Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Coming Off the Ledge: The Short Ball

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the Vikings 38-26 loss, click here.
Darren's take is here.

It's not a particulary notable insight to point out that the Vikings don't throw the ball deep very often. I think anyone watching the games has noticed that. When you actually quantify how much of the Vikings' passing game is short passes, however, it becomes shocking. This team does not throw the ball deep. And by deep, I mean "more than 15 yards". And unless a healthy Jerome Simpson can change that fact, the offense is going to continue to struggle to score points.**

**I wanted to elaborate on this point a little bit more--one of the dangers of a ball control offense is how little of a margin of error it provides. To successfully drive the ball 80 yards, an offense that does so by gaining 10 yards every three downs must convert eight first downs, with the last requiring them to gain ten yards with the defense only having to defend twenty yards (the end zone and the last ten yards). There are way too many ways for something to go wrong, whether its a dropped pass,a penalty, a sack or a bad play call. It's a lot easier to gain 80 yards if you can gain 30 or 40 on one play, in the same way its easier to score a run in baseball if you hit a home run rather than hit three (or four) singles.

Using the stats provided by Advanced NFL Stats, the Vikings' reliance on short passes becomes depressingly stark. First off, Christian Ponder has the lowest percentage in the NFL of his passing yards come via the air, rather than after the catch, with 61% of his passing yards coming after Percy Harvin catches the ball (ok, fine, after his receivers catch the ball) and the fewest "air passing yards" of any quarterback that has started the entire year. This isn't too surprising when you realize that only 15.7% of his passes are thrown to a receiver that is 15 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage, which places him 28th in the league.

The numbers are equally stark when you look at the wide receivers. Michael Jenkins leads the Vikings with 25.6% of his targets coming when he is 15 or more yards downfield. That's good for 43rd in the NFL. All but five other NFL teams have a wide receiver with a higher percentage, with 14 teams having two such receivers. Philadelphia has three (so it's likely not a fundamental aspect of the Vikings' system, so much as a personnel issue). Percy Harvin is targeted down field even less often, with only 14.5% of his passes coming when he is 15 or more yards downfield. It's inexcusable that the Vikings have not used the fastest wide receiver on the team and the only player with the ability to beat defenders on deep routes to stretch the field. Harvin is dominating in his current role (he's 5th in Expected Points Added and 6th in Win Probability Added), but as the only legitimate deep threat on the team, he needs to be used to stretch the field. He has the abilities to force defenses to move defenders out of the box for Adrian Peterson, open up the middle of the field for Kyle Rudolph (only 9.8% of his targets occur 15 or more yards down the field, 12th among tight ends) and make it easier for the Vikings to have successful drives by generating big plays and lowering the amount of plays they have to be successful on. This will still be true even if Jerome Simpson is able to be a successful deep threat. The last good offense the Vikings ran (2009) featured 30% of Sydney Rice's targets on deep routes, Bernard Berrian with 29.1% and Percy Harvin with 25.3%.

If the Vikings' playcalling doesn't start to mimic their 2009 playcalling, we're going to see more stalled drives, more games where the offense doesn't score and more field goals instead of touchdowns. This defense isn't good enough to win many low scoring games, and the offenses the Vikings face the rest of the way are as good, if not better than the offenses they've faced so far. Ball control and short passes won't lead to enough touchdowns for the Vikings to be successful. Hopefully a fully healthy Jerome Simpson helps Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave realize that soon.

If you'd like to join in the Vikings conversation on Twitter, you can follow me here and Darren here.


  1. TBird:

    I wonder how much the Vikings can mimic the 2009 Vikings offensive playcalling when they don't have the 2009 Rice and the 2009 Favre? I also didn't realize Berrian was targeted that much on "deep passes". My recollection of his 2009 was he caught a bunch of slants for minimal gains that year. Harvin should be targeted on more on these types of passes than he is, obviously.


    nah, don't do that.