Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Yep - the Vikings remaining 2015 schedule looks kind of crazy.

It was pointed out in the comments section of our last post on this blog, but the Vikings better make hay over the next five game when the team returns from the bye week, because the seven games after that stretch look hellish. Football Outsiders latest DVOA rankings says Minnesota's remaining 12 opponents make up the sixth toughest schedule in the league. If the Vikes are going to make the playoffs, no one will be saying they didn't earn it.

In case you've forgotten, the hellish final seven games I reference above include the following opponents:

- Nov. 22 at home against the currently 4-0 Green Bay Aaron Rodgers
- Nov. 29 on the road against the currently 4-0 Atlanta Falcons (at least it's an indoor game on turf)
- Dec. 6 at home against Seattle, Russell Wilson, (maybe) Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks pass rush and the Legion of Boom
- Dec. 10 on the road, after a short work week (this is a Thursday night game) against the currently 3-1 Cardinals and their pass rush
- Dec. 20 at home against Da' Bears
- Dec. 27 against the New York Giants
- Jan. 3 at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Aaron Rodgers

Outside of the Bears game, there isn't a contest in that stretch where the Vikings would be favored to win. Maybe the Giants? (But they just beat Bills with ease in Buffalo.) But that's it. With the way the Vikings offensive line is, it's difficult to see the offense putting up the points necessary to win the amount of games they'll need to make the playoffs.

Even this next "easier" five game stretch is not without its worries. A home game against an offensively-challenged Kansas City team should be a win. But the Chiefs front seven is very good and they'll be another stiff test for the Vikes offensive line, a test that line probably won't pass.  You've two straight road games after that - Detroit, then Chicago, and Minnesota is allergic to Soldier Field - followed by a home game against the inconsistent but dangerous Rams (another fierce pass rush) and a road game against Oakland. Minnesota last won in Oakland in 1996, with Brad Johnson at quarterback. They've only played four games in Oakland the past 20 years, but still ...

The Vikings have the look and feel of a good football team right now. But that's a tough, tough final 12 games. The team could go 6-6, miss the playoffs and you might not be disappointed with those results. For the Vikings to go 6-6, or to do better than that, I think Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to play really, really well and the defense is going to have to play even better than it already has. It's going to be a tense next three months for a fanbase that's dying for something good to happen to this franchise.

Gerald Hodges - ex-Viking
Two seasons ago, the Vikings were starting Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell at linebacker and the position was considered one of the team's biggest weaknesses. Now we're trading away starters like Hodges.

I wasn't all that jazzed about the trade when I heard about it on Tuesday, but ESPN's Ben Goessling laid out the team's thinking on this one. I liked what I saw from Hodges last year, but he played just 54% of the team's defensive snaps through four games and I can't name one great play he'd made with those snaps. Now, rookie Eric Kendricks figures to get a lot of the work that would have gone to Hodges. I like that move, and there is another plus to it as well ...


Seriously though, Cole does have a knack for making plays. So let's see how he fares with  consistent, season-long playing time on a defense that's ascending. This is assuming Cole is going to play more now that Hodges is gone. Maybe that won't happen.

Either way, I suspect we won't be missing Hodges much when January arrives.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Coming off the Ledge: Broncos 23 - Vikings 20 (Part two)

Broncos - Vikings box score

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the loss, click here

If there's such a thing as a good loss, we may have seen it today. Up against a great defense on the road and a Hall of Fame QB who owns almost every passing record known to man and women, the Vikings scratched and clawed and lost a coin flip game. It happens.

But it's also a game that makes the dreadful season-opening performance against San Francisco seem like an anomaly. The Vikings sure look like a good football team to me right now. It's punt and kickoff coverage teams have been superb. The defense is well-rounded and is creating turnovers. The offense isn't well-rounded (yet), but it's getting elite production from its 30-year-old elite running back and it isn't turning the ball over much. There are concerns and holes (Blair Walsh continues to struggle with accuracy on field goals and then there's the offensive line), but the Vikings look solid enough that they can hang, and beat, anyone, even on the road. We haven't been able to say that with any confidence for several seasons.

The most encouraging thing we saw today has to be Teddy Bridgewater's play. There were a couple of poor throws - he missed an open Mike Wallace twice in the first half, but this is the best I've seen him in his young career. It's remarkable to me that with the amount of sacks (7), hurries and whatnot, Bridgewater still completed 65.8 per cent of his passes against the league's top defense (so far). The passing game actually had rhythm and looked more than competent. Bridgewater was accurate and made several tough throws under duress. Mike Wallace had his best game as a Viking yet, frequently toasting Denver's Chris Harris, and rookie Stefon Diggs (six catches for 87 yards) was a revelation - even if Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright are healthy in two weeks, Diggs needs to be active and to play a lot. If this is the kind of QB-ing the Vikings are going to get consistently from Bridgewater in 2015, they should make the playoffs.

Alas, what could keep them from making the playoffs is the offensive line. It's the weakest link on the team by far. Bridgewater took too many hits today - he's got to stay healthy because Shaun Hill as your starting QB is not going to turn out well. And there were communication gaffes along the interior of the line that led to some sacks and hurries and negative runs. Maybe getting center John Sullivan back midway through the season will improve the play a bit, especially with his ability to recognize defensive alignments and to set protection assignments at the line of scrimmage. But Sullivan won't be the cure for all the unit's ills. Rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings had a rough go of it today, and there's probably more where that came from. Brandon Fusco still looks out of sorts at left guard, and I'm not sure how well Joe Berger and Mike Harris are playing at center and right guard (at least Matt Kalil looks to be playing decently). If we're lucky, Bridgewater won't have to throw over 40 times in a game like he was asked to do today.

Still, there were way more good to take from this game than bad. The Vikings went on the road, outdoors and on a grass field and played a team that looks Super Bowl worthy to a draw.

Vikings fans should have an easier time coming off the ledge after this loss.

Coming off the Ledge: Broncos 23, Vikings 20

Well they gave us a game, dang it. They gave us a game. When is the last time the Vikings went on the road against a good opponent and played for a chance to win in the late fourth quarter? When is the last time you had a stomach full of hornets in a Viking game, on the road, against a team as good as the Broncos? This game could have ended up 31-9 or something. As much as the loss hurts (I'm pretty sure it will hurt more in December if we miss the playoffs by one game), the Vikes have shown us some sound football. They are giving us a team worth watching. They are giving us a defense to be excited about. Their loss to the 49ers is one L in the books, but nothing about the team's performance in week one looks like the team we've watched the last three weeks. This is the team we can expect to be watching. A team with weaknesses (pass blocking, field goal kicking), yes, but a well-coached team playing mostly sound football led by an aggressive, exciting defense.

Pessimist Joe is worried about Teddy Bridgewater.
Too often through the Vikes' first four games, Bridgewater threw a pass over a receiver's head. He's identified open receivers and thrown to them, but his passes aren't always accurate, and that's worrying. Bridgewater isn't making crazy decisions; he's making good decisions about where to throw the ball, but is failing to actually make the throws.

And he's not handling the rush well. On that last failed drive, he held onto the ball way too long. And he's got a frightening tendency to run backwards against an intense pass rush. A 14 yard loss on first down is a world different than a seven yard loss (so different that grammatically those numbers are supposed to be written differently). That's not good.

Optimist Joe is excited about Teddy Bridgewater.
Teddy Bridgewater is making throws that we haven't seen a Viking QB make in years.

Today Bridgewater was aggressive at making throws 10+ yards downfield. In bad situations (3rd and long, desperate and needing points) he completed passes to open receivers for first downs. Today he threw decisively, aggressively, and made a bunch of throws that kept the Vikings in this game. The Vikings were down virtually the entire game, constantly needed more points, and without an effective run they were in plenty of situations when they needed to throw and the dink and dunk stuff wouldn't work. And a lot of the time, Bridgewater delivered.

Bridgewater is growing. He's hamstrung by some really bad offensive linemen, most of whom shouldn't be out there yet (maybe T.J. Clemmings has potential, and certainly the Vikings didn't draft him expecting to need him immediately, but he spends a lot of time chasing after the defensive lineman that has just beat past him on the way to Bridgewater). But he's smart, and gaining experience, and capable of completing passes a real NFL quarterback needs to complete.

We're going to be alright.

Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith
These are the two most exciting players on the Viking defense, who are consistently making good plays. Today they made the defense's best plays: both had interceptions that turned the game. Barr's interception in the first half and Smith's interception in the second half gave the Viking offense opportunities to compete. These are the Vikings' young players who have already established themselves as good players now, and we're going to be watching them make tackles, sacks, deflections, and interceptions for years.

Looking ahead
At 2-2 the Vikings need to win 2/3 games for the rest of the way, probably. They'll have to win 2-3 road games for for sure. And maybe they can. Today's loss is disappointing but not disheartening. It's going to be an interesting autumn.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

National Friday League, Week 4

Optimist Joe Previews the Vikings-Broncos Game
The Broncos are 3-0, and could have lost every game they played for three reasons: they can't run the ball at all, they can't protect the passer at all, and they consider an eight yard pass a downfield attempt. This is a team the Vikings are designed to beat.

The Viking pass rush mauled Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers, and now it is Peyton Manning's turn. Everson Griffen has been terrific, but the Vikes have been bringing pressure from the middle pretty consistently too. They're going to hit old man Manning, and it's going to get to him. I actually don't think he's playing 16 games this season behind that pass protection.

The Broncos' short passing game plays into the Vikings' hands by allowing Harrison Smith to play within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Without fearing the deep ball, Smith can linger closer to the line, where he can dominate against the pass and the run. He'll be making tackles on ball carriers near the line of scrimmage, stopping Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders right where they catch it (they may combine for 20 receptions for 150 yards), deflecting balls, and hitting TEs just as they catch it. Harrison Smith is going to get his chance to show the rest of the league he's one of the most versatile and play-making safeties around.

As good as the Broncos' outside pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are, the Vikes aren't going to give them a chance to get to Bridgewater. Bridgewater is going to be throwing short passes as Norv Turner knows he has to stop the edge pass rushers. And as good as the Bronco pass defense is, anchored by cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aquib Talib, they can be run on. Jamaal Charles had 125 yards on 21 carries. If the game is going the way the Vikings want, expect Adrian Peterson to have closer to 30 rushes. In the long-term the Vikes will call on Teddy Bridgewater to lead the offense; in the short-term, they'll plow Adrian Peterson at defenses again and again for as long as he's able to do it.

The Vikings are good, folks. They'll prove it this week.

Pessimist Joe Previews the Vikings-Broncos Game
The Vikings are playing on the road. That alone should tell you what's going to happen. While the Vikes have looked good at home, last we saw them on the road they put up 3 points on a team that gave up 90 points over the next two games.

It's a late starting game. Don't spend your whole day looking forward to the game, because you'll be disappointed. And go ahead and make supper plans, because you're not going to want to watch the second half when the Vikes are already down three touchdowns, they're trying pass the ball every play, and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are racing each other to try and take Teddy Bridgewater's head off. Shaun Hill, ladies and gentlemen.

Gary Kubiak is going to finally get the Bronco running game working, as he'll find the same ways to exploit the edges the 49ers found. The Broncos are going to pick up 5-8 yards on every play, passing or running, and they're going to string drives along FOOOOOOREEEEEVVER. It's pretty hopeless to expect the Vikes to be able to move the ball at all on the road against a strong defense.We're looking at a mauling, and we should prepare accordingly.

Maybe the Vikings are good. Maybe they're not. Either way this isn't the week they're going to show it.

Teddy Bridgewater
The Vikings look like they are trying to win now with defense and running, which is going to minimize what Teddy Bridgewater can show. But there will be games this season when any chance to win is going to come from calling a lot of passing plays--and any chance is going to come from giving Bridgewater protection with time and space to throw. And then we'll see something. 150 yards passing isn't going to cut it every week. And it may be that this is the week we're going to be forced to see it.

The Vikings haven't been built to be a comeback team since...well frankly that's not in my memory. Daunte Culpepper's teams could pile on big point totals, but overcoming deficits wasn't a calling card. Brett Favre could drive the team to points quickly (his game-winning TD against the 49ers stands out of course) , but even in 2009 there weren't a lot of late comebacks against big deficits or anything.

Let's be super-optimists and believe that the Vikes are at the beginning of a decade of competitive football. If that's the case, it will mean they win some games that had appeared to have gotten away from them in the third quarter. Playoff teams do that. So rather than be distraught or panicked if the Vikes get down Sunday, let's try to watch with curious hope to see what they have in them against a deficit. Of course they still can't pass block worth much at all which is a real deflating thing for any comeback attempt, so maybe we won't learn a dang thing at all.

Other Interesting Games (or, let's complain about fantasy quarterbacks)
Week Four Games

Ravens-Steelers. There's no experience quite so deflating as starting Joe Flacco on your fantasy team. He's decent enough that if you have injuries or bye issues you might think, "Well he's..he's good. He's decent." And he is. He's decent. But he also has games that are just atrocious. And his ceiling isn't that high. He's a guy you pick up because he's way better than, who, Ryan Fitzpatrick? And he's a real decent NFL QB who can get hot (he once got hot for four straight memorable playoff games). But you watch the game rooting for him and then you start seeing the Raven offense and you just sort of sink. Anyway, Joe Flacco, ladies and gentlemen!

Jets-Dolphins. And why am I leaning on Joe Flacco, you might ask? Because a series of unfortunate events and choices (Tony Romo's injury, drafting Colin Kaepernick in a dynasty league because it seemed like a good idea at the time) have left me with a whole lot of Ryan Tannehill, a player I dislike. Don't enjoy him at all. Don't think he's that good. He's a poor man's Matthew Stafford: just good enough to get a lot of opportunities to suck. A poor man's Matthew Stafford!

The Commercial Life
You know that commercial when the parents are watching football, and the guy goes to his car to cheer so he doesn't wake his baby? Those people are Texan fans.Why don't they have Texas accents? Are there Houston Texan fans spread out around the country? Why is somebody without a Texas accent rooting for the Texans? I don't even remember what the ad is selling. I also can't figure out how to find the video of the ad online because I'm unsure of what to search for, and I have worked as a paid research assistant on several books in which I used the internet to sleuth out all sorts of obscure details about global censorship issues. Nothing I'm trying is working. Did I dream the ad?

Halloween deserves a full month of celebration. Happy October and Happy Halloween. Decorate your house, watch scary movies, and hug a dang pumpkin. I'm reading Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight this month. My goal is to watch 13 horror movies in 31 days. This October is particularly special because Friday the 13th falls on Halloween this year.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Appreciating Terence Newman

A quick post here to cap off the month of September.

When the Vikings signed cornerback Terence Newman this offseason, I was a bit concerned head coach Mike Zimmer was suffering from a bout of cronyism. Viking fans were well aware Zimmer loved the veteran, but he turned 37 on September 4th, which is ancient for an NFL player. I wasn't optimistic he had anything left to contribute to the team.

Three games does not make a season, but so far Newman is proving to be an underappreciated cog in what looks to be an excellent Vikings defense. Opponents aren't catching many passes against the player Newman covers and he's tackled well. He's also allowed the Vikings to use Captain Munnerlyn in a role that he's best suited to playing - a nickel corner covering guys lining up inside. This has created  a much more well rounded cornerback unit than it had in 2014 when Munnerlyn was the starting left cornerback in the base defense and moved inside in the nickel, with Josh Robinson playing on the outside in the nickel.

A trio of Xavier Rhodes, Newman and Munnerlyn is better than a trio of Rhodes, Munnerlyn and Robinson. And having three quality corners playing in roles that play to their strengths only makes the Vikings a tougher team to pass on.

There are a lot of players on the Vikings that have helped this unit dominate the past two weeks (Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and more). But don't forget how Newman has stabilized the cornerback situation for a team that looks like it is on the rise.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Teddy Bridgewater - savvy game manager or something else?

In his last post, Pacifist Viking referred to Vikings starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as a "poised game manager" after he completed 13 of 24 passes for a mere 121 yards and one interception in the win against San Diego.

That's one way of looking at it. But Bridgewater really didn't play well against the Chargers, and he didn't play well in the season opening loss against the 49ers. But the Vikings are 2-1, so Teddy is a poised game manager. If the Vikings were 1-2 or 0-3, I suspect many Vikings fans would view him less favorably. They'd be pointing to him as a key reason why the team was losing.

In year two of this Mike Zimmer thing, the Vikings are starting to show us who they are. It's a team with a stout defense that punishes QBs, plays solidly on special teams (aside from some shaky Blair Walsh placekicking thus far) and is happy to rely on Adrian Peterson to drive the offense forward. It's a team reminiscent of the 2008 Minnesota Vikings - although that squad's offensive line was miles better than what we have now.

That team went 10-6 and won the NFC North. But it also lost a winnable home playoff game against Philadelphia thanks in large part to some predictably brutal QB-ing from Tarvaris Jackson.

There are arguments to be made as to why Bridgewater has been underwhelming through three games and why the Vikes are relying yet again on Peterson's legs: a) feeding Peterson has worked just fine in the two wins b) this offensive line cannot pass block worth a fuck (and that's even with Matt Kalil looking decent) and c) the wide receivers and tight ends don't seem to be helping Teddy all that much.

Still, the Vikings offensive line was just as bad last year and the receivers were no great shakes, either, and Bridgewater looked much better - especially his last five games or so - than he's looked early this season.

It's fun to watch the Vikings win like they have the past two weeks - kick the shit out of the opposing team's offense with your defense and have Peterson kick the shit out of the opposing defense doing what he does. But eventually this team is going to have to throw the ball to win more games and contend for a Super Bowl.

Is Bridgewater up to the task?  I think we'll find out as soon as this coming Sunday when the Vikes face this team and this guy on the road.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 31, Chargers 14

Vikings-Chargers Box Score (Yahoo!)

The Patriots are going to give us trouble in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady throws the ball so quickly and the Patriots' line does such a good job protecting him, they may be the one team immune to our pass rush. But...

OK, OK.  Stop.

This is a defense that a fan can get used to watching. For the second week in a row, the Vikings punished an opposing quarterback, bringing pressure from the middle and from the edges, from a variety of players: Everson Griffen especially, but also Tom Johnson, Anthony Barr, and Sharrif Floyd. Pressure came from everywhere, and once the Vikings (early) smothered the Chargers' running game, there was little to stop them from pressuring Rivers. When Rivers wasn't actually sacked, he was hurrying throws and in the process missing throws. The pass rushers came quickly and often enough that Rivers was regularly made to look bad. That's how the Vikings are winning now and can keep winning: forcing opposing quarterbacks to worry and hurry.

And that's great, because that's the way to win on defense in the NFL. The league is full of WRs catching 10, 11, 12 passes a game, taking advantage of available short completions. But pressure the QB, and some of those passes never get thrown, some of them get thrown off target, and some of them get completed short of the first down marker.

The Vikings are a fun team to watch right now if you're a fan of defensive football. And they're a winning team. May they keep on keeping on.

Other notes:

Trae Waynes is an active player. It will be exciting to watch him grow into the position.

Teddy Bridgewater's numbers are modest, but he looks good. He gets good zip on passes, and he completed a few crucial third and long plays today. The Vikes seem content to win with defense and running right now (Norv Turner has discovered an obscure NFL rule that forbids calling a pass play on first down). Bridgewater is still forced to deal with pass rushers too quickly, and his receivers aren't doing a lot to help him (Charles Johnson is invisible, Kyle Rudolph let an early touchdown dribble off his fingers, and Mike Wallace makes just enough good plays that one might think the Vikes would go on calling plays for him once they're in situations when they need it more). Right now he's a poised game manager for a team that runs the ball, plays defense, plays special teams, but doesn't do much to pass protect. One hopes that as the season goes on, he'll show more and more ability as the Vikes get in games when that formula for winning isn't working.

Chad Greenway's interception was a savvy play, and as soon as he was running he was surrounded by purple jerseys. It was nice interception by Greenway, and a nice return for a touchdown by more than half the defense.

Adrian Peterson is obviously an incredible football player. His combination of speed, power, and vision is unmatched, and probably hasn't been matched. His longer runs today highlighted all of those abilities, as defenders could have had a shot at him, but either couldn't physically bring him down or never got to him because he was cutting to the openest part of the field.

2-1. Skol.