Will Redskins Employ Run-Heavy Attack vs. Vikings?

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 22, 2011 – 4:03 pm

The Vikings will travel to the Washington D.C. area on Friday with an injury-depleated secondary that currently ranks 30th in the NFL. Just 1 of the 4 starting DBs from Week 1 remains in the lineup (Jamarca Sanford), and with Asher Allen dealing with a concussion and Cedric Griffin demoted from the starting lineup, it’s entirely possible that 6 of the team’s best 7 opening-day DBs will not see the field.

On top of all that, the Washington Redskins come into this weekend’s matchup ranked 14th in passing and 29th in rushing. For the season, the Redskins have passed the ball on 60.7% of their snaps and they have twice as many TDs through the air (16) as they do on the ground (8).

With all of that said, though, don’t be surprised if Washington attacks the Vikings defense primarily on the ground. It might not make sense at first blush, but a closer look at the numbers suggests this might be the route the Redskins take.

The Redskins currently sit with a 5-9 record, but they began the season with 3 wins in their first 4 games. In those 4 games, the Redskins averaged 30.75 rushes per game. After a bye in Week 4, Washington went on a 6-game losing streak, and in those games they ran the ball just 17.0 times per game. Since losing to Dallas in Week 11, the Redskins have gone 2-2 and have run the ball 31.5 times per game in that stretch, including a 40-carry game in victory against the Giants last week.

Suffice it to say the Redskins have seen better results when they employ a more balanced run-pass ratio, and they’ve in fact won games when they’ve had a run-heavy attack.

It might seem odd given the caliber of pass defense the Vikings have displayed as of late, but Washington could very well choose to attack the Vikings on the ground early and often. If they choose this strategy, rookie RB Roy Helu will be the team’s primary ball carrier. He’s averaging 4.3 yards per rush and had 3 consecutive 20-carry, 100-yard rushing performances from Week 12-14.

“I think he is a tough football player, a good football player that has good skills,” Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac said on Thursday. “He can run, he’s fast, he’s predominantly a tackle to outside runner, but that is their offense. He does a good job.”

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Vikings Defense Will Keep An Eye On Saints TE Graham

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 16, 2011 – 7:42 am

When you face an offense that ranks 1st in yards per game, passing yards, total 1st downs and passing 1st downs, and also has the 3rd-highest rated passer in the NFL, there are a lot of challenges. Facing such an offense is the task at hand for the Vikings defense this week, as Drew Brees and the high-scoring Saints offense are bringing their show to Mall of America Field on Sunday.

With all of the superlative stats one can use to describe the Saints passing offense, perhaps the most interesting is that their leading receiver is not a speedster on the outside or a quick-as-a-whip slot receiver. It’s TE Jimmy Graham, a first-year starter who played behind Jeremy Shockey for most of last season.

Graham is a big, physical and fast target for Brees in the Saints offense. He measures in at 6-6, 260 pounds, which gives him a decided advantage over any defender that tries to cover him. Add in the fact that he has excellent leaping ability, good hands, and above-average speed, and you can see why Graham is such a valuable and reliable target for Brees.

For the season, Graham leads the Saints in receptions (80), receiving yards (1,101) and receiving TDs (8).

“He’s a good player, a very good player,” Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac said on Thursday. “Obviously doing a great job at this point catching the football. Big body, athletic, can run; we will have to get into him, changeup techniques and coverages on him and go from there.”

As good a season as Graham is having, he doesn’t pose the type of threat never before seen by this Vikings defense. Graham is a lot like San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates in that both are big, athletic pass-catching TEs with basketball backgrounds, and their teams feature them in the passing game. Other TEs that fit this mold in the NFL and that the Vikings have seen recently include Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew.

The Vikings have had mixed results against TEs of this caliber. In Week 1 of the regular season, Gates caught 8 passes for 74 yards, and the Vikings held him out of the end zone. Against Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley in 2 games this season, the Vikings gave up 5 receptions for 80 yards and 1 TD. And against Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew in 2 games, the Vikings yielded 17 receptions for 169 yards and 1 TD.

It sounds like Pagac and the Vikings defense will be on the lookout for Graham this week to make sure they hold him in check.

“When you are studying film, you will see linebackers, safeties on him,” Pagac said. “You will see people trying to change coverages up on him. Obviously the same stuff that we are going to try to do.”

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Vikings Defense Answers The Bell vs. Lions Offense

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 12, 2011 – 8:40 am

A quick look at the final score of Sunday’s loss might make you think otherwise, but the Vikings defense answered the bell against a typically explosive Detroit Lions offense. The Lions scored 34 points in their victory, but the point total alone doesn’t tell the true story.

Ultimately, it was turnovers by the Vikings offense early in the game that allowed Detroit to build an advantage that was just barely enough to preserve victory. The Lions scored two defensive touchdowns in the 1st half, and for the game Detroit collected 24 points directly off of Vikings turnovers.

When the Lions weren’t aided by a Vikings turnover, though, they had trouble against the Vikings defense. Here’s a list of the Lions offensive drives and results of those drives when they didn’t obtain the ball via turnover:

4 plays, 19 yards, 1 first down, punt
4 plays, 34 yards, 2 first downs, touchdown
6 plays, 25 yards, 1 first down, punt
3 plays, 2 yards, 0 first downs, punt
4 plays, 9 yards, 0 first downs, punt
15 plays, 76 yards, 5 first downs, field goal
6 plays, 20 yards, 1 first down, punt

Add it all up, and the Lions averaged just 6 plays, 26.4 yards and 1.4 first downs per drive, very solid numbers for the Vikings defense.

In addition to all of that, the Vikings held QB Matthew Stafford to just 227 passing yards (he averaged 293.9 coming into the game) and they sacked Stafford 5 times. Stafford’s top target, Calvin Johnson, was also held in check with just 3 receptions for 29 yards.

The Vikings also held Detroit’s running game in check, as the Lions gained just 72 yards on 21 carries (3.4 yards per carry). For the game, Detroit had just 13 first downs – compared to 29 for the Vikings – and the offense as a whole generated 280 net yards, which is 104.2 yards below their season average.

None of this will make the loss feel any better, but it was good to see a Vikings defense that is severely hampered by injury play up to and above the level of the Lions offense. Both Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier and Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac should be pleased with the effort and results of the Vikings defense.

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Ballard, Griffen Will Have Opportunity To Contribute On Sunday

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 8, 2011 – 1:31 pm

On Sunday the Vikings will face a Lions offense that leans heavily on the pass. No team passes on a higher percentage of their offensive snaps (64.9%) than the Lions and only the New Orleans Saints have attempted more passes on the season. The Lions pass-to-run ratio currently sits at 490-278, which includes games with 63 and 50 pass attempts.

The Lions are coming off back-to-back games of 45 and 44 pass attempts, and now they may be even more inclined to attack through the air with starter Jahvid Best out and his replacement, Kevin Smith, also battling injury.

Suffice it to say, Vikings pass rushers – especially the defensive ends – will have a lot of work to do this Sunday. Jared Allen has been productive for the Vikings this season – his 14.5 sacks rank 2nd in the NFL – but not even he can put enough pressure on Lions QB Matthew Stafford alone. Allen’s usual partner on the other end of the defensive line is Brian Robison, but Robison is trying to comeback from a concussion he sustained in last week’s game against the Broncos.

With or without Robison, the Vikings will rely on depth along the defensive line to keep fresh bodies in the game and a relentless pass rush in Stafford’s face. After Allen and Robison, the next two outside pass rushers the Vikings will insert into the game are rookie Christian Ballard and 2nd-year DE Everson Griffen.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac was asked about his depth along the defensive line during his customary Thursday morning meeting with reporters.

“We’re planning on playing him,” Pagac said of Griffen. “He’s been getting more reps as the season’s gone on. We plan on using him quite a bit. The other guy will be Christian Ballard. Those guys are going to have to play. We’re going to have to rotate people through, we’re going to have to get fresh bodies in there rushing the passer, and play sixty minutes of football. Give them different looks, play aggressively and have some fun.”

Both Ballard and Griffen are 4th-round draft picks of the Vikings, and both figure to be in the team’s long-term plans along the defensive line after impressing coaches and scouts early in their careers. For both players, versatility is a strong-point in their skill sets. They can both contribute on multiple phases of special teams, and they can both play multiple positions on defense. Griffen is most comfortable playing DE, but the Vikings have also experimented with him as a LB. Ballard was a standout at the University of Iowa at both DE and DT, and he’s been productive in short stints for the Vikings at both positions as well.

With the Vikings season coming up short of expectations, now is a great opportunity for these two young players to gain additional playing time and prove even more to coaches that they’re deserving of playing time. Add in the fact that the Vikings defense will face a pass-happy Lions attack this weekend, and the opportunity for Ballard and Griffen gets even better.

Here’s what Pagac had to say about both Ballard and Griffen when he was asked to evaluate them:

On Ballard: “I think that kid is multi-talented. He can play different positions. I don’t think he’ll have a problem there. In fact, the snaps that he has gotten at that end position, he’s been pretty stout and he’s gotten us pretty good push on the pocket. He’s a young player who’s going to be a good football player.”

On Griffen: “Everson has great potential. In my opinion, he’s had pretty good productivity on the plays that he’s played and he’s got to continue to mature and grasp some scheme and go from there. He has great athleticism. He has a good motor. He can make athletic plays.”

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Pagac’s Background Will Help Vikings Prepare For Tebow, Broncos Running Game

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 1, 2011 – 12:53 pm

We’re in an era of football now where one of the most valued attributes a college QB can possess is experience and familiarity with running a “pro style” offense. And that’s one of many reasons there is so much intrigue surrounding Broncos QB Tim Tebow right now – his most tangible attribute is the ability to run a college style offense in the NFL.

Tebow’s been a hard player for opposing defenses to contain of late, as he’s guided the Broncos to a 5-1 record since taking over as the team’s starter in Week 7. In a league that displays and glorifies prolific passing attacks, Tebow and the Broncos are racking up wins by running the football. Since Tebow was named Denver’s starter, the Broncos have a run-to-pass ratio of 249 to 135.

Much of the difficulty in stopping the Broncos rushing attack is that their scheme is not the standard NFL running scheme. It’s literally an option offense, similar to those you’d see watching college football on Saturdays. As good as the Vikings are at stopping the run, containing Tebow and the Broncos ground game on Sunday will be a tall task.

But there is good news. Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac is no stranger to stopping the option offense. Pagac spent 23 years coaching at his alma mater – Ohio State University – and has seen plenty of the option offense in his day. In 1998 with Pagac as defensive coordinator, the Buckeyes led the nation in rushing defense, ranked 2nd in pass defense and were 4th in overall defense. Also, Ohio State played in 20 bowl games while Pagac was on staff.

Pagac’s long tenure in the college ranks will serve him and the Vikings defense well this week as they prepare to face Tebow, one of the best college players of all-time and a player who is doing in the NFL exactly what he did in college – win.

“Going back to college and playing option football,” Pagac responded when asked about the adjustments he had to make in preparing for Denver this week. “That’s part of their package now. They have different looks that they run base football out of, they have different looks that they’re running the spread zone reads, the option game, so obviously we’re going to have to be prepared on all facets of the game.”

As for Tebow specifically, Pagac, who has seen a countless number of impressive offensive players in his 34 years as a football coach, was complimentary in talking about the 2nd-year pro.

“He’s a competitive son of a gun that’s a good football player,” Pagac said. “Big, strong kid. Very, very competitive, and obviously he’s like playing with a second running back in the game and you’ve got to be alert to it.”

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Pagac Says Winfield Is “One Of The Best Players I’ve Been Around”

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 11, 2011 – 1:10 pm

One of the most significant subplots to Monday night’s Vikings-Packers game is the return of CB Antoine Winfield to the Vikings secondary. Winfield has missed the Vikings last 4 games – including the Week 7 showdown with Green Bay at Mall of America Field – with a neck injury, but has returned to practice this week and is on track to be in the starting lineup at Lambeau Field.

Winfield’s contribution to the Vikings defense goes beyond the traditional role of a CB. He slides inside on passing downs to play the opposing offense’s slot receiver, which requires as much mental aptitude as physical skill, and he’s also a premier run defender at CB. On top of that, Winfield simply has a nose for the ball. He is 2nd in franchise history with 5 return TDs and he ranks 6th among CBs in team history with 25 takeaways (in just 98 games).

Head Coach Leslie Frazier has spoken a couple of times this week about the impact Winfield makes on the Vikings defense. On Friday, Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac had his weekly meeting with reporters. Pagac, who doesn’t waste his breath with hyperbole, was quick to acknowledge the importance of Winfield’s return. He also gave Winfield quite the compliment.

“It’s big for us,” said Pagac, a 34-year coaching veteran. “He’s one of our best football players. He’s back to being healthy. It gives us some depth in the back end and we’re excited about being back.

“He’s one of the better football players that I’ve been around in my coaching career. He has instincts, he has savvy, he has toughness, he has quickness, he has power. He might be little, but he’ll sting you.”

For the Vikings to come out on the right side of Monday night’s game, the Vikings will need everything Winfield can has.

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Notes From Pagac Press Conference; Robison, K. Williams Playing Well

Posted by Mike Wobschall on September 29, 2011 – 12:44 pm

A lot of you have commented here on the Blog recently that Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac does not take a loquacious approach to his weekly press conferences. It’s true, Pagac does tend to hold his cards close to the vest.

But hey, he’s been a successful coach for a long time and you don’t keep at job as an assistant coach at Ohio State University for 23 seasons by divulging secrets and strategies. On top of that, let’s give him credit for not being one who spews out hyperbole just to pass time and give the standard, run-of-the-mill quote.

With all that said, there were a few interesting notes to come out of Pagac’s press conference on Thursday. Here they are…

Not surprised by Robison
There’s always a natural level of concern when a team loses a starter, and that was certainly the case for Vikings fans when DE Ray Edwards left the club via free agency this past offseason. Brian Robison, who had been an important member of the DL rotation since entering the League as a rookie in 2007, was tabbed as the replacement and he was even given a contract extension during the offseason.

Concerns about Robison not being able to replace Edwards have reduced, if not gone away, after the first 3 games. Robison is off to a good start in 2011, having tallied 11 tackles and 1.0 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and 1 pass defensed. He’s gotten to the opposing QB constantly and has 10 QB hits.

Robison’s fast start may surprise some, but it doesn’t surprise his defensive coordinator.

“No, Brian Robison’s a good football player,” Pagac said. “He’s one of our top fifteen, sixteen guys on our football team. We expect those things out of Brian. He’s doing a good job right now.”

Williams right back into the swing of things
Last week marked the return of DT Kevin Williams to the lineup following a two-game suspension to begin the season. It’s no coincidence that the Vikings registered 5 sacks against the Lions in the same game that Williams made his return. When Williams is in the game, opposing offenses generally allocate two blockers to him each play, which gives other defensive linemen one-on-one opportunities. And, Williams was in the game a bit more than Pagac and the Vikings coaching staff expected against Detroit.

“Thought he did well,” Pagac said. “We’re happy to have him back. Obviously we think he’s a great football player, and we expect him to continue to improve as we go on.

“He probably played more than we thought (he would). He probably played probably fifteen, twenty snaps more than we thought he would’ve. But he was in great shape and he was able to go. Whatever he did during his two weeks off, he did a good job of staying in shape and working out.”

Asked if he expects Williams will have any limitations this week because of conditioning after missing the first two games or because of his foot injury, Pagac’s answer was (predictably) simple.

“He’s back to work.”

Encouraged by Everson Griffen
DE Everson Griffen has quickly become one of the Vikings best special teams players. And now he’s also starting to find a niche on defense. The Vikings have experimented with Griffen in a variety of roles on the defense, including standing him up as a LB or sorts.

Griffen was in this role occasionally against Detroit, and Pagac indicated he was satisfied with what he saw, but he’s also expecting improvement.

“I thought Everson did a great job in the game,” Pagac said. “He did a good job of rushing. What he did in the drop part of it was fine. We’ll continue to get better at that. It was one of the first times we did it with live bullets. We expect him to get better and better.”

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Notes From Tuesday’s Practice, Coordinator Press Conferences

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 23, 2011 – 4:33 pm

The Vikings had a long, grueling practice on Tuesday afternoon as they continue their rigorous preparation for the 2011 regular season, which begins in just under 3 weeks. The team worked in full pads for the approximately 2-hour practice and they did so in humid, sticky conditions.

Coaches paused more frequently for extra water breaks and the tough work in even tougher conditions gave the squad an idea of their conditioning. All indications are the team’s conditioning is good, especially considering how well the first-team defense and offense played against the scout teams.

Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier indicated after Saturday’s preseason win over the Seattle Seahawks that the team would do a little bit of game-planning for their next opponent – the Dallas Cowboys – to try and simulate a week of preparation in the regular season. The Vikings did so today, with both the first-team defense and offense working against a scout team that was presumably simulating looks the Cowboys have given opponents so far during the preseason.

Here are a few notes from Tuesday’s action…

– The Vikings secondary was the standout group in practice, with S Tyrell Johnson collecting on INT in 7-on-7 drills and CBs Marcus Sherels and Antoine Winfield grabbing INTs during full team periods of practice. Johnson showed great range on his INT, coming from the deep right side of the field to the middle. Sherels also had a tremendous pass break up (PBU) during 1-on-1 drills in the period right after his INT.

– CB Chris Cook also performed well in 1-on1 drills and drew praise from DBs coach Joe Woods when he locked rookie WR Stephen Burton up at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the route. Cook made another nice play late in practice when he trailed WR Dominique Johnson all the way across the field on a drag route and extended his left arm to break up the pass.

– On the first play of the first period of full team work for the first-team defense, LB Erin Henderson intercepted a pass and returned it to the endzone. That marks the second consecutive day Henderson has grabbed an INT in practice.

– The first-team offense looked just as impressive going against the scout team defense. QB Donovan McNabb found WRs Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin several times, with Berrian able to get over the top of the defense at least three times that I saw for long receptions all over the field.

– DT Kevin Williams (foot) is on the mend a bit, so Letroy Guion got first-team reps at the 3-technique.

– Harvin made the play of the day and it came early in practice. He was running a route deep down the right side of the field and McNabb launched a pass in Harvin’s direction. By the time the ball came down it was actually falling into bracketed coverage, but Harvin cut in front of the coverage, leaped off of one foot and grabbed the ball with one hand, hauling it in and controlling the ball all the way to the ground.

– Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac was asked a few times about the starting safety position opposite Husain Abdullah and he did not indicate whether Tyrell Johnson or Jamarca Sanford had an edge in the competition. In fact, Pagac said both players have played about the same number of snaps and the competition may not be decided soon. The coaching staff is still talking about how to split up playing time this week against the Cowboys, but look for Sanford to get the start because Johnson started last week in Seattle.

– Pagac did not have an update on Kevin Williams’ status and he said he expects the defensive starters to play roughly 20-25 plays before exiting the game on Saturday night.

– Vikings Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave did not give much indication as to how long the offensive starters would play on Saturday night and instead explained that the coaching staff still had to make those decisions.

– Here was Pagac’s response when asked to assess the defense’s performance against Seattle: “Improvement of tempo; I thought we were running to the ball a little bit better. Our tackling was better. We still had a couple missed tackles, but our tackling was much better. Just the attitude that we played with and obviously the sudden change situation when we had the turnover for the touchdown and then that goal line stance after a long series. That means a lot to us, is something that we preach about all the time and the kids responded.”

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Pagac Anticipates DT Guion Making Impact In 2011

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 23, 2011 – 3:51 pm

Marcus Sherels’ 64-yard INT return for a TD was the premier defensive highlight in last Saturday’s 20-7 preseason victory over the Seattle Seahawks. But the turning point in the game may have actually occurred on the following Seattle offensive series.

The Seahawks offense responded well to Sherels’ pick 6, driving the ball from their own 27-yardline to the Vikings 2 in 10 plays, setting up a 1st-and-goal situation just six feet from the endzone. But that’s where the Vikings defense bowed up and stopped Seattle RB Justin Forsett on four consecutive runs.

DT Letroy Guion was credited with 2 tackles on those four plays but his impact was even greater. He was a disruptive force in that series of plays and it did not go unnoticed by the Vikings coaching staff.

“One guy in particular, Letroy Guion, he lit it up in that situation,” Vikings Defensive Coordinator Fred Pagac said on Tuesday. “He did a nice job for us.”

Pagac is a true throwback and is not one to shower praise on his players. But he made a point to specifically mention Guion’s role in the goal-line stand and he also indicated Guion is expected to make an impact on the Vikings defense this season.

“We think Letroy is going to be a heck of a football player for us,” Pagac commented. “We’re anticipating him being a big part of our defense this year. He’s coming along and he has the athletic ability. He’s strong, has quickness and has toughness.”

Guion stands at 6-4, 303 pounds and plays primarily the 3-technique behind starter Kevin Williams in the Vikings defense. The Vikings drafted him in the 5th round (#152 overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft and he was inactive for 15 of the Vikings 17 games that season. But in 2009 he took a step forward by playing in 7 games and then he became a regular in the DT rotation last year.

Speaking of the rotation, Pagac was asked if he took extra pride in the goal line stand from Saturday because it was his second-team defense that was in the game taking on Seattle’s first-team offense. As I said earlier, Pagac is a throwback and is not one to provide much hyperbole. He made it clear that while the goal line stand was a feather in the defense’s cap, it’s also something that he expects his players to accomplish.

“Again, as far as our front’s concerned,” Pagac said, “we’re planning on rolling those guys all year long, so in my mind they’re a part of our ones so they’ve got to play hard all the time, too.”

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Robison Plans To Take Advantage Of Starting Opportunity

Posted by Mike Wobschall on July 31, 2011 – 12:04 pm

Vikings DE Brian Robison is one of the more passionate and outgoing football players I’ve been around. So it comes as no surprise to me that he was one of the first players to report to 2011 Verizon Vikings Training Camp on Sunday, especially considering he enters this year’s training camp as a heavy favorite to win a starting DE position.

With Ray Edwards having left via free agency, there’s a vacant starting spot at left DE and Robison has proven over his four-year career that he is capable of the job.

“It feels good,” Robison said when asked how it feels to enter training camp as a starter. “It’s an opportunity I’ve been wanting for a while and it’s an opportunity I plan on taking advantage of. So that’s my outlook coming in.”

Robison indicated he didn’t train much differently this offseason than in previous offseasons, although he did note one area he adjusted.

“I did a little bit more cardio so I’d be in [better] shape,” Robison commented. “But as far as the actual football side of things I really didn’t do too much different. I just tried to hone in on what I do right and improve on that and things I felt like in needed to work on [I tried to] improve on that as well. I just did what I’ve always done.”

Robison will be the team’s new left DE presumably and the Vikings will also have a new defensive coordinator in Fred Pagac. When Leslie Frazier was named interim head coach late last season, it was Pagac who stepped up to fulfill the defensive coordinator role. Now with Frazier in the fold as the head coach, Pagac will remain as defensive coordinator.

“I think it might be a little bit more aggressive, possibly,” Robison said of the Vikings defensive scheme with Pagac as the coordinator. “Obviously that’s something we’ll see here in the next three or four days, kind of what his scheme is and what he thinks he wants to do. But just based off of the last four or five games that we had with him last year he seems to be a little bit more aggressive with blitzes.”

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