Down ten points, 17-7, on the 6th play of a drive that has covered 16 yards, the Vikings run into a critical 3rd-down situation on their own 41-yard line with 6:40 left in the 2nd quarter. The Vikings are lined up in the shotgun with a single back, Matt Asiata, positioned to quarterback Matt Cassel’s left. They have three wide receivers in trips to the left side of the line, while tight end Kyle Rudolph sets up on the right. The Patriots respond with a 4-2 nickel package. Receiver Greg Jennings comes in motion and the Patriots zone coverage shifts. Prior to the snap, Jerod Mayo (#51) backpedals about 15 yards into a deep Tampa 2-style zone coverage. At the snap Rob Ninkovich jams Rudolph, hands him off to the linebackers, and the Patriots employ a four-man rush with Ninkovich, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones, and Chandler Jones. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower then picks up Rudolph, while cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Logan Ryan both pass off their receivers to the safeties, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty.
Coverage downfield is tight, and Chandler Jones creates backside pressure that forces Cassel to roll out to his right. Asiata leaks through the line and Cassel locates him, jump-throwing just over Ninkovich’s hands to the running back for the check down. Typical of cornerbacks in Cover 2, Ryan is facing the play and watching it develop. He picks up Asiata out of the backfield immediately, closes the distance, and sticks the tackle before the Viking back can turn around and get his momentum moving forward.
Ryan’s technique is perfect: He doesn’t lead with his helmet, squares Asiata up, wraps up, and gets there quickly enough to prevent the powerful back from running him over. Ryan is also keenly aware of Hightower’s position on the field; if Ryan missed, Hightower would have been in good position to stop Asiata’s forward progress.
While a subtle move, Ninkovich’s jam on Rudolph is very important ‒ this is the key to the play. If Rudolph gets a free release he probably gets open quickly enough for Cassel to find him and pick up the first down and more. While Rudolph eventually does get open, Ninkovich’s jam slows him down just enough for the pocket to collapse and get Cassel’s feet and eyes moving. That small but fundamentally sound execution, combined with the downfield coverage, Jones’ outside pass rush, and Ryan’s quick reaction, make this play our Defensive Play of the Week.
Jeff Johnson authored this piece with contributions from Mark Schofield.
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