MINNEAPOLIS -- It was apparent on the face of a battered Matthew Stafford in Week 2.
Yes, the Minnesota Vikings are out to punish quarterbacks this season.
They've recorded 20 hits on Stafford and Rivers in the past two weeks -- both wins -- and they've used consistent pressure to all but eliminate any threat of a downfield passing game. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Vikings have forced the fourth-quickest throws in the league in the past two weeks, an average of 2.24 seconds, and opponents have tried just five passes of 20 yards or longer. That's tied with the Cardinals and Seahawks for the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
"It changes a whole lot. Those guys don't want to get hit," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "They're the face of their franchise -- I call them the 'money guys.' They don't want to get hit, they try to get the ball out real fast, and in the back end, we just try to cover up and make plays."
The Vikings are only pressuring the quarterback on 21.6 percent of his dropbacks the past two weeks, but the ability to force a quick release and put a seed of panic in a quarterback's mind, is worth plenty. The Vikings are a year further along in their mastery of coach Mike Zimmer's double-A gap blitz look, which puts one or both linebackers on either side of the center in the Vikings' nickel package. From there, they can bring extra pressure with a linebacker, or two -- or zero, if they want to blitz safety Harrison Smith or Munnerlyn off the edge.
Sometimes, the threat of Barr in a quarterback's face is enough to make things go haywire; guard D.J. Fluker turned to help center Chris Watt with Barr on a third-down dropback on the Chargers' first series of the second half on Sunday. When Barr stayed put to engage the blockers, and defensive tackle Tom Johnson surged through the line unblocked to sack Rivers, the quarterback rose and screamed at Fluker, facemask to facemask.
" I think they speed up a little bit, I think they start throwing off their back foot a little bit," Zimmer said. "I think they feel getting hit, so I don’t know. It’s just kind of my mentality."
There's been at least some question, though, of whether the Vikings take their physicality a step too far. Lions receiver Golden Tate said last week he was "110 percent" sure the Vikings were taking cheap shots, adding the team would have been called for more than its 10 penalties had referees flagged everything properly. Defensive end Everson Griffen got a roughing-the-passer penalty on Sunday, after he hit Rivers from behind after the quarterback had released his second throw of the fourth quarter. That penalty, though, is the Vikings' only one for an illegal hit on the QB this year.
Griffen outlined the Vikings' philosophy on Monday, as he did after the Lions game, saying, "We go out there and be physical. We go out there and hit. We play the game of football like it's supposed to be played -- hard hits, legal hits. We don't take cheap shots. We just want to play football the hard, physical way."
Said Zimmer: "I know Everson had one the other day, a little late hit, but we’re hitting the quarterback. We put a target on him, so we’ve been hitting them in the right place, so that helps."
However they're doing it, the Vikings will have a tall task this week when they face Peyton Manning -- he of the pre-snap sorcery and quick release -- in Denver. The Vikings will try to disguise their pressure packages against Manning, without him finding the holes in their coverage, as Zimmer looks for just his second career win against the future Hall of Famer.
It's a safe bet the Vikings will try to make Manning feel it on Sunday.
"They've seen our tape, and they see we play physical," Griffen said. "I feel like they're not going to allow us to get to them as much, but we're going to find the ways to get to them."