It’s no secret that Minnesota Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer is a defensive mastermind. Still, one particular strategy was key to their upset victory over New Orleans — bringing their two best edge rushers inside.
Rather than matching up head-to-head against Ryan Ramzcyk and Terron Armstead, the Saints’ excellent tackles, Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin used a combination of stunts and simply lining up inside to attack — and defeat — the interior of the Saints’ offensive line.
Griffen lined up opposite left guard Andrus Peat, for example, and just spun past him inside to force an incompletion.
This was not an accident, according to Minnesota’s DL coach Andre Patterson:
“We were trying to find a way to get [Griffen and Hunter] on their guards. It changed Brees’ demeanor in the course of the game. He likes to step up but seeing 97 & 99 inside made him stay high & that helped us.”
Hunter told Josh Katzenstein of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press that they saw the opportunity while studying tape of Atlanta’s victory over New Orleans in week 10, especially Grady Jarret’s 2.5 sacks.
“There was a better match-up in the middle, so they put us in the middle to get more pressure,” Hunter said. “When [Drew Brees] sees pressure, he’s not going to throw an accurate pass.”
Will they stunt the Niners?
San Francisco seems vulnerable to the same attack. Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley are excellent tackles. Still, center Weston Richburg is out for the year — replaced by Ben Garland, a journeyman UDFA defensive lineman (he sacked Russell Wilson for a safety once) who didn’t start a game as offensive guard until the end of the 2017 season.
At guard, also not great. Mike Person (31) is solid at best, even before his recent neck injury, and Laken Tomlinson is a reclamation project, a failed first-round pick who has regained his footing pretty well with San Francisco. But neither guard scares opponents.
And yet . . .
There are no guarantees that Minnesota will try the same approach. First of all, Mike Zimmer is known for mixing up defensive looks. The move inside was a surprise against New Orleans — Minnesota hadn’t put that on tape all year — but it certainly is not now.
Kyle Shanahan is masterful at scheming around offensive line vulnerabilities, as he showed when both his starting tackles were out this year, and I guarantee you he has an answer to DEs attacking the interior of the line.
You know it, and Zimmer knows it. He won’t make it that easy for Shanahan to scheme around him.
One possible answer is to keep Daniel Brunskill in the lineup, rather than bringing Mike Person back from his neck injury — or subbing him in later if things get ugly. Brunskill is blessed with long arms, and pass protection is his strength; he has played guard the last two weeks while Person was injured. But coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters that Person is coming back to play.
The bigger risk for Minnesota is that the 49ers might throw their strategy right back at them. Kirk Cousins is a lot more susceptible to crumbling under pressure than Drew Brees (or Jimmy Garoppolo) has ever been.
If the height of Hunter (6’5”) and Griffen (6’3”) bothered Brees (6’0”), then DeForest Buckner (6’7”) and Arik Armstead (6’8”) should be just as disruptive to Kirk “Kurt” Cousins, who is only 6’3”.
The Niners’ inside rush is pretty potent even without stunting, and mixing in Nick Bosa and (maybe) Dee Ford can only add to Cousin’s misery.
An earlier version of this article missated when Ben Garland converted to offensive guard. h/t to Gard Neff for catching my mistake, and to Randy Anderson for spotting a different one.