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Assessing the Vikings’ defensive line rotation in Week 1

When a team talks a lot about something schematic during training camp and preseason, it’s not always clear whether we will actually see it during the regular season or if it’s just an attempt to throw everyone off the scent. After Week 1, we can confirm that Mike Zimmer’s comments about wanting to have a defensive line rotation were not a smokescreen.

In the Minnesota Vikings’ 24-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers, a total of eight defensive linemen saw the field. Naturally the starters Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen saw the lion’s share of the work, but backups Stephen Weatherly, David Parry, Jaleel Johnson and Tashawn Bower all played roles in Sunday’s contest.

Here’s how the snaps were distributed (out of 67 offensive snap, stats via Pro Football Focus):

Last year the Vikings still rotated players, but Zimmer stuck with Brian Robison and Shamar Stephen as his only fill-in players, rather than having four extra D-linemen to mix and match with as he does this year.

We got our first glimpse at all four when they entered the game together in the second quarter of Sunday’s game.

The 49ers immediately ripped off pass plays of 18, 13 and six yards. Zimmer pulled the plug on the hockey-line style rotation.

“We need to get the rotation down a little bit better I think, but I have confidence in all of those guys. Jaleel [Johnson], [Tashawn] Bower, [Stephen] Weatherly, [David] Parry, I have confidence in them,” Zimmer said. “We’ve talked about doing a little bit better job of how we’re going to handle that.”

Rotational players appeared again in with 10:41 remaining in the third quarter, but this time it was Tashawn Bower and Stephen Weatherly at the D-ends with starters Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson in the middle. After hitting on a 56-yard pass that put the 49ers into the red zone, the starters returned for a key third down play.

On the following drive, Zimmer gave the interior D-linemen a break, putting Parry and Johnson into the game. They immediately gave up an 11-yard run and 36-yard pass. Two plays later, the full starting crew returned for a third-and-1.

On the successful run play, Parry (No. 95) was driven back by the center as he worked his way down the line.

In the fourth quarter, there was some mixing and matching. With 10:55 left in the game, Johnson and Weatherly came on, but the Vikings allowed a 10-yard pass and a 10-yard rush and the starters returned for another red zone situation.

Here is the run, in which Joseph directs Johnson where to line up pre-snap and then the second-year DT allows the tackle to get all the way to his outside shoulder, opening up a big gap.

In a total of 41 pass rushing snaps combined, the four second-teamers came up with a total of zero pressures on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. And of 19 players graded by PFF, the rotational D-linemen all graded in the bottom half.

That was, in part, because San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan attacked the backup linemen with a barrage of play-action plays.

The best pass rush created by the rotators came on a play negated by pass interference penalty. With Parry doubled teamed, Weatherly (91) rushed from the 9-techniqiue spot, beating veteran tackle Joe Staley inside, which required the running back to assist in blocking the Vikings’ 2016 seventh-round pick.

All three completions during their brief second quarter appearance came on play-action and of a total of 12 passes that any backup appeared on the field, seven had some form of play-action element.

On one of the few straight drop backs by Garoppolo, Johnson (94) successfully worked 49ers’ guard Laken Tomlinson, creating pressure inside that gave Griffen lots of room to operate against Staley.

Zimmer acknowledged that it will take time to find out which combinations play best off each other, but said we may not see as much of the rotation against Green Bay this week.

“I think we’ll do a better job with it, and I think it’ll help us down the road but it will also help us in these particular games,” Zimmer said. “Now this week will be hard, because they won’t let us substitute, but we’ll just have to get out there and go.”

Interestingly we did not see much of linebacker Anthony Barr at defensive end. According to PFF, he played just nine snaps at the line of scrimmage on Sunday. Could that be next week’s wrinkle or was that the training camp smoke screen?

We can bet that there’s more tweaks to come from the D-line rotation as we go forward.





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