Defensive sets and film observations: Week 4 vs. Steelers
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Welcome to another installment of 'Defensive sets and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Pittsburgh Steelers.
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-Steelers.
Apparently it took a 4,000-mile flight to London to revive the Vikings' pass rush, or perhaps just one of the worst offensive lines in football that's without All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey for the season to an ACL injury. Defensive end Jared Allen raised his season sack total from 1 to 3.5 as he consistently abused left tackle Mike Adams.
The pass rush was so dominant, Allen specifically, that Adams will reportedly be replaced by tackle Kelvin Beachum after the Steelers' Week 5 bye.
The Vikings finally got the last laugh thanks to their four-man rush, which didn't allow Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to have any real attempt at the game-tying touchdown with two tries from the Vikings' six-yard line with seconds left. They brought Roethlisberger down five times, but it easily could've been in double-digits had the 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound frame not been so difficult to drag down.
The Vikings allowed more than 400 yards of offense for the third time this year, raising their average allowed to 430.8 (29th in NFL). They allowed 27 points to the Steelers, dropping their average to 30.8 per game (29th). After two takeaways, the Vikings' 12 forced turnovers are tied for third in the league.
Base: 16/35 [46%]
Nickel: 19/35 [54%]
Yardage allowed: 193
Base: 7/40 [17%]
Nickel: 31/40 [78%]
Goal line: 2/40 [5%]
Yardage allowed: 241
Base: 23/75 [30%]
Nickel: 50/75 [67%]
Goal line: 2/75 [3%]
Yardage allowed: 434
1) Roethlisberger's 71 percent completion rate sounds bad at first, but when noticing that three of his 15 incompletions were spikes -- it's more like 75 percent. The Vikings secondary played without cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford, but even with them in the lineup, they allowed 315 yards per contest entering this game. But without Cook and Sanford, the Vikings allowed 383 passing yards to set their average at 326 (worst in the NFL). The purple pass rush got after Roethlisberger, but the veteran's awareness in the pocket is unlike anything they'd seen so far this season. From the first play, when linebacker Erin Henderson blitzed and tried to arm-tackle Roethlisberger, the tone was set. Linebacker Chad Greenway, defensive end Jared Allen and many others would get their arms wrapped around Big Ben, but came up empty. The Vikings still sacked him five times, a season high, four of which came from their four-man rush. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams blitzed Roethlisberger 11 times and he went 9-of-10 for 154 yards against the pressure. The Vikings could only bring him down on one of every five dropbacks, even though they got to him twice as often.
2) The Vikings allowed two rushing touchdowns to rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. Bell outran defensive end Brian Robison to the corner of the endzone for the first, and converted on his second try from the one-yard line on his second. The latter was set up by a 48-yard pass interference call on cornerback Josh Robinson. The play before, Robinson had been beat by receiver Jericho Cotchery for a 16-yard catch on a quick slant route. Seemingly eager to not get beat again, Robinson was on receiver Antonio Brown on a go-route. Robinson had no safety help over the top as only he could keep up with Brown, but the second-year corner played the man, not the ball, and wrapped his arms around the receiver too early for the easy flag.
Safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo were also flagged for unnecessary roughness, Smith for helmet-to-helmet and Sendejo for a late hit. In the second quarter, Roethlisberger scrambled to avoid Greenway and hit tight end Health Miller in stride. Miller lowers his helmet and Smith does the same to make the tackle. The flag itself seemed unnecessary as Smith was simply the victim of a poor judgment call. Sendejo, who only plays regularly on special teams, made a bad split second decision as Cotchery made a 'football-move' after he was initially hit, the whistle blew just a second before Sendejo hits him. Both flags helped set the Steelers up for scores, Smith's for the field goal before halftime and Sendejo's for their fourth-quarter touchdown.
3) Every week we'll breakdown a sequence in the game that helped decide the outcome. This week, it'll be the Steelers' final drive with 1:43 left, down 34-27. Roethlisberger ran 11 plays, only eight of them for yardage as he spiked the ball three times to stop the clock.
Punting from midfield, Jeff Locke put perhaps a little too much air under it for the 36-yard punt that set the Steelers up at their own 22-yard line after the fair catch by Brown. Roethlisberger fired downfield to Cotchery for 36 yards on the first play as rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes went for the pass deflection, missed, and allowed a 15-yard run after the catch to the Vikings' 42-yard line. Backup safety Mistral Raymond was easily blocked out of the play and Henderson knocked him out of bounds. Allen actually brought Roethlisberger down after the throw, but like many times before, Big Ben was a split second ahead of the defense.
The Vikings dropped back into multiple zone coverages on the last drive, including on the 36-yard pass to Cotchery. They continued the plan with a short field, but Roethlisberger conducted the dink-and-dunk type play the Vikings were giving him. Big Ben completed his first six throws of the drive, four for seven yards or less.
On the first play after Cotchery's 36 yard reception, defensive end Everson Griffen drops into coverage as Smith is sent on a blitz. Roethlisberger completes to Brown just a couple inches over a leaping Griffen, who is the only one within 10 yards of the receiver. Brown actually slips on his own, otherwise it could've gone for more than the 10-yard gain.
After a couple of short completions, Roethlisberger spiked the ball on 1st and goal from the six-yard line. On 2nd and goal, the Vikings' switch to man-to-man coverage. Steelers left tackle Mike Adams doesn't block Allen, who comes untouched at Roethlisberger, forcing a quick throwaway out of the back of the endzone. On 3rd and goal, the Vikings stay in man. Henderson does a good job of covering Cotchery's curl route in the middle, which appears to be Roethlisberger's first read. By the time he progresses to his second read, Griffen has his hand on Roethlisberger's collar and Greenway piles on to get the sack-fumble. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams recovers the ball and the game is over. After getting ample time to at least make a couple reads, the Vikings' pass rush stepped up on the final two plays and didn't allow Roethlisberger to get any real look at the endzone.
4) Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd played a career-high 27 snaps and for the first time he saw more action than defensive tackles Fred Evans (21) and Letroy Guion (22). Floyd paired with Griffen as the team's nickel pass-rush tackles and that's most likely the reason for his snap increase. The Vikings played in nickel on 78 percent of their second-half snaps, trying to blanket an opponent who was down by 17 points at one time. Floyd registered a pass deflection in the first quarter, which almost turned into a Henderson interception, but landed untouched.
Veteran Kevin Williams tied his season high with 52 snaps on Sunday, much more than coach Leslie Frazier had prescribed for him before the season. But with the exit of defensive tackle Christian Ballard, the Vikings have had to rely on Williams a little more than they wanted to. Evans, who also had a pass deflection, consistently drew double teams on Sunday and provides the team's best push up the middle. Evans drove backup center Fernando Velasco into Roethlisberger on a handful of plays, once specifically on the last play of the first quarter when he tackled running back Felix Jones for no gain.
5) The Vikings played a single-high safety on occasion with Smith or Sendejo playing up in the box. Smith continues to be one of the most disruptive safeties in football, evident from the third play of the game: Smith was 20 yards from the ball at the snap, but when he sees a receiver motion to his side, he looks to Sendejo, taps his chest and is at full sprint by the time Bell gets the handoff. Smith crashed through the line to get Bell for a one-yard gain. Sendejo (42) and Raymond (36) essentially split snaps for the injured Sanford and were relatively solid, save for a few missed tackles.
The Steelers didn't take many shots downfield, averaging just 5.6 yards per play, which allowed the Vikings to crowd the line of scrimmage and disguise blitz and coverage packages. Single-high came back to bite the Vikings at least once early in the first quarter, when Roethlisberger completed to receiver Emmanuel Sanders for 36 yards over Robinson. The defense mimicked a 6-2 formation, with linebackers Greenway and Desmond Bishop up on the line and Sendejo lined up as a second linebacker. Roethlisberger reads the single coverage and fires to his only read downfield before Smith can come help over the top.
Bishop (15) played more snaps at linebacker than starter Marvin Mitchell (10) for the first time this season. Bishop made a few stops in the run game, per usual, but vanished once the Vikings virtually went all-nickel in the second half.
Greenway grabbed his second interception of the season with 5:49 left in the third quarter. The defensive line pressure flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket again, except this time he miscommunicated with Sanders, who was going outside as Roethlisberger threw inside for Greenway's easy pick.
Game ball: Everson Griffen and the defensive line. Griffen and the D-line led the Vikings to their first win, making up for a depleted secondary that still allowed nearly 400 passing yards to a quarterback playing off his back foot. Albeit, Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the toughest quarterbacks to physically bring down, but the Vikings still found a way to do it five times on Sunday, including the final play to end the game. Griffen had essentially been missing in action up until Sunday's game, when he registered one sack, three hurries and two tackles for losses. Allen's 2.5 sacks only compliment the team's six pass deflections, three of which came from the line (Allen, Evans, Floyd).
Goat(s): Josh Robinson -- Robinson was targeted a season-high 15 times, giving up 13 catches for 140 yards. As the game progressed, Robinson appeared more comfortable and aggressive in attacking screens and zero passes, but is still the main liability in coverage -- and that's with the fifth cornerback in Marcus Sherels starting alongside him. Robinson was torched once for 36 yards while in base defense, but most of his struggles came as the slot cornerback, where he lined up the majority of snaps on Sunday. Robinson has now allowed 35-of-38 passes thrown his way to be completed this season for nearly 400 yards, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Besides the 48-yard pass interference call that set up the Steelers' second touchdown, Robinson has also been a liability in run defense when lined up in the slot. He's easily boxed out of runs or reverses and didn't become aggressive enough until late in the game to make tackles at the line. He led the team with 10 tackles, mainly because of how often he saw the ball come his way.