Discussions of the Minnesota Vikings in the upcoming playoffs keep drifting back to quarterback Case Keenum – only playing because the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart have been injured for most of the year.
On the heels of their 23-10 conquest of Chicago (gamebook) – a win that gave them a 13-3 record and the second seed in the NFC playoffs – we have to concede (to some extent) that the strengths of the Vikings substantially outweigh the perceived weakness at quarterback. Remember, guys like Trent Dilfer have won Super Bowls before. The Vikings consistently run the ball well and boast an elite defense.
It was this defense (and the 147 rushing yards on 36 carries) that was the difference – again – in the Viking win.
One of the important things to keep in mind when discussing this game is that the Bears are not a bad running team at all. They entered play Sunday afternoon averaging a healthy 117.2 rush yards per game – averaging 4.3 yards per carry. The centerpiece of the attack – the surprising Jordan Howard – finished the season with 1122 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. But – running behind a makeshift offensive line – Howard and the Bears’ running game were no match at all for the aroused Viking defense.
Especially in the decisive first half.
While possessing the ball for only 9:42 of the game’s first half, the Bears managed just 1 first down, and averaged just 2.9 yards per offensive play. Most telling, Chicago went into the locker room at the half having run just 6 running plays for a net loss of one yard. Chicago ended the game going 1 for 12 on third down and scoring no offensive touchdowns. Howard ended his breakout season with just 9 yards on 9 carries – none of them longer than 4 yards. The Bears finished with just 30 rushing yards on 15 carries.
If you have watched Minnesota play defense – especially run defense – you might have noticed a definite “old school” style.
For one thing, their defensive ends – especially Everson Griffen – don’t over-commit to the pass. Almost everywhere else in football, the defensive ends (who are really just pass-rushing linebackers) head immediately up field on almost every snap. Against many teams, run-blocking against these ends is excruciatingly easy. You let them bolt into the backfield and then give them a strong push in the direction they were already headed, while the running back cuts easily into the void he’d left behind.
The Viking ends – in contrast – leave very little daylight around the ends. In fact, the run discipline of their ends combined with the excellent speed of their fast-flow linebackers makes turning the corner against Minnesota one of the most consistently difficult tasks in the game.
Additionally, as the league in general moves to smaller, quicker, pass rushing defensive linemen, the ancient concept of nose-tackle is alive and well in Minnesota. Unsung in this contest, but one of the true heroes of the game, was Linval Joseph. Joseph repeatedly repelled the double-team blocks of Chicago’s center (Hroniss Grasu) and guards Cody Whitehair and Tom Compton). This action not only turned the line of scrimmage into an impassible scrum, but allowed the speedy linebackers to roam at will.
And, as important as any of the others, this game belonged to Andrew Sendejo. With the predominance of the three-wide-receiver offense, almost every defense in football has adopted the hybrid-linebacker. This is a defensive back that plays more like a linebacker than a safety. Sendejo is Minnesota’s version of this semi-linebacker, and his quickness into the backfield was one of the elements Chicago was least able to cope with. Center Grasu endured a painfully long day, spending half his time fruitlessly trying to push Joseph off the line of scrimmage, and the other half trying in vain to cut off Sendejo before he could cross the line of scrimmage.
It was an impressive show by the Vikings – and something for their future opponents to think about.
I still can’t embrace Minnesota as a Super Bowl contender. I keep thinking that at some point someone will force Keenum to win the game for them.
But putting the Vikings in that situation will quite the challenge.