up Brown on his routes. Six of 13 targets came off of play-action, and these were often some of Brown’s biggest chunk plays. The linebackers and even the cornerbacks would sell out for the run, allowing Brown to run free under the safeties. Perhaps that’s an extension of the Lions’ struggle with range; their linebackers couldn’t get back to their positions in time.

Detroit’s use of blitzing and single-high safety looks compounded Brown’s wide-open looks. Again, six of Brown’s targets came on a blitz, and six came out of single-high safety formations. On these plays, the man left covering Brown was often without help in coverage, allowing the Eagles to flood their zone or for Brown to go to work with his route-running. Without safety help, cornerbacks would have to protect the nine route, which Brown and the Eagles exploited by cutting inside or towards the sideline.

The Vikings need to avoid over-pursuing with the Eagles. If they bite too hard on play action, Brown will be running free. If they’re too eager to get after the quarterback, Hurts can punish them with his mobility.

Fortunately, the Vikings again have an advantage. In Week 1, the defense operated almost entirely in a two-high safety formation. If Cine is healthy, there might be three safeties simultaneously on the field. That should help Minnesota keep everything in front of them, allowing them to close in on whoever is in open space quickly and effectively. It should also give the cornerbacks the confidence to stay home on Brown’s shorter routes without worrying as much about the deep ball.

The Lions often lined up eight or 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage against Brown because they were worried about the deep ball. Therefore, Brown would run a quick slant, catch an easy pass, and use his after-the-catch ability to run for a first down. With more safety help, the Vikings shouldn’t worry too much about big shot plays.

The Vikings rarely blitzed in Week 1, and I think they should continue that trend in Week 2. If you blitz Hurts, he can use his legs to evade pressure. Then you have fewer people in front of him, allowing him to run for a big gain or find a target like Brown who can do the same.

Instead, it might be a better idea to try to rush with four, something the Vikings are more than capable of doing, as they demonstrated against the Packers. Minnesota sacked Aaron Rodgers four times, cutting off his escape routes and bringing him down, mostly by rushing four. With Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, Harrison Phillips, and Davlin Thomlinson, the Vikings should be more than capable of hurrying Hurts without bringing extra pressure.

Of course, Brown will still get his targets, and he could take advantage of Minnesota’s mediocre secondary. But the Lions game at least gave a blueprint for what not to do against him. If the Vikings can avoid making the same mistakes, they should have more success in slowing down Brown on Monday night.

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Photo Credit: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press via USA TODAY Sports

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