On Sunday night, the Kansas City Chiefs defense once again played with intensity and aggression, but still found themselves on the losing end to the Green Bay Packers. The Packers were able to attack the Chiefs through the air — particularly against the linebacker corps.
While the Chiefs won’t face a future Hall of Fame quarterback when they play the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday, they will face what is arguably the best group of weapons they’ve seen this year. There are matchup nightmares at every level of this game — including some that benefit the Chiefs defense.
Let’s dig into the Vikings personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday afternoon. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and hopefully get back in the win column at home.
Kirk Cousins quarterbacks the Vikings. Now in his eighth year in the league, Cousins continues to rack up gaudy stats, having thrown for over 25 touchdowns and 4000 yards in each of the last four seasons. If he has time in the pocket early in the game, he can get into a rhythm and be especially dangerous when he gets the ball to his top-notch receivers. That said, he likes to hold the ball longer than any quarterback in the league — and is especially rattled by pressure.
Dalvin Cook is a workhorse running back and the true pulse of the team. He’s a true game-wrecker in the backfield. This season he has rushed for 5.3 yards per carry — with nine rushing touchdowns — and already has over 1000 yards from scrimmage. He’s an agile back who is tough to bring down and likes to get outside the tackles. When Cook gets a breather, rookie Alexander Mattison can also do plenty of damage; he’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 68 touches. Fullback C.J. Ham also sees a lot of snaps, as the Vikings utilize lots of heavy personnel.
This wide receiver group is arguably the best in the league. Stefon Diggs has been spectacular this season, hauling in 37 receptions for 706 yards. That’s a ridiculous 19.1 yards per catch. He’s an incredibly savvy route runner and an explosive vertical threat. Adam Thielen looks to be returning from injury and is just as dangerous as Diggs — while he doesn’t exhibit the same burst or long speed as Diggs, his ability to create separation out of his sharp breaks is fantastic. Rookie Olabisi Johnson is a long, speedy downfield threat who will get some slot receiver snaps.
Now in his ninth year, the Vikings have Kyle Rudolph at tight end. While he’s not the same athlete he once was, he’s still a great blocker and can leak out into the flat to pick up a crucial first down. Meanwhile, Alabama rookie Irv Smith Jr. is utilized as more of a move tight end, adding a more dynamic pass-catching option to the Vikings 12 personnel.
Riley Reiff holds down the left side of the Minnesota line. The eight-year veteran out of Iowa is a steady presence protecting Cousins. Second-year right tackle Brian O’Neill was given the starting job this season and is a good run blocker. Rookie Garrett Bradbury has struggled a bit at center, getting beat a little too often by speed and power. Minnesota’s guard play has been a mess this season. Pat Elflein and Josh Kline have allowed too much pressure up the middle — and haven’t blocked particularly well in the run game.
The offensive concept: Short yardage shot plays
MIN can do major damage out of heavy when they're ahead of the sticks.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 31, 2019
21p keeps base D on field. Diggs sells outside vertical, bam step in CB blind spot to post. FB/RB open throwing lane, hitch/flat pull backside up. Diggs is open before blitz can get home for huge yardage. pic.twitter.com/VMbKIILqJQ
The Vikings love to use heavy personnel — adding an additional back or tight end a whopping 77% of their offensive snaps. While that personnel tends to dictate a heavy rushing attack, Minnesota loves to aggressively attack downfield — a shot play, if you will — in short-yardage situations.
When Minnesota is ahead of the sticks, they like to utilize play-action and/or shallow route distributions to create space in the secondary for their elite weapons. The play I’m showing you here is a prime example.
The Vikings are in an offset I-formation with 21 personnel, which pushes the defense into their heavier base personnel. Off the snap, the back-side receiver runs a hitch route, keeping the field cornerback pulled up toward the line of scrimmage. The fullback and the tight end kick out into the flats while the running back leaks to the middle of the field. Expecting a running play, the linebackers are playing downhill but continue to the spot in man coverage, opening a throwing lane for the shot receiver.
Diggs is an excellent route runner with great speed; cornerbacks have to respect him as a vertical threat. He releases to the boundary, initially selling the 9-route and getting into the cornerback’s blind spot as he’s opened to the quarterback. The deep safety rotates to the middle of the field and sees Diggs’ release, driving to the boundary to get over the top of the route.
But instead, Diggs hits his bam step and cuts back to the middle of the field — taking advantage of the blind cornerback and the over-rotating safety — and gets into empty space. Cousins hits the top of his drop and makes an easy throw into an open lane against the blitz, giving Diggs room to run.
No matter the opponent, the defense always wants to stay ahead of the sticks. However, the Vikings’ weapons — and their plethora of shot plays like this one — make it even more important to have early-down success. Minnesota won’t necessarily be content to have clock-killing drives with running play after running play; they’ll regularly be looking for the big play. The Chiefs will have to stress their balance and quick play identification — particularly in these short-yardage situations.
The bottom line
I feel like a bit of a broken record saying this each week, but there are some bad matchups for the Chiefs linebackers and cornerbacks against the Vikings.
We know that Cook is going to get the ball early and often — both on the ground and through the air. While the Vikings offensive linemen aren’t great run blockers, the Chiefs will have to be solid tacklers — otherwise, Cook’s contact balance and agility will allow him to earn those extra yards by himself. He’s a poor matchup for the Chiefs linebackers in coverage — particularly if Reggie Ragland or Damien Wilson have to kick out into the flats against him in the base defense.
Thielen and Diggs are also truly elite receivers. While the Chiefs cornerbacks have played better the last two weeks, I’m getting bad vibes about this game. Even though they dropped passes, the Houston Texans had receivers running free through the secondary. These two receivers are arguably even more dangerous. Both are great route runners who are capable of gaining separation from elite cornerbacks. Since the Chiefs don’t feature a particularly agile secondary, separation might be even easier for the Vikings.
Minnesota also leans heavily on their screen game, beating the pass rush and getting Cook into space. But surprisingly, the Chiefs have fared pretty well at identifying and eliminating those — either with defensive ends getting into the throwing lane and swatting down the pass or with safeties running the alley and beating the blocker to the spot. All of that has to continue if Steve Spagnuolo wants to be effective with his blitz packages.
And those blitzes might be the difference in the game this week. Cousins can be easily rattled by pressure; he’ll miss open passes by sailing passes from his back foot. In the last two weeks, the Chiefs have been very effective getting pressure through some exotic blitz packages — and this Vikings offensive line could give up even more. Early in the game, look for Spagnuolo to dial up the heat often — trying to disrupt Cousins’ rhythm — and then rely on simulated pressures to create stops and turnovers as the game progresses.