Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven (Part Two): Coaching Kudos at Christmas Time

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the Minnesota Viking's glorious beatdown of the Houston Texans, click here.

It's difficult for me to remember a Vikings road win where the team was as dominant as they were in beating a quality opponent like the Texans last Sunday. The 41-17 victory in 2007 over the New York Giants and the 35-14 pelting of the Arizona Cardinals both come to mind. Whatever. The victory in Houston was a road win and it came when the Vikings needed to have it – something this franchise hasn't been able to pull off much the past decade or so.

The Vikings players, of course, deserve full marks for that win. However, this was also the fourth game in a row where the Vikings have looked like the better prepared and better coached team. If not for Christian Ponder's two brutal interceptions in the Green Bay red zone at Lambeau a month ago, the Vikings could be playing for an NFC North title this Sunday instead of a Wild Card berth.

Two coaches that deserve a round of applause for the win against the Texans include defensive coordinator Alan Williams and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Let's start with some praise for Williams. Against Houston, and against the Rams the previous week, Williams recognized he was facing a stationary QB who was not comfortable throwing under duress. I've watched every minute of every Vikings game this year. This is not a team that likes to blitz, nor is it very good at it. But Williams sent his linebackers, and occasionally his cornerbacks and safeties, at Houston's Matt Schaub – usually on second-and-third-and-long situations.

Williams didn't blitz liberally. He picked his spots. But when he did pick them, the blitzes got home quite often and forced Schaub to throw earlier than he wanted to or from a spot on the field he didn't want to. This tactic is not something the Texans would have had a lot of film on from the Vikings D. But Williams wasn't content to sit back in the Cover Two and rush four all game. He knew that besides Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels, the Texans don't have any pass catchers who can hurt you. Facing a team that doesn't have a variety of targets you must focus on makes blitzing a not-very-mobile QB a much sounder strategy for the Vikings (and something they probably won't do against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this Sunday).

Musgrave also called a nice game against a tough Houston defense. He continued to be committed to running the ball, even when it wasn't working all that well. But Musgrave wasn't stubborn about it. Ponder did end up throwing the ball 30 times. And many of those throws came on first and second downs when you thought the Vikings were better off handing it to #28 – Adrian Peterson.

Musgrave seems to have figured out – after almost two years running the Vikings offense – what his players can and cannot do. And let's be honest here, there is a lot they can't do. But he knows the bootleg plays with Ponder rolling out and throwing to a tight end or back in the flat works as long as the Vikings don't run them too much. That's the effect Peterson is having on defenses right now. Musgrave also knows there is no point throwing anything deep to Michael Jenkins or Jerome Simpson. The can't get separation from defenders. So when the Vikings do take a deep shot lately, it's mostly been to rookie Jarius Wright or Devin Aromashodu (OK, I don't understand that one, either). Musgrave is also designing pass plays that have Ponder getting rid of the ball quickly, so the second-year QB doesn't have to think too much, can make one or two reads and if the throw isn't there, he takes off and runs or throws it (hopefully) away. It's a limited offensive gameplan. But it's the only one the Vikings can run with the WRs the have have and the QB they have. And they've been running it so much that they are getting pretty good at it, even when the opposing defenses know what is coming.

This coaching competence goes beyond Musgrave and Williams, too. From quarterback coach Craig Johnson, to special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, to linebackers coach Fred Pagac, it's difficult to finger a positional unit against Houston that was not on its game last Sunday. Credit for that has to go to the Vikings coaching staff.

I don't know what gameplans the head coach Leslie Frazier, Williams, Musgrave and the rest of the coaching staff will cook up with a playoff berth at stake against the Packers on Sunday. But I do feel pretty confident that the gameplans they do develop will be sound ones, that they will make the best use of the talent the Vikings have in place, and that the players trust the coaching staff enough that they will buy into it and believe the gameplans will put them in a position to succeed against a good Green Bay team.

It's been a while since I felt that way about a Vikings coaching staff. Right now, I have that feeling.    


  1. What was the tactic used against Rodgers at Lambeau? Just let the front 4 get pressure? I can't remember if we shut them down or if they had lots of drops and things kinda went our way on defense.

    1. I'd have to go back and look at the tape (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but I'm pretty sure they mostly rushed four. Blitzing Rodgers is tough because he's been through the wars, makes good decisions with the ball, generally gets rid of the ball quickly and they have the WRs who can beat single coverage if you choose to blitz.

      GB will be much healthier this time then they were at Lambeau. Matthews is back. Sam Shields will be back. Woodson I'm not sure of. It will be big for GB is Jordy Nelson is back as well. The Packers offense was rolling at Lambeau until he went out with that hammy. Tough, tough game for the Vikings.

  2. If the Vikes play as well as they did in Green Bay and avoid turnovers the game is quite winnable. Green Bay's offense looks like a monster lately though.

    1. Peter:

      This is going to be such a tough game for the Vikings to win with the offense constructed the way it is. But the Packers have won 12 straight divisional games and beaten the Vikings five straight. Are the Packers due for a loss?

    2. I try not to fall for the "due" argument, but by golly, MN has to heat GB again SOMEtime.

  3. I think you're right it was mostly rushing four and they did a decent job, but they had a bunch of dumb offsides penalties that game if you remember. Can't give that guy anything free. You're 100% right, you can't blitz Rodgers too much or he'll kill you but he's so good he can kill you either way. I hope they stay aggressive like last week, the GB line is not very good so maybe we can get some hits on him. 12 straight division wins is ridiculous, that guy is awesome. We just have to get Peterson going and not fall too far behind. Woodson is out, not sure about Jordy.

    I am really liking Alan Williams. I hope he sticks around for another year it would be nice to have some continuity. Priefer is incredible on special teams. Funny that we have gotten so used to spectacularly bad offense that the mediocre job Musgrave has done lately actually seems good. I know he doesn't have much to work with, and Ponder is awful, but I would not be sad at all to see him go, continuity be damned. Maybe he is holding Ponder back as well, though it is probably the other way around. I was so happy to see two separate national guys on Monday saying Musgrave was probably gone this offseason (La Canfora and maybe Prisco?).
    "It's been a dream season for the Vikings, and running back Adrian Peterson, but Minnesota's offense has been tough to watch. Quarterback Christian Ponder has not made strides, and with such a powerful running game it's been shocking to see the lack of explosive plays or vertical play-action threats it should trigger. Head coach Leslie Frazier has been advised by some to find a new coordinator even if AP breaks the rushing record, and I'd be very surprised if Ponder does not have a different voice in his ear come 2013."

    So we have hope.

    1. ETR:

      I read last night that Woodson won't play. There was no mention of Nelson on the injury report at all, so it sounds like he's a go. Where did you read that bit on Frazier needing a new offensive coordinator? Got a link?

    2. The quote above is from Jason La Canfora, he used to work at the Washington Post then the NFL Network replacing Schefter.

      I scanned a bunch of the articles I usually read on Monday but I can't find the second one. I swear there were two, but I can't remember who the other guy was. Sorry.