The Vikings once again get to face a terrible defense: Washington ranks 28th in points allowed, 26th in yards allowed, 26th in first downs allowed, and is especially bad against the pass (31st in yards allowed, 32nd in TD passes allowed, 29th in net yards per attempt allowed).
But Washington's offense ranks well in just about every area: 8th in points and 7th in yards, top 4 in rush yards, rush yards per attempt, and rush TDs, and 2nd in net yards per pass attempt. I think, given the opponent, this is the Vikings' toughest defensive test.
The best any QB played against the Vikings this season was Andrew Luck. From my view (I should note that the night before this game my TV quit working, I watched the Colt game on a small TV, and then went and bought a new TV immediately after), the Viking pass rush was as penetrating in that game as in any other game this year, but Luck just kept beating it. Luck consistently moved to avoid the pass rushers and/or threw the ball before taking the sack. Since that game, the Vikes have succeeded in making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket: the combination of effective pass rush and effective coverage has made the last three QBs the Vikes faced look simply bad.
But Washington is coached by Mike Shanahan and quarterbacked by Robert Griffin III. There will be rollouts and moving pockets. I don't think Shanahan is going to regularly let his rookie QB stand in the pocket to either face the hits of a tough pass rush, or to read defenses and make decisions against a tough pass rush (I hope I'm wrong!). There will be great responsibility on the secondary to hold its coverage and great responsibility on the front seven to contain Griffin's movements.
In the Vikes' favor, they may be able to make Washington one-dimensional: according to Football Outsiders the Vikes have the #2 rush defense in the league. They'll have to. If Washington is successful running the ball, we'll see successful play-action bootlegs, linebackers and defensive linemen hesitant to move quickly on Griffin, defenders getting out of position for coverage, and a general mess of sustained drives.
This does feel like a Monster AP Game. He has had between 60 and 102 yards rushing in all five games this season, but hasn't had a touchdown since week one. It seems like he has a 130-160 yard game in him when the Vikings will need it. Maybe they'll need it this weekend.
What accounts for the Viking defensive improvement?
The answer is probably amazingly simple: the 2012 defensive backs are largely different players than the 2011 defensive backs.
Just take a look at the Vikings' starting defensive backs for the last three games last year:
Week 15: Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Brandon Burton
Week 16: Cedric Griffin, Jamarca Sanford, Benny Sapp, Mistral Raymond
Week 17: Cedric Griffin, Asher Allen, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond
The only players still heavily involved in the current Viking secondary is Jamarca Sanford: all of those other starters from last year are, in one way and for one reason or another, not usually on the field when the Viking defense is.
Because the NFL now makes snap counts public (helpfully posted at Football Outsiders), we can see the documentation that the Vikings are simply relying on better players in the secondary now. Harrison Smith, Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford have been playing nearly all of the Vikings' defensive snaps.
Harrison Smith, Antoine Winfield, and Chris Cook are much better players than the defensive backs that finished the 2011 season. Jamarca Sanford has played much better, probably a combination of individual improvement and not being exposed when surrounded by better teammates. And Josh Robinson has also played a good number of snaps, and played well. The secondary is greatly helped by regular pressure from the defensive line, but has been great in its own right: in the last three weeks, the longest pass the Vikings have allowed was a 26 yarder. The DBs aren't getting beat for big plays, are contesting most passes, and are tackling extremely well.
Going into the year, we knew the defensive line was one of the team's strengths, we weren't sure about the linebackers, and we were terrified about the secondary. The line has been at least as good as expected, the linebackers have been generally terrific (did you think we'd see a run defense this dominant again?), and the secondary has been a revelation. Put it together and it's a defense that ranks 4th in net yards per pass attempt and 2nd in rush yards per attempt.
Fearing the mirage
In the last decade the Vikings have had a few hot starts that ultimately turned out to be fool's gold (I already used "mirage" in the subtitle: I want to shift to another image for something that looked appealing but ultimately turned out to be nothing). In '03 they started 6-0 and ended 3-7. In '04 they started 5-1 and ended 4-8. In '06 they started 4-2 and ended 2-8. Maybe that's why I still don't quite believe in this Viking team as a quality team. The defense can't maintain, this, right? They're going to get exposed, right?
I'm encouraged to see the Vikes rank #7 in Football Outsiders' DVOA, a metric designed to try assess a team's intrinsic quality (and they've already beat the #1 DVOA team). Maybe the team really is good? Maybe some of the big weaknesses of last year really have been cleared away by player improvement and personnel improvement? Is this really happening?
Arian Foster steps out of my dreams and onto my fantasy team
I appreciate the mainstream attention superstud Arian Foster's vegan diet is getting: during games, announcers will mention it, and as announcers primarily exist to praise the players they are talking about, they either talk about it in a matter-of-fact way or tell us what positive things Foster has said about it. I like that during a football game, veganism is talked about as something normal, not some stereotyped hippie thing (not that there's anything wrong with that).
But right now I'm afraid that Gary Kubiak is running Foster into the ground, and that next year Foster may struggle and/or get hurt, as often happens with RBs that were previously run into the ground (or as eventually happens with running backs anyway, who can have very short primes), and then various ill-informed spectators from fandom and media will blame Foster's vegan lifestyle for injury or poor play. Gary Kubiak: don't run Arian Foster into the ground. Maybe throw him a few passes (well, I mean, don't you do it: tell Matt Schaub to do it).
Players and Health
Football is a violent game. We are in an era of awareness of the dangers to players' health, and of improving efforts to protect players' health. We don't want teams to put performance and wins ahead of a player's long-term physical well-being (even as we glorify the toughness of players who risk their bodies and play through injuries). But there is a current MLB executive criticizing one of his own players for trying to stop using tobacco because it affected his performance. So I guess there are other games of entertainment where the bosses consider productivity more important than a human being's health and well-being (though as Arthur Miller showed us, with Willy Loman pleading that "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away! A man is not a piece of fruit!," that this is hardly a new problem and hardly isolated to sports).
Other Interesting Games
Week 6 Schedule
Houston-Green Bay. Last Sunday, it took me a long time to take the special pleasure that comes from a Viking win and a Packer loss in the same day: I was so football-demoralized from January 2010 through December 2011 that I lost any energy for rooting against the Packers.
Cowboys-Ravens. In recent years, the Cowboys have actually been perfect for what the rest of America needs from the Cowboys. They've been mediocre, but flashy enough to not seem mediocre, so that there's always drama: a big win or an ugly loss always seem so much bigger or uglier when it's the Cowboys doing it, and they're always doing it! I can't wait to see what the Cowboys do against the Ravens.
Giants-49ers. I have a feeling this game is going to be fantasy poison.
Broncos-Chargers. Are the Broncos becoming a fantasy juggernaut? Well I hope so, as I fell into a Willis McGahee trade this week.
When you are looking for something to do on a crisp October weekend, just ask yourself: what would Mr. Autumn Man do?
Have a good weekend, suckers. Except Washington and Green Bay fans.