Defensive sets and film observations: Week 14 vs. Ravens
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Welcome to another installment of 'Defensive sets and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Baltimore Ravens.
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-Ravens.
For the fourth time in nine losses, the Minnesota Vikings defense allowed a last-minute touchdown pass - this time to the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's 29-26 loss.
Despite the Vikings making strides in third-down defense, turnover margin and tackling, the Ravens were able to go nearly the length of the field for touchdowns twice late in the fourth quarter. Akin to the tie at Lambeau Field, penalties gave their opponent additional life as linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive back Robert Blanton were called for pass interference that moved the Ravens to the Vikings' 27 and 17, respectively, and led to touchdowns.
The Ravens' 4.1 yards-per-play is by far a season-best for the Vikings defense, trumping the Cleveland Browns' 5.5-yards-per-play in September. Greenway, safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Marcus Sherels all had interceptions, but the Vikings offense could gain just seven points off the three takeaways.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco won his first career game against the Vikings as he threw for three touchdowns and three interceptions on 50 throws. Sendejo and rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes combined for six pass deflections before Rhodes' fourth-quarter exit with an ankle sprain.
The Vikings held the Ravens to six three-and-outs on 15 drives, but allowed 109 of the Ravens' 325 yards on the last two drives. After allowing 29 points, the Vikings now rank 31st in both yards allowed per game (401.2) and points allowed per game (30.4).
Base: 3/35 [8%]
Nickel: 29/35 [84%]
6-3-2: 3/35 [8%]
Yardage allowed: 103
Base: 4/44 [9%]
Nickel: 38/44 [86%]
6-3-2: 2/44 [5%]
Yardage allowed: 222
1) Defensive back Robert Blanton has now had critical penalties in three straight games since taking over the nickel cornerback role with Josh Robinson out. On Sunday, Blanton was flagged for a 37-yard pass interference as he ran into receiver Marlon Brown, who was coming back toward the ball. Blanton didn't play the ball until it was too late and the flag set the Ravens up at the Vikings' 17 for the ensuing score to tight end Dennis Pitta, who made his season debut. Against the Chicago Bears, Blanton had an offside penalty negate a Chad Greenway interception and at Lambeau Field, Blanton had two defensive holding penalties - one of which negated a Packers' three-and-out in overtime. Other than that, Blanton has served the role well in Robinson's absence, perhaps providing an upgrade in coverage as he allowed just four catches on eight targets for 43 yards, per Pro Football Focus.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes continued to excel as a starter on Sunday, deflecting three passes in 60 snaps [71%] before exiting in the fourth quarter with an ankle sprain. He allowed just two catches on seven passes thrown his way for 20 yards. The Ravens continually took deep shots on Rhodes - and later on his replacement Marcus Sherels - to no avail as receiver Torrey Smith's only catch went for 11 yards on five targets. Cornerback Chris Cook bounced back fairly well from his ejection against the Bears and made a handful of open-field tackles as he allowed minimal yards after the catch. Cook's lone snafu appeared to be a busted coverage on tight end Ed Dickson, who leaked out of the formation for the one-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. Cook was one of two defensive backs as defensive coordinator Alan Williams used a 6-3-2 formation on various goal line stands. Previously this season, Williams utilized a 6-2 front, but opted to go with three linebackers instead on Sunday.
Cornerback Marcus Sherels stepped in place of the injured Rhodes and played 20 snaps [24%]. He also nabbed his first career interception off a bobbled pass that hit him in the face mask in the fourth quarter.
2) Linebacker Audie Cole now has 35 tackles across his past three starts since taking over for linebacker Erin Henderson in the middle. However, Cole was a major liability in the passing game on Sunday as Flacco completed critical passes to receiver Marlon Brown over Cole on the final drive that led to the Ravens' game-winning touchdown. On both plays, Flacco hit Brown over the middle and just over the 6-foot-5-inch Cole - one for 35 yards that put the Ravens into Vikings' territory and another for the nine-yard score as Brown tiptoed along the back of the endzone with four seconds left. Cole made multiple stops in the run game as the Vikings held the NFL's worst rushing attack to just 3.6 yards per carry. Discounting Flacco's 22-yard run in the first quarter, the Vikings held the Ravens to 2.9 yards per carry on 26 carries.
Greenway's pass interference call negated safety Andrew Sendejo's second interception, which would've sealed the victory for the Vikings. On the play, Greenway wraps his right arm around tight end Dennis Pitta's midsection when he put a double-move on Greenway from the outside to the center of the field. A few steps later, Pitta falls down, which likely draws the flag. It's unknown if Greenway's initial contact caused Pitta to fall down on the route, but nonetheless a flag was thrown.
Linebacker Marvin Mitchell entered the game before Henderson, despite Frazier's claim that Henderson would start at the weak-side linebacker on Sunday. Henderson saw his first game action since the Nov. 17 loss at Seattle when he stepped in on the team's seventh defensive drive of the game at the end of the second quarter. Henderson made one earlier appearance, which appeared to provoke a 12-men on the field penalty in the first quarter as he and Blanton were in together. On the ensuing 1st-and-5, Henderson was on the sideline and Blanton was in. Henderson played seven snaps, while Mitchell ultimately ended up playing five as the Vikings remained in nickel about 85 percent of the snaps against one of the NFL's more explosive pass offenses.
3) Led by their defensive ends, the Vikings pressured Flacco on 20 of his 53 dropbacks [38%], even though they blitzed just eight times throughout the game. Defensive end Everson Griffen led all linemen with six quarterback hurries as cohorts Brian Robison and Jared Allen each sacked Flacco once in the first half. The Ravens, like the Bears a week ago, added an extra offensive lineman twice - both times on Robison's side as they ran his way.
The Ravens used a multitude of tactics to get the ball out of Flacco's hands quickly, including screens, short routes and designed roll outs. As a result, there were a lot of delayed routes out of the backfield, including an 18-yard completion to Pitta with 18 seconds left in the game that set them up for the game-winning score. Both sacks on Flacco were the result of chasing him down to the sideline as about half of his throws came from the pocket, with the other half on the run. Despite being a top-10 NFL team in terms of explosive plays, the Ravens were held to 4.6-yards-per-pass as the Vikings' defensive line allowed little time for Flacco. Allen took advantage of single blocks and led the Vikings with three stops in the run game as he had Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe on roller skates for most of the game.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams played about six of every 10 snaps as he anchored the line from the three-technique position. Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd saw 34 snaps [40%] as his playing time has gradually increased over the previous few weeks. Defensive tackle Letroy Guion was flagged for one offside penalty and missed one crucial tackle that led to Flacco's 22-yard run in the first quarter. Fred Evans laid a team-high two hits on Flacco as he provided the most pressure up the middle of defensive tackles in passing situations.
4) After punting on six of their first eight possessions, the Ravens opted to go for tries on 4th-and-1 and 4th-and-2 in the second half to no avail. The Ravens' only fourth-down conversion came on their third and final attempt with 2:09 left in the game. Flacco found the one-on-one matchup with Sendejo and Pitta on a short hook route in the endzone for six points. Despite a false start, the Ravens converted the two-point attempt from seven yards out to go up 15-12.
The Ravens threw on every third-down attempt and Flacco went 9-for-15 for 51 yards, a touchdown and an interception as they converted 6-of-16 attempts [37.5%] on the Vikings. Robison's first-half sack also ended a Ravens' drive on 3rd-and-2.
The Vikings are now tied with two other teams for the second-worst third-down defense in the NFL after holding opponents to 11-of-43 [26%] across the past three weeks. The Vikings had held the title of worst third-down defense through Week 11, but have widdled that opponents' conversion rate from 50 percent to 44 percent now on the season.
5) Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Jamarca Sanford both had their best games of the season as the Ravens completed just one of six passes that traveled farther than 20 yards on Sunday. Sendejo tied for the team lead as he batted away three passes and he grabbed his first career interception off a fourth-quarter dive in front of Dickson. Being chased by Floyd, Flacco made the poor decision to throw to Dickson as Sendejo continues to show his adequate closing speed. He was more under control on Sunday, too, as Sendejo missed just one tackle. Sanford played mainly as the eighth man in the box and had multiple stops in the running game.
Game ball: Andrew Sendejo. Sendejo had two interceptions on Sunday, but the latter was negated by Greenway's pass interference call on the Ravens' final drive. Sendejo showed impressive closing speed in limited action earlier this season, but he has made strides in getting that under control. As a result, he's missing fewer tackles and timing his jumps better on routes.
Goat(s): Audie Cole. There wasn't much Cole could've done, but he was burned on two throws on the Ravens' final drive - one went for a game-high 35 yards to Brown over his zone in the middle and another for the game-winning touchdown pass to Brown in the back of the endzone. The second-year linebacker was in position on both, but he was a split-second behind in reacting to two perfectly-thrown passes by Flacco.