McVay’s Offense, Zimmer’s Defense, and Everything You Need to Know About the Rams-Vikings Showdown

It will be the biggest test so far for the new-look Rams, but Sean McVay and his group has what it takes to match up with Minnesota. Plus, Joe Mixon and the Bengals’ struggling O-line, a major challenge for new Bills starting QB Nathan Peterman, and how the Seahawks will adjust to losing Richard Sherman
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The mildly surprising 7-2 Vikings versus the very surprising 7-2 Rams might be the most intriguing matchup on the Week 11 slate. It pits the NFL’s top-scoring offense (L.A.) against the NFC’s toughest defense (Minnesota). It’s a showdown worthy of a breakdown.

Rams offense vs. Vikings defense

The Vikings have eight former first-and second-round picks on defense alone, six of whom were drafted by this team. Each year they’ve gotten better in head coach Mike Zimmer’s imposing zone scheme, which is sprinkled with complexities. It’s not that the Vikings show unpredictable coverages. In fact, on running downs, it’s almost always single-high safety zone (aka Cover 3). On passing downs, it’s a two-high safety zone—either Cover 2 or Cover 4 (or, if the offensive formation is unbalanced, Cover 6, a combination of both). What’s challenging is how the Vikings get to these zones. There can be a lot of movement post-snap. Zimmer employs a variety of zone blitzes, with athletic D-linemen like Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen all capable of dropping into coverage. Back deep, safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo are two of the best disguise artists in football. Tremendous speed allows them to exaggerate when disguising.

The Rams are at their most dangerous when head coach Sean McVay knows what coverage the defense will be in. No one is better at concocting route combinations that exploit a predicted look. Cover 3 and Cover 4 are two that McVay thrives against, since his downfield switch releases (aka receivers crossing paths vertically) naturally attack cornerbacks here.

But your O-line must give the QB time for these to work. A dynamic front four is part of the reason Minnesota can be diverse in its zone movement. Tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen get you into third-and-long, where rushers like Griffen, Hunter and Anthony Barr (a blitzer) take over. Los Angeles’s vastly improved O-line faces its biggest challenge to date.

Jared Goff has progressed tremendously in Year Two, but he remains a work in progress when throwing with defenders in his face. Goff still must fight his natural tendency to back up against interior pressure. Zimmer does not employ his trademark double-A-gap blitzes as much as he used to, but it would make sense to bring them in this game. Not only can that get Goff playing hastily, it also ensures one-on-one blocking against Minnesota’s edge rushers. On the left side, Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth has been outstanding when he wins on initial contact, but when he’s in reactionary mode, his 35 years of age show. Griffen’s low-to-the-ground bull rush could pose problems for the 6' 7" veteran.

The risk of going double-A-gap is you’re weak on the edges. That’s a problem against Todd Gurley, who has killed defenses by turning the corner in the zone running game and catching balls in the flat. There’s also Tavon Austin, whose jet sweep action is a big part of Los Angeles’s attack.

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Vikings offense vs. Rams defense

The Vikings have been almost as strong as the Rams when it comes to defeating predicted coverages. Case Keenum has prospered as a fill-in starter because he plays with decisiveness in coordinator Pat Shurmur’s well-designed scheme. The Vikings are crafty in their presnap movement and switch releases off the ball. They put cornerbacks in a bind early in the down, allowing the superb route running of wideouts Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to win later in the down.

Rams top corner Trumaine Johnson travels with opposing No. 1 receivers at times. This season for Minnesota, that’s been Thielen, though given that Diggs lines up outside more often, it might be more prudent for Johnson to play there. Johnson will travel into the slot, but generally only if it’s man-to-man coverage.

Regardless of the matchups, Los Angeles must make Minnesota operate off schedule. Forcing Keenum to play outside of structure can unmask his physical limitations. A great weapon for breaking down a play’s structure is defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He typically aligns opposite the opponent’s worst guard. That’ll likely be veteran Joe Berger on the right side, given that on the left side Nick Easton, while less experienced, is a stronger athlete. Either way, the Vikings will have to slide their protection towards Donald.

Prediction: Vikings 26, Rams 23

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Film Note Elaboration

Joe Mixon’s yards per carry has now skyrocketed to 3.0 after he gained 37 yards on nine runs against the Titans last Sunday. It’s a shame to see his talent wasted behind a faulty Bengals O-line. It’s not just the much-maligned tackles (Cedric Ogbuehi, Eric Fisher and Andre Smith) who are struggling. The interior O-line has been spotty (at best). Left guard Clint Boling, in particular, has had trouble on pull-blocks.

Cause for Concern?

We’ve learned a lot about the Buffalo Bills these last two weeks in lopsided losses to the Jets and Saints, the chief lesson being that the Bills are not at all equipped to play from behind. They don’t have speed at wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin’s arrival changes nothing here), which makes life difficult for new starting quarterback Nathan Peterman. The best parts of Buffalo’s aerial attack all stem from the ground game. If the ground game can’t function, the offense won’t.

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Keep an eye on

Colts defensive lineman/linebacker Barkevious Mingo. You remember the sixth overall pick of the Browns in 2013. Mingo never put on the weight or developed the fundamentals to blossom in Cleveland, but at 27, he’s found a role for Indy while filling in for an injured John Simon the last three games. Mingo is Indy’s amoeba piece in sub-packages. He lines up all over the formation and is used in most of Indy’s designer pass-rush tactics—stunts, twists, blitzes and zone exchanges. He also can cover at times, a skill he flashed late in his Cleveland years. Last week Mingo had a third-and-6 red zone stop against Le’Veon Bell out of the backfield.

Injury Impact

Richard Sherman’s absence hurts, but the Seahawks won’t have to change their playing style. With man-to-man being so much more prominent in their scheme, the key players (as it pertains to what defensive coordinator Kris Richard can and can’t call) are the men in the middle: safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. An extended absence from multiple guys here would mean more Cover 3, less man. Either way, whoever fills in at left corner (and don’t be surprised if it’s ultimately the damaged-but-not-broken ex-Dolphin Byron Maxwell, who signed earlier this week) will still play press-man along the boundary. They won’t be as good as Sherman, but the defense can at least maintain its identity.

Non-football thing on my mind

You know how you can see your breath when it’s cold? We need a word for that. I propose the noun broxation. It’s as portmanteau of three words: breath, oxygen and condensation. Think of how much easier our lives become in winter with the word broxation (which, by the way, I’ve just added to my Microsoft Word dictionary).

Guy 1: Hey Charlie, was it cold when you went Christmas caroling?
Guy 2: Not too bad, but there was some broxation from the carolers.
Guy 1: Remember how cold it was last year when we went?
Guy 2: Yeah, I was broxating like crazy.
Guy 1: She thought I puffed a cigarette.
Guy 2: Did you?
Guy 1: No, I just broxated.

Basically, however you use the word burp, that’s how you can use broxate.

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