Super Wild Card Weekend is here! Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the three-seeded Minnesota Vikings and six-seeded New York Giants is one of six different rematches that will be taking place in the opening round of the postseason. It presents a unique opportunity for every team to revisit their original game plans against their particular opponent this week. On the surface, Wink Martindale’s Giants defense represents essentially everything that could give Kevin O’Connell‘s Vikings offense fits.
Minnesota’s offensive line will have its hands full with a defensive front that includes Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams inside and top-five pick of the 2022 draft Kayvon Thibodeaux on the edge — especially without right tackle Brian O’Neill. Throughout his six-year career as an NFL defensive coordinator, Martindale’s trademark has been the sheer amount of blitzes he will dial up against his opposing offense, another red flag for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings. Out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks based on dropbacks in 2022, Cousins ranked 28th with an 85.9 passer rating against the blitz. Only Geno Smith (85.6), Josh Allen (82.0), Zach Wilson (76.2), and Mac Jones (70.0) were less efficient against five-plus rushers.
Martindale lived up to his blitz-happy reputation in Week 16’s Whiteout matchup inside U.S. Bank Stadium. He sent five-plus pass rushers on 27 of 52 dropbacks — the most dropbacks against the blitz this season in a single game for Cousins. Despite the season-long inefficiencies against the blitz, Cousins performed admirably against Martindale’s pressure packages. Cousins’ production against Martindale’s blitzes looked like this:
- 171 yards
- 2 touchdowns
- 0 interceptions
- 111.3 passer rating
With Martindale devising a game plan against a Vikings offense that will be without O’Neill this time, it’s fair to ask if New York’s defense will be as reliant on blitzes in this matchup. But expecting Martindale to take his foot off the blitz pedal is akin to expecting Mother Nature to refrain from treacherous cold and blizzards in Minnesota throughout January.
To better understand O’Connell’s success against Martindale’s blitzes, I revisited Week 16’s matchup and charted every offensive play that the Vikings had against the Giants defense. Here’s how the personnel packages broke down for Minnesota’s offense.
- 11-Personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers): 50 of 72 plays (69.4% rate)
- 12-Personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers): 9 of 72 plays (12.5% rate)
- 21-Personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers): 7 of 72 plays (9.7% rate)
- 22-Personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver): 6 of 72 plays (8.3% rate)
When Minnesota deviated from their base offense (11-personnel) and decided to go with heavy personnel with an additional running back and/or tight end, Martindale’s defense usually went into a bear front with three interior defensive linemen and two edge rushers. And Martindale sent five-plus rushers 63.6% of the time across Minnesota’s 22 plays with heavy personnel. The Vikings had a ton of success against Martindale’s bear front. It started with T.J. Hockenson‘s 12-yard touchdown off of play-action in 22-personnel from within the red zone.
But to maintain drives and prevent the defense from playing the role of aggressor with frequent blitzes, offenses have to be able to expose blitz-happy defenses in the screen game. And O’Connell caught Martindale several times with perfectly executed screen designs that went right into the blitz. Facing a second-and-six from their own 29-yard line, the Vikings again lined up in a heavy package with 12-personnel. On this particular play, Martindale didn’t go with his bear front, instead going with a traditional four-man front.
At the snap of the ball, the safety and backer immediately come on the blitz, and tight end Johnny Mundt‘s chip-release puts him in the right place at the right time. With Christian Darrisaw and Ezra Cleveland serving as his convoy for this perfectly timed screen play.
Cleveland eliminates linebacker Jaylon Smith from the play, and Mundt picks up an easy 16 yards with the Vikings now approaching midfield with a new set of downs.
These types of screens that catch the defense against the blitz have a big impact on Martindale. After giving up an explosive play with relative ease, paranoia sets in, and fear of “Are they on to my tendencies?” presents itself. Following this 16-yard screen for Mundt, Martindale didn’t call another blitz for seven consecutive plays, which was the longest sequence of plays without a blitz in the game. But because Martindale’s defense is built almost entirely on creating pressure with his blitzes, he dialed up chaos once the Vikings got into the red zone later in the drive. Martindale’s blitz was successful on a first-and-10 from the Giants’ 20-yard line when he forced an incompletion intended for K.J. Osborn on a play-action bootleg concept.
But when Martindale returned to the well on third-and-five, O’Connell countered with a trademark of his own: 3×1 wheel against man.
To New York’s credit, that’s arguably the best coverage this concept has seen over the past two years, with either the Vikings or Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams running it. And give credit to Cousins and Hockenson for their pristine execution on this particular play in a third-down spot inside the red zone.
But just because the Vikings had success against Martindale’s blitzes doesn’t mean that New York’s defensive coordinator didn’t land his fair share of jabs on Minnesota’s offense. With the Vikings clinging to a 17-16 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Martindale’s blitz got home on a second-and-10 from Minnesota’s 25-yard line, forcing the Vikings to give the ball back to Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka‘s offense. But after Josh Metellus‘s blocked punt gave Minnesota the ball back from just outside the red zone, Martindale exercised caution with only a single blitz on Minnesota’s five-play scoring drive that concluded with Justin Jefferson‘s 17-yard score.
This would prove critical on Minnesota’s game-winning drive just a few plays later.
After the Giants tied it up 24-24 with two minutes remaining, Martindale damn sure wasn’t going to let the Vikings operate on their terms — especially after what had just transpired on Minnesota’s previous scoring drive. On the opening play of the Vikings’ final drive, Martindale called a simulated pressure with the nickel coming on the blitz and defensive tackle dropping into coverage. That stymied Cousins, and the offense after the pass fell incomplete to Jefferson. Martindale dialed up pressure the very next play, resulting in a one-yard completion to Hockenson in the flat.
And with the game hanging in the balance on a third-and-nine, Martindale again blitzed Minnesota’s offense. But Cousins and Jefferson had the last laugh after they connected on an intermediate out for 16 yards against man-coverage to move the sticks and keep the drive alive.
Two plays later, Martindale’s blitz again got home on second-and-four, forcing yet another third-and-long from Minnesota’s 41-yard line with 19 seconds remaining. Based on Martindale blitzing on four of the first five plays of the drive, O’Connell was likely expecting another blitz from New York’s defensive coordinator — and Minnesota’s first-year head coach had the perfect play call for it.
It may sound redundant or elementary, but screens like the one Mundt had in the third quarter or the slot-screen for Jefferson on Minnesota’s final offensive play are the easiest and most effective way to counter Martindale’s blitzing tendencies. That doesn’t mean you’ll have success every single time against it. Sometimes an offense will be expecting pressure from Martindale, only to have his defense drop seven, essentially nullifying any opportunity to gash the defense in the screen game (as the Vikings experienced on the second down immediately before Jefferson’s 17-yard score in the fourth quarter). Other times the pressure from the blitz will cause just enough havoc and negate any chance for positive yardage — as the Vikings found out the hard way on their screen attempt for Dalvin Cook on first down directly before Jefferson’s failed screen attempt and two plays before his fourth-quarter touchdown grab.
In total, Martindale blitzed on 33 of Minnesota’s 72 plays (45.8% blitz rate) in Week 16. And to survive the 60-minute slugfest against his defense, you have to be prepared with money plays calls and even better execution on third-and-longs if/when his defense gets home on early downs. Minnesota’s final drive demonstrated that O’Connell, Cousins, and the offense are up to the challenge against Martindale’s blitzing ways.
But can lightning strike twice against Martindale’s blitzing defense without the luxury of having O’Neill at right tackle?