EAGAN, Minn. -- Defensive end Everson Griffen calls the Minnesota Vikings' defensive performance against the Atlanta Falcons "great," not just because of the success the unit drew from constantly pressuring quarterback Matt Ryan but also that it allowed Minnesota to carry out its rush plan effectively.
“We got to start that way each and every time,” Griffen said. “We’ve got to start fast, and we’ve got to end fast. Sixty minutes, all gas pedal. “
From linebacker Anthony Barr’s sack on the first play of the game when the Vikings showed one of seven five-man fronts to the three others earned by Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph in the first three quarters, Minnesota pressured Ryan on 38.5 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus data.
The early returns on Minnesota’s pass rush show the defensive front could prove to be as strong as it has been during coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure, returning to a form similar to two years ago when the Vikings had the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
For Griffen, who will be 32 this season, the drop-off for edge rushers that often comes with age has yet to be seen. That explosiveness hasn’t gone anywhere.
“His game is all about violence and speed off the edge,” Zimmer said. “He’s a smart guy, but he’s tough and he’s kind of our Energizer Bunny a little bit.”
The fortitude of Minnesota’s pass rush faces another test in Week 2 when the Vikings play the rival Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The rush plan differs for each quarterback, and this game calls for a vastly different approach against Aaron Rodgers and his magician-like ability to escape from the pocket and the plays he can make on the run.
“You have to be careful the way you rush him because he has the mobility to get out,” Zimmer said. “It’s not just lay your ears back and go with him because he’s too dangerous when he gets out of the pocket. We have to maintain our lanes, and then we have to be tight on coverage. He’s very, very good at getting the ball quickly out of his hands, getting it in the seams. He’s got a great arm, and he sees thing very well. He’s doing a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage.”
Rodgers was sacked five times in the Packers’ season opener against the Chicago Bears, all but one of which came in third-and-long situations. Chicago’s plan didn’t always rely on forcing the QB to vacate the pocket but rather didn’t allow Rodgers to get to his second read.
Even with the new system Rodgers is playing in under coach Matt LaFleur, his abilities to scramble and get the ball out of his hand quickly are traits that carry over from meeting to meeting. Pressuring Rodgers often leads to him showing off that quick release, which is why the Vikings' pass rush places heavy emphasis not only on making the QB feel its presence but also on limiting the angles he has to escape.
“Each week we work on something, we point out the flaws that we have, but this week it’s going to be exposed,” said defensive end Stephen Weatherly. “It’s going to come out, come to the forefront a lot quicker because it is Week 2, it’s not Week 6 where we have a couple weeks of maybe not executing the right way but it was a pocket passer so we were fine. This week, if you’re not executing right as a front four and communicating to rush together, this guy can really get out of the pocket and make some big throws down the field.”
Although communication might prove to be the biggest benefit of facing Rodgers in Week 2, with other mobile threats like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson awaiting in future matchups, finding out how Minnesota wants to build out its defensive line rotation might take some time.
“You’ll be able to see it in the back half of the season,” said Weatherly, who rotated in on 43 percent of defensive snaps in Week 1. “Right now everyone is fresh. No one has a bump, a bruise or is fatigued from having x number of snaps under their belt. You’ll only see if the rotation works later in the season if you still see the fresh legs because those guys can come out, take a breather, and go back in and execute at a high level.”