The Minnesota Vikings have only faced one veteran quarterback this year.
On Sunday in the Meadowlands, former USC star Sam Darnold will become the third rookie quarterback to face the Vikings in seven weeks. Two other foes, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, are entering their third years in the NFL and Jimmy Garoppolo made just the eighth start of his career on opening day.
While the Vikings shockingly lost to Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and gave up 465 yards to Goff, they atoned for their letdown by beating Wentz in Philadelphia and mauling rookie Josh Rosen last Sunday.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has generally dominated unseasoned quarterbacks. Last year, the Vikings defeated Mitch Trubisky and Brett Hundley twice, easily beat DeShone Kizer and slowed Jared Goff to seven points.
That trend isn’t new. Quarterbacks in their first, second or third years in the NFL have only beaten Zimmer five times in 22 tries. Fifteen of those games have featured multiple sacks, 11 have gone under 200 yards and six have included multiple interceptions.
Those numbers don’t include Garoppolo, who went 15-for-33 with 261 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Sunday’s win over Rosen and the Cardinals was the perfect demonstration of why it’s been so darn difficult for young QBs to beat the Vikings since Zimmer came aboard in 2014. Let’s have a closer look at some of the ways they slowed Rosen and will likely attempt to frustrate Darnold…
Multiple looks on third down
On the first third down of the game for Rosen, the Vikings showed their classic double-A gap “mug” look in which linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr line up inside the two defensive tackles over the A gap.
At this point, the Vikings have innumerable options. They can send one after the quarterback or both or drop both back in coverage and send a rusher from somewhere else — notice Harrison Smith is playing at the line of scrimmage. But this time, the Vikings play man-press coverage with their corners, man coverage with Smith and nickel corner Mackensie Alexander and drop both Barr and Kendricks into zones.
While the Vikings’ front four creates some push, Rosen appears to get rid of the ball earlier than needed and forces it to a receiver who wasn’t open for an incompletion.
The sheer concern over pass rushers coming from all angles is enough to make an inexperienced — and even sometimes quality quarterback — struggle against the Vikings, especially since Sheldon Richardson and Danielle Hunter both entered the game in the top 10 at their position in QB pressures.
When Rosen made his first appearance in the red zone, the Vikings threw something at him that they do not use all that often: Cover-0.
On the play below, Zimmer sends the house, rushing everyone except for three DBs playing man coverage. There simply wasn’t enough bodies blocking to stop every rusher in purple and linebacker Anthony Barr came unblocked. The moment of hesitation causes Rosen’s pass to get knocked down.
There’s more where this came from.
Zimmer pulled out a 3-4 Zone Dog blitz on a third-and-6 in the first quarter. Notice again that the linebackers are up at the line of scrimmage, but they drop back. Only Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Stephen Weatherly are on the D-line and DBs Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris come after the passer.
In this case, there are enough Cardinals to block the Vikings’ rushers, but the O-linemen are unable to pick up the blitz quick enough, leaving a massive hole for Alexander. It’s possible Rosen could have found a quick outlet if he had picked up on the blitz quick enough, but blitzes off the bunch formation side are not always the easiest to spot.
On Rosen’s third quarter interception
Even when Zimmer isn’t sending more than four rushers on a key third down, there’s always some type of unique look. On Rosen’s interception, they run a twist with the defensive tackles and rotate safeties.
The rookie quarterback sees Harris as the lone deep safety, but at the last second Smith scampers back into that role allowing Harris to become a robber and step into the passing lane for the interception.
Personnel matters in the equation, too.
Even without Everson Griffen, there are few teams that can boast the type of front-four rush as the Vikings. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are also very capable of handling top receivers one-on-one in man coverage and Smith is the type of chess piece that makes it all tick.
So far, Darnold has had some serious ups and downs. Going by ESPN’s 1-100 QBR metric, he’s posted two games over 80, which is spectacular, and two games under 20, which is very poor. The one difference between him and Rosen is a gunslinger mentality that both makes him dangerous and reckless. Zimmer will be looking to take advantage of that, especially in big spots.