Tag Archives: Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Rising

Two weeks ago, when I contemplated the playoff teams, I relegated the Minnesota Vikings – 7-2 at that point – to a wild card spot.  Even from the vantage, now, of hind-sight, that is still the sensible call – given what we knew at that point.

Minnesota had reached 7-2 on the strength of a five-game winning streak – mostly against sub-.500 teams.  They beat Chicago (currently 3-8), Green Bay (5-6) in the game Aaron Rodgers was injured, Baltimore (6-5), Cleveland (0-11) and Washington (5-7).

The Vikings are also playing through the season with a back-up quarterback.  The final stop on back-up quarterback week is Minnesota and the emerging Case Keenum.  Previously, we have spent time with Tom Savage in Houston and Brett Hundley in Green Bay.

So it was that – at 7-2 – the Vikings faced the toughest part of their schedule.  In successive weeks they would face the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers.  These were all games that I expected them to lose.  Instead they have won the first two games of this impressive gauntlet and now stand at 9-2, with a three-game lead in their division.  They have all but clinched their division title and must be part of the conversation about the best in the conference.

So, how good are the Vikings?  And how realistic are their chances with Keenum at the helm?

The Viking Defense

All season, Minnesota’s calling card has been their defense.  They currently rank fifth overall and fifth in fewest points allowed.  They are especially dominant against the run, where they rank second in yards per game (75.5) and third in yards per carry (3.4).  Against the pass, only 3.0% of the passes thrown against them result in touchdowns (the third lowest percentage in the league) and they rank sixth in yards per pass (6.51) and yards per completion (10.6).  The pass rush has generated 30 sacks – the ninth highest total in the league, and the passer rating against them is just 81.2 – the tenth best total in the league.

They have held the Saints to just 19 points and the Rams to just 7 – although they have also given up 30 points to Washington and 23 to Detroit,  The game against Los Angeles was particularly impressive.  They inhaled Los Angeles’ very potent running attack (Todd Gurley finished the game with just 37 yards on 15 carries), while the pass defense eliminated the big plays from the Ram passing game.  Jared Goff finished with 23 completions, but for only 225 yards.

By all measures, I think you have to concede that the defense is a legitimate top five defense.

And the Running Attack

Possibly the least recognized aspect of the Viking success story is the running attack, which now ranks sixth in the NFL , averaging 124.5 yards per game.  This figure has gone up appreciably after the Vikings pounded the Rams and Lions for a combined 307 yards in the last two games.

Here, though, it is worthwhile to note that Detroit ranks twenty-second against the run, and Los Angeles checks in at twenty-sixth.  To date, Minnesota has played only two teams that rank defensively in the top ten against the run.  They would be Pittsburgh at #6, and Cleveland at #8.  The Vikings managed 91 rushing yards against Pittsburgh and 88 against Cleveland.

I think there is a legitimate question about how well the Viking running game would do against a top defense in the playoffs.

The Puzzling Case of Case

And then, of course, there is Keenum.  His numbers so far this season have been all that anyone could hope for.  He has completed 66.1% of his passes, has chucked 14 touchdown passes against just 5 interceptions, and holds a 96.2 passer rating.  And watching him play confirms that those numbers aren’t flukes.  On Thanksgiving Day, he made excellent decisions, and threw with great accuracy and better confidence.  But, of course, he was throwing with a lead, a dominating running game, ample pass protection, and an excellent defense at his back.

In four prior seasons, Case’s record as a starter was 9-15.  He entered the season with a career 20-24 touchdown to interception ratio, and never managed a passer rating above 87.7.  He has no fourth-quarter comebacks this year and only 2 in his 33 start career.  Pardon me if I am still skeptical.

What Los Angeles and Detroit were unable to do was to force Keenum to win the game.  With all the other pieces operating efficiently, Case was at liberty to make plays, both with his arm and with his feet.

I take nothing away from Case Keenum.  He has played very, very well.  But in my mind he is still a caretaker quarterback until he takes this team on his shoulders and wins an “adversity game” against a quality opponent.

Speaking of the Rams

In, perhaps, the most intriguing game of Week Twelve, the Rams bounced back from their disappointing loss to Minnesota the week before and ended New Orleans’ eight-game winning streak, 26-20 (gamebook).  After the Viking loss, I had some question whether this would be the beginning of the end for this young LA team.  Their win was something of a statement victory and kept them in the conversation for the top seed in the NFC.

Detroit Fading

While Minnesota is rising, their division rivals in Detroit are fading.  Never a great running team, the gulf between their rush offense and rush defense is widening.  Over the last three games, the Lions have totaled 222 rushing yards, while allowing 559.  They have now fallen a full game behind the suddenly resurgent Falcons.

The Lions have great heart, but are one-dimensional on offense and mediocre on defense.  Even though Atlanta’s remaining schedule is significantly harder, it is hard to see the Lions catching them from behind.

Two weeks ago, this team looked like a probable division champ.  But they have regressed and will now probably be watching the playoffs on TV.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

What’s Wrong With the Vikings and the Seahawks?

The Minnesota Vikings carried a 5-0 record into their Week 7 contest against the then 3-2 Philadelphia Eagles.  They were convincingly thumped by Philadelphia, 21-10.

That evening, the Seattle Seahawks carried their 4-1 record into Arizona to play the 3-3 Cardinals.  Seventy-five excruciating minutes later the two teams staggered off the field with a 6-6 tie.

Both the Vikings and the Seahawks have done some very good things through the first half of the season, but last Sunday they shared a common flaw – one that casts a significant shadow over their futures.  Both have offensive lines that are liabilities.

Minnesota Vikings

Offensive tackle wasn’t a position of great strength even as the season began.  It became a pronounced liability when starting left tackle (and one-time Pro Bowl selection) Matt Kalil went on season-ending injured reserve with a torn labrum in his hip after the season’s second game.

The right tackle spot was manned by Andre Smith – a former first-round pick by the Bengals who made 73 starts in Cincinnati before signing with Minnesota.  He lasted six plays into the fourth game of the season before a triceps injury sent him to IR as well.

Now what?

Well, against Philadelphia they tried varying combinations of T.J. Clemmings (a fourth round pick from the 2015 draft who was last year’s starting right tackle – the position they wanted to upgrade), Jeremiah Sirles (an undrafted free agent who made just his third start in three years last week), and Jake Long (signed before last week’s game, the 31-year-old Long was a former Pro-Bowl caliber tackle in Miami before injuries compromised his career).

As you might guess, this didn’t work very well for the Vikings (although it did make for some highlight reel footage for Eagle defensive ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham).  As the game progressed, the Eagles also found that they could blitz pretty much at will as Minnesota’s offense could do little to counter it.

Quarterback Sam Bradford ended up taking a beating.  With little running game and less protection, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Bradford could have done to win the game.  That being said, with the Vikings still 5-1 and leading their division it’s time we begin a discussion about Sam Bradford and his ability to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

Bradford

This is my Sam Bradford moment:

It is Week Two of 2015.  Bradford’s Eagles are hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  The Eagles are having significant difficulty with the Dallas defense (they go 2 for 11 on third down and are shutout until the first minute of the fourth quarter).  I don’t remember the precise moment or play, but during one of the failed third down plays, the camera caught Bradford’s reaction (maybe to a dropped pass?).

I don’t remember the play, but Sam’s reaction has stuck with me.  His shoulders slumped, he bowed his head, and crept quietly to his sideline.

Is this a big deal?  It kind of is.  This moment iconifies my lingering feeling about Bradford.  I think Sam is a quality NFL passer.  He reads defenses well, makes good decisions, and throws with plus accuracy.  But if I were to describe him as a leader the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “meek.”  There is a pervasive meekness in Bradford’s game.  In a Biblical sense, this is probably a very good thing as the meek will inherit the earth (and Sam certainly inherited a lot of it last Sunday).  But it’s not a great demeanor for the leader of your football team to have.

By this, I don’t mean that Sam should be yelling at receivers who drop passes or linemen who get penalties.  And I certainly don’t mean to say that he should worship himself the way that Cam Newton does.  But the quarterback of an NFL team can’t retire quietly to the bench and sit and wait for the next time his team gets the ball.  Watch any of the Minnesota games this year that Bradford has started.  When the Vikings don’t have the ball and the camera finds Bradford on the sidelines, he’s never standing and talking to anyone.  He is always sitting, quiet and alone, on the bench – sometimes with his head down.

You never see this with the top quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Newton, etc – they are always with somebody – the offensive coordinator, his O-line, some defensive player.  They are always discussing something – or putting their arm around the shoulder of a receiver who dropped the ball.  Quarterbacking a team extends beyond what happens once the ball is in your hands.  There is a leadership imperative that everyone can’t necessarily embrace.  It certainly helps to have a certain amount of charisma going for you.

This doesn’t mean that Bradford can never win a Super Bowl.  But I don’t think of him as that quarterback who can raise the level of the team he plays for.  The Bradys of the world can lift a good team to a great team.  Sam Bradford will need to have a great team around him.

And that will have to include an offensive line that can keep him upright and healthy.

Seattle

As for Seattle, this was the number four offense in the league last year – both for yards and for points.  They were held under 20 points only five times all of last year, and scored 30 or more seven times.  In six games this year, they have been held under 13 points three times already (something that only happened once all of last year) and have managed 30 points just once (they scored 37 against the mostly hapless 49ers).

Marshawn Lynch, of course, is gone and Thomas Rawls – so impressive in his seven starts last year as Lynch’s replacement – is injured.  Also injured is quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s legs accounted for 553 rushing yards last year.  Russell is playing, but staying in the pocket while he nurses knee and ankle injuries.  So the running game isn’t a particular strength at the moment.

Like the Vikings, though, the problem runs deeper than lack of name players to carry the ball.  The Seahawks, too, are less than proficient along the offensive line.

From last year’s offense to the 2016 edition that currently ranks twenty-second in yards and twenty-eighth in points, only one offensive lineman remains in the same place – right tackle Garry GilliamJustin Britt – who started at left tackle last year is also still in the mix, but he has now been moved to center.  The other three who started for this team last year are gone.

Russell Okung, last year’s starting left tackle (a former Pro Bowler) took the money and went to Denver.  Patrick Lewis, last year’s starting center, is now in Buffalo (where he is nursing a knee injury).  And J.R. Sweezy, last year’s right guard, is now in Tampa Bay (and suffering from a back injury that has kept him off the field so far).

In their place, Seattle has stitched together the offensive line with Bradley Sowell (an undrafted free-agent with his third team in his five-year career) at left tackle, Mark Glowinski (a fourth-round pick of the Hawks in 2015 who made one start last year), and this year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi at right guard.

They have been pushed around a little bit so far this season, helping in no little degree to hamper the offense.  Some of these players don’t have high pedigrees, but that means less than some people imagine.  Every year the Pro Bowl teams are populated with several players who began their careers as undrafted free agents, cut by more than one team.  This may yet develop into an effective unit.

But they aren’t there yet.