Sunday, November 29, 2015

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 20, Falcons 10

Vikings-Falcons Box Score (Yahoo!)

The Viking defense gave up enough plays to lose the game today. So the question is, are you pessimistic or optimistic about the Vikes this season?

If you're a pessimist, the Vikes got bailed out by bad plays committed by Atlanta. A fumble after a 46 yard run, a penalty that negated a lead-taking touchdown, two interceptions when in scoring position: these are bad plays that Atlanta committed when they otherwise could have won the game.

But if you're an optimist, it was the Vikings that forced those bad plays.When Tevin Colman broke for a long run and Anthony Barr came trailing after, it was as if the game was moving in slow motion for Barr: he was able to come up on Coleman in the perfect position behind the RB, and punch his arm right at the ball. And then savvy veteran cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman came in perfect position to intercept Matt Ryan passes. And then with a ten point lead and a 4th and ballgame play, Anthony Barr burst through the line and sacked Matt Ryan.

And if you're an optimist, Adrian Peterson's ability to get big runs is the biggest factor in any Viking game. Today he was spectacular, cutting through tight spaces and cutting by some tacklers and dragging others to pick up first downs. When the Vikes had a lead and needed to seal the game, Peterson delivered in a giant way. He's arguably the best skill-position player in the NFL right now.

And if you're an optimist, the Viking defense--even without Harrison Smith--was able to largely negate Julio Jones, the one dominant Falcon player that could have destroyed the Vikings. It was a combination of well-coached scheme, strong individual play, a full team approach to stopping the pass. If the Vikes can do that to opponents' #1 WRs, they've got a shot (though among NFC contenders, there aren't a lot of knockout #1 WRs: just Jones and Odell Beckham, probably. The Cardinals have a bunch of good WRs they can bomb to).

The Vikings need to do some things better to develop into real playoff contenders. They need to throw more frequently and more successfully, because they won't be able to constantly lean on Peterson all through December and January. I wish we could see how good Teddy Bridgewater could be when he's not constantly running away from pass rushers. I'd like to see more of Jarius Wright taking plays from Mike Wallace, and I'd like to see more Jerick McKinnon (Peterson is great, but McKinnon is a quick, athletic player with a nice speed burst, and getting him 5-10 touches a game would be a positive thing). Blair Walsh needs to be more reliable, and the offensive line needs to keep improving.

But after watching the Vikings' FOURTH road win of the season (!), let's lean toward optimism. It would not have been shocking to see the Vikings shake Matt Ryan up in Minneapolis, but the Vikes went to Atlanta and won 20-10. It's only higher expectations for this team that could possibly lead to any disappointment. THE VIKINGS WON THEIR FOURTH ROAD GAME OF THE SEASON. The Vikes play that sort of football during playoff seasons.


Friday, November 27, 2015

My Vikings - Falcons preview (sort of)

So, how did you enjoy that Thursday Night Football result, my friends?

But enough gloating, because we have more important matters to attend to - like how the Minnesota Vikings are going to defend that NFC North divisional lead it has.

Standing in their way is Sunday's opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

Game previews normally involve assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. However, I can't really do that because I've watched only a handful of minutes of Atlanta's game this year. I did provide a few relevant stats about the Falcons two days ago, which tells us a little about the team.

Instead, I'm going to focus on what the Vikings have to do well to win this game. Having watched every minute of every Minnesota game this season, I think I've got a pretty good handle on that.

- I mentioned in my last post that Falcons WR Julio Jones leads the NFL in both catches and receiving yards. He's an awesome player. That's why it's important for Xavier Rhodes - who I expect to be matched up against Jones most of the game - to play his best football of the season. Look, Rhodes isn't going to shut Jones down. What's important is to make Jones grind it out and not allow him any explosive plays. And no 50-plus yard pass interference penalties, either. If Jones catches eight or nine passes, but only racks up 80 or 90 receiving yards on them and is kept out of the endzone, Rhodes and whomever else covers Jones will have done a very good job on a player who has six games with 137 or more receiving yards.

- Speaking of awesome players, the Vikings won't have to face Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, who won't play because of concussion issues. This is a huge loss for the Falcons offense. Not only is Freeman one of the NFL's leading rushers, he's third on Atlanta in catches (48). It looks like Tevin Coleman and his 3.9 yards per carry average will replace him. I expect Linval Joseph will be dining on Coleman in this game.

- Speaking of running backs and the running game, the Falcons are pretty good at stopping both. Head coach Dan Quinn's defense hasn't allowed a running back to rush for 100 yards or more against them in a game yet, and the unit has only allowed 874 rushing yards all year. I don't know how they're doing it - Atlanta's front seven is pretty much the same as it was last year when the Vikings ran for 241 yards and four touchdowns against them - and that was without Peterson. But it is what it is. This is a challenge a power running offense the Vikes have become should enjoy. Adrian Peterson likes challenges, too. The offensive line will want to bounce back after getting physically abused by Green Bay's front seven last week. If the unit can do that, this game should end well for the Vikings.

- It won't end well, however, if quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has to throw 37 times like he did against the Packers. He completed 25 of those passes and threw for 296 yards. But if Bridgewater's throwing that much, it's because the Vikings are down by more than one score or the running game isn't working, and that's usually going to mean a Minnesota loss. We don't want that. We want Bridgewater in the 25-30 range in pass attempts against Atlanta, and Peterson in the 25-30 range in rushing attempts.

- The Vikings special teams let them down in expected and unexpected ways against Green Bay. The expected came in the form of another missed extra point by Blair Walsh. The unexpected came when Jeff Janis returned a kickoff 70 yards that set up a Green Bay field goal in the first quarter to tie the score 6-6. The Vikes have played a lot of tight, grinding football games this year. It's offense doesn't score a lot of points. Thus, special teams matter more to Minnesota than many other teams. That missed extra point or long kickoff return can be the difference between a win and a loss. In the majority of the Vikes games in 2015, it's special teams has been an asset. That trend must continue in Atlanta.

- While I'm on the subject of special teams play, Cordarrelle Patterson has been hot the past two games. He had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Oakland and a 52-yarder against Green Bay. After not doing much on kickoff returns the first eight games of 2015, Patterson has finally started to look like the 2013 model. Keep that in the back of your mind (and forget about Patterson's dumbass head-butt personal foul against Mason Crosby last week). It's probably not going to get much attention, but Falcons kicker Matt Bryant won't play Sunday. He'll be replaced by Shayne Graham. Bryant's a steady kicker used to kicking in the Georgia Dome. If Graham has to make a crucial kick or two in a stadium he's unfamiliar with, how will he do? As for Walsh, I'm not worried about him, he's money indoors.

As usual, I'm plenty worried about this game. Not because I think Atlanta is a better team than the Vikings (they aren't), but because the Falcons do certain things well (stop the run, pass to Julio Jones) that concern me. Then there's the matter of that three-game losing streak (two at home). Even bad NFL teams have a hard time losing four games in a row. The Falcons aren't bad. They are also going to be desperate. Lose to the Vikings and Atlanta is 6-5 and fighting for the last Wild Card spot with an endless list of suitors - Seattle, Chicago, Tampa Bay(!), St. Louis, and on it goes. Minnesota is going to face a motivated team in front of a noisy home crowd on Sunday.

It should be interesting. But I guess it always is with the Vikings.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Some Atlanta Falcons stats to munch on for Vikings fans during Thanksgiving Day

I plan to post a Vikings-Falcons preview before the end of the work week because I don't think Pacifist Viking is going to get to it with this being American Thanksgiving and all. (But doesn't that mean you Americans have a couple of days off and don't have anything better to do than blog?)

Today, I'm going to post a few relevant numbers about the 2015 Atlanta Falcons just so you get an idea what the Viking are up against. Here we go.

This is the average yards per carry runners have had against the Atlanta Falcons defense this season. That's the best total in the NFL, and through 10 games Atlanta has yet to allow a running back to rush for 100 yards against them. Ex-Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle came the closest with 87 yards on 14 carries in their third game of the season. We know the Vikings offense leans heavily on Adrian Peterson, so this stat is fucking terrible to see.

On the flip side, the Falcons defense has only sacked opposing quarterbacks 12 times this year. That's tied for worst in the league with the New York Giants. This could be the game Teddy Bridgewater gets more than one full Mississippi to attempt a pass before he's running for his life.

The combined record of the six teams Atlanta has beaten. See, it's not just the Vikings who have been fattening up on patsies in 2015.

That is where Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones ranks in the NFL in catches (89) and receiving yards (1,189). Yeah, he's pretty good.

The number of rushing and receiving touchdowns Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has scored, which ties him with Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert for most in the NFL. Yeah, Freeman's pretty good, too.

Freeman's yardage from scrimmage this season, which is second-most in the NFL. Who's ahead of him, you ask? Why it's teammate Julio Jones. This is probably a good time to mention Freeman didn't practice Wednesday as he goes through the league's concussion protocol. He may not play Sunday. If that's the case, it's a big blow to Atlanta and it would be a huge break for the Vikings.

Monday, November 23, 2015

How long can the Vikings go on with the Mike Wallace charade?

On October 4th, in a 23-20 loss to Denver, wide receiver Mike Wallace had his best game as a Viking, catching eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.

That gave Wallace 20 catches for 233 yards after four games - not outstanding numbers, but solid enough. And with Wallace still getting used to a new team, city, quarterback and offensive coordinator, I was optimistic those numbers would get better as the season moved along.

But they haven't. In the six games since that loss, Wallace has caught eight passes for 68 yards - or Antonio Brown's stat line after a good quarter of football. In two of his last four games, Wallace hasn't caught a pass at all. Yet despite this poor production - combined with several dropped passes and perhaps some lazy efforts in running routes and blocking - Wallace was still on the field for 52 of the Vikings 64 offensive snaps in the loss to Green Bay. Only Stefon Diggs played more among the team's wide receivers.

I don't know what's wrong with Wallace. I'm not an NFL scout or personnel guy. But the production over the last six games speaks for itself. And what that production says is that Wallace needs to be replaced as a starter.

Jarius Wright isn't a guy I think is cut out to start opposite Stefon Diggs. But Charles Johnson might be. He's much bigger than Wallace and could provide the Vikings passing game with a physical presence in the red zone. Even Adam Thielen deserves to take some snaps away from Wallace. You know Thielen will give it his all on every play, and the one time this year he got a lot of playing time (on Oct. 4th against Denver) he caught six passes for 70 yards against one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Wallace was supposed to be the deep threat the Vikings needed to take its passing game to a level of competence not seen since the 2009 season. But it looks like Minnesota got in on Wallace way too late. He hasn't averaged more than 13 yards per catch since 2011. That was also the last time he had a 1,000 yard season.

I don't think I'm the only Vikings fan wondering how much longer will the Vikings keep on playing Wallace based on how he performed four seasons ago rather than how he's performing now.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Coming Off The Ledge: Packers 30 - Vikings 13

Vikings - Packers box score

Well, I really thought this week the Vikings were going to do it - beat Green Bay for the first time in almost three years.

Nope. Not this time. And the reasons for the loss are pretty simple.

1. The Vikings defense couldn't consistently stop Packers bowling ball Eddie Lacy (22 carries for 100 yards) - who has been mostly terrible and a non-factor this year.

2. The Vikings offensive line was embarrassed by the Packers front seven. There were few holes for Adrian Peterson to run through and Teddy Bridgewater operated within a quickly collapsing pocket about 99.9 per cent of the evening. The Packers didn't even really blitz all that much. They often rushed four, but were able to either blow by T.J. Clemmings, Matt Kalil, Mike Harris, Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger with speed or overpower them with force on bull rushes. It's hard to move the ball consistently when that's happening, and for the most part the Vikes didn't on a day when their defense couldn't save them.

3. The Vikings overall played dumb, sloppy football. The eight penalties for 110 yards is something we haven't seen from this team all year. Terence Newman doesn't get his head turned around on a deep pass while covering the immortal Jeff Janis and draws a 50-yard pass interference flag on third-and-forever that keeps a Packers drive alive. Linval Joseph shoves Aaron Rodgers to the ground well after he's thrown the ball (OK, it was a light shove and I don't think it warranted a flag), giving the Packers another shot at a touchdown, which they convert. And how about that Cordarrelle Patterson head butt after a nice kickoff return that drew a 15-yard penalty? Again, it was a pretty minor "head butt", but why even put yourself in that situation? In retrospect, seeing Peterson jawing with Green Bay's defenders and almost getting into some shoving matches in the first half was bad sign for the Vikings. Peterson and the rest of his team didn't look in control. They were too emotional and the game seemed too big for them. Not good.

So what does this loss mean for the Vikings as we head into the last six games of the season?

I'll take the glass-is-half-full approach tonight. It's a tough schedule ahead - even the Bears game at home will be difficult - but this team has been pretty good about forgetting what's happened to them the previous game, win or lose, all season. They are a better team than the club they will be playing next week on the road (Atlanta). If the Vikings revert to the team we've seen most of the season, disciplined, not taking many penalties, playing strong special teams and defense so the offense doesn't have to score a bunch of points, they should be alright.

At 7-3, this team is still in good shape and we still have six weeks of relevant football to watch. That should be enough to keep you off the ledge this week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

National Friday League: Week 11

Viking-Packer Preview
2015 Vikings (22nd in scoring, 2nd in points allowed)
2015 Packers (11th in scoring, 11th in points allowed)

If the Packers were the same team, but with "Generic Team A" jerseys, I'd feel good about this game. Yes, the Vikes are facing the best QB they've faced (or probably will face) this season. But Generic Team A's skill position players and offensive line don't seem up to the task of moving the ball against this Viking defense. And their defense isn't something to fret about either.

But this isn't Generic Team A. The Vikings' record against the team they play Sunday is 1-9-1 since 2010. We've seen things, man. It's hard not to be terrified about what Rodgers can do. It's hard not to expect the Packers to come on.

I literally had a dream about playoff matchups last night. It was, of course, as dreams go: the Packers were losing to the Panthers (they were playing on some sort of shipping dock), then they were losing to the Vikings but coming back, the Bengals were making moves in the AFC ("that's a team the Vikes can beat in the Super Bowl!)...then I woke up before any of the games ended. I don't remember playoff dreams since 2009. So I guess my unconscious is starting to believe.

This is such a crucial game: the Packers already have an NFC North loss (the Vikes don't, and that includes two road wins), and a win would put the Vikings two games in front of the Packer with at least a head-to-head split guaranteed. It's possible (!) that the Vikes won't need to win the Week 17 game at Lambeau to win the division (!), but could be playing instead for a first round bye (!). On the other hand, a loss puts the Vikings and Packers with the same record, and the Packers would be favored to win their Week 17 game if they haven't sealed the division by then. If the Wild Card race becomes mildly competitive, the Vikes could be in trouble.

It will also be a revealing game, for both teams. If the Packers' skid continues, it's telling. And if the Vikings extend their winning streak to six games, and get a win against a team that will still be over .500 after the game is over, that is telling, too.

Well, have a good weekend, suckers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Vikings need to stop Aaron Rodgers. But are they up to the task?

The stats are ugly.

In 14 career starts against the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has done the following:

- Completed 308 of the 434 passes he has thrown, or 71 per cent,

- Amassed 3,747 passing yards

- Tossed 32 touchdown passes and been intercepted just four times

- Oh, and the Packers are 10-4 in those starts - including 9-1 since 2010.

Listen, I'm not telling any diehard Vikings fan anything they don't already know. Rodgers has killed the Vikings during his career. And if the Vikings are going to continue this unexpected roll they are currently on, the team will have to do something this Sunday it's rarely done - turn Rodgers into an average QB.

However, this might doable for the first time in a long time. As you may have heard, the Packers offense is off a little bit during its three-game losing streak. Losing Jordy Nelson for the season has finally caught up to Rodgers and the Packers. It's forced other receivers such as Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and James Jones to play more prominent roles in the passing game, and they haven't been up to the task.

What has also made the Packers offense so tough the past couple of seasons is Eddie Lacy. He gave Green Bay a consistent running threat that defenses had to account for beyond Rodgers firing the football all over the place. But Lacy's sucked in 2015 - a combination of being injured and being (possibly) out of shape. Football Outsiders Cian Fahey dissects the Packers various offensive ailments in this post. You'll be grinning ear-to-ear after you read it.

So, Rodgers isn't getting much help from his supporting cast lately, which should make the Vikings job of turning him into a mere mortal a bit easier. But what also gives Minnesota a better shot at taking down Rodgers, and the Packers, for the first time since Dec. 30, 2012 is the defense Mike Zimmer has fashioned in his second year as head coach.

Not only is the Packers offense weaker than it was in 2014, the Vikings defense is stronger than it was in 2014. And remember in the second Packers-Vikings matchup last season in Minnesota, Zimmer's defense did a pretty solid job defending a Green Bay offense that had Nelson, Rodgers and an ultra-effective Lacy. Rodgers threw for just 209 yards and the big plays weren't there. The Packers had to grind out a 24-21 victory

This year's Vikings defense has Linval Joseph is providing the kind of interior disruption that we haven't seen since the Williams Wall''s heyday. The Vikings top three corners - Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn - who has been terrific in the slot corner role - with maybe a little bit of Trae Waynes thrown in, matches up very well with the Packers wideouts. And if Eric Kendricks is healthy enough to play effectively, he and Anthony Barr give the Vikings defense two linebackers who tackle well, blitz well and can cover a lot of ground in pass coverage. I haven't even mentioned Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith.

The Vikings defense has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball this year. That talent is playing well and playing smartly. If this unit can't keep Rodgers under control, at home, on Sunday, I don't know when it ever will.

Other links   

-  Maybe the Vikings haven't beaten anybody good yet, but neither have most of the other teams in the NFL with winning records. Take that, naysayers!