EAGAN — Go back and watch any game before the year 2000 and you will see defenses deploying a middle, strongside and weakside linebacker on first and second down.
Most of the time nickel cornerbacks were only seen in obvious passing situations and there weren’t any hybrid safeties. In today’s game, teams use nickel packages (five defensive backs) on nearly every down. The Minnesota Vikings’ use of extra tight ends and fullbacks has created significant mismatches as very few teams have an excess of linebacker talent — much less the linebackers with the size to match up with Irv Smith or CJ Ham in the running game.
It’s been a significant advantage for the Vikings, who only use three-receiver sets around 28% of the time, according to SharpFootballStats.com.
The Seattle Seahawks, who will face the Vikings on Monday Night Football with playoff seeding implications on the line, are uniquely built to take on the bigger personnel packages that offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski deploys. They have three quality linebackers in Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright and Mychal Kendricks and they rarely come off the field. Per Pro-Football Reference, Wagner plays 100% of snaps, Wright 94.5% and Kendricks 73.1%.
You would be hard pressed to find another team that uses a third linebacker that often. The Vikings, for example, use Ben Gedeon on 14% of total snaps.
“They play their base defense to everything and it’s because they have three good players,” Stefanski said Friday. “They don’t want to take those guys off the field, and I can’t argue that. I have a ton of respect, having played these guys over the years, how they go about their business, how they fly to the ball. It’s an impressive group. Our guys have to be up to the challenge because when you go play Coach (Pete) Carroll’s defense and the way these guys fly to football, it’s going to be a 60-minute affair.”
During the absence of Adam Thielen due to a hamstring injury the Vikings have used a second and third tight end and fullback more often than extra receivers. Irv Smith has 20 catches since Thielen went down against the Lions in Week 7. With Thielen on the mend (he was limited in practice on Friday) and likely to play according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport, he might be coming back at the right time in order to allow Stefanski to use three-receiver sets with Bisi Johnson.
“I I think you’ve seen some young guys step up, and we’ve asked a lot of them,” Stefanski said. “Certainly a guy of Adam’s caliber, if you add him to the mix, is certainly somebody that we’re excited about what he can do. We’ll see where it goes over the next couple of days, but it’s no different from a preparation standpoint for our young players, our backups that have to be ready to roll in any case.”
Just like Seattle uses an extra linebacker an unusual amount, the Vikings send out their fullback more than every team in the NFL except the San Francisco 49ers. Ham has been on the field for 254 snaps, making up nearly 35% of total offensive plays.
“I think what it speaks again to is versatility and the way we attack defenses, and C.J. (Ham) is someone who is smart and obviously tough, playing that position, but where you can line him up out wide and bring him back into the formation, or keep him out wide, just gives you a couple of different things that you can do to make yourself hard to defend,” Stefanski said. “And then C.J. as a player and as a leader of this football team, somebody who is in on special teams, just that mentality and that toughness fits what Coach Zimmer wants this team to be about. So any time we can put him on the field, I think it adds an element of toughness to our team.”
In 2019 you wouldn’t have expected to be hearing about a weakside linebacker and fullback but that’s what we’ll get on Monday — something right out of 1994. Insert the, “look at us, who would have thought, not me” meme.
But has it really worked for Seattle? Overall their defense ranks 22nd in yards per play allowed and 14th in opponent scoring percentage. However, per SharpFootballStats, offenses have only had a 44% Success Rate when using 12 personnel (one RB, two TE) against the Seahawks and just a 30% success rate in 40 plays with 21 (two RB, one TE) personnel. Those numbers rank sixth and third in the NFL. Opposing QBs pick up just 6.6 yards per pass attempt in 12 personnel in 111 drop backs and 4.8 YPA in 21 personnel (albeit on only 18 drop backs).
Offenses have a slightly above average success rate against the Seahawks when using three receivers picking up 7.2 YPA through the air and 4.6 YPA on the ground.
So will the Vikings look to use something that would look like Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark and Art Monk in 1991 or will they stick with what they’ve done best and run out multiple tight end sets or fullback packages? It will be an interesting wrinkle to a meaningful game for both teams.