Defensive sets and film observations: Week 12 vs. Packers
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Welcome to another installment of 'Defensive sets and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers.
Every Wednesday after a game, we'll take a look at what the Vikings defense looked like, bring you five key takeaways from film study and hand out a proverbial game ball and name the goat(s). Click here for the offensive analysis and breakdown from Vikings-Packers.
The Minnesota Vikings held the NFL's second-ranked offense to just seven points on 31 plays through the first three quarters. Albeit, the Green Bay Packers have been without quarterback Aaron Rodgers for three weeks. But the unit has still managed to average 424 yards per game through Week 12.
The Vikings defense collapsed, in part to poor tackling, untimely penalties and a Packers' switch to no-huddle, as they allowed 273 yards on the Packers' final four scoring drives in the fourth quarter and overtime to set up the franchise's first tie since 1978.
With Scott Tolzien under center, the defense held its own as the Vikings forced six punts in the first seven Packers' possessions - including four three-and-outs. However, successor Matt Flynn stepped in to lead four scoring drives in a little more than a quarter of play to force the tie.
Crucial late-game penalties by cornerback Marcus Sherels and safety Robert Blanton help set up 19 fourth-quarter and overtime points by the Packers. As time wore on in the four-hour contest, the Vikings let running back Eddie Lacy slip by on the ground and through the air. Seven of Lacy's first 14 carries went for just two yards or less, but he managed to finish with 158 total yards as he went unaccounted for in the passing game late.
The Vikings accounted for 19 missed tackles as a team, per Pro Football Focus, with linebacker Chad Greenway and safety Jamarca Sanford combining for eight of them.
Overall, the Vikings defense held the Packers to three yards or less on 48 of 89 plays [54%], including the Packers' 25 combined incompletions. But the late-game collapse, combined with extended play, lends itself to a 30th-ranked defense that now allows 401 yards/game and a league-worst 31.5 points/game.
Base: 11/30 [37%]
Nickel: 19/30 [63%]
Base: 4/38 [10%]
Nickel: 34/38 [90%]
Base: 1/16 [6%]
Nickel: 15/16 [94%]
1) The Packers went without a turnover for the first time since they played the Vikings on Oct. 27.
After the Vikings had 12 takeaways in their first four games, they've managed just two in their last seven. The defense has just one takeaway since their win in London on Sept. 29 - an interception in a loss at Dallas by cornerback A.J. Jefferson, who was released on Monday shortly following an arrest on domestic assault. Tolzien and Flynn combined to throw 53 times without a pick, which extends the Vikings' current streak to 120 straight passes against them. Take away Jefferson's pick and that streak is 280 throws by opposing quarterbacks without an interception.
Even though the defense tallied nine batted passes, four by rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the only near-interception was grabbed on a failed two-point attempt by the Packers. Rhodes exited Sunday's game twice and was ultimately ruled out with a concussion, which appeared to happen after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit by Lacy late in the game. A defense that already allows a league-leading 24 passing touchdowns is down to three healthy cornerbacks in Sherels, Chris Cook and Shaun Prater. Cornerback Josh Robinson is hopeful to return in a couple weeks after fracturing his sternum on Nov. 17, while Jefferson was cut and Rhodes is concussed. The Vikings added rookie defensive back Kip Edwards to the practice squad on Tuesday.
2) The Vikings relied heavily on defensive tackle Kevin Williams at the three-technique and a little bit at nose tackle late in the game on Sunday. Williams played a season-high 71 snaps [76%] as rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd saw minimal work [25, 27%]. Williams tallied two pass deflections and a couple hits on the quarterback in the first half, and held his own in the second half despite the defense's collapse. The Packers switched to a no-huddle offense with Flynn under center, which sparked the first of their three scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
Defensive tackle Letroy Guion returned to the starting lineup after sitting out a couple weeks with a shoulder/chest injury. Guion saw just one of every three snaps as his backup, Fred Evans, played just 17 of 71 snaps. The Vikings often went with a Williams-Everson Griffen tandem on the inside as the Packers were in obvious passing situations trying to score late. Griffen was a non-factor working from inside as he accounted for just two hurries on the quarterback in 36 pass rushing attempts. He was also flagged for encroachment on a 4th-and-6 attempt at the end of the fourth quarter. Receiver James Jones caught Flynn's lob for 28 yards as he was hit by linebacker Audie Cole when he released the ball. Griffen was a non-factor in the running game, missing on tackles that ended up as 10- and 34-yard gains by Lacy and running back James Starks, respectively. The penalty on Griffen was declined and the Packers kicked the game-tying field goal just four plays later to force overtime.
Robison and Allen consistently applied pressure from the edges that forced errant throws from Tolzien, who was pulled in the third quarter. But Flynn appeared to have better protection later in the game, which could be chalked up to decisiveness and/or an exhausted pass rush exacerbated by the Packers' choosy no-huddle.
3) Packers receivers were able to gain 158 of their 316 combined receiving yards after the catch (YAC), per Pro Football Focus. Tolzien and Flynn combined to throw a season-low 5.6 yards-per-attempt for the Packers offense, but broken tackles helped turn that into 16 fourth-quarter points. A few chunks of the Packers' YAC came on their late scoring drives as they often dumped the ball off to Lacy as he would delay routes out of the backfield. Lacy finished with six catches for 48 yards - both season highs - as he accounted for gains of 10, 13 and 16 yards through the air in the fourth quarter. Greenway got tagged for that yardage in the stat sheet, but he was often in a zone coverage that allowed underneath routes. However, Greenway missed on at least four tackles, mostly on Lacy.
4) Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes was targeted a team-high 11 times and batted a career-high four of those passes away before exiting with a concussion. Rhodes allowed just 40 yards on six receptions, but his teammates didn't do him justice. Cornerback Marcus Sherels struggled defending receivers James Jones and Jordy Nelson, whether from the slot or in Rhodes' place on the outside. Sherels' rough game continued after he allowed a 22-yard reception on the Packers' scoring drive in overtime. Sherels appeared to jump on a pump fake, left his feet and allowed Jones to run underneath him for the big gain before Sanford dragged him down. Sherels allowed a 28-yard reception on 4th-and-6 to set up the game-tying field goal before overtime. Regardless of the coverage, the play would've been 4th-and-1 due to Griffen's offsides. Sherels also muffed the opening punt return and was flagged for a 35-yard pass interference penalty that helped set up the Packers' first score in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings moved safety Robert Blanton into the nickel cornerback spot during the second half. The second-year pro is a converted safety after playing cornerback at Notre Dame and allowed just two catches on five targets to Nelson. However, Blanton drew two holding penalties, one that negated a three-and-out to open overtime and another became a moot point after cornerback Chris Cook was beat on a 34-yard pass to receiver Jarret Boykin. Cook allowed 59 yards on four receptions, but none more damning than Boykin's catch at the Vikings' seven-yard line to set up the go-ahead field goal in overtime.
5) Linebacker Audie Cole stepped in place of Erin Henderson, who sat out the game for 'personal reasons' that is now amounting to a police matter. Cole led all defenders with 13 tackles, not including three hits on the quarterback as he was sent on a blitz at least six times in passing situations. Cole's first career sack came on the first snap of his first career start as he took Tolzien down for a loss of seven yards. Still raw, Cole looked instinctive in reacting to where the ball was, run or pass. He allowed a 24-yard reception to tight end Brandon Bostick over his zone before halftime, but otherwise appeared clean in defending the pass. Cole also missed Lacy on three tackles.
Game Ball: Kevin Williams. At one point this offseason, Kevin Williams was laughing off requests from coach Leslie Frazier that he be capped at 30 to 40 snaps per game. In Week 12, already recovered from a preseason knee injury, Williams tallied 71 snaps and helped hold Lacy to 14 yards on his final seven carries of the game. Robison and Allen both shined as well, but the nod goes to Williams simply for exceeding expectations. At 33 years old, Williams certainly isn't what he once was, but he's more than the Vikings' banked on as Williams is still trucking despite a $2.5 million pay cut he received this offseason in a restructuring of his contract.
Goat(s): Marcus Sherels. Not many in the Vikings secondary excelled on Sunday. But Sherels allowed a 28-yard reception on 4th-and-6 to set up the game-tying field goal before overtime. Regardless of the coverage, the play would've been 4th-and-1 due to Griffen's offsides. However, Sherels also muffed the opening punt return and was flagged for a 35-yard pass interference penalty that helped set up the Packers' first score in the fourth quarter. Safety Jamarca Sanford earns an honorable mention in this spot due to four missed tackles.