Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 20, Lions 13

Vikings-Lions Box Score (ESPN)

The Vikes just picked up their third win of the year, and it is still September. They just got an NFC North win (and are now 2-0 in the NFC, something that--do you believe I'm saying this?--can be relevant for playoff tie-breakers). And they got a road win, something that still feels like it should be cherished.

A win for special teams
When you have a player as dynamic as Percy Harvin, it makes a lot of sense to give him the ball on kick returns. Considering how often Harvin catches the ball around the line of scrimmage, relying on him to advance the team down the field on offensive plays, or to get 100+ yards of offense, can really wear him down. If you give him a chance to pick up a lot of yardage and help the team's field position on one play, he can be a game-changer without taking hit after hit.

And Marcus Sherels' punt return was just joyful to watch--I've got little more to say about it.

A win for defense
The Vikes were aided today by a lot of Lion errors, but it is remarkable how well the defense schemed and performed. The run defense was drop-dead dominant, recalling the Viking defense we've grown accustomed to. But many of the Lion pass plays just looked awkward. Often Matthew Stafford had time to throw, but showed himself not terribly instinctive in the pocket. Sometimes he checked down, sometimes he attempted (a little erratically) to scramble, and often enough he seemed to duck before the pass rush was actually there on him. Brian Billick kept telling us about the passive, deep cover-2 to take away the deep stuff and force the Lions to try sustain drives with short stuff. They obviously couldn't--in part because the Vikings did a superb job tackling today.

A win for the running game
Adrian Peterson averaged 4.9 yards per carry today, and he did not not by relying on one or two big plays, but by constantly grinding, and grinding, and grinding, getting consistent chunks of yards. The offensive line blocked very well today, and Peterson showed great burst: that combination makes the run game potent.

Jerome Simpson, and why you should throw deep
The Vikings averaged 4.3 yards per pass attempt today (which includes the 27 yard late pass to Jerome Simpson, a call both gutsy and smart: plowing into the line for no gain three times and letting Detroit use its timeouts would not have left the Vikes in a good spot at the end): the pass game really wasn't working today. The Vikes have been relying on short passes with yards after the catch, and when that is the core of your passing game, teams can step up to stop it.

But the Vikings attempted three deep throws to Jerome Simpson (including that late completion). On the first two, Simpson drew pass interference penalties, and the Vikings were able to move the ball far downfield. Those two drives each resulted in field goals.

Good things can happen when you try to throw deep. Jerome Simpson obviously adds a new element to the Viking offense, and they should continue to try throw it to him deep at least two or three times a game.

Skol
Hell, I don't want to spend too much time on analysis. I want to bask! Skol Vikings!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Taking stock of the 2012 version of Adrian Peterson

I think we all expected Adrian Peterson to be a different running back in 2012.

Tearing the ACL and MCL in your left knee will do that to a guy. And it stood to reason that Peterson probably wouldn't be the breakaway threat – a guy who could rip off a 60-yard run at any given time – roughly nine months after having major surgery on that knee.

While Peterson's recovery has been terrific, and his workload has been heavier than expected, to my naked eye he doesn't look superhuman anymore. His four yards per carry average in three games (I know, small sample size) is by far the lowest in his six years in the league, and it seems to bear my theory out. The extra gear – that patented Peterson "burst" – isn't there. This takes some getting used to.

It's a bit early, but I decided to track each Peterson carry in his first three games and break down his yardage for all of those 58 carries. Here is what I found:

0 to negative yards: 6 of 58 (10%)

1 to 3 yards: 25 of 58 (42%) 

4 to 9 yards: 23 of 58 (40%)

10 to 19 yards: 2 of 58 (3%)

20 or more yards: 3 of 58 (5%)

Peterson's longest run in his first three games has been 20 yards. He's done it twice. In his first three games last year, he already had a run of 43 yards and a run of 46. I don't think this in itself proves Peterson has less juice than he once did. I'm just sayin'.

As you can see above, 82 per cent of Peterson's runs have been in the one- to nine-yard range. I would expect almost every running back in the NFL has splits like this - long runs are hard to come by in this league. But because I don't have access to the play-by-play numbers from 2011 (but if you can find them, by all means, provide me the link), I can't tell if this is a significantly higher percentage for Peterson than last year or previous years, or if any of the percentages cited above are much higher or lower than in the past. My plan is to track Peterson's carries in this way throughout the season and try to find some trends at the end of the year when the sample size is complete.

Another thing I tracked (and will continue to track) in this exercise is what direction Peterson has been running in. For simplicity's sake, I just classified the runs as either going up the middle, to the right and to the left. Once again, here is what I found:

Runs to the middle: 30 of 58 (52%)

Runs to the right: 16 of 48 (28%)

Runs to the left:  12 of 58 (22%)

What those results tell me is the Vikings like to run Peterson in the area where their best offensive lineman is - center John Sullivan - with some help from guards Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson. They also don't like running to Johnson and left tackle Matt Kalil's side (run blocking has not been Kalil's forte so far). But these stats could also be an unstated admission by the Vikings coaching staff that getting to the corner and cutting left or right is not Peterson's strength right now. Instead, he's more effective as a straight-line runner.

As TBird noted in this post, Football Outsiders running back statistics show Peterson is having the best success rate on runs of his career at 53 per cent. So is Peterson more of a grind-it-out and move-the-chains type runner post-surgery? I'd say he is, and it's something he should be good at doing. Peterson's always been a powerful, violent runner. This running style plays to one of his strengths.


I think we all yearn to see the guy who ripped up the Bears in 2007 or shredded the Packers at the Metrodome in 2008.I don't think we'll see that guy this season very much. And while the 2012 Adrian Peterson might provide Vikings fans with less thrills and chills down the spine, that doesn't mean he's been any less effective as a runner than he was before his left knee was hurt. He's just a lot less flashier.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

National Friday League, Week Four

Vikings-Lions Preview
Vikings
Lions

Last year the Vikings had their worst season in almost 30 years. The Lions made the playoffs for the first time since the '90s.  Remember those?



And twice, the Lions could barely beat the Vikes. But they did.

An offense like the Lions is effective against the Vikes. They're willing to abandon the run, and no matter how good a pass rush is, it is hard to keep getting to a QB that's throwing 50 times. They can throw deep, and the Viking safety play has been bad for several years, making the Vikes vulnerable to the long passes: even if you stop them over and over and over again, they can still come back quickly, and they can make up for a lot of futility in one or two big plays. In both of the Lions' victories last season, their offense only played one good half, and did nothing in the other half. But that was enough.

The last time we saw Christian Ponder at Ford Field, he was having the worst game of his career. I won't be totally sold on Ponder until he is consistently completing medium and deep throws. I'm not blaming him for not attempting that much so far this year (I think it is personnel), but that he's going to have to do it in his career, and can't always rely on Percy Harvin to gain yards after the catch on throws around the line of scrimmage. Jerome Simpson may help: I want to see at least two deep attempts to Simpson per game, starting Sunday.

I've got no feel for this game whatsoever. I guess if I'm honest I never have a feel for any game whatsoever. Frankly I don't know why I continue to try write game previews.

On Fairness and Fandom
How much pleasure can a Packer hater take in their loss* at Seattle? How might we respond to our justifiably angry Packer fan friends?



I care about competitive fairness, think the scab ref debacle should have ended before it began, find the NFL deplorable here, and view Monday night as a travesty (if there's a sobering thought, it's that a lot of bad calls went against each team). But I do view sports fandom differently: for me it is an existential long-game. Every day I am reminded that my favorite football team has never won a Super Bowl (I've never even seen them make it TO the Super Bowl): it colors everything about sports fandom for me. So it is harder for me to sympathize much with fans who saw their favorite team win a Super Bowl less than two years ago, even after that horror show that happened Monday. If we can endure the jokes and ridicule about the Vikings never winning a Super Bowl, I suppose we can have a moment for our little jokes now.

It is critical that a sporting competition be fair. Outcomes shouldn't be random, and the extent to which they are determined by random factors should be minimized/shared equally between teams. But there's nothing about being a fan that is fair! You don't have any control over whether your team is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. And you probably didn't choose your team: though not true for everybody, many people attach to a team through family and geography. And when you're a kid, the time you're probably getting attached to a team, you don't get to choose your family or region. It is not fair that the Packers lost the way they did. But what's fair about, say, being born in Cleveland and never seeing any of your city's professional teams win a championship (they haven't since 1964)? For fans, sports is a bunch of shit that happens that you can't do anything about but care about to greater or lesser degrees.

All of this is not to say that Packer fans should be outraged and angry about this week's events. But it is to say that the sports-agonies inflicted on fan bases don't have any fairness of distribution to them.  Packer fans got anger/disappointment/frustration/punch-to-the-gut  different in form from other kinds of anger/disappointment/frustration/punch-to-the-gut fans can experience, but there are a lot of forms of anger/disappointment/frustration/punch-to-the-gut for fans, and I'm not really convinced this was fundamentally different in degree.

Following the Logic
Just about every announcer and commentator about the scab ref situation rightly blamed the NFL rather than the individual officials, noting the officials were in over their heads and are simply doing the best they can. I think this is right. But did it go too far?

Nobody forced the scab refs to take those jobs. There was, after all, a labor dispute (a lockout, mostly about money but ironically also about how the league manages officiating quality), and those officials were working in place of locked out union employees. Does all criticism deserve to be deflected to the league, not the officials?

If your tendency is not to blame the scab refs at all, I hope you keep that tendency in other areas of your life. If you encounter employees in the service industry, they may be young, fairly new, or poorly trained at a job that doesn't provide much in the way of pay and benefits. The quality of these low-paid workers is partly the result of management decisions: they are willing to hire employees who may not be very motivated or prepared to be good at their job, but are at least willing to work cheap. This may create a situation of high turnover. When these employees make mistakes, I assume you won't yell at them. I assume you'll say to yourself, "Well, this employee is in over his/her head. Sure, nobody is making him/her take the job, but these mistakes should be blamed on poor hiring practices, poor training, poor oversight, poor compensation. I blame this on corporate's and management's bad decisions, not this employee displaying incompetence. He/she is probably doing his/her best at what is a difficult and unpleasant job."

If you don't treat those you encounter that way (that is, with a shred of empathy), why did you give the scab refs a pass?


My favorite play of last week's game

My favorite play of last week's game was Chad Greenway's sack on Alex Smith. When you watch the replay in slow motion (knowing the outcome), you can see that Smith wasn't looking Greenway's direction. But when watching it live at game speed, it looks like after Smith rolls to the sideline Chad Greenway is running straight at Smith's face, he's covering a lot of yards, a lot of time is going by, and Smith is just standing there holding the ball not throwing it away (which you completely expect him to do, because watching it live it seems like he has plenty of time to do it and should clearly see Greenway directly in front of him) and then he gets solidly drilled in the open field. It was fun (it's also fun being a football fan in 2012 and being able to easily find and watch these replays online.

I've complained for a while that Greenway is more solid linebacker than playmaking linebacker, but he's been making a lot of plays this season.


Fluke?
It seems to me there are three possible ways we'll be viewing the Vikings' victory over the 49ers in a few weeks. It may be that the Vikings are actually good. It may be that the 49ers are actually bad. And it may be that the Vikings are bad, the 49ers are good, and this was just an upset, an "any given Sunday" one-time event that bodes nothing about anything other than that one-time event.

Ted and Me (my continuing adventures in psychologically fusing together How I Met Your Mother with my desire to see the Vikings win a championship)
For a brief, fleeting moment, my jaw dropped: as the camera panned up, and I really thought we were going to see the mother. Alas, the umbrella. But Ted and Ted's Kids' Mom are now in the same place, about to meet. This is really happening! It's a small (tiny, actually) fraction of the feeling I had when the Vikings were driving against the Saints in that game, but of the same kind. My sports-nervous-breakdown is over (I can tell because I've got a little vinegar when watching the Packers again), but I think I might still be a mess.

Seattle
The Seahawks have a legitimately good defense, and I can't help but think if they'd done a reasonable thing like start veteran Matt Flynn, they'd be 3-0 right now without much controversy about it.

Other Interesting Games
Week Four Schedule

49ers-Jets. Because don't you want to know if the Vikings revealed holes in San Fran, or if San Fran bounces back?

Patriots-Bills. A bunch of freaky stuff can happen.

Saints-Packers. Does it seem like whoever loses this game could see their season start to derail?

Giants-Eagles. No outcome should be surprising.  13-10, 37-36, whatever.

Bears-Cowboys. A combined 10+ sacks are possible here: these offensive lines aren't terribly good at protecting their QBs right now, and these defenses are good. That means a very boring game or a very exciting game.

Broncos-Raiders. Another Bronco game aired in the Twin Cities. New residents may think the Broncos are the local team. We might see more Bronco games than Packer games this year.

Fantasy Box
Quarterback is becoming a difficult position to manage in 2012: so many players drafted or picked up as backups are performing well, while some players drafted to start have disappointed. If you paid big/drafted high for stud QBs, you probably have to (and should) ride out a cool start. But if you picked a QB outside the top five, there are some real questions. Who will have more fantasy points the rest of the way, Tony Romo or Andy Dalton?  Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger? Philip Rivers or Ryan Fitzpatrick? How quickly do you make the switch? Can you really win a title switching QBs for matchups? Is Joe Flacco startable?

Kick Ass Links
Looking back before looking forward: close looks at Vikings-49ers. At Grantland, Bill Barnwell examines the ways a team can beat the 49ers based on what the Vikings did. At Football Outsiders, Rivers McCown pays closest attention to how the Vikes use Percy Harvin so creatively to get him in space.
How the NFL is like a dictatorship (The New Yorker).

On who built the league and who can destroy it (The New Yorker).

Photo galleries at Vikings.com are really enjoyable (especially after a win).

Weekend
The thing to do is go jogging every Sunday morning. That way when you spend the rest of the day watching football, you can tell yourself at the end of the day that at least you went for a run.

Once Upon a Time returns this weekend as well; season one was superb, just superb, and ended foreboding radical changes, so it is hard to know if the show can stay at such a high level. Robert Carlyle's Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin is one of my favorite characters and performances on TV. My DVR works at close to full capacity all autumn.

Have a good weekend, everybody. Except Lion and Packer fans.

Playing on Paper

Football Outsiders just posted their statistics for defensive success against each type of receiver, which, of course, sent me down the rabbit hole, which, of course, led to smoking opium with a big caterpillar, which, of course, led to some insight:


  • The Vikings are currently the 7th best defense against #1 receivers. This, in theory, bodes well for their upcoming match up with Calvin Johnson. In reality, however, Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver since Randy Moss and the #1 receivers the Vikings had success against were Michael Crabtree, an old Reggie Wayne and Laurent "By Default" Robinson.
  • Indianapolis has the best pass protection the Vikings have faced this year, until Sunday, when they face the Lions. My understanding (having not watched the Indy game) is that this does not bode well for the Vikings defense, who were unable to have much of an effect on Luck and will have to get to Stafford (or Hill) for the secondary to have any chance.
  • In more positive news, Adrian Peterson has the highest Success Rate (which measures consistency by a running back) of his career, at 53%. He's been around 46% every other year. It seems like he has made an adjustment to his running style, with an emphasis on getting 4-5 yards instead of risking getting stuffed for a chance at a long play. This makes sense coming off a knee injury, although I wouldn't mind seeing him break off a 60 harder on Sunday.
  • Percy Harvin currently has an 84% catch rate on 32 passes, the highest in the NFL. The highest catch rate of any receiver with more than 100 passes thrown their way is Wes Welker in 2007, who caught 77% of 142 passes. Wes Welker was on the same team as Randy Moss and Tom Brady (Catch Percentage does not include who was at fault for the incompletion). In conclusion, Percy Harvin is an absolute beast, especially when he is running over linebackers and defensive backs that outweigh him by 50 pounds.
  • Finally, if you need another Vikings fan to follow on Twitter, I'm @tjryan41

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What Monday night's festivities says about the Minnesota Vikings immediate future

I thought about riffing on the Seattle-Green Bay Monday Night Football debacle, but the only thing I can come up with is this: It was great!

I taped the game last night because I couldn't watch it live, but was curious to see how both teams – who the Vikings will play this season – would perform. Usually when I tape these non-Viking games I always peek at the score periodically on the Internet. But Monday night I was disciplined. I waited until 10 p.m. (I'm in the Mountain time zone), when I knew the game would be over, and clicked on my PVR. I had no frickin' idea what was about to go down. So I got to watch a moment that will go down in NFL and Monday Night Football infamy – only two hours later.

Results and bad calls aside, the game did give me some insight into what the play of the two teams means for the Vikings when they face these two squads (the Seahawk game is Nov. 4, the Packer games are Dec. 2nd and Dec. 30). Both of these teams could be in very different places than they are right now by the time they play Minnesota. Whatever – here are some thoughts.

When the Vikings play the Seawhawks  

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson seems like an impressive kid, but he and the Seattle offense struggled to get much going against Green Bay's defense. Part of that is inexperience. There is also the matter that Wilson doesn't have a wide receiver or tight end that can get open consistently. Marshawn Lynch is a tough, courageous runner, but he's not a guy who is going to kill you with explosive plays. This is a unit I can see a Viking defense – youth and warts and all – handling.

How did the Seattle defense get so good, though? They sent waves of defensive lineman at Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Monday, the linebackers are good (but not as good as Jon Gruden made them out to be during the telecast) and the Seahawks secondary really impressed me. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are huge corners (6'3 and 6'4 guys). If the refs allow some jersey tugging and jostling beyond five yards, which they did against the Packers, these guys are tough to beat in press coverage. And the safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, are no slouches.

It will be a challenge for the Vikings wide receivers to make much hay against this secondary. But I think the Vikes can run on Seattle, especially if Seahawks rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin is on the field on first or second downs. As we saw Monday night against Green Bay, he can get after the passer, but he doesn't have much lead in his pants.  

By the way, the Seahawks sure aren't getting much of a return on their Sidney Rice investment, are they?

When the Vikings play the Packers

Maybe this is going to be one of those outlier years for Rodgers and the Packers where the offense just can't get it together. Or maybe Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson should have spent a draft pick on some offensive lineman instead of going defense-heavy in April's college meat market.

I don't remember right tackle Bryan Bulaga being that bad, but he was an absolute turnstile Monday night. On every replay you could watch him either getting beat by a Seahawk pass rusher or lying on his back. No wonder Rodgers resorted to throwing the ball in less than a second during the second half. That's something I expect you will see Green Bay and Rodgers do a lot against the Vikings. It worked against Seattle and it could work against Minnesota. It would surely frustrate Jared Allen and Brian Robison. The Packers also have a deep set of wideouts who can take those short, quick throws and turn them into first downs by running after the catch. They haven't scored more than 23 points in a game yet. But this passing attack is too full of talented players for it to continue struggling. I expect the Pack will be able to move the ball consistently against the Vikings defense.

Defensively, they've got a lot of rookies and young players who are getting a lot of playing time. There will be ups and downs with this group – just like there will be ups and downs with the Vikings young defensive players. The Seattle game happened to be one of the up moments.

The Green Bay games will be yet another test Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder must pass. Wayward passes that hit defenders in the numbers – as Ponder has managed to do in the first three games – won't be dropped by the Green Bay ballhawks. He can't commit costly turnovers. The Vikings will also have to figure out what to do against linebacker Clay Matthews. Good luck.    

By the time the first Packers game rolls around, Jerome Simpson will be fully acclimatized with the offence and (hopefully) rookie Jarius Wright will have emerged as a viable receiving option. The Vikings will need to protect Ponder well and receivers not named Harvin will have to make plays.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Trailing clouds of heaven: Part three (the Vikings surprise)

As Pacifist Viking wrote on Sunday, this is the Minnesota Viking's most satisfying victory in a long time. But what makes it doubly satisfying is how the Vikings did it. (You can also find TBird's post-game thoughts here.)

Let's turn back the Kick Ass Blog clock to PV's National Friday League post, where he said if the Vikings were going to beat the 49ers, they'd need some game-changing turnovers, big special teams returns and a few explosive plays from the offense.

The Vikings got little of that in this win. There were no big returns by Percy Harvin. No pick sixes or fumbles returned for touchdowns (although the Vikings did have three takeaways, which helped) and their longest offensive play was a 24-yard pass from quarterback Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin.

The Vikings won with no fluke plays. They won by doing things good teams do. They committed only one penalty (that the replacement refs called anyway). They won the turnover battle, albeit barely. They converted on third down consistently (seven for 14, or 50 per cent). Their maligned offense put together three long, clock-killing touchdown drives – none of them more an important than the 12 play, 86-yard drive that ended in a ridiculous one-yard catch by tight end Kyle Rudolph after the 49ers had cut the Vikings lead to 17-13 the drive before. And I better mention that the Vikings sieve-like secondary was much stouter than we could have hoped for. The 49ers don't have one of the league's best passing attacks, but they were still effective in their previous two games against the Packers and the Lions. The Vikings secondary held up against that offense, and the entire defense tackled well. It was just an impressive display of football all around.

This is the kind of win that inspires more hope in a Vikings fan than if they had won because Harvin had returned a couple of kickoffs for touchdowns or the Vikings had lucked themselves into a defensive score or two. The Vikings were just better than San Francisco in almost every phase of the game in this one. That's a good feeling. And it shows that this team has some talent, and when it plays to that talent, which it didn't do in last week's loss to Indianapolis.

Now the young and rebuilding Vikings will face another early test – sustaining their play over the long haul. The victory over San Francisco was fun and exciting, and the squad certainly played smart, determined football against a Super Bowl contender. But sometimes young teams don't handle unexpected success well. They don't know what it takes to be consistently good at this level. It seems strange to talk about the Detroit Lions – those loveable losers – as presenting another stiff test for the Vikings. But this is a team with a formidable passing attack. With Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. And the Vikings will be playing them on the road (but it will be indoors).

If the Vikings go to Detroit next week and lose, perhaps the win over the 49ers was an aberration. If they can build on what they did at the Metrodome on Sunday and beat the Lions on the road, we could be in for an unexpectedly fun fall of NFL football. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven Part 2: My Week 1


Today's game was the first one I've been able to see this season, since I've been out of the country for the past two weeks. And like Pacifist said, it looked like the Vikings and 49ers had switched uniforms--if I hadn't known better, I would have thought the players in Purple were the ones that were coming off an NFC Championship appearance and had beaten their first two opponents convincingly. I know there was some worry about the Vikings' chemistry, but it seems that the veterans were successful at getting the younger players to put in the effort and adopt the mindset necessary to be a good football team. Now the question is whether they can maintain the level of play we just saw, something that's going to have to start tomorrow. 
  • Christian Ponder was impressive today. He was very active with his feet, constantly buying more time for his receivers to get open and he wasn't sacked once. And with this receiving corps, he needs to buy them as much time as he can. He did float too many passes over the middle (and almost threw a disastrous interception in the 4th quarter) but the touch on the two touchdown passes to Kyle Rudolph was the kind of thing that should get everyone excited about what Ponder can become. 
  • Maybe Jerome Simpson can change this, but the Vikings really didn't take a shot down field. Ponder averaged a paltry 5.65 yards per pass attempt and I don't think he threw the ball more than 15 yards (Percy Harvin had a 24 yard reception, but some of that was gained after the catch). It's really hard to methodically march down the field and the Vikings need to start throwing intermediate and deep passes or it's going to get even harder for their offense to move the balls via short passes.
  • Rudolph's second touchdown brought me back to my high school days, when I got pretty good at catching passes one handed after a thumb injury. Ponder's throw was perfect, since you need to lob the ball in to make a one handed basket catch, something that my teammates took a while to figure out. (Yeah, I know--I can hear your Jay Cutler-esque reactions from here).
  • The Vikings' decision to draft Blair Walsh in the 6th round was not a popular one. He's now kicked a 50+ yard field goal in each of the Vikings' first three games. A kicker like that is a really valuable offensive weapon--it's really hard to argue with the Vikings' decision when he's making 52 yard field goals comfortably. And who knows if Walsh would have signed with the Purple if he had been able to pick his team?
  • The 49ers' longest pass play was only 29 yards. Their longest run was only 11 yards. The 49ers were supposed to be the sure tackling team, but while the Vikings' defense gave up a lot of completions on short crossing routes and out routes, they didn't let any of them turn into big plays and they shut down the deep routes. Equally impressive was the effort by the safeties and linebackers in shutting down Vernon Davis, who I expected to torch the Vikings. Now, the big question is whether the secondary can turn in this kind of effort against a better quarterback next week (or at least a better wide receiver if Stafford is unable to play).
  • Randy Moss's return was the big pre-game story, but all I could think about during the game was how old he looked. He had no lift (twice he was unable to get up high enough to catch a high throw) and he seemingly ran nothing but short routes. It was a sharp contrast from when he was wearing 84 in purple and gold, able to beat every defender deep and win every jump ball. Moss' jersey was the first one I bought (the year before I hurt my thumb 
    DOOOONNNNTTTTTT CAAAAAARRRREEEEEE
    ) and watching him today made me feel old. Time is cruel, she is.
  • Moving from a player who's career is pretty much over to one who's just begun, Josh Robinson's first career interception was as much about Alex Smith making a bad throw as it was about Robinson making a good play. Regardless of that, I'm still pretty sure he would have scored if Chad Greenway hadn't gotten in the way / told him to go down. Of course, if Greenway hadn't done that, well, who knows how the replacement refs would have screwed up that play?
  • The Lions are next and how the Vikings' handle this success will tell us whether to start raising expectations. There was a let down after the win against the Jaguars. If that happens again, the Vikings will not have a pleasant trip to Detroit.

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 24, 49ers 13

Vikings-49ers Box Score (ESPN)

All my euphoric yelling and dancing got taken care of during this game. Now it's time to try step back. How did this just happen?

The Viking defense is way, way better at home
If you watched this game as a Viking fan, you sweated out the whole fourth quarter. But if you somehow were able to watch this game objectively knowing nothing about either team, you would have thought it was the 49er offense that was totally inept: mistake-prone, lacking playmakers, unable to hit big plays or sustain a drive, lacking chemistry and timing. I worried going into this game that the Viking offense would look like it just had no chance, but it was the 49er offense that looked that way.

The Vikings had a steady pass rush (I'm not concerned with how often the Vikings have hurried the QB but missed the sack this season--that happens, and if they keep up the pressure, they'll keep disrupting the opponent). They tackled well (very few yards after the catch in my immediate recall). They played better on third down (49ers went 4-10). They got out of bad spots (like after the long kickoff return). They forced turnovers. I can't think of anything you'd want from the Viking defense that they didn't provide today.

The Metrodome is not a place teams should want to see on their schedule this season. And if the Viking defense can play like that on the road, the Vikings will be a team that can compete with anybody this season.

Christian Ponder is sort of good
He avoided pass rushers. He consistently hit pass catchers in the hands. He led long, sustained drives. He ran effectively. He faced down a good, steady defense, and played well.

There are two concerns to Ponder's game that he showed today: a quick tendency to scramble to the sideline even when it seems there is time to step into the pocket, and a tendency to float passes high over the middle of the field. Today these tendencies didn't hurt him--they actually helped him (they could have hurt him).

But the Vikings may have a legitimately good quarterback with a long career in front of him. They really might.

The opening drive fourth down pass
Last week Brian Billick had a one-way argument for taking field goals instead going for it on fourth down in the red zone. What if you go for it and fail, he said, then lose by two? He never asked, what if you kick the field goal instead of going for it, and then lose by two?

Well the Vikings did the thing today that is both gutsy and statistically wise: they drove down the field and went for it on 4th and goal from the one. And the play-action pass was a good play call. And it was well-executed by Ponder and Kyle Rudolph. The Vikes went up 7-0 instead of 3-0, and it wasn't long into the first half that it was clear the Vikings simply had control of this game.

The Vikings might be good
The Vikings played their strongest opponent of the year, and won their most decisive game. Jim Harbaugh could have been granted an infinite number of timeouts, and the Vikings still had control of the 49ers. They are 2-1 (2-0 at home), and just might be a better team than we thought.

SKOL!
2-1 after beating a team considered the NFC's best. I ask you, when was the last time you could feel this good about a Viking victory? When was the last time you could feel this good about the Vikings?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

National Friday League, Week 3

Vikings-49ers Preview
Vikings
49ers

As Darren noted, at Football Outsiders, the Vikings currently rank 4th in VOA--the statistical measure of the team without adjustment for quality of opponent. So either the Vikings are a better team than you think, or they've played really bad opponents. Frankly, it's probably the latter.

We as fans may be dreading this week's game: not only do the Vikes seemingly have little chance to win, but they have a seemingly high chance of being utterly and embarrassingly destroyed. It's hard not to think that every Viking first down is going to look and feel like a major accomplishment. But as we watch a rebuilding team, we want to see improvement, and we also want to see the team measure itself. Where are the Vikings, and how far do they have to go? A blowout loss and we know: the Vikes can compete with any non-playoff team in the league, but they are a long way from being meaningfully competitive. If they manage a strong showing, maybe that VOA will still be good when it is DVOA, and the Vikes have moved forward more than we expected.

What would the Vikings need for an upset? Some game-turning turnovers--not just forced fumbles or interceptions, but forced fumbles or interceptions that put the offense in great field position (or that the defense scores on outright). Some huge special teams returns. I don't think the Viking offense can sustain long drives, so they'll need somebody to break out some big plays to get points. It's all possible...but it's also possible that if the Vikes hang in there, the secondary is going to give up big gains late and blow the game anyway.

Percy Harvin
I may be getting repetitive on this topic, but I'll say again: Harvin is an excellent football player, productive and fun to watch, but if he's your team's best WR, your team is in trouble.

If the Vikings let Harvin go when his contract is up, one of two types of teams will sign him. A team like New Orleans could sign him, integrate him into an already explosive offense, and use him properly to explode on the league. Or a team that stinks offensively will give him a big contract and a #1 job hoping he can transform their offense, and that team will be very disappointed.

This is just another reason getting a dependable downfield wide receiver has to be a priority soon for the Vikes: when Harvin's contract is up, it would be good for the Vikings to know if they could sign him into a role where he can best be used, or whether a big contract would be unjustified based on how the team could and could not use him. Speaking of...

Acquiring Wide Receivers
Teams that are desperate for wide receiver talent often use free agency to offer a big contract to an unworthy player. We've seen this first-hand: the Vikes were desperate for a WR when they signed Bernard Berrian, and the Vikings let Sidney Rice sign a big contract with Seattle and he's largely been a disappointment (partly for injuries, yes, but Seattle signed him despite a pretty clear injury history). We've seen plenty of other decent WRs sign big free agent contracts only to disappoint. It seems to me that if a team is willing to let a WR go via free agency, that team usually knows what its doing, and it knows that the player is replaceable.

I'm getting a little ahead of things here (it's Week 3: I'm still loving autumn and football), but this is a position the Vikings need to improve via the draft. That may mean developing a later pick or targeting worthwhile receivers early. Speaking of...

Jarius Wright, anyone?
He's ready to play (1500 ESPN Twin Cities). This is a player that the Vikings may be able to help develop into a playmaker, and that development may as well start now when the Vikes are desperate for playmakers at the WR position. The non-Harvin talent currently at WR is so poor, that Wright's inexperience should not be enough to keep him on the sidelines. We don't see what the coaches see in practice, of course, but if they think he's got more talent than the likes of Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, they should play him immediately. I have trouble believing any mistakes he makes will cost the team more than playing WRs that can't separate from defenders is costing the team. If he could make one or two big plays a game, this offense could be very different. Speaking of...

Hoping on Wide Receivers
The wide receivers are so bad right now we're going to be talking ourselves into any potential savior for the whole year. It will be Wright, then Jerome Simpson, and then, what, John Carlson getting healthy? Any WR that gets released (I know Rick Spielman is committed to rebuilding, but do you pass on signing an old WR to play short-term because you are committed to letting ineffective WRs play short-term?  How does that help you rebuild?)? Until finally we'll have to give up and accept that for now, this is it, and the savior is somewhere else, ready to join the team in the future.

If Andrew Luck has a long career...
He's going to push punny headline writers to absurd extremes. It's hard for me to believe that all the obvious luck puns won't be used up by the end of his rookie year (he was a prominent college player too). Eventually it's just going to get silly as headline writers try to find a new way to make a joke. What could happen? There will be convoluted headlines that you need a moment with ("Colts pLuck Eagles' feathers"? Don't be surprised if it gets close). There will be obscure cultural references (if there is a song that hipsters enjoy with the word "luck" in the lyrics, it will be a headline someday). Eventually they'll use up all the luck puns and move on to things that just sound sort of like luck (has "Luckadaisical" been used?).

Other Interesting Games
Week Three Schedule

Falcons-Chargers. The Falcons are a team I look at as a model for rebuilding. In 2007, in the aftermath of Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino, no team could look much lower. And from 2008 on, they've had nothing but winning seasons. They got lucky to draft a franchise quarterback with a top-three pick (and that is luck: every year shitty teams get early picks, but there's luck involved with how early the pick is and whether a franchise QB is available to you there), of course, but they also hired a quality coach and built a strong, balanced, deep roster.

Eagles-Cardinals. I notice a lot of sports teams name their teams after birds these days. Did you ever notice this? Huh? Huh? You know what I'm talkin' about!

Steelers-Raiders. The Steelers are one of those teams that are televised so often that you just sort of get used to them. I'm not sure I've seen more than three Texans games in my life, but everything about the Steelers, offensively, defensively, special teams, is so familiar. Maybe it's because they've been replacing linebackers with differently named linebackers and doing the same goddam thing and doing it well for almost 20 years. Maybe its because they are usually in the playoffs getting even more games. And doesn't Ben Roethlisberger seem to be perpetually on television holding onto the ball too long and running around back there? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but he's always running around back there.

Texans-Broncos. Really intriguing game. They have unique offenses (the Texans with their focus on the run, the Broncos with Manningball), but each have defenses that have shown some flashes of being very, very good. This game is televised in the Twin Cities. When Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos, I pointed out how often we'd get to see (or, depending on your view, subjected to) Bronco games. Manning would draw plenty of prime time games, and since the Vikings are usually on Fox at noon, CBS shows an AFC game for the 3:00 game, and those 3:00 AFC games are often AFC West games. I think we'll see 10+ Bronco games this year.

Patriots-Ravens. Is there any QB for a perennial contender that you trust less than Joe Flacco? Any f*&#ing thing can happen when he's in a game.

Packers-Seahawks. Its only two games, against two tough defenses, but the Packers rank 20th in points and 23rd in yards.

Fantasy Box: you'll only find this interesting if Arian Foster is on your team
If Arian Foster is your starting fantasy running back, do not stress about Ben Tate rushing for touchdowns.

Of course you want your fantasy starter to get his team's touchdowns--but you also recognize that the team is going to score other touchdowns. If you have a running back, his team is going to throw for some touchdowns, including red zone touchdowns. Well, the Texans run a lot. This year they have 83 runs to 68 passes/sacks. Last year they had 546 rushes to 500 passes/sacks. And last year they had 18 rush TDs to 20 pass TDs. Some of their non-Foster TDs might go to another RB.

Big deal.I view Ben Tate's rushing touchdowns like I would view another team's passing touchdowns. The Texans will score touchdowns, Arian Foster won't score all of them, and sometimes the Texans will use Ben Tate.

This year the Texans have scored six touchdowns, and Arian Foster has scored three of them. If Foster comes anywhere near scoring half of the Texans' total offensive touchdowns this year, he's going to be a fantasy demigod. As it happens, the Texans have only thrown one touchdown so far. If you viewed Ben Tate's two rushing TDs as passing TDs, you wouldn't even think of those TDs as being stolen from Foster. And that's why I don't.

Furthermore, I'd like to see the Texans use Tate even more late in games. Foster currently has 54 carries, and they've given him carries late in the game to milk leads. I understand that teams can come back in the NFL quickly and that you have to play to the end--but do you have to slam your star RB into the line for short or no gains to milk the clock? Isn't this what you have backup RBs for? The high number of carries helps fantasy numbers in the short term, but I worry it could wear him down throughout the year.

Now here's the real question for you. If you've drafted Foster, hopefully you've handcuffed Tate. Now bye weeks are coming up. Now injuries are piling up. You need to start two RBs. Can you start Foster and Tate? I wouldn't. Some weeks Tate might get 8 touches for 28 yards while Foster gets 27 touches; other weeks Foster might get 34 touches but Tate can still get 16 touches for 97 yards and 2 TDs. I think the quiet Tate games will be more frequent (while you can still count on lots of touches for Foster no matter what), and would only start both (at this point) in desperation.

Weekend
The thing to do on a Sunday is put chili into a pot around 11:30 and stop thinking about food for the rest of the day.

Enjoy the weekend, everybody. Except Packer and 49er fans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Are the Vikings already fraying at the edges?

The Minnesota Vikings are 1-1 and are coming off a road game they lost by three points. All in all, it's not a bad start for a team almost everybody outside the organization felt was one of the NFL's have-not clubs heading into the 2012 season.

So you'd think the players on this young, rebuilding squad would be fairly upbeat about what has happened so far. Well, based on some comments and actions from some Viking players this week, you'd be very wrong to think that way.

Today, we learned veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield gave the team, coaches and general manager a stern 10-minute talking to during Monday's practise. Winfield wouldn't say what the briefing was about, but you don't have to do any mental gymnastics to surmise that Winfield was upset that the Vikings have allowed their opponents to march down the field and score at a critical junctures in the first two games.

On Sunday, All Pro defensive end Jared Allen was upset about the same issue. He called the Vikings failure to stop the Colts offense from marching 40 yards down the field in less than 30 seconds – a drive that ended up leading to Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard game-winning field goal – as "embarrassing."

And, finally, veteran wide receiver Devin Aromashodu seemed to throw offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave under the bus when he was asked about the Vikings inability to complete a pass five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "We can only go with what's being called. If the opportunity's given, we try to go and make the play."

I don't think this is a good sign – not for the fans. not for the players and not for head coach Leslie Frazier. If we're only two games into the season and veteran players are already giving their teammates private lectures and blaming the coaches for their own poor performance, this season could go south very quickly.

That's why Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers is a critical one for the team. They are playing a very good team, and one that looks very capable of dealing the Vikings an embarrassing lopsided defeat at the Metrodome. And if the some of its veterans reacted poorly to a loss to the Colts, imagine how they'll react to a beatdown at the hands of the 49ers?

If you're trying visualize what that might look like, try rehashing memories of the Vikings 31-3 loss at the Metrodome to Green Bay in 2010. It was a humiliating performance with the team fighting among themselves and seeming out of control. Head coach Brad Childress lost his job the next day.

I don't think a blowout loss to the 49ers would cost Frazier his job, but it could certainly lay the ground work for it to occur later on. With two frustrating losing seasons behind them, there are some fragile psyches on the Vikings roster. It might not take much for them to check out on the 2012 season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Your Minnesota Vikings are the 4th best team in the NFL! (according to Football Outsiders statistics)

I think most Minnesota Vikings fans would agree – especially after Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts – that the 2012 team is not very good.

So what to make of Football Outsiders' week two DVOA rankings, which has the Vikes ranked as the fourth-best team in the NFL?

The site's founder, Aaron Schatz, goes on to explain in his writeup why the Vikings probably won't be able to maintain their lofty status in the DVOA rankings, but these results should give us homers at least some hope that Sunday's matchup against the San Francisco 49ers won't be the beatdown we all expect it to be. Why? Just look at the stats:

Here are the Vikings rankings: DVOA (4th); Total DAVE (20th); Offense VOA (5th); Defense VOA (13th); Special Teams DVOA (4th)

And here are the 49ers rankings: DVOA (3rd); Total DAVE (13th); Offense VOA (1st); Defense VOA (15th); Special Teams DVOA (22nd)

The takeaway from those stats for me is that two evenly matched teams will be playing each other Sunday afternoon. And with the Vikings playing at home, perhaps they should even be favored in this game.

Now you can argue this is all a big pile of steaming excrement. It's too early in the season to put much stock in statistical results, the Vikings opponents have been far weaker than the 49ers opponents, and just how can the Vikings defense be better than San Fran's after what Andrew Luck did to it on Sunday? And I agree with all of that. But if you are looking for a reason to be optimistic that the Vikings can actually beat a squad many people think is the NFL's best team, Football Outsiders has given you that reason.  

But what if the 49ers shut down Percy Harvin?
ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert more or less poses that question in this post. Harvin does most of his damage after the catch and many of his catches are made at, or slightly ahead of, the line of scrimmage. Long handoffs is what they are. Then it's on Harvin to either (a) make a guy or four miss or (b) break some tackles. (Even when Harvin doesn't do that, he usually bowls over the defender for three or four extra yards. It's beautiful stuff to watch.)

The problem is that the 49ers – at least to my eyes – are one hell of a tackling defense. They don't miss many of them. And if they can prevent Harvin from turning screen passes into 10 and 15 yard gains through sure tackling, well, there goes much of the Vikings offense.

This is one matchup the Vikings, and Harvin, absolutely must win on Sunday to have a chance at getting a victory.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Coming off the ledge: Part two (the secondary)

It's hard to argue with Pacifist Viking that the Vikings biggest weakness isn't at wide receiver.

But if the wide receivers and lack of a downfield passing threat is Achilles heel #1, the secondary is definitely Achilles heel #1(b).

We knew this reworked secondary was going to go through growing pains. And it has. Last week the unit allowed Blaine Gabbert to throw for 260 yards and two touchdowns (and he missed a surefire third TD when he overthrew Justin Blackmon). Sunday against the Houston Texans, he threw for just 53. But at least the Vikings secondary made some plays on the ball in that game - along with giving up some big ones. It was an encouraging start after what we watched last year.

Sunday's performance was a step back for the Vikings secondary. Colts rookie Andrew Luck was only sacked twice, but he rarely had a clean pocket to throw from. He was often under duress – despite what some Vikings fans will say. Yet he threw for 224 yards and converted third down after third down, often on the run. And he was able to do that because the Vikings secondary just can't cover guys well enough. Donnie Avery (Donnie Avery!) caught nine passes for 111 yards. 43 year-old Reggie Wayne (he's only 33, but he seems like he should be 43) caught a 30 yard touchdown pass.

We always hear how pressuring the quarterback, getting him off his spot and forcing him to throw before he wants to should make life miserable for that offense. Minnesota Vikings secondaries of recent vintage have turned that conventional wisdom into foolishness.

Is there hope the unit can improve? Yes. Chris Cook is talented, but also erratic and inexperienced. He's in his third season but has only appeared in 14 games. Josh Robinson is fast and a better tackler than I expected. But he's a rookie who needs to hone his craft. Harrison Smith seems like a solid, smart guy who could turn into one of those dependable starters you never have to worry about. He appears to be no Ed Reed, I don't know what to think about Mistral Raymond, frankly. He's rangy, is in his second year and isn't Jamarca Sanford. Now is the time for the Vikings to find out what they have in him.

Still, when you've been watching this shit for what seems like forever, it's hard to be patient. Today's Vikings secondary is not very good. Five games, or a year or two from now, it might be different. But it seems like I've been hoping for better days from the secondary since Robert Tate and Wasswa Serwanga were the starting cornerback tandem (briefly) for the Vikes. Sunday's performance against the Colts didn't feel a whole lot different than watching Kerry Collins look like a Hall of Famer in the 2000 NFC Championship game.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Coming Off the Ledge: Colts 23, Vikings 20

Vikings-Colts Box Score (ESPN).

Today the 2012 Minnesota Viking revealed their biggest weakness.

Don't be distracted by the awful second half penalties. They were awful, nearly cost the Vikes a chance at a comeback, and really might have cost the team the game.

Don't be distracted by the familiar defensive collapse. It was awful, and it points to what we've known about the questionable pass defense.

Don't be distracted by Andrew Luck's performance. The Viking pass rush was consistent, but Luck was better: he showed mobility and intelligence at avoiding taking what should have been sacks. He managed to make some spectacular plays.

And don't be distracted by the poetic and statistical balance that the Vikings lost today the way they beat the Jaguars a week ago. The data shows that if you keep playing games like this, you're going to win about half of them. A mediocre or bad team is going to play a lot of games like this.

Don't be distracted by what Christian Ponder did or did not do. For the second week in a row, Ponder helped the Vikings when they were down, and put the team in position to win games that they could have lost. He hasn't played great, but I don't think he's been the problem, either, and he has been clutch.

The Vikings biggest weakness this year is this:

They have no downfield passing game.

The Vikings' best receiver by far catches most of his passes around the line of scrimmage. And there is nobody else that can be relied on for deep passes. They can't stretch the defense and make defense account for the deep throw--so those defenses play tight to muck up the short passes. They don't have a real opportunity to take advantage of the the benefits of deep throws, like picking up pass interference penalties. There is just nobody currently on the Vikings that can beat cornerbacks and regularly make a play past 20 yards. Thus they struggle to move the ball consistently, and even when they get a good drive going, it too frequently stalls, as they don't have the big play potential down the field to gain big yardage on a single play to really advance the ball.

It is possible that Jerome Simpson is going to rescue the Vikings here: he's the speedy, athletic player who really has big play potential. He doesn't even have to be the first or second option to massively impact the game: if the Vikes throw deep to him even a few times, that could really aid the offense. But that's for later.

Right now, the Vikings have a dink and dunk offense that relies on pass catchers to gain yardage after they catch the ball. Just look at today's play-by-play (ESPN): almost all of Ponder's pass attempts are short.  In the second half, one pass finally got labeled "middle." No pass play is listed as "deep" until the fourth quarter, and in the fourth they got a total of three "deep" throws.

In all, Ponder had 33 pass attempts labeled "short," one "middle," and three "long" (that includes plays that didn't count due to penalties). I don't know that's Ponder's fault. I don't even know that it's the coaches' fault (though they must at least try go deep more frequently). It may simply be that they don't have the personnel for the deep pass right now. But that is a problem--the biggest problem the Vikings have right now.

Halftime adjustments: Week two

During halftime of every Vikings game this season (that's the intention, anyway), TBird and myself will post some quick thoughts about what we've seen so far in the game. It might be good. It might not. But we're going to give it a try. TBird's away for the first two games and unable to participate, so I'm flying solo today. Here's what I think I think from the first 30 minutes of the Vikings-Colts tilt:

* Is the Vikings defense ineptness on third downs come down to youthful inexperience, a lack of talent, or both? (Both, of course.)

* The tweets are saying no one is getting open for Ponder, but the Vikings need to throw more than bubble screens and slants because that only works if you are making plays by stretching the field somewhat. Too bad the Vikings don't have any WRs who can do that.

* The Colts are down to a bunch of backups on the offensive line. But when your favorite team's defensive backs and linebackers can't cover Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton and the like, it doesn't matter.

* Once again, the Vikings lack of a red zone threat shows up when they get deep in the opponent's territory. They are settling for field goals. Expect this to be a trend – even when Jerome Simpson gets back.

* Kyle Rudolph? John Carlson? Where are you guys?

* I'm not too surprised Andrew Luck is shredding the Vikings in the first half. I worried that if the Vikes pass rushers didn't get to him that he'd pick apart a young secondary that will be finding its way all season.

* Still, Vikings are running the ball well. If they can get a few throws down the field, they can turn those field goals into touchdowns. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hooray! Some progress with Percy Harvin and how the Vikings use him

Percy Harvin's playing time has been an irritant to me since last year when the Vikings decided it was a good idea to play one of their top offensive weapons (Harvin's either 1(a) or 1(b) depending on how valuable you think Adrian Peterson is) 58 per cent of the time.

As ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert points out, Harvin is too young at 24 to be on a pitch count.  He isn't the biggest guy in the league, and he plays hard and you worry about him taking too many shots and getting injured or worn down. But anybody who has watched Harvin play in his three-plus years with the Vikings knows he delivers more blows than he absorbs. Just look at how he finishes his runs (he provided plenty of examples against Jacksonville).

And I still think playing 80 per cent of the offensive snaps is too low for a player like Harvin. How many NFL teams take their best offensive weapon off the field 20 per cent of the time? I would venture hardly any. If a player like tight end Kyle Rudolph – who is asked to block linebackers and defensive ends – can play every offensive snap, as he did against Jacksonville, I don't see why Harvin can't do the same. Even if the Vikings have no intention of throwing or handing off to Harvin, the fact that he's on the field forces opponents to account for him and perhaps double team him, which opens up opportunities for a middling crew of Vikings receivers. In short, Harvin should be on the field at all times on offense. If he isn't, that's just plain dumb. 

Chris Cook needs to play better
I seem to write about Cook a lot. I think that's because I look at a guy who is listed at 6'2 and 212 pounds (basically he's the biggest corner in the NFL), I see big, talented wide receivers like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Jordy Nelson populating the NFC North and Cook looks like a potential antidote to them.

But against the Jaguars he had a hand in three plays that aided Jacksonville in scoring 17 points. We all remember the 39 yard touchdown pass he gave up to Cecil Shorts with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter – a play that looked like it would result in another blown lead and another bitter Vikings defeat. But Cook also got beat by Laurent Robinson on a 26 yard pass when Minnesota had the Jaguars in a second-and-11 situation at the Jags 21 yard line. Jacksonville would score a touchdown later in that drive. And on the Jags 17-play opening drive, the Vikings defense had Jacksonville dealing with a third-and-seven at the Jaguars 35 yard line. Blaine Gabbert hit Shorts with a short pass near the right sideline and Shorts – who is 10 pounds lighter than Cook – dragged Cook for two extra yards to get the first down and keep the drive alive. (The Jags eventually kicked a field goal.)

In the latter two plays I mentioned, there were several plays Vikings defenders failed to make that also led to those scores. So Cook doesn't take all the blame for what happened. However, he was still beat on three key plays that resulted in Jacksonville scoring three different times. He did make some nice plays – there was one pass breakup in particular I remember – but with Cook figuring to be matched up against the opposition's best receiver each week, it's a concern that he'd give up three plays like that against the Jaguars tepid receiving corps. He's better than that – or, I should say, he needs to be better than that if the Vikings defense is going to stop the better passing teams they will face in 2012.

Moss watch  
The love affair with Randy Moss never ends for me. I watched with great interest as he played his first game with the 49ers (against the hated Packers, no less). I grinned when he caught a 14 yard touchdown and then pointed to the back of his jersey as the Lambeau faithful booed him liberally. He caught four passes for 47 yards, but he only saw the field 21 times – or 31 per cent of San Francisco's offensive plays.

At 35 years of age and after a year out of football, it's understandable that Ole' 84 wasn't going to play as much as younger turks like Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams in the first game of the season. I do wonder how Moss will handle being a spare part if this is going to be how the 49ers use him throughout the season, which I suspect they will. Moss will probably be a good soldier this year, especially with Jim Harbaugh's street cred being pretty high. If San Francisco plays like the elite team they appear to be that will also help keep Randy in line. You never know with a kooky personality like Moss, though. Harbaugh might think he can control him, but really no one controls Randy Moss other than Randy Moss. 

It's going to be an interesting year in the Bay.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

National Friday League: Week 2

Vikings-Colts Preview
Vikings: 2011, 2012
Colts: 2011, 2012

I have a feeling that 2012 teams that have the Colts on their schedules will be happy to see them there early. Sometimes quarterbacks who are eventually very good suck very hard in their first rookie starts. Peyton Manning had a famously terrible start: in his first four games he threw 3 TDs, 11 INTs, and the Colts averaged 10 points per game. The '93 Patriots went 1-8 in Drew Bledsoe's first nine starts, before finishing their season with four straight wins. Alright, I could cherry pick favorable examples for the rest of the night, and we could also find plenty of examples of rookie QBs that looked immediately awesome (if we think really hard, anyway)--those are just two at the top of my head (yes, Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe spend a weird amount of time at the top of my head). By the end of the year, you know you'll be seeing Luck in a Football Night in America game review leading the Colts to a win against a playoff contender. In Week Two, when he's leading a team that isn't particularly good at anything (or wasn't last year, when they ranked poorly passing, running, stopping the pass, and stopping the run), a team like the Vikings has a much better shot.

Of course we've seen lesser QBs than Andrew Luck torch the Viking secondary; if he gets time to throw, Luck could pick apart the Viking secondary, picking up a bunch of long first downs. And that's the key to this game: if he gets time to throw.  Jared Allen, Brian Robison, and the rest of the Viking defensive line need to consistently penetrate the line of scrimmage to pressure, hit, and harass Luck. If they limit his time and force him to make decisions and make throws under duress, he could have a very poor game. The Colts struggled in pass protection against the Bears (and thus Andrew Luck struggled), and the Vikes will be on turf: it will be a disappointment if Luck gets consistent time to throw.

The Colt defense isn't very good, and may be without Dwight Freeney.  This is an opportunity for Christian Ponder to settle into the position and get the team off to a good start: the run and the pass should be available against a team that struggles against both.  A poor offensive start against Jacksonville kept the game close all along, and allowed the Jaguars to simply run their offense.  But if the Viking offense can sustain drives and score early, the Colts may be forced to limit their run calls, expose their rookie QB, and allow the fearsome Viking pass rushers to key in on attacking the quarterback.

It's best not to be too confident: if a few seconds of last week had gone differently, we might be telling ourselves the Vikings blew a home game against a terrible team and thus may well be one of the worst teams in the league, with no real shot of going on the road and getting a win. But you should know me by now. I'm not in Viking fandom for the pessimism; I'm here for the elevated hopes followed by disappointment.

Other Interesting Games
Week Two Games

Steelers-Jets. In week one, the Jets' passing offense looked good, and the Steeler defense looked bad, but I suspect based on past evidence that neither of those things will hold true for the entire season (though Stephen Hill could a big factor for the Jets' continued improvement. Steven Hill certainly won't be such a factor). The Steelers are one of the most interesting defenses to watch, just to see how Troy Polamalu affects the game.

Broncos-Falcons. Watching Peyton Manning dice the Steeler defense was like seeing Bill and Ted pull some historical figure from the past out of their phone booth and asking him to do a little demonstration for the crowd to teach them about who he was. Maybe it hasn't been that long since he last played, but it sure felt like it, and he showed all of his PeytonManningness in that game. But the Bronco defense also had some trouble getting off the field: the Steelers held the ball for 35:05 and converted 11 of 19 third downs (plus one of two fourth downs). Now they go to the house of Julio and Roddy. It will be a Monday loaded with fantasy starters and stars (Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, probably Tony Gonzalez, Willis McGahee, and some kickers), which is also a big thing you want for a Monday night game.

The Commercial Life
Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the All-State Mayhem guy usually just describing the difference between, you know, Liability and Full Coverage insurance?

Thing I read about sports in non-sports media
At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says "As everyone with an eye for football knew, Mark Sanchez is a terrific young quarterback with a good record in big games." Sure, sure, any reasonable football observer sees that. Well, except for the fact that he's below average. In 2011, he ranked 23rd in passer rating and 27th in yards per attempt. Other advanced numbers similarly show a bad quarterback. By the efficiency numbers, he's not good. And then Gopnik goes on to say "The overriding problems with the Jets involve a failure to use that young Q.B.," and suggests that the Jets are foolish to employ their run-heavy offense in a pass-heavy league. I might suggest that the reason they are trying to run the ball a lot is because their quarterback is, well, below average, and so not using him might actually be their best use of their young (and below average) QB.

Sanchez may take a leap this year and become a terrific quarterback (and yes, his playoff numbers are much better than his regular season numbers). But to suggest based on his current record that "everyone with an eye for football" knows that he's a "terrific young quarterback" is pretty odd.

Fantasy Box
I drafted a Packer this year. Greg Jennings just sort of fell to me in an auction, and I didn't really understand why at the time. He was on my team for one week: I just traded Jennings and Michael Bush for Mike Wallace. As it happens, I traded him with rational calculation of my current needs and depth, not because he is a Packer.  Still, it's not easy to root against your own fantasy players (which is why I hate starting players against the Vikes, too). Instead I now get to root for one of my favorite non-Vikings in the league. Now when that memorable question is asked, I'll know the answer.

Kick Ass Links
A look at the Vikings' game-tying drive through the all-22 film (Bleacher Report, via Football Outsiders). These all-22 shots allow for some really nice analysis.

The NFL now reveals snap counts; Football Outsiders posts them. I find this really interesting. These are the things you don't need to know and didn't know you wanted to know but discover you find fascinating. Notice my free use of the word "you."

I agree with Jared Allen: I don't think he was offsides on that sack, but was so perfect timing the snap that it appeared he must have been (PFT).

Some moron took to this post last week to claim that the extra point is nothing but ritual. Sorry. Matt Kalil blocked an extra point last week (Pioneer Press). Brian Murphy also notes that Kalil blocked six kicks in college: this will be a legitimately interesting aspect of Kalil's contribution to the team.

The guy who played Mickey on Seinfeld is a Viking fan! (Vikings.com). I enjoy this. My wife tells me that given how popular football is, and given that you'd expect roughly one out of every 32 celebrity football fans to root for the Vikes, this is not something special. Still, I like the idea that during a Viking game, the guy that played Mickey is experiencing something like what I'm experiencing. He's the guy that once yelled at Kramer for failing to realize that communism is a sensitive issue. Worlds are colliding!

When you're looking for my Christmas gift, it's the "Top 20 ridiculous Viking-themed merchandise" (City Pages).

Weekend
Have a good one, suckers. Except Colt fans.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Part three (that Ponder guy)

Note: The previous installments of post-game analysis from Sundays can be found here and here.

As I read stories this spring and summer about Christian Ponder's development and maturation and then watched him during the preseason, what I wanted to see just as much as him shredding secondaries and throwing multiple touchdown passes was how he bounced back from a tough series or a tough half.

Ponder's admitted he was hard on himself as a rookie and didn't handle adversity well when it came his way. Now handling adversity is part of the job description of an NFL quarterback, so this is a concern. If Ponder is going to give us indication that he can be THE MAN we have to see him shake off poor play and rise above it.

Well, the start of game one of the 2012 season was pretty poor for Ponder. The Vikings first four possessions included a six-play drive, a four-play drive and two three-and-outs. Ponder completed three of seven passes for 32 yards, was almost picked off (twice) and the Vikings didn't score any points. The Metrodome crowd was booing, probably pining for Joe Webb.

But what Ponder did after that was encouraging - even a little impressive. He completed 17 of his last 20 passes. And he did what we've seen guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning do for eons - lead their team to a score late in the game facing defeat and helping pull off a win. Last year, I don't think there is any way Ponder could have done that.

It's only one game, and it was one game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yes, Ponder has game-tying and game-winning drives under his belt now, but we're looking for repeatability. Still, I feel better about Ponder and his ability to solve a longstanding Vikings problem than I did four days ago. How about you?     

Monday, September 10, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Part two (likes and dislikes)

I found myself nodding in agreement as I was reading Pacifist Viking's post-game analysis yesterday of the Vikings gloriously improbably 26-23 overtime win against Jacksonville.

Looking at the big picture for this team, how big is it for Christian Ponder to take a pretty hopeless situation – down by three with 20 seconds left and the ball on the Vikings 31 yard line – and get them in position to kick the tying field goal and then drive them down the field smartly in OT for another field goal that set up the 
win? How big is it for Blair Walsh to come through and kick a clutch 55-yard field goal with no time left to tie it in his first NFL regular season game? And how big is it for a very young team to bounce back from a gut punch like that scoring toss from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts and then win it? This is the kind of victory that can set the tone for a season.

So let's bask in the win. But let's also point out some good and bad in this game.

The good

- I think we can feel reasonably good that this year's Minnesota Vikings secondary is not last year's secondary. Yesterday we saw living, breathing defensive backs and safeties that actually made plays on the ball - batting down passes and tackling (for the most part) willingly and ably. We can be concerned that Chris Cook gave up that scoring pass to Shorts with 20 seconds left and that Gabbert frequently looked like a competent NFL quarterback. However, plays were made by this unit, and it's a very young group that's finding its way. We can expect improvement from guys like Cook, Josh Robinson, Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond. That's something, at least.

- I think we can feel reasonably good about the pass protection we saw for Christian Ponder. That Ponder recovered from an extremely shaky start to the game is noteworthy, too, but I was really keying on how the reworked Vikings offensive line would do. For the most part I saw good blitz pickups, Ponder with plenty of time to throw, and holes for running backs to run through. I did not notice rookie left tackle Matt Kalil much, nor the guys he was blocking. I consider that a good thing. How do most left tackles get noticed? When they commit holding or false start penalties or when the guy they are supposed to block blows by them and sacks the quarterback. That did not happen to Kalil.

- I think we can feel reasonably good about tight end Kyle Rudolph as a legit pass catching threat. We heard all offseason that he and Ponder were working to develop the chemistry good pass catching combos typically have (think Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, or even Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall). We heard about his huge catch radius and that he was recovered from a college leg injury that hurt his explosiveness in his rookie season. And we read that he was going to be a breakout player. But we couldn't be sure a guy who caught 26 passes last year could do it. Rudolph had five catches for 67 yards on Sunday - good, not great numbers - and he short-armed that one pass in the red zone in the fourth quarter at a key time. Still, I think Rudolph will be a guy good for four-to-six catches every game, a good safety outlet for Ponder, and a guy who can make a big play for you now and then.

- And I think we can feel very, very good about Adrian Peterson's play. 17 carries? 84 yards? Two touchdowns? After shredding his left knee eight months ago? I still think there were runs where Peterson lacked that Peterson-like gear we're used to seeing where he leaves guys behind. However, the performance was much more than any of us expected. AD looks good.

The bad

- Here is what I didn't like. As the Vikings were driving for a potential game-clinching touchdown. It's second and three from the Jacksonville 13 yard line and Percy Harvin isn't on the field. I can't fathom how you don't have your top receiving threat on the field in the opponent's red zone when you need a touchdown. You think Michael Jenkins or Devin Aromashodu are going to catch that touchdown pass for you? Do the Detroit Lions take Calvin Johnson off the field when they get inside the opponent's 20? This is a hobby horse I've been on since last season. And I'll continue to be on it until the Vikings stop taking Harvin off the field in situations like this.

- I didn't like the fact the Vikings couldn't find someone to make a play as a receiver inside the Jaguars 20. This wasn't unexpected, especially with Jerome Simpson out for the first three games, but I keep hoping somebody will surprise me. No one did in this one. The search continues.

- Did tight end John Carlson even play in this game? (Actually, I know he did because he was the intended target of an incomplete pass from Ponder deep in Jaguars territory in the first half). He hurt his knee in late July and he hasn't recovered from it. The Carlson signing isn't looking good right now.     

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 26, Jaguars 23 (OT)

Vikings-Jaguars Box Score (ESPN)

In hindsight, as a fan are you sort of happier that it finished the way it did?

I know you don't want to see the opponent take the lead with 20 seconds left. I know you don't want the defense to cave once again in the fourth quarter. And if you have heart trouble, you didn't want any of that. But if the Vikings had stopped them, the Vikes would have a (very satisfying!) workmanlike home victory against a poor opponent.

Instead, we got a memorable game where we could jump around euphorically.

Instead, Christian Ponder was forced to make two critical throws to try and give the team a win--and he made those two throws. He ended up not just having an efficient, successful game (once the offense seemed to open up at the end of the second quarter), he got a clutch, come from behind win.

Instead, you now have total faith in a rookie kicker to reliably make any kick the team needs him to make.

Instead, the Vikings really had to show us something. A team that repeatedly blew leads and lost close games last year had to really work it to come up with a victory today.

Instead grown-up adult human beings got a chance to dance and scream and hoot.

Defense
The Vikes were credited with seven pass deflections in this game--and several of them were key plays that would have been completions if not for savvy and quick plays by defenders. Rookie Harrison Smith had one such deflection on third down in overtime.

Chad Greenway played an excellent game: 13 total tackles, two pass deflections, and a lot of forceful plays.

I also thought the Vikes had good performances from Josh Robinson (he stood out a few times), Letroy Guion (I feel like he was behind the line of scrimmage a good amount), and Brian Robison (though he was more forceful in the first half then seeemed to disappear).

Offense
OMG, AP! The Vikings would not have won today without a superb performance from man myth legend (and all-time franchise leading rusher) Adrian Peterson. With all the talk and speculation about his injury, I almost forgot how fun he is to watch.

The offense seemed tight early: very conservative. Once they actually opened up and were willing to wing it around a bit (and made a distinct effort to throw short to Percy Harvin, who is a wonder once he has the ball in his hands), they really did move the ball well. Christian Ponder was legitimately good today: mobile, accurate, making some tight throws and good decisions.

Week
The Vikings haven't been over .500 since the 2009 season. I don't care about quality of opponent or what's happening in the future: I'll be trailing clouds of heaven all week long.

Skol!

Halftime Adjustments: Week one edition

During halftime of every Vikings game this season (that's the intention, anyway), TBird and myself will post some quick thoughts about what we've seen so far in the game. It might be good. It might not. But we're going to give it a try. TBird's away for the first two games and unable to participate, so I'm flying solo today. Here's what I think I think from the first 30 minutes of the Vikings-Jaguars tilt:

* Vikings run defense looks weak up the middle. Letroy Guion, Kevin Williams, Jasper Brinkley must do more. It's tough to play defense when it's always second-and-four.

* Liked what I saw from Josh Robinson so far with tackling. He isn't big but sticks his nose in there and is willing. Mistral Raymond should take notes.

* How does Adrian Peterson look? A bit tentative at first, but on the TD drive we saw him running more like Adrian Peterson normally runs. Is it me though, or is that special Peterson burst not there?

* Christian Ponder was a mess before that last TD drive. Antsy in the pocket, throwing it to opposite jerseys, not accurate on his throws. We'll see if he figures it out in the second half.

* Chris Cook needs to stay on the field. Period. I don't want Robinson and Brandon Burton out there with Winfield.

* The Vikings D-line isn't getting much heat on Jags Blaine Gabbert. But some of that has to do with the down-and-distance situations. The Vikings are rotating their D-lineman as promised. Maybe it will pay dividends in the fourth quarter as Brian Robison, Jared Allen, and Kevin Williams won't be as gassed.

* Did John Carlson show up today? And, Bill Musgrave, feed the ball to Percy Harvin as much as you can. He's pretty good. 
   
 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reasons to get excited about the Vikings first game of 2012

First off, if you missed Pacifist Viking's killer National Friday League post yesterday, here it is.

OK, let's move on. Sunday is a big day for Minnesota Vikings fans. After sevens months of waiting, we get to see our football team play after turning over a good portion of its roster (which is a good thing because the team stunk in 2011). And there are few things I'm interested to observe in this game. Such as ....

Christian Ponder's development: No other issue is more important than seeing the second year starting quarterback show real, tangible progress. If Ponder improves the way you'd expect a highly drafted, highly athletic QB to, the Vikings could be much better than most experts, and fans, expect. It could go the other way, too. It's been written already that the second year is a telling one for how good a young NFL quarterback will be. By the end of the year, we should have a pretty good idea if Ponder is the answer – or not – to the Vikings long-standing QB woes. On Sunday we could be witnessing the beginning of an era of long-term prosperity for the Vikings. Or it could be the beginning of the end of Ponder's career as a starting NFL quarterback.

Adrian Peterson's recovery: Maybe Peterson will only get five carries or so, but I'm confident he will play against Jacksonville. Is he good as new after offseason surgery and rehabilitation to his shredded left knee? I think we'll be able to tell right away how much the injury and surgery has affected (or not) one of the game's great talents. I'm nervous.

Matt Kalil, et al: I think 1998 was the last time I didn't hold my breath when a Vikings QB dropped back to pass. Whether Kalil is the next Joe Thomas or the next Robert Gallery isn't the only concern along the Oline. Moving Charlie Johnson from left tackle to left guard was supposed to be a boon for Charlie and the unit, but Johnson hasn't received rave reviews for his play. Meanwhile, Brandon Fusco is set to start at right guard but the Vikings are already indicating Geoff Schwartz could take over if Fusco struggles. That doesn't sound like a vote of confidence for how Fusco has looked so far. Consistently solid line play for the first time in recent memory will help Ponder's development. I think this is going to be a much improved unit in 2012. I just don't know how long it will take to get there.

Josh Robinson, Harrison Smith, et al: Goodbye, Asher Allen. So long, Cedric Griffin. Have a seat on the bench, Jamarca Sanford. Man, am I glad those guys won't be starting in 2012. This could very well be Antoine Winfield's last year as a Viking as well. General manager Rick Spielman doesn't have much use for veterans in their 30s as he goes about retooling the roster. Anyway, Chris Cook, Mistral Raymond, Robinson and Smith – these are the players who will have to keep guys like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings and their ilk under control in 2012 and perhaps well beyond that. Sunday will give us our first look at how a younger, taller and faster Vikings secondary will function in the NFL (if this group struggles facing Blaine Gabbert and the Jags, I'm going to be depressed).

Blair Walsh: The rookie kicker didn't induce as many touchbacks on kickoffs as we thought, but Walsh did prove to be pretty reliable on his field goals during the preseason. But now the games count for real and every kick Walsh attempts will mean so much more than it did in those scrimmages. Walsh will be an important offensive weapon for the Vikings. One thing the first-team offense showed during the preseason is that they could move the ball between the 20s, but had trouble producing touchdowns in the red zone. With Ponder still young and inexperienced, with an offensive line that's got two new starters and another guy playing a new position, and with a weak wide receiving group that lacks quality red zone threats, Walsh could be kicking a lot of field goals this season.

Twitter thoughts
During the Giants-Cowboys game I tried live tweeting for the first time. The main reason I created an account (my Twitter handle: @KickassblogVike) was to market this blog a bit better and live tweeting certainly helps get the word out. But I found the process really impacted my viewing experience. As I crafted my witty (hopefully) and insightful (hopefully) tweets, I found myself constantly behind in the action, missing plays, just really unfocused. And that's OK when I'm watching a game between two teams I'm not emotionally invested in. But it won't do for a Vikings game.

So I don't know about this live tweeting while the Vikes play. I enjoy the interaction with other tweeters and it's fun reading the variety of reactions to the games. It's also kind of a buzz when someone responds to one of your tweets or retweets it (I feel so cool). But I don't know if I can multitask like that during a Vikings game. I'm too into it. I'll find out tomorrow, I guess, how it will work and if it will work.

And with all that rambling, it's time to watch some Vikings football. How do I feel about that? I'll let the New York Jets Bart Scott take it from here.