Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Minnesota Vikings Edition

What up, readers. TC Fleming here. Time now to look at a specific element of what the Minnesota Vikings do on offense with the goal of adding another little wrinkle to your Cowboys-watching experience.

I was listening to the afternoon drive program on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket, and they said something in regard to the Monday night game between Minnesota and the New York Jets that kind of stuck in my head. I shall reproduce it here:

The gist of the audio, if you can't be bothered to click on it, is that Corby's thinks that the addition of Moss has the Vikings offense making sense again, with someone big on the outside to make plays and allow Percy Harvin to reclaim his slot/matchup guy role that he flourished in last year. The Harvin part was what stuck with me. How did the Vikings use him last year? Did we see a return to that against the Jets?

Looking at how they used him last year, he did a lot of your normal stuff slot receivers do. He does a lot of running up the seam or doing a square-in behind the linebackers, and he's good at it. But in addition to that, they'll motion him into the backfield and use him as a runningback. Or they'll just plain line him up at running back to give Peterson a breather. Other times they'll start with him as a running back and motion him out in an effort to create confusion for the defense or generate a favorable matchup for him. And since he's in the slot usually being covered by a nickel corner, he almost always has a favorable matchup. That's the thing: he's not ready to beat the 2009 Darelle Revis every down, and if there's no Sidney Rice or Randy Moss around to guarantee he doesn't have to, he's in trouble. But when he's in the slot squaring off against a team's third corner, he wins that every time. On paper, Percy Harvin is much better than Orlando Scandrick.

To give an example of Harvin as a rushing threat, one play from their game against the Giants last year was particularly exciting to me. Harvin only rushed 15 times last year, and he's on about the same pace this year. When he rushed, however, it presented a very real problem for the defense. He's averaged over eight yards a carry for his career, a number way above what you find with about any running back. Part of that is the element of surprise that comes with a receiver running the ball, but the most significant reason his numbers are so sterling is that he's amazingly fast and a really good runner. That really shows up in this play. The Vikings start with Peterson in the backfield but not really in a position to run traditional running plays. Harvin motions to the tailback spot.

This all happens shortly before the snap, leaving the defense no time to audible to something more of a mind to stop a run. The big reason for this play's success, though, is Harvin's speed. It's a run to the outside and because he can get outside faster than anyone else on the field, the blocking assignments are predicated on the idea that the blockers, for the most part, don't have much of a need to move their men. They just have to stand in front of them long enough to allow Harvin to zip by. 

As a result, Adrian Peterson blocks Mathias Kiwanuka one-on-one and it works. Bernard Berrian takes on a linebacker. Both play-side defensive linemen are blocked one-on-one (and that frees the center, John Sullivan, to go block the middle linebacker). All of this happens and the run still gains 22 yards because Harvin has the speed to change what works and what doesn't as far as blocking goes. Not only has this change occurred, but the defense doesn't know until it's too late. Kiwanuka wasn't ready for Peterson to be blocking him, and that helps the success of this play. But even with that element, the play doesn't succeed without Harvin. With all this successful one-on-one play-side blocking, Harvin doesn't even have the threat of a tackle until he's deep into the secondary.

Now, one can see to an extent why the Vikings don't make this a high-volume part of their play calling. If these defenders have seen this on film quite a bit and practiced to stop it, Adrian Peterson isn't physically capable of blocking a defensive end who knows exactly what's coming. Still, it's extremely effective as deployed here, and Harvin will probably have a rush or two against the Cowboys that could happen something like this.

(Sorry for the choppy video. Find a better version here.)

So yeah, that's how the Vikings used him last year, having him do normal slot stuff with some other wrinkles thrown in. I don't know the extent to which they got away from that before the Moss trade, but I can definitely confirm they were back to it against the Jets. In the first quarter they deployed a very effective play designed to get Harvin the ball and allow him to work.

This is a little screen that went for 19 yards on first down. Favre does a little fake to Peterson, but it's more because they have time while they're setting up the screen. There is no other part of this play that suggests a run, so it probably won't have a huge effect on the defense. Harvin does as you would on a receiver screen, taking a step forward to get his defender backpedaling before stepping back and catching the pass. The linebackers are up close to the line of scrimmage. The outside linebacker to that side blitzes, and the inside linebacker seem focused on responsibilities covering the tight end and halfback. The real defenders on this play are the two corners lined up over Moss and Harvin. They both play it safe. They don't want to rush up to make the tackle before he has the ball because this could just be a trick to get Moss beihind them, so they stay 5-7 yards away until Harvin catches the ball. Once he does, they pursue him, but by then they're faced with Moss and left tackle Bryant McKinnie who has released his man after just the slightest bit of contact and is now looking to block one of these corners. The things is, neither Moss nor McKinnie really get ahdn on either of the corners because, again, they're playing it safe and being alert. The defenders see the blocks coming and fight their way around them without getting engaged by the blockers. But here's where Harvin's speed makes plays work: by the time these defenders have Moss and McKinnie whiffing on blocks, Harvin is already past them and has only the safety between him and the end zone. The safety does make the tackle but only after the 19-yard pickup. 

Here's where we see how dangerous this offense is with Moss in it. The defenders really don't want to fall asleep and let him get behind them, and that attention creates a cushion that can be exploited by Harvin's speed.

These plays are very exciting and highlight the unique skills Harvin brings to the offense, but really they represent more like 1/4 of his touches. Most of the time, he does the work of any other receiver. With his speed and with Moss on the field, however, that is as potent a weapon as any. The Jets were burned badly by that combination on a 3rd and 19 during the Vikings 4th-quarter comeback attempt.

This was one of the few plays where Harvin was not in the slot but lined up wide on the outside, but the concept is similar to any of his work from the inside. The play is pretty simple, but it illustrates the problems with having two guys you have to pay attention to like Moss and Harvin.

This is a case where it's kind of hard to make the diagram look like the play looked on the TV box. Harvin and Shiancoe are running up the field and getting inside of their defenders. It's kind of a gradual thing, they don't make any cuts. But by the time Harvin catches the ball, he's on the other side of the field. 

Because it's third and long and because it's the Jets, the defense sends six blitzers. The Vikings anticipate this and leave in seven blockers, who do an excellent job and are as key to this play as anyone. With the blitz picked up, Harvin and Shiancoe are now being defended by three men. Two are defensive backs who lined up very close to the line of scrimmage over Kleinsasser and Shiancoe. The other is Darelle Revis, who is lined up over Harvin. Revis trails Harvin at the start of his route, but he never looks so much like he's locked on to Harvin. He looks more like maybe he's making sure no one gets outside of him on the right side. Since both players are running left, he never really factors in.

The real battle here is Harvin and Shiancoe against the two defensive backs in the short middle. Those backs position themselves with one in front of each receiver, staying between them and the quarterback. Without having his eyes on him, Harvin's defender has a tough time keeping up and staying in front of him as he moves across the field. There's separation, and Favre places a pass in the exact right spot to allow Harvin to catch the ball without breaking stride. Once Harvin has caught the ball with spearation from the defender in front of him and no one behind him, he turns on the burners and finds the end zone. 

How is it that there was no one positioned between him and the end zone? Randy Moss. Moss has a corner lined up over him and a safety deep on that side of the field. Those are the only defenders on that side of the field, the side that Harvin strides through on his way to a touchdown. Obviously, the corner follows Moss deep. The safety is held by the threat of Moss and doesn't stop retreating and react to the play in front of him until after the ball is thrown. Harvin's speed makes hesitation like that lethal. But then again, if the safety had moved up to deal with Harvin, Favre could have just as easily gotten the touchdown from a single-covered Randy Moss. Once the Vikings had this blitz blocked up, the touchdown seems inevitable.

In watching the Vikings opening game agasint the Saints and in talking with Bob, one gets the impression that Percy Harvin isn't really ready to be an x or z receiver where he has to run all sorts of different routes and make adjustments and just generally do all of the nuanced things that one has to do in that position. But now that he has a threat on the outside and is free to again work his very simple yet effective magic from his slot position, he's dangerous again. Combine that with the little gadgets that he has proven to be very effective in, and he's an especially pesky threat to the Cowboys' defense that everyone should keep their eye on Sunday.

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