Minnesota Vikings: Anthony Barr

MINNEAPOLIS -- For 57 minutes, the Minnesota Vikings put together what would have stood up as their best defensive performance of the season, if not for what happened in the game's final three minutes. The Vikings had forced four turnovers, sacked Kyle Orton four times and held the Bills to 10 points, in a game that was one defensive stand away from a Vikings victory.

But it's what happened on that final drive that commanded most of the attention after the game, and deservedly so. The Vikings put the Bills on the brink of defeat several times on a 15-play, 80-yard march, only to give Buffalo new life on a series of coverage breakdowns.

Though the result was the same as the four games the Vikings lost on last-minute touchdowns last season, the approach wasn't. Nearly a year after defensive end Brian Robison and defensive tackle Kevin Williams criticized former defensive coordinator Alan Williams for being too timid in a final-drive loss to Dallas, the Vikings blitzed Orton four times on the final drive, sacking him twice on blitzes and using a number of creative fronts that bumped tackles Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson out to wide alignments.

The breakdowns at the end of the game, though, are what will stick out about an otherwise impressive performance.

"This is a 'now' business," safety Harrison Smith said. "Everything is right now; you want to win right now. That's just the world we live in. We have to (develop) as fast as possible."

Here are some other observations about the Vikings' defensive performance after a film review of the 17-16 loss to the Bills:
  • Vikings coach Mike Zimmer alluded to the Vikings getting burned by their aggressiveness on the final drive, and while his blitzes worked, Josh Robinson's press coverage of Sammy Watkins on a third-and-12 didn't. Watkins, who has two inches and 12 pounds on Robinson, quickly fought off his jam and got inside for a 20-yard gain on a slant. "Poor technique," Zimmer said of the play. Robinson had inside leverage on the play but is still learning to press effectively and needed to throw off Watkins' timing on the route.
  • Floyd had what might have been his best game of the season, thanks to a game plan that moved him around the Vikings' defensive front. Floyd had a sack and two hurries, one of which came after he lined up over the left tackle and chased Orton outside the pocket. Joseph's sack on the final drive also came from a three-technique spot, and Everson Griffen's third sack came when he worked a stunt with Floyd after the Vikings showed a seven-man blitz and rushed four.
  • Linebacker Anthony Barr was targeted early and often on shallow crossing routes, but the rookie had a monster day, registering 10 tackles, ranging back to break up a pass, recovering two fumbles and rushing Orton on 11 of Zimmer's 13 blitzes. He missed several tackles and also blew up another screen pass, showing great reaction time to take down fullback Frank Summers for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter. It wasn't a complete performance for Barr, but it was an impressive one, which once again hinted at the rookie's potential to be a dominant player once he figures everything out.

The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
A weekly look at what the Minnesota Vikings must fix:

On their final defensive series in their 17-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings allowed 91 passing yards, including 22 after the catch. They gave up 130 yards after the catch Sunday, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and are 20th in the league in limiting gains after the catch this season.

Although they'll face the league's worst after-the-catch team this weekend, the Vikings can't afford to let the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get their offense going on broken plays.

For all his impressive moments in what's been an outstanding rookie season, linebacker Anthony Barr might be the Vikings' biggest culprit in allowing gains after the catch. According to Pro Football Focus, no player has allowed more yards after the catch than the 256 Barr has given up this season. Although he's proven to be a force against screen passes, as he can read and react, he's still learning how to make open-field tackles after dropping back in pass coverage. The Bills ran a number of shallow crossing routes designed to get their receivers matched up against Barr in coverage; they targeted him 13 times on Sunday and completed 11 passes that saw their receivers gain 66 of their 92 yards after the catch. Pass coverage is the only part of the game in which Barr still looks like a rookie, and the Vikings will have to go through the learning process with him, but the sooner he develops, the quicker they'll likely be able to limit gains with the ball in a receiver's hands.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' defensive performance in a 17-3 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday must be graded on a curve, considering the Lions were without wide receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Reggie Bush, which led them to simplify their offense into a short passing game and power running game designed to keep the chains moving and force the Vikings' offense to play from behind.

But 10 days after a 42-10 shellacking at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had reason to be happy with a number of things they did on defense. After surrendering another early touchdown, they held the Lions to 10 points and 175 yards the rest of the day, limiting the Lions to just one third-down conversion for the game.

It wasn't enough to win on a day where the Vikings managed just three points and the Lions started their average drive at their own 36-yard line, but coach Mike Zimmer was right to point out some positives about the defensive performance on Monday, especially after drilling players to stay disciplined against the run.

"Defensively, I think what we went back and emphasized extremely hard, I thought we did a really good job in," Zimmer said.

Here are some other observations of the Vikings' defense after a film review of the Lions' 17-3 win:
  • Joesph
    After playing his worst game of the season against the Packers, nose tackle Linval Joseph might have been at his best Sunday against Detroit, collapsing the middle of the Lions' offensive line for much of the day and getting good push on a quarterback hit and a sack he shared with Brian Robison. Joseph admitted he was playing out of his gap a few times in Green Bay, but he got back to what he does best on Sunday: swallowing up blockers and holding firm in the middle of the line.
  • It was an easier day for the Vikings' cornerbacks because of how rarely Matthew Stafford went downfield (he was 1-for-10 on throws at least 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats and Information), but Josh Robinson bounced back from a bad night in Green Bay and continued to show improvement at corner. He had good inside leverage on one of the few times he was tested downfield, on a sideline throw to Corey Fuller late in the second quarter, and gave Stafford no place to fit the ball (though Fuller motioned that Robinson grabbed his jersey after the play).
  • Zimmer brought extra pressure on just 14 of Stafford's 41 dropbacks, and the Vikings did a good job getting to Stafford with just four pass rushers; three of their four sacks came with standard pressure. Tom Johnson had another strong day in the Vikings' nickel package, bull rushing Dominic Raiola on a third-quarter sack of Stafford, drilling the quarterback on a pressure in the second quarter and nearly taking him down again on one of the stunts he ran with a defensive end (Everson Griffen in this case).
  • The Vikings' first defensive drive set the tone for the day, and we need to spend a little time on what went wrong. Zimmer wasn't happy with the Vikings' pursuit of Theo Riddick's 41-yard screen -- "We didn't get off blocks; we had one guy loaf," he said -- and Joique Bell shed a pair of arm tackles from Anthony Barr and Jasper Brinkley on a 10-yard run on the Lions' third play of the game. Stafford's touchdown to Riddick came when Gerald Hodges (who had another good day in run support) appeared to lose him in coverage; Hodges and Barr also both jumped tight end Brandon Pettigrew on the screen, leaving room for Riddick on the right side.
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The Minnesota Vikings made Anthony Barr the ninth overall pick in the NFL draft in May largely because of the potential coach Mike Zimmer felt he had playing a variety of roles in his defense. The pick was made somewhat on projection -- Barr had played just two years as a linebacker after switching from running back at UCLA -- but Zimmer also saw a player who had the instincts to pick up the position much quicker than his experience would have indicated.

Five games into Barr's rookie season, the Vikings have seen nothing to diminish their view of how good Barr can be. In fact, Zimmer, who is typically not given to hyperbole, said this week he expects Barr to eventually be "one of the better linebackers in the league."

Barr has a pair of sacks so far this season and has been impressive in run defense, though he's been targeted regularly in pass coverage. Some parts of his game will take additional work, but the Vikings are thrilled with his progress so far.

"I’ve coached linebackers a long time in this league," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "He's ahead of the curve and with his professionalism, to be able to have that at such a young age, pay attention to details, being able to do it on the practice field, do it in the game. ... He’s as good of a rookie as I’ve had in the past at the linebacker position."

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MINNEAPOLIS -- As difficult as it is to pick the toughest challenge of all the formidable offenses the Minnesota Vikings have faced during the first five weeks of the 2014 season, the Green Bay Packers might have earned that distinction.

When the Packers are at the peak of their powers, they combine one of the game's best quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers with 24-year-old Eddie Lacy, a battering ram of a running back that requires extra attention from defenses and creates opportunities for Rodgers to burn defensive backs off play action. The Packers' running game hadn't complemented their quarterback very effectively before Thursday night, but as a powerful running game found its stride for the first time in 2014, the Vikings' defense was flattened in the process.

Coach Mike Zimmer seemed more upset with the team's run defense than any other aspect of the game on Friday, pointing out the times he saw players "freelancing" on film and not staying committed to a scheme that would have choked off running lanes if defenders did their jobs. The Packers ran for 156 yards on 28 carries, with Lacy picking up 105 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts. Rodgers was there to sting the Vikings every time they committed an extra defender to the run, firing his 66-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson after a play-action fake got safety Robert Blanton and the Vikings' three linebackers to cheat up.

The Vikings spent their first six defensive plays in nickel, and Lacy ran for 58 yards on four carries in those plays. Then, on the Vikings' first play in their base package, Rodgers found Randall Cobb in single coverage against Captain Munnerlyn, hitting him for an eight-yard touchdown on a corner route.

Here are some other observations from a film review of the Vikings' defense during the Packers' 42-10 win.
  • The Packers' guards -- T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton -- make their running game work, but it was rookie center Corey Linsley who might have done the most to neutralize defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who probably had his worst game of the season. Sitton cut Joseph on Lacy's 18-yard run in the first quarter, and it was Linsley winning matchups with Joseph on back-to-back nine- and 10-yard runs in the third quarter. Joseph also missed a tackle on James Starks' 17-yard run in the third quarter. Lacy averaged a league-high three yards after contact per carry, finishing several runs by pummeling defensive backs Xavier Rhodes and Robert Blanton.
  • Zimmer had enjoyed success against Rodgers as the Bengals' defensive coordinator thanks to his ability to confuse Rodgers on blitzes, and the one he dialed up on Sharrif Floyd's first-quarter sack might have been his best of the night. The Vikings showed a double-A gap blitz with Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges on third-and-9, but Barr dropped back into coverage as Harrison Smith surged around the right side of the line unblocked. Rodgers evaded Smith and Brian Robison, keeping the play alive for 5.91 seconds, but never got a chance to look downfield before Floyd wrapped him up. It was a rare moment for Zimmer's blitz package, though; he only sent extra pressure on five Rodgers dropbacks, and Rodgers hit 3 of his 4 passes for 62 yards against the blitz.
  • Rhodes had one of his better days of the year, allowing just 2 completions on 4 targets and breaking up a long throw to Nelson after he got turned by Nelson's initial move.
  • Barr also was more reliable in pass coverage than he's been early this season; he helped take away Rodgers' checkdown options before Everson Griffen brought the quarterback down for a second-quarter sack.
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The Minnesota Vikings have done their best to conceal their plans for Teddy Bridgewater on Thursday night, either because they truly don't know whether the rookie will be able to play on a sprained ankle at Lambeau Field or because they don't want the Green Bay Packers to know which quarterback they'll be facing. But by the middle of Thursday afternoon, the Vikings might have to tip their hand somewhat.

Here's why: If Christian Ponder is going to start, it stands to reason the Vikings would plan to deactivate Bridgewater and put a healthy backup QB on the roster; they likely wouldn't want to sit him at the start of the game, only to have to put him in if Ponder got hurt. If they were going to elevate one of their two practice squad quarterbacks -- McLeod Bethel-Thompson or Chandler Harnish -- to their active roster, they'd have to make a roster move by 4 p.m. ET on Thursday.

If the Vikings add a third quarterback to their 53-man roster tomorrow, it doesn't necessarily mean that Ponder will start and Bridgewater won't; the Vikings might just be trying to cover themselves in case they decide before the game that Bridgewater can't go. But if the Vikings don't make a move tomorrow afternoon, keeping Bridgewater and Ponder as the only quarterbacks on their active roster, it would seem to indicate Bridgewater will start.

Hopefully this will all be resolved cleanly on Thursday. We're still having flashbacks of the last time we were in this situation before a prime-time game at Lambeau Field -- in a game where the Vikings bowed out of the playoffs with Joe Webb lobbing passes while in the grasp of Packers defenders.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked Tuesday about the Vikings' need to "rush smart" and contain quarterbacks, rather than creating escape lanes by overpursuing or getting too focused on one-on-one matchups.

"Guys feel like they can beat guys one-on-one," Zimmer said. "The hard part is getting them to understand that we will all have a lot more success, including the individual, if we will do it the right way, and we haven’t done it the right way the last couple of weeks."

It's probably not a coincidence, then, that the Vikings' lone sack on Sunday -- on Anthony Barr 's third-and-12 blitz in the fourth quarter -- was also one of the best examples of the Vikings rushing as a team. Each player in the six-man rush plays a part in creating an opportunity for Barr to get to Matt Ryan, and Barr has a clear path to the quarterback thanks to what's going on around him.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
AP Photo/Jim MoneAnthony Barr sacked Matt Ryan when the entire Vikings defense did its job.
Let's break it down one component at a time:

  • Right end Everson Griffen lines up in a "wide-9" technique, outside Falcons tight end Bear Pascoe, and beats Pascoe around the corner with a quick edge rush. That requires Pascoe to get help from running back Jacquizz Rodgers, whom Barr is responsible for covering if he releases on a route.
  • Defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph engage four Falcons linemen -- Johnson matches up with tackle Jake Matthews and guard Gabe Carimi, while Joseph takes on a combo block from center Peter Konz and guard Jon Asamoah -- and seal up Ryan's escape lanes up the middle.
  • Linebacker Gerald Hodges reads the play and engages Carimi after he works off of Johnson, helping to limit Ryan's options to extend the play.
  • Left end Brian Robison -- who is single-blocked by tight end Levine Toilolo as he fills in at right tackle -- surges around the corner, forcing Ryan to look for a place to step up. It was one of the only times the Falcons left Toilolo alone on Robison. "They did it once, and I felt like it was pretty disrespectful," Robison said. "But Barr got the sack, so it was good."
  • Lastly, Barr reads Rodgers on the play, and when Rodgers steps over to help Pascoe on Griffen, Barr surges through the C-gap -- which is left open by Griffen's wide rush and Johnson's push up the middle -- and displays his elite closing speed to finish the sack.

As the Vikings face quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Thursday night in Green Bay, they'll need that kind of discipline to bring down one of the game's best at evading sacks and making plays outside the pocket. The Packers have allowed Rodgers to be sacked 10 times already this season, and Zimmer designed a game plan that led to four sacks and two interceptions when the Bengals beat Green Bay last year. But the coach knows he has to blitz carefully on Thursday.

"He’s obviously got a tremendous arm, he’s got great mobility, he gets the ball out fast, he’s the best in the league against the blitz, he’s got some excellent receivers and now they have a good running game, too," Zimmer said. "I think that adds a little bit more to him."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For all the heat they were able to put on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Sunday -- getting pressure on 23.3 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information -- the Minnesota Vikings only sacked Ryan once, on a blitz from Anthony Barr in the fourth quarter.

The rest of the day saw Ryan eluding chances to bring him down, doing some solid work once he escaped the pocket. He hit all four of his throws outside the pocket on Sunday, throwing for 34 yards and a touchdown and converting a 3rd-and-20 when Barr stepped up and left room for Ryan to find Julio Jones for a first down.

Some of those plays might have turned into sacks, or additional pressure on Ryan, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, if the Vikings had done a better job of rushing the quarterback as a team.

"It’s part of us being a team rush; we’re not individual rushers," said Zimmer in response to a question about defensive end Brian Robison missing several sacks on Sunday. "He’s done a good job and we haven’t helped him enough with some of the other guys, not because they’re not trying or they can’t rush. It’s because, like I said before, we are rushing as individuals. It’s no different than any other part of defense. You play good as a team, you know where you’re supposed to be at and then good things happen for other people and consequently good things happen for you.

"Guys feel like they can beat guys one-on-one. The hard part is getting them to understand that we will all have a lot more success, including the individual, if we will do it the right way, and we haven’t done it the right way the last couple of weeks."

The Vikings old Cover-2 scheme gave defensive linemen plenty of chances to rush upfield, but Zimmer's scheme mitigates those opportunities with more calls for linemen to engage blockers and collapse the pocket. Defensive ends typically don't accumulate big sack numbers in Zimmer's scheme -- in fact, only two defensive linemen (Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, both in 2012) posted double-digit sack totals in a season when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Getting the Vikings to grasp the scheme changes has been an ongoing process in Minnesota, and it appears Zimmer isn't fully satisfied with the results yet.

"We have actually pressured OK; what we haven’t done is rush smart," Zimmer said. "We have to rush a lot smarter and same thing with this quarterback. If we give him an opportunity to get out of the pocket a lot of times, a lot of bad things happen.

"(It's) usually when a quarterback moves a little bit and you miss a sack. (We might have sacked him) if we had been a little smarter on the other side, or the push was a little bit better in the middle or we don’t run by the quarterback. It shows up (on film) pretty easily, really."

The Film Don't Lie: Vikings

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
A weekly look at what the Minnesota Vikings must fix:

We'll give the opening statement for this week's edition of The Film Don't Lie to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Coach, how did you feel about your third-down defense on Sunday?

"It’s terrible," Zimmer said on Monday. "We have a lot of work to do. I'm extremely disappointed in that. We will put a lot more time and effort into it than what we have. It's disappointing because that should be one of our strengths."

The Vikings have good reason to be disappointed after a game in which they allowed the Falcons to convert 10 of their 15 third-down attempts. That included a third-and-20, two third-and-10s and a third-and-7 on which Matt Ryan threw a 36-yard touchdown to Devin Hester. Missed sacks were at the heart of several Falcons conversions; the Vikings had an eight-man blitz fail to get home on a third-and-7 early in the game, dialed up a five-man blitz on Ryan's touchdown to Hester and saw Ryan elude Brian Robison's grasp on a third-and-10 in the third quarter. The Vikings' first -- and only -- sack of the game came on an Anthony Barr blitz in the fourth quarter, but missed chances to put the quarterback on the ground allowed Ryan to pick holes in Minnesota's coverage on several occasions.

The task won't get much easier on Thursday night against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers offense with the league's ninth-best third-down conversion rate. But an offensive line that has already allowed 10 sacks might give the Vikings chances to get to Rodgers, who is one of the game's masters at extending plays. The Vikings haven't struggled to pressure quarterbacks this season -- they've gotten pressure on 26.1 percent of their opportunities, which is the 14th-best rate in the league this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but wrapping up the quarterback on a few more third downs would help their defense to get off the field.
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For a Vikings team that's been staking plenty of its plans on Xavier Rhodes turning into a top-end cover cornerback, his performance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons had to deliver a shot of encouragement. Rhodes had one of the best games of his career at TCF Bank Stadium, two weeks after one of his worst on the same field. He was targeted frequently by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan but broke up four passes, handled the right side of the field well and thumped running back Steven Jackson for a 2-yard loss in the second half.

According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes was targeted 11 times Sunday but gave up just five catches for 66 yards, with none of the completions going for more than 20 yards. The Falcons eventually found more success targeting linebacker Anthony Barr on short passes (as several teams have) and attacking Captain Munnerlyn on the other side of the field, but Rhodes held up well when the Vikings needed it.

"I have a lot of confidence in Xavier," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think he’s got a chance to continue to be a very good player. He’s like a lot of these guys we have on defense -- so young and learning so much of trying to figure out what we’re trying to do in situations and how we play the techniques and the different combinations. (Defensive backs coach) Jerry (Gray) is doing a great job with him, but I do think Xavier is continually getting better and he’s got a chance to be very, very good if he keeps working on the little things to make him really good."

Rhodes will be in for another test Thursday night when the Vikings travel to Green Bay to face the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but if he's able to take away his side of the field as effectively as he did Sunday, he'll have a chance to throw off the Packers' rhythm on offense. Green Bay essentially decided not to throw to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's side of the field in its season-opening loss to Seattle, and while Rhodes hasn't come close to earning that kind of reputation, he could force the Packers to look elsewhere if he handles his assignments well Thursday night. What he did Sunday against the league's top passing offense was a good step.

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Chad Greenway out for Sunday

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For the first time since his rookie season was ended by a torn ACL, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway will miss a game on Sunday.

Greenway was ruled out of Sunday's game with the Atlanta Falcons due to a broken hand and broken rib, which will end his streak of consecutive games played at 115 and his streak of consecutive starts at 90. Gerald Hodges, who filled in for Greenway last week after he broke his rib, figures to get most of the action at weakside linebacker, though coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings have several packages that could use other linebackers. Greenway is one of the few Vikings defenders who rarely, if ever, comes off the field, and his absence means the Vikings will have to manage their defense differently.

The linebacker played last week's game in New Orleans with the injuries, but Zimmer said earlier in the week that Greenway wouldn't play on Sunday unless he was better. And Greenway made it clear on Friday he was in no small amount of pain against the Saints.

"It's fairly indescribable, to be honest with you," he said. "Anybody who's had a rib before, much respect."

Hodges, who has played in nickel coverage when Anthony Barr moves to defensive end and fared well in run support last week against the Saints, could be in line to make his first NFL start. The Vikings selected him in the fourth round last year, but Hodges didn't see much action beyond special teams, and in his words, "I frustrated myself, just by not paying attention to details.

"I'm pretty much to blame for my own self last year, just trying to let my talent and athletic ability take over, instead of putting the time in on and off the field."

That's changed this year, as Hodges has made a point of sitting next to Greenway in meetings and learning as much as he can about how the ninth-year veteran approaches the game.

"I had the same thing when I was young," Greenway said. "You find guys who have had good careers, and you watch and see how they go about their business -- Ben Leber, and E.J. [Henderson], and a lot of guys that knew how to approach games. I've been the oldest guy for a while in that room, so I just try to lead by example. We have a great group of guys that are really talented. It will be fun to watch them."

But it will also be bittersweet for Greenway, whose first missed NFL game comes the same week his wife gave birth to the couple's third child -- a girl named Blakeley, after Blakeley Township (a Minnesota town Greenway has passed through many times on his drives down U.S. Highway 169 to Vikings training camp in Mankato, or to his hometown of Mt. Vernon, S.D.). He'll have to stand on the sideline, offering advice to Hodges and others instead of drilling ball carriers.

It will be, in Greenway's NFL career, a race occurrence.

"It's been a while," Greenway said. "It'll be difficult. The whole thing, obviously, is not how you draw it up. It's part of the game. Guys deal with it all the time."

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In three years as a starter at Louisville, Teddy Bridgewater wasn't asked to run much. His best season in college saw him run for just 78 yards, as he used his mobility more to keep plays alive and find open receivers while he was rolling out.

But the Minnesota Vikings saw in Bridgewater's first game how effective he can be on the run when he has to do it. Bridgewater carried six times for 27 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, forced into running from pressure on several occasions and taking advantage of openings in the defense on others. He gained 7 yards on a designed run on third-and-6 while the Vikings were in the red zone and ended the day as the Vikings' second-leading rusher.

If the Vikings' running game is going to struggle as much as it did on Sunday, when Matt Asiata gained just 35 yards on 12 carries, Bridgewater's running ability can add something to the Vikings' offense, both to keep defenses honest and to pick up some extra yards when the team needs them.

"It does add a lot," coach Mike Zimmer said. "You tend to worry about him running so usually it slows the rush down a little bit typically. It keeps some of the coverages that you might normally get because you’re nervous about the guy running. You have to be careful when you blitz because if there is one place that you’re missing in the blitz and he gets out then it has a chance to be a big, big play with him running too. It adds another dimension, yes."

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense has mostly relied on pocket passers, and it's not as though Bridgewater is about to turn into Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick from a running standpoint. But if he's forced to run from pass-rushers -- as he was last week -- Bridgewater seems to know when he can make a play with his feet.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Watching the film of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive performance on Sunday in New Orleans, it's clear just how much the unit is a work in progress under coach Mike Zimmer. There are enough encouraging signs, and enough examples of the Vikings executing Zimmer's defense correctly, to think this can be a solid defensive unit in a year or two. But the Vikings broke just enough to let the Saints pull away on Sunday.

New Orleans gained 162 yards on its first two drives of the game, taking advantage of a Vikings defense that was mostly playing in a nickel package and couldn't keep Saints running backs from finding cutback lanes on several zone running plays. And while the Vikings held tight end Jimmy Graham to six catches for 54 yards, they also paid just enough attention to him to get beat over the middle on the first of Drew Brees' two touchdown passes.

But where last year's Vikings defense would have crumbled, this unit made enough plays to keep the team in the game. Second-year linebacker Gerald Hodges was a force in run support, both in the nickel package and when he replaced Chad Greenway later in the game, and it's not hard to see him as the Vikings' weakside linebacker of the future.

Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr also stood out, blowing up Saints fullback Austin Johnson before making a third-quarter tackle and blitzing Brees for his first NFL sack in the second quarter. But the Saints again targeted Barr effectively in pass coverage, beating him on crossing routes to Pierre Thomas and Brandin Cooks.

Zimmer will likely need another offseason cycle to get all the pieces he needs for his defense, and the Vikings' young players will have to keep developing. For now, there are signs of progress and incomplete results, especially against an offense as diverse and dangerous as the Saints' scheme.

Here are some other observations from a film review of Sunday's game:
  • The Vikings used everyone from cornerback Xavier Rhodes to defensive end Brian Robison to cover Graham, and he might have affected the Vikings most when others caught the ball. Safety Robert Blanton drifted over to help Rhodes on Graham in the second quarter, leaving a crossing route open for Cooks after Barr and Greenway reacted to a run fake. And on Brees' first TD to Josh Hill, Blanton was doubling Graham with Captain Munnerlyn, leaving Hill to run behind him down the middle of the field. Graham also drilled Blanton with a nasty stiff-arm on an 8-yard catch earlier in the game.
  • Harrison Smith might be the Vikings' best player right now, with Adrian Peterson off the field. His breakup of a deep throw to Cooks in the second quarter came after Cooks beat Josh Robinson down the sideline on the backside of the play, with Brees waiting just long enough to throw the ball that Smith could range over and knock the ball away. Smith nearly had an interception when he was lined up on Graham and made a third-and-1 tackle to force a punt in the first half after Munnerlyn (who had a good day in run support) forced Pierre Thomas wide.
  • Zimmer blitzed Brees on 13 of his 36 dropbacks, sending six- and seven-man pressures on several occasions. Brees mostly worked short against the blitz, going 7-for-12 for 90 yards and a score against pressure, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
  • After he'd given up just one completion all season, Robinson was back to being a target for Brees on Sunday before he left with a hamstring injury. Robinson got turned around in coverage on a 3rd-and-16 completion to Cooks and allowed three completions for 40 yards on three targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our look at the Vikings' defensive performance in a 34-6 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, through a look at the game film:
  • Rookie Anthony Barr was impressive, showing good chase speed, holding up well in pass coverage, and displaying solid instincts on a third-quarter run, when he stayed home to bring down Zac Stacy on the backside of a counter play. Coach Mike Zimmer moved Barr all over the defense, blitzing him from the linebacker spot when he drilled Austin Davis on Harrison Smith's interception and lining him up at left end on third downs. On those occasions, the Vikings often moved Brian Robison inside and put Gerald Hodges at linebacker in the nickel. Hodges, who was in man coverage against slot receivers on several occasions, fared well.
  • Any lingering concerns about Linval Joseph's health after he was struck by a bullet on Aug. 9 should be over. Joseph was a rock in the middle of the Vikings' defensive line, seldom moving at the point of attack and displaying an impressive bull rush on his 10-yard sack. He only played 37 snaps on Sunday, but when he was in the game, he was tough to miss.
  • Tom Johnson, who was one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason, played well again on Sunday, stripping the ball from Shaun Hill's hand as he passed by the quarterback in the first half and collapsing the pocket on a rush earlier in the second quarter. He's proved to be a slippery pass rusher, and he'll have a role in sub packages.
  • One nitpick about the Vikings' five-sack day: Several of their sacks, like the first one Everson Griffen had in the fourth quarter, came after quarterbacks were forced to hold the ball for several seconds. The Vikings only needed to blitz eight times, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and one of Zimmer's favorite looks -- an eight-man front where several defenders would peel back into coverage -- caused some confusion for the Rams' line. But against better quarterbacks, the Vikings will need to apply pressure quicker. Still, it was hard to find much wrong with the way the Vikings played defense on Sunday.