It’s been a stiff downturn for Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings since they hit their bye three weeks ago. A perfect 5-0 at the time, the Vikings have lost all three games since. The defense that allowed 12.6 points a game and not more than 16 points through the first five have (after last week’s 22-16 overtime loss to Detroit) now allowed an average of 21 points over the last 3 games. But the biggest concern has been the fading Viking offense.
Though their undefeated start, Minnesota scored 23.8 points per game, 302.6 total offensive yards per games and 232 passing yards per game. Quarterback Sam Bradford – who had taken over as the starter in week two – completed 70.4% of his passes during his four victories (88 for 125) for 990 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating at the time was 109.7.
In losses to Philadelphia and Chicago, all of this came to a halt. They scored only 10 points in each game, averaging just 270 total yards and 195 passing yards. Bradford, in those two games, completed just 47 of 78 passes (60.3%) for just 452 yards. He threw only 2 touchdown passes in those games while throwing his first interception of the season. His rating was a very pedestrian 79.6 in those games.
The Viking offense reached its nadir on its last possession of the first half. Two minutes and twenty-seven seconds into the second quarter, the Vikings’ defense flushed Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford from the pocket where he launched an ill-advised pass up the right sideline. Viking linebacker Chad Greenway was waiting for it. His interception and subsequent return gave Minnesota a first-and-ten on the Detroit 18. There was 12:25 left in the second quarter of a 3-3 game.
A first-down run gained four yards. Second-and-six from the Detroit 14.
On second down, the slightest flinch from embattled right tackle T.J. Clemmings drew a flag. The penalty pushed the ball back to the Detroit 19. Second and 11.
A wide-receiver screen to Stefon Diggs managed only two yards – but worse than that left-guard Jeremiah Sirles drew a questionable block-in-the-back penalty. The good news was that it was still just second down. Unfortunately, it was now second down and 19 from the Detroit 27.
The good news on the third-down play was there was no penalty called. The bad news is that even if the Vikings had been guilty of an infraction, the Lions would have probably declined it. Ronnie Hillman took a quick pitch from Bradford intending to scoot around right end. Before he could take his second step, he was met in the backfield by half the Detroit defense. The Vikings lost four yards on the play.
On third and 23 from the Detroit 31, the same suspect right side of the Minnesota offensive line that couldn’t run block the play before proved just as ineffective as pass blockers. Lined up over right guard Brandon Fusco, tackle Haloti Ngata stunted around right end. Fusco lost him in the shuffle and ended up trailing Ngata all the way to the quarterback. But Ngata was only the second to arrive.
Driving inside on the T-E stunt, end Kerry Hyder got under Clemmings’ pads and blew past him, running almost completely unimpeded as he brought Bradford down on the 40 yard line.
Two minutes and twenty-nine seconds after they had set up shop with a first down at the Detroit 18, Minnesota was punting from the 40. There was still 9:56 left in the half, but Minnesota wouldn’t see the ball again until the third quarter. Following the punt, Detroit would run almost ten minutes off the clock as they moved 84 yards in 17 grinding plays for the touchdown that sent them into the locker room at the half leading 10-3.
Through their first eight games, the unspectacular Detroit defense has allowed 23.8 points per game, while allowing 255.6 passing yards and 341.1 total yards per game. To this point in the season, the passer rating against the Detroit pass defense was a problematical 113.7.
But as they trotted into the halftime locker room, that defense had stiffed the Minnesta offense to the tune of 3 points and 105 yards. Bradford had completed 11 of 15 tosses (73.3%) but for only 84 yards, carrying a mediocre 86.5 passer rating into the locker room.
The Viking offense had fallen into (and would subsequently work their way out of) a common trap. While their offensive line had struggled, Minnesota had – by degrees – tried to remove them from the game plan to the point where they never threw the ball downfield and made only halting attempts to run the ball. Assuming that there would be no help from the line, the Viking offense had degraded to the point where it was just a series of quick dump-off passes.
Minnesota would go on to lose this game, but they would rebound to score 13 points in the second half on 232 offensive yards. After averaging 4.2 yards per play in the first half, they averaged 5.5 in the second. They made two important changes to their offensive philosophy that brought them their first spark of life since week five – and a source of hope for their upcoming games.
First, the Viking offense re-dedicated to the run. In the first half, they ran the ball just 9 times. Only twice did Bradford hand off on consecutive plays. They ran the ball 16 times in the second half. They didn’t run especially well – they managed just 48 yards on those runs (3.0 per) – but they showed a willingness to pound on the Lion defense.
This had two critical benefits. First, it allowed the offensive line to become invested in the game. It gave them a chance to dictate action to Detroit instead of trying to react to them. Secondly – and perhaps, more importantly – it took some of the spring out of the pass rush. Even though the running game didn’t net a lot of yards, its contribution was substantial.
The second important adjustment they made was to start throwing the deep ball. Not having to worry about downfield passes, the Lions since the opening kick had been squatting on the Vikings short routes. So, as the second half started, Minnesota started challenging them down the field. Not a lot. Of Bradford’s 25 second half throws, maybe five challenged the Lions deep. But that was all they needed. Bradford didn’t even complete any of these deep passes (although one did draw an important pass interference call), but just the fact that those routes were back in the offense improved things drastically.
Bradford still averaged less than ten yards a completion (9.45 to be exact), but his passing line for the second half was a much more effective 20 for 25 (80%) for 189 yards, 1 touchdown and no interceptions. His rating for that half was an impressive 113.6. After converting one of five third-down opportunities in the first half, the Viking offense was 5 for 9 in the second.
Whether they will (or can) continue this improvement against Washington tomorrow remains to be seen. But the offense’s second half showing against Detroit was the best news Viking fans have had since the bye week.