Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The 2012 NFC North draft – six months on

The Minnesota Vikings are a 5-3 team that has either a) overachieved and will surprisingly challenge for a playoff spot this season or b) is the beneficiary of a weak schedule and set to crash to earth in the final eight games.

Whatever team the Vikings might be (last week against Tampa Bay, they looked like the latter), the Vikings wouldn't be where they are right now without getting some strong play from the 2012 draft class. The consensus is the general manager Rick Speilman had a great draft – his first where he had the final say on who the Vikings selected.

Just for fun, and because the halfway mark of the season is typically the time to assess these kinds of things, I figured I'd look at the draft picks of all four NFC North teams and see who has gotten the best production out of their draft class. What follows is a listing of each draft pick for every NFC North team, plus any relevant statistics those players have compiled.

Green Bay Packers
Nick Perry LB: (1st round) 18 tackles, two sacks
Jerel Worthy DT: (2nd round) Nine tackles, two sacks
Casey Hayward DB: (2nd round) 25 tackles, four ints
Mike Daniels DT: (4th round) three tackles, one sack
Jerron McMillian S: (4th round) 10 tackles, one int
Terrell Manning LB: (5th round) one tackle, inactive for six games
Andrew Datko OT: (7th round) Cut
B.J. Coleman QB: (7th round) Cut

View from the peanut gallery:  Hayward could be a future star.  With a nose for the ball, he fits right in as a balhawk on a Dom Capers defense that wants turnovers. Perry is the only starter of the bunch, but Hayward, Worthy, McMillan and Daniels have all played ample snaps. The new blood is one reason why the Packers have the eighth-best defense as per Football Outsiders' latest DVOA rankings one year after the Pack had the 25th ranked defense according to DVOA. Overall, Packers GM Ted Thompson has done a pretty good job restocking the defensive cupboard.

Chicago Bears 
Shea McClellin DE: (1st round) eight tackles, 2.5 sacks
Alshon Jeffery WR: (2nd round) 14 catches, 184 yards, 13.1 ypc, 2 TDs, out with a broken hand until week 11
Brandon Hardin S: (3rd round) Placed on injured reserve during the preseason with a neck injury
Evan Rodriguez FB: (4th round) A converted tight end, Rodriguez serves the same role as Vikings fullback Jerome Felton - battering ram who never touches the ball
Isaiah Frey CB: (6th round) Cut
Greg McCoy CB: (7th round) Cut

View from the peanut gallery:  McClellin has been fine as a guy who comes in on passing downs for the Bears. Jeffrey was flashing big play potential until he broke his right hand against Jacksonville. The rest of the draft isn't really worth writing about. But remember the Bears used two third round picks (one of them a 2012 draft pick) to trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall. All he's done is catch 50 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns. Not many third-round draft picks will give you that kind of production.

Detroit Lions
Riley Reiff OT: (1st round) Has mostly served as a blocking tight end
Ryan Broyles WR: (2nd round) six catches, 88 yards, two TDs
Bill Bentley CB: (3rd round) 15 tackles
Ronnell Lewis LB: (4th round) two tackles
Tahir Whitehead LB: (5th round) four tackles
Chris Greenwood CB: (5th round)
Jonte Green CB: (6th round) four tackles, one sack
Travis Lewis LB: (7th round) one tackles

View from the peanut gallery: No Detroit draft picks have made an impact so far. Reiff hasn't been able to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus or right tackle Gosder Cherilus. Broyles looked decent the past two games, but now the Lions have traded for WR Mike Thomas, which could cut into Broyles' playing time. Bentley is currently injured and was last seen being flagged for two PI penalties against the Vikings Jerome Simpson. The other five picks are just guys right now.

Minnesota Vikings
Matt Kalil OT: (1st round) Starter since day one of training camp
Harrison Smith S: (1st round) 45 tackles, one int, one forced fumble, one TD
Josh Robinson CB: (3rd round) 31 tackles, one int
Jarius Wright WR: (4th round) Inactive for all eight games
Rhett Ellison TE: (4th round) four catches, 56 yards 
Greg Childs WR: (4th round) Placed on injured reserve during training camp after tearing patellar tendons in both legs.
Robert Blanton S: (5th round) six tackles
Blair Walsh K: (6th round) 17-18 on field goals, four-for-four from 50 yards or more
Audie Cole LB: (7th round)
Trevor Guyton DT: (7th round) Cut

View from the peanut gallery: Probably not much need to go over what these 10 picks have done (or haven't done) for the Vikings. The only disappointing picks here are Wright and Childs – two rookie WRs who haven't improved a very weak crew of Vikings receivers (Childs because of injury and Wright because of performance).  

If I had to judge which NFC North's team's draft has been the least productive after eight games, the Lions win hands down. Some of their rookies might help Detroit win on Sunday's in the future, but they aren't helping right now.

The Bears draft comes in ahead of Detroit's because Shea McClellin actually plays a lot for a deep Bears defensive line. Plus, Chicago used draft chips to acquire Brandon Marshall.

Green Bay's draft has provided strong returns for a defense that needed an influx of talent. Hayward has the most notable stat – the four interceptions – yet fellow rookies Worthy, Daniels, Perry and McMillan have all helped make the Packers defense a better one in 2012.

However, I still would give the Vikings draft the edge over Green Bay's right now (perhaps this is where my Vikings bias gets in the way). I'd say Hayward and Smith cancel each other out - in terms of their level of play, I realize they play different positions. The same holds true for Robinson and McMillan. Kalil's pass blocking alone has greatly improved a sorry Vikings offensive line and I think he's been more of an asset to Minnesota than Worthy and Perry have been to the Packers. The pick that tips the draft in Minnesota's favor for me is Blair Walsh. With his kickoffs that lead to touchbacks and his accurate and strong leg, the Vikings special teams has taken a huge step forward in 2012 compared to 2011.

The Packers have five 2012 draft picks contributing to the team's 5-3 record. The Vikings have five contributing to their 5-3 start (I'll include Ellison in the five). I just think the Vikes have gotten a bit more out of their five.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

As long as Peterson and Harvin stay healthy, Vikings have a shot at a playoff berth

Just took a gander at the NFL's individual statistical leaders as another weekend of football wraps up.

Of note to Vikings watchers is that Adrian Peterson leads the league in rushing, 10 months after wrecking his left knee, and Percy Harvin is tied with Wes Welker for the lead league in catches. (Chad Greenway also leads the league in tackles, but I don't consider that stat to be very useful in determining how well a defensive player is playing. It might mean Greenway's making a lot of tackles three or four yards beyond the line of scrimmage – or worse).

We're all bummed out by the Vikings performance against the Buccaneers Thursday night and we're worried about what that performance means for the Vikings final eight games of the season. But as long as Peterson and Harvin remain healthy, the Vikings will have a good shot at being competitive this season because they are among the best at what they do in the NFL at two important positions.

On the other hand, one reason the Vikings will have a hard time building on their strong first half of the season is how bad the wide receiver depth is beyond Harvin. Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton have 43 catches, 546 yards and two TD receptions combined – and the bulk of that is coming from Jenkins (24 catches, 287 yards, 1 TD).

If the Vikings flame out in the second half of the season, the lack of production from Minnesota's WRs will be one of the main reasons why. Quarterback Christian Ponder just doesn't have enough guys who can get open. As ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero writes in his tape review of the loss to Tampa Bay, it might be time to finally activate rookie fourth round pick Jarius Wright to add some much needed speed to this group and to shake things up a bit. He can't be any worse than what the Vikings have been running out there.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Coming Off The Ledge: When 5-3 feels like 3-5

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, click here.

The Vikings performance Thursday night brought back the worst memories of some of Brad Childress' Viking teams – poor quarterback play, wide receivers that can't get open, pass protection issues, questionable offensive play calling and a defense that is repeatedly gashed (in the Chilly era, it was always the pass defense that failed miserably. Against the Bucs Thursday, it was the run defense).

The Vikings needed to win this game badly. With a second half schedule that is full of playoff-caliber teams, every win in the easy part of their schedule is precious if they want to secure a playoff spot. They also needed Christian Ponder to show he really is getting better after a brutal game against Arizona. And they needed to get back to the solid tackling that had made the defense such a surprisingly stout unit early in the season. They failed on all accounts. This loss was so bad on so many levels, it feels like the Vikings season is lost.

Hold on, here. Did I just write about the Vikings making the playoffs? Wasn't this team 3-13 last year? Weren't they picked to be one of the league's worst by just about everybody who follows the NFL prior to the season? Didn't all of us Viking fans agree 2012 was a rebuilding year and that any wins they got would be gravy? That we'd be happy with the little victories? Measuring success in terms of the progress and improvement of so many of the team's young players? And now I'm whining about a team that's 5-3 midway through the season? I need to get a grip. 

Predicting wins and losses based on what your opponent's did the previous season is usually a fool's errand. But when I looked at the Vikings first half schedule, I thought seven of the eight games were winnable. I also thought they wouldn't win them all, and they didn't. But they did go 4-3 in those games (I never consider a road game against Detroit unwinnable, by the way) and they won the only game I didn't think they had much of a chance to – against the 49ers. Overall, 5-3 is about as good of a start as I could have hoped for the 2012 Minnesota Vikings.

But the bar has been raised, and I can't stop thinking that a playoff berth would be nice after watching two seasons of lousy Vikings football. As has been pointed out a lot, the second half schedule is very tough – four games in total against the Bears and Packers, plus road games against Seattle, St. Louis and Houston which will be very difficult. However, just as the Vikings lost games we probably felt they should have won (against the Colts in week two, and Washington in week six), there will be games the Vikings win in the second half that we won't expect them to. Will that be enough to make them a playoff team? I don't know.

The beating the Vikings took at the hands of Tampa Bay Thursday night – and it was a beating – is soul crushing because our hopes have been raised by a surprising 5-2 start. However, this is still a young team. It looks like it's going in the right direction. And it's given us more smiles, thrills and good vibes in eight games than we experienced the previous two seasons combined. The team has set itself up so the games in November and December will mean something. That's more than many of us expected from this Vikings team.

Observations and opinions from the first half of 2012

What the Vikings must figure out in the next eight games: It's not the defense's recent tackling woes – while worrisome, that's correctable and the Vikings have shown they can tackle well. It's not the lack of a receiving threat besides Percy Harvin (we knew the Vikings had no real answer to this weakness in 2012 and were going to have to make do with what they had. And no, I don't think they're trading for Dwayne Bowe). What really needs to be corrected is quarterback Christian Ponder's head.

Ponder looks like a mess right now. He's getting rid of the ball too quickly, like he's expecting bad things to happen before they actually do. And the inaccuracy we've been seeing on some of those basic throws - like the screens to Harvin or the dumpoffs to running backs and tight ends - are the telltale signs of a player who is seeing ghosts. So is his habit of drifting to his left or right in the pocket as soon as he smells some pressure. Like the Vikings tackling woes the past couple of games, this stuff is correctable. However, if Ponder doesn't believe it's correctable or his head is too messed up with doubt and worry, he's not going to be able to focus on the fundamental things that's he's been horrible at.I believe Ponder's got the arm strength, athletic ability, and work ethic to be a successful NFL quarterback. The mental side of the game is what is holding him back.

The 2012 free agent class blows: During the offseason, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman signed a handful of low-risk/high reward free agents. Through eight games that class has looked more like a low-risk/no reward group. Tight end John Carlson doesn't look like he can play at all. Cornerback Zack Bowman was cut before the season started. And while you can say injuries have prevented guard Geoff Schwartz and wide receiver Jerome Simpson (perhaps throw Carlson in here, too) from making an impact, I care about results, and the results have been meager. At this point fullback Jerome Felton is the only free agent signing who has performed up to expectations.

The 2012 draft class doesn't blow: As bad as Spielman's free agent signings have been, his draft picks have been the opposite. The Vikings are getting consistently good play from left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, cornerback Josh Robinson and kicker Blair Walsh.Tight end Rhett Ellison has been a pleasant surprise. Audie Cole and Robert Blanton have contributed on special teams when they've been asked to. With the black hole that is the Vikings WR unit, it sucks that Greg Child's patella tendons exploded during training camp and that Jarius Wright apparently isn't good enough to wear a Vikings uniform on Sundays. But I don't think Childs and Wright were going to greatly elevate the Vikes passing game this season anyway.

Biggest surprise: I'd say safety Jamarca Sanford. He's always been a good special teamer, but the extensive look I got of him as a starting NFL safety in 2011 suggested "career backup" was going to be stamped on his CV. I think most Vikings fans would agree he's played pretty well. That's partly because he's got better players around him this year than last year (Benny Sapp! Cedric Griffin! Woof!). But Sanford can hit and he knows the system. He's an improved player. Not a star player, but the Vikings don't need a star at strong safety.

Biggest Disappointment: For now, that's easy - John Carlson. But if Christian Ponder keeps playing like he has the past two games, I'll have a new candidate by December.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Coming Off the Ledge: Buccaneers 36, Vikings 17

There will be a lot to complain about regarding tonight’s loss (is this another early season defensive mirage that disappears as the season goes along?), but I’ll narrow my focus here.

The Vikings’ offensive problem tonight was an inability to pass protect. Christian Ponder rarely had a chance to step into a pocket and clearly make reads. He was getting chased and hit on just about every dropback, which significantly hindered the Vikes’ ability to pass. Ponder did not look good tonight, but I’m not sure he had an opportunity to look good. Matt Kalil had some tough moments.

And I think the pass protection problem is tied to the Vikings’ glaring weakness at wide receiver. The Vikings have no deep threat to beat a one on one coverage, so tonight the Bucs risked nothing by blitzing heavy. There was no Viking that could really threaten to make a deep sideline catch, and screen plays to the running back aren’t really the Vikings’ game. So how do the Vikes beat a blitz in obvious passing situations? They can't. And yet the Bucs could get to Ponder with a four man rush too.

I don’t know if Ponder is good (it is deep completions that make my heart pitter patter), but I don’t know that he has the chance to show it when his receivers can’t get open and the line can’t block. And a combination of weaknesses makes the Viking offense severely limited going forward this season.

National Thursday League, Week 8

These Thursday games can really mess with the patterns of autumn. I have a Sunday ritual, and I suspect many of you do too. On Seinfeld, Kramer and Newman once argued about whether Tuesdays or Wednesdays have a feel. Well, Thursday has a feel, and it usually doesn't involve watching my favorite football team.  So I'm making new Thursday game ritual, one heavily featuring donuts.

Vikings-Buccaneers Preview

The Bucs are kind of good.

At 2-4, they've actually outscored their opponents. All four of their losses have been by seven points or fewer. They can do some things that could hurt the Vikings: they can stop the run (they're giving up a league-leading 3.1 yards per rush) and they can throw deep (Vincent Jackson averages 21.7 yards per catch, Mike Williams 19.4).

Get ready to be tired and emotionally drained Friday morning: I think this game is going down to the wire. These teams are closer together in talent than their records suggest, and neither team really appears built to blow out a competent opponent. The teams will probably be sloppy and sluggish, as teams tend to be with three days in between games. Your emotions will be pushed up and down numerous times over three and a half hours, and at the end you will either feel utter relief or crushing disappointment (there are no other choices, I'm afraid).

Adrian Peterson
There comes a point when it is easy to take an athlete for granted. When a basketball player averages 30 points per game, a single 30 point game itself seems pretty unimpressive: for that player it is an average game, after all. And I realize now that years from now I'll regret it that I took Adrian Peterson for granted. Even as I know I'm doing it, it is sometimes hard to appreciate the beauty of his performance.

There are great running backs in history that I never really enjoyed watching. I can't, for example, recall any single play from Ladanian Tomlinson's career, despite the stellar production (the plays that stick in my head are all those passes he threw, actually). But there are other running backs whose very movements are poetic. Barry Sanders. Gale Sayers. And Adrian Peterson is now in that league.

Adrian Peterson finds that hole and cuts, and bursts, and twists, and speeds, and powers through with such a familiar vibe that each amazing run blends in with the others. When you look at a single play, you might be awe-struck, but the accumulation of those plays can overwhelm the memory. It's something like Shakespeare's sonnets. When you consider them as a whole, you know you are looking at an amassed collection of some of the greatest flourishes ever produced in the English language. But if you pick one of those sonnets out and focus our attention on it, you are overcome by the intensity of the genius at work. A single sonnet by Shakespeare can overtake you with its creative energy, destroy your sensibilities, take away your belief that anything else could be this good. And that's Adrian Peterson right now. If you pick a single one of his brilliant runs, you will see creative genius at work.

So appreciate what we're seeing. This is a player we'll be telling kids and grandkids about.

The Commercial Life
You know that commercial where those guys show up to a party and there are all these women dancing, but then all the KFC chicken is gone, so they leave the party to go to KFC and eat chicken? During Sunday's football game, this happened:

PV: Those guys are fools.
Son of PV: Why?
PV: Because they can get chicken anytime.
Son of PV: [wild laughter]

I don't know if he knew why he thought it was funny.

Fantasy Box
If you want to double the fun of waiver claims, do yourself a favor: get your league to switch to blind auction bidding for free agents. It's good on every level. For one thing, you get to spend more time thinking about your own roster moves, and isn't thinking too much about your team really what fantasy football is all about? Second, when those Yahoo assigns players to your roster, it is like a little Christmas. Every Wednesday morning I get up and check to see what gifts I've been granted by the Spirit of Fantasy Football. And finally, you get the joys of checking to see who lost out on bids. Isn't seeing your friends lose at things really what fantasy football is about?

Kick-Ass Links
Chris Kluwe gets a big profile in the City Pages.

So now I understand: Arian Foster is a hipster who happens to be an excellent running back.

I mean, don't forget to go to work and stuff. Then have a good weekend after that.  The Vikes don't have a Sunday game, so the weekend is just a bit more open. So have a good one, suckers. Except Packer fans.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Does race still factor into college player scouting reports?

White guys can't jump. Nor can they run or lift weights or do the shuttle cone drill - at least not as well as their black counterparts.

That is agent Jack Bechta's thesis in this post, where he argues that white players tend to have their athletic ability downplayed, and their smarts and work ethic, overplayed by pro scouts whose job it is to evaluate college prospects heading into the annual NFL draft.

It's a fair point. And I can think of two Vikings players who fit the mold perfectly: rookie safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Brian Robison.

In Smith's case, the "white bias" didn't affect his draft status. He was drafted in the first round, 29th overall, and the Vikings traded back into the first round to ensure they got him. But in a review of the Vikings draft, former National Football Post college scouting guy, Wes Bunting, said Smith had some "tightness" in his hips and didn't get "in and out of his breaks" in pass coverage very well. And in TBird's prophetic rundown of Smith as a player the Vikings might pick with their second draft chip (he also pegged Josh Robinson as a likely Viking draft target), there is mention of scouts complaining that Smith played "too stiff", which is another way of saying he'd suck in pass coverage. Smith's strengths were supposed to be his smarts, his toughness and his tackling.

Well, Smith's proven to be a quick study, and his dustups with Percy Harvin in training camp and his post-play pushing matches with opponents this year show he's a tough customer. But remember his pass breakup on the deep throw to Calvin Johnson in the win against Detroit? And how about his weaving through traffic and outrunning the Cardinals' offensive players for that critical pick six on Sunday? Those weren't plays a stiff safety should make. But Smith made them, and he's been making them all year. So even for a first round pick, scouts underestimated the Notre Dame product's athletic skills. Could it be because he's a white boy?

Robison is an even better case that there is a lot of truth in what Bechta's writes. Taken in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft (102nd pick overall), Robison was, and is, described as a try-hard, high motor player who makes plays on pure hustle. But hustle will only get you so far. You need talent to make plays in the NFL. When I watch Robison play, I see a guy that not only works extremely hard, but has great speed to beat his blocker on the edge, and the quickness and strength to stop the run when required. In short, he's one hell of an athlete.

In his sixth year, and only in his second year as a starter, Robison (25.5 career sacks) has outplayed the vast majority of the defensive ends  (many of whom happen to be black) that were drafted ahead of him. That list includes Jamaal Anderson (8th pick overall, 7.5 career sacks), Adam Carriker (13th pick overall, nine career sacks), Jarvis Moss (17th pick overall, six career sacks), Tim Crowder (56th pick overall, 10.5 career sacks), Quentin Moses (65th pick overall, 3.5 career sacks) and Ray McDonald (97th pick overall, 11 career sacks).

Only Anthony Spencer (26th overall, 24.5 career sacks), LaMarr Woodley (46th overall, 50 career sacks), and Charles Johnson (83rd overall, 34 career sacks) could be viewed as better players than Robison at this stage of their respective careers (and I know Woodley and Spencer have played linebacker in the pros, but they were listed as DEs coming out of college). Sacks aren't a complete picture of a defensive end's worth. But even if you consider other factors – tackles, quarterback hurries, tipped passes, tackles for a loss, it's clear Robison deserved to be drafted higher than he was.

This post isn't picking a racial fight or trying to make any grand social commentary. I just find it interesting how the perception of what an athlete should be based on his skin color continues to influence draft decisions. Let's hope Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and his scouting staff aren't running with the NFL herd in this case. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven Part Three: The Christian Ponder Performance

To read Pacifist Viking's take on the Viking's 21-14 win, click here.
To read TBird's analysis from the 40 yard line at the Metrodome, click here
You can follow TBird on Twitter as well. Pacifist Viking has a Twitter account, too, but he doesn't tweet much. I do tweet a lot. I just don't know if that's a good thing.  

Christian Ponder The Bad was back in full force Sunday at the Metrodome. I hope it was a cameo.

Vikings fans know the signs all too well after watching him play during his rookie season. Skittishness in the pocket at the first sign of pressure. Poor throwing mechanics leading to inaccurate passes. Boneheaded decision-making. Confidence that evaporated quickly. All of this was on display Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome.

Is this the real Christian Ponder? During the first four games, Ponder was living something of a charmed life for a quarterback. He made some poor throws that were dropped by the Vikings opponents and should have been interceptions. Yet he still played confidently. He made quick decisions on where to throw the ball (sometimes a bit too quick). He threw with conviction. He didn't hold the ball too long. He appeared to be comfortable and in control of an offense that wasn't asking too much of him. In short, he was looking like a competent NFL quarterback at his worst moments, and like a very good NFL quarterback at his best moments. Vikings fans can live with that from Ponder.

What fans - and the Vikings coaching staff - can't live with is what happened to Ponder against Arizona. ESPN's Kevin Seifert wrote on Sunday that Ponder's recent poor play isn't preventing the Vikings from winning. But if he continues to play like he did against the Cardinals, it won't be long before he does. Thursday night's game against Tampa Bay will be the most important in Ponder's career, I believe. He has to erase the stink from his performance against the Cardinals and prove to his teammates, and himself, that he's a quarterback capable of playing a sizable role in a Vikings victory rather than a player the Vikings win in spite of.

In his rookie season, Ponder's play got worse as the season went on, particularly after a three interception outing on the road against Detroit. We read during the offseason that Ponder – by all accounts a hard-working, smart-as-a-whip young man – would learn from those experiences, wouldn't beat himself up so much after making mistakes and wouldn't let one bad play affect the next play. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of player I saw on Sunday.

I suspect Vikings offensive coordinator Musgrave will dial up – perhaps even more than usual – a lot of safe, easy throws early in the Tampa Bay game so Ponder can get his mojo back. I just hope that Ponder shows us against the Buccaneers, and beyond, that he's more than just a player coaches have to "put in a position to succeed" or scheme for to simply manage games. This is the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft we have here. That is a draft position where you are supposed to get game-changers, not game managers.

I wouldn't say Ponder looks like a game-changing talent. But I've seen signs that he can be a game-winning talent.Thursday night against Tampa Bay, Ponder must return to the quarterback he was during the first five games of the season, not the quarterback we saw Sunday against Arizona..      

Monday, October 22, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Thoughts From the 40 Yard Line

Pacifist Viking's take on the game is here

I had the chance to go down to the Metrodome on Sunday and take in my first Vikings’ game in years. And, thanks to a good friend, I had a great vantage point to watch the Vikings’ offense “win” a game in the most incompetent way since they returned their way to victory over the Giants in 2005. Some thoughts from the 40 yard line (told you they were good seats):
  • I wrote about this last week, but I think it was even more glaring this week—the Vikings do not throw the ball deep (and by deep, I mean 15 yards or more). This week, only one of Christian Ponder’s passes traveled 15 or more yards in the air, resulting in a pass interference penalty. That pass to Jerome Simpson was a great play call, with both him and Percy Harvin running deep routes on 2nd and 2, guaranteeing that one of them (Simpson, in this case) would get one on one coverage. From that point on, the Vikings didn’t throw the ball very deep and the Cardinals back seven had no problem clogging up the short and mid-range passing game. No passing game can be successful without the threat of deep (or even medium range) routes and a lot of the Vikings’ problems stemmed from the inability of the receivers to get open against a Cardinals defense that wasn’t worried about receivers going deep on them.
  • Speaking of atrocious passing games, John Skelton is not very good. I’m not complaining, but it seemed likely that a competent quarterback would have led the Cardinals to a victory yesterday. Also, a competent quarterback would likely not have hit a cheerleader in the back with a pass that was actually meant for a wide receiver (and he didn’t hit a cheerleader in the row next to the field, but one in the second row from the field). Luckily for the Vikings, the Cardinals did not have a competent quarterback.
  • Antoine Winfield should get a lot of credit for the play he made to shut down a boot leg and stop Skelton on 4th & 2 in the third quarter. That was the closest the Cardinals came to scoring in the second half until their final touchdown, and without Winfield’s great play, the Cardinals probably would have gotten the third touchdown they needed. However, I still have no idea what Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Miller where thinking when they called that play. The Cardinals’ running backs averaged 5.29 yards a carry and gained 2 or more yards on 71% of their carries (17 of 24). Despite the obvious success the Cardinals’ running game was having, Whisenhunt and Miller decided to put the ball in the hands of John Skelton, who, as I noted earlier, hit a cheerleader with an errant pass. And then, because they apparently wanted to ensure Skelton was unsuccessful, they called the bootleg to Antoine Winfield’s side of the field, all but guaranteeing that Skelton would not only fail to convert the first down, but that he would be on the receiving end of a big hit from one of, if not the best tackling cornerback in the NFL. Then again, when you only gain 48 yards passing, it’s always nice to have Skelton, Whisenhunt and Miller in charge of your opponent’s offense.
  • So, everyone feels even more contrite about doubting the Vikings’ decision to trade up and draft Harrison Smith, right?
  • If Adrian Peterson isn’t at full strength yet, as he claims, then it’s safe to say there’s going to be another game or two this year that he takes over and wills the Vikings to victory. Both offensive touchdown drives featured multiple long runs from Peterson, including his masterful 13 yard touchdown run, and another run where he ran into the pile, emerged from the pile, was once again swallowed up by defenders and still moved that pile further down the field. The Cardinals may have beaten the Vikings with a better quarterback, but the outcome would definitely have been different if the Vikings’ running back wasn’t Adrian Peterson. How many running backs in the history of the NFL could get 153 yards on 23 carries when they weren’t 100% healthy? Not very many. It’s good to have Peterson back, even if he (somehow) still has a little ways to go to get back to full strength.
  • One last reason to marvel at Adrian Peterson—he was the only player on the team that delivered a hit as hard as Winfield’s on Skelton. Paris Lenon won’t admit it, but he knows he will never tackle anyone as hard as Peterson tackled him.
  • Kevin Williams chews gum while playing football. In related news, Kevin Williams plays without a mouth guard. This has apparently never been a problem for Kevin Williams. The word “tough” is an accurate way to describe Kevin Williams.
  • Finally, if you're looking for more Vikings' content in even fewer characters, you can follow me on Twitter. Don't forgot to follow Darren as well.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 21, Cardinals 14

Vikings-Cardinals Box Score (ESPN)

The optimist: a workmanlike victory

Special Teams
Do not overlook a major reason the Vikings won this game: they held the Arizona Cardinals (and Patrick Peterson) to seven yards on punt returns. Seven yards! It's always good if you hold the team to a number that proper grammar requires you to spell out. And considering how often the Vikings punted (seven times) and from where they were regularly punting (regularly deep in their own territory), the containment of Patrick Peterson gave the Vikings a major field position victory. This was absolutely necessary to winning the game: considering how little the Vikings were able to do offensively in the second half, if the Cardinals were able to get big punt returns for good field position, I think Arizona would have won.

The Vikings had seven sacks, including three from Brian Robison, who was dominant. Antoine Winfield was monstrous tackling today. Harrison Smith continues to make the Vikings look smart for trading into the first round to get him. The Cardinals went 5-14 on third down and 0-2 on fourth down.  For some reason LaRod Stephens-Howling had 149 yards from scrimmage, was is...offputting...but I keep picturing Ken Whisenhunt sounding like Superintendent Chalmers yelling at Principle Skinner. "SKELTON!!!!"

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson followed great blocking and his own superb instincts en route to 153 yards. There were great holes opened up for him, and Peterson hit those holes with burst, with agility, with vision.  With no support from the passing game, Peterson kept on gashing the Arizona defense. It's the best he's looked in a long time.

The pessimist: a lucky win against a lousy team

You have to be able to pass the ball.
 The ineptitude of the Viking passing game today was evident to our eyes, but it is even uglier in the numbers. Christian Ponder averaged 3.4 yards per attempt on his way to 58 #*%&ing yards, and managed two terrible interceptions. The inability to pass the ball at all was a big reason the Vikes went 1-10 on third down and held the ball for a mere 24:55. If not for a heroic performance by the defense, the Vikes would have blown this game because they could not throw the ball for anything. This really appeared like a team effort of ineptitude: the offensive line struggled to pass block, receivers struggled to get open, and Christian Ponder struggled to look even modestly competent with the ball.

Don't hesitate: if you're going to do something, #*%&ing do it.
If you get the ball back with less than a minute before halftime, there are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether to try for points or run out the clock. But for *@#! sake, there's no reason to consider trying to get one first down just for the hell of it. Either run out the clock or go for broke, but don't mess around with timeouts and dink and dunk shit just to try get to your own 30 with five seconds left. The Cards missed the field goal, but this was terrible game management.

The optimist in me usually wins. I like watching the Vikings get seven sacks. I like seeing the Vikes play perfect coverage on punt returns. I like Adrian Peterson running like the best running back in the league. I like 5-2.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

National Friday League, Week 7

Vikings-Cardinals Preview
2012 Vikings
2012 Cardinals

The Vikes have to win this game.

The Vikings have been a terrific home team this year, particularly on defense. Their two worst defensive performances (and losses) were road games. If the Vikes are a playoff team, I think it will be by going something like 7-1 at home and picking up two to three road wins where they can. There are good teams still on the schedule, and they can't blow a home game to the Cardinals. Coming off a bad road loss, they need to win this game to reclaim their season rather than to settle into mediocrity.

And when I look at the Cardinals' roster and stats, I can't see how their offense is going to move the ball in Thunderdome this weekend. They can't run the ball. They have a crappy quarterback. They have few pass catching threats. Their numbers are poor in every way. If I were coaching the Cardinals (I am aware I am not), my offensive game plan would be to throw the ball 50 yards downfield to Larry Fitzgerald at least once a possession. On, say, eight or nine possessions, they should complete two or three of those, right? Maybe one or two pass interference penalties? That could get them to somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 points, and then they have to rely on their defense, which has been good.

I share TBird41's concern about the Vikings' lack of downfield passing, but oddly enough, I think it is possible that the Vikings' unique offense nullifies the impact of shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson.* If the Viking offense relied on getting the ball to a conventional WR used conventionally, the Cards could stick Peterson on that guy and largely limit his production. But is a shutdown corner effective at stopping a WR who regularly lines up in the backfield, catches a lot of screen passes with blockers set up for him, and generally does his work around the line of scrimmage and gains yards after the catch? If you are an objective observer of football execution and strategy, it will be fascinating to see if the Cards cover Harvin with Peterson and how effective it will be.

Ultimately, the thing that gives the Vikes the chance to win is 51.7, 13-18, and 64.2.  Those are John Skelton's career completion percentage, TD-INT numbers, and passer rating. He sucks. Failure to beat the Arizona Skeltons will be a major failure indeed. The Vikes certainly can lose if they have several harmful turnovers--but they shouldn't. If they play a clean game, avoiding fumbles, interceptions, and big special team returns, they should be able to control this squad.

*If I recall correctly, Adrian Peterson ran directly over Peterson on all three of his touchdown runs in their matchup last year.  I remember watching each time and thinking "that guy is having a rough, rough day." Of course a CB's trouble tacking a RB in his rookie year has little to show about whether he is a dominant coverage CB in his second year, which by many accounts I've read, he is. We'll see if Peterson still struggles to tackle and allows Percy Harvin to gain the sorts of after-the-catch yards he does.

Other Interesting Games
Week 7 Schedule

Ravens-Texans. 5-1 v. 5-1. The elite fantasy RBs.

Titans-Bills. I don't care who wins this game. You don't care who wins this game. Why is it interesting? Because it is fantasy gold! The Bills rank 31st in points allowed, 31st in yards allowed, 32nd in rush yards allowed, 32nd in rush yards per attempt allowed, 31st in rush TDs allowed, 20th in pass yards allowed, and 26th in pass TDs allowed. The Titans rank 32nd in points allowed, 28th in yards allowed, 24th in rush yards allowed, 24th in rush TDs allowed, 29th in pass yards allowed, and 26th in pass TDs allowed. If you skimmed over all of that information, you still saw a bunch of really high numbers, including 31s and 32s. Start your Bills and Titans, people!

Steelers-Bengals. Maybe you didn't notice that A.J. Green has become the best wide receiver in the NFL, but it has happened. And this game featured teams ranking 7th and 8th in passing yards is precisely what a Sunday night game should feature. I'm looking forward to around 80 pass attempts.

Bears-Lions. As I was looking at some football cards recently, I came across a Jake Plummer card and thought "he sort of looks like Jay Cutler." And then I realized: he sort of is Jay Cutler!

Fantasy Box: I think I read somewhere that the sun shines on the wise and foolish alike.
Last week, Shonn Greene rushed 32 times for 161 yards and 3 TDs. If you started him, I assume you are either in a deep league, or your RB situation is in dire straits for this week and you could find no other solution (and I mean no other solution, not even waiver wire replacement level stuff). Maybe he was a flex option. If that's not the case, you were just foolish.

Going into the game, Greene was averaging 49 yards from scrimmage per game and had scored one touchdown. He was averaging 3.2 yards per rush. He hadn't topped 50 yards from scrimmage or scored a touchdown in a game since week one. He plays for an inept offense. Not only should he have been nowhere near your starting lineup, but he was droppable. By any reasonable assessment, you should find any viable alternative to Shonn Greene as your fantasy starter. But because fantasy football is a lot of striving after the wind, if you were foolish enough to start him Week 6, you were well-rewarded.

Have a good one, suckers. Except Packer and Cardinal fans.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

With Jerome Simpson, the Vikings can't lose what they never had

The football gods have been pretty good to the Minnesota Vikings so far this season.

They are 4-2 and duking it out with Chicago for first place in the NFC North, with impressive victories over the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions. They are getting some very good play out of their 2012 draft class. Second year quarterback Christian Ponder is showing the kind of development that makes him look like he could be the long-term answer for the Vikings at the position. It's been pretty quiet as far as locker room or off-the-field issues. And they haven't been hit by any major injuries.

But wide receiver Jerome Simpson is doing his best to break up this tranquility, and today he let it be known that he's still not happy he was deactivated for the Washington game, and money is at the root of his unhappiness. 

A few points I'd like to touch on here:

1. Head coach Leslie Frazier is handling this very well. Simpson wants to play badly and he's no doubt lobbying Frazier hard about this (so is Simpson's agent, probably). Frazier let Simpson play against Tennessee when the leg/back injury first flared up and Simpson couldn't get anything done. Frazier isn't about to let that happen again - even if Simpson is pissed at his head coach for costing him nearly $60,000 last week. Frazier's thinking of the team here, not about Simpson's feelings or his pocketbook. And that's the way it should be. The Vikings can't be dressing guys who can't help them win football games on Sundays (so why are they dressing John Carlson, you ask? That's a post for another day, I think).

2. If Simpson has a back injury, as ESPN 1500's Tom Pelissero has said (Simpson continues to insist it's a calf injury and nothing is wrong with his back), don't expect him to play much again this season. The Vikings say they are going to try to get Simpson right through treatment. But a back is a delicate thing, and it's not something you can play through – or would even want to play through. I suspect the treatment the Vikings are giving Simpson won't help much and he'll be having season-ending surgery sooner rather than later.

3. If that happens, we'll probably read about how Simpson's absence will be a big loss to the Vikings passing game. Theoretically, that's true. But the Vikings are 4-2 and they've scored 20-plus points in every game this season with little help from Simpson. He's basically only played one game, the 20-13 win against Detroit, and it's impossible to say what Simpson can do for this offense. The unit sure could use a wide receiver to stretch the field and take some pressure off of Percy Harvin. Simpson just hasn't been able to show he's the guy who can do that because he's barely been on the field. And the Vikings have learned to do without him. Losing Simpson for the rest of the year might even end up being a benefit if it forces Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to send Harvin on more deep passing routes. I know, I know. That's just crazy talk, isn't it?  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Facing Skelton instead of Kolb a break for the Vikings, but they have to score, too

By now I'm sure the majority of Vikings fans know John Skelton, not Kevin Kolb, will be the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals when they play the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday.

Two weeks ago, after watching Kolb take a beating in a loss against St. Louis, I wrote that he might not be in one piece when the Cards met the Vikings on Oct. 21 at the Metrodome. That's turned out to be the case.

Skelton is a mystery to me. I've never seem him play. But his careers stats say a great deal and suggest the Vikings defense will be facing the lesser quarterback this week – even though Skelton won the Arizona starting QB job out of training camp only to hurt his right ankle in the first game, have Kolb replace him, and then watch Kolb win the job back.

In 12 career starts, the Cardinals have managed to go 8-4 in games Skelton starts. But that's where the positive numbers end. Skelton's completed just 51.7 per cent of his passes and he's thrown 18 interceptions to go with 13 touchdown passes in his short career. His interception percentage is 4.1 and his sack rate is seven per cent, which is very bad (to give you an idea of how bad, former Vikings QB Gus Frerotte, who we all thought threw too many INTs and took too many sacks, had a career interception percentage of 3.4 and a sack rate of 6.2.

Twelve games is a small sample size, still those stats are almost Spergon Wynn-like. Skelton also won't be getting much help from his running game – the Cardinals are averaging 3.4 yards per carry this season. He'll also be playing behind an offensive line that's given up 22 sacks in the past three games. There is no reason why an improved Vikings defense shouldn't produce a tonne of three-and-outs in Sunday's game. I'll be disappointed if they give up more than 10 points.

However, points could be at a premium for the Vikings offense as well. The unit hasn't been held under 20 points yet this season. But this could be one of those games. Arizona's defense has given up 20 or more points just once in six games – in a 24-21 win over Miami – and the Vikings passing game isn't dynamic enough (I'm being kind here) to give Minnesota the balance on offense to keep a very good Cardinals defense on its heels.

This could be a game very similar to the Detroit contest, where the Vikings offense doesn't do a great deal, but doesn't hurt itself with turnovers while the defense and the special teams do the heavy lifting. And part of that heavy lifting will require the defense to force Skelton into the kind of (poor) production that's been the hallmark of his young career.   

Coming Off the Ledge: The Short Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Coming Off the Ledge – Part Two: No red zone threats leads to field goals

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

I'm not terribly alarmed by the Vikings loss to Washington on Sunday. I kind of sensed it would happen. The stars just weren't aligned for a victory. The Vikings had won three straight at FedEx Field. Washington had lost eight straight homes games. And there isn't much separating either team at this point in the season.

The Vikings started this game very strong, though. The defense induced a three-and-out and intercepted a Robert Griffin III pass in Washington's first two drives. Minnesota's offense was clicking as well. Twice the Vikings had a first-and-10 inside Washington's 20 yard line and once they had a first-and-10 at Washington's 10 yard line. This all occurred in the first quarter. Each drive ended in a Blair Walsh field goal.

That's better than nothing. But if the Vikings had been able to punch, say, two of those three drives in the end zone, we might be reveling in a fourth straight win and a 5-1 record for our favorite team.

One big reason the Vikings couldn't turn those opportunities into touchdowns is because the team has no wide receiver who can get open down there. Vikings fans like to say that Percy Harvin can do it all. That's not true. Harvin is not a red zone threat. He's not 6'2 or more, so Christian Ponder can't throw him fades in the corner of the end zone. And down inside the opponent's 20 yard line, where real estate is dear, those bubble screens to him are less effective because there are just too many bodies for Harvin to sift through.

Kyle Rudolph is a legit red zone threat because of his 6'6 height and big hands. But he's not the most sudden athlete. He's going to outjump, outmuscle and outposition defenders rather than beat them with quickness. It also doesn't help that Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton don't scare anyone and can't influence coverages on their own – so opposing defenses can scheme to take away Rudolph without worrying that someone else will make them pay for it.

As Tom Pelissero notes in this post, Minnesota's offense had been surprisingly effective scoring touchdowns in the red zone during their first five games.That success doesn't mean it wasn't a weakness, however, and against Washington that weakness haunted the Vikings. If the Vikings are up 17-0 or 21-0 - even in the first quarter - that could have influenced how the Washington offense approached their playcalling. They may have felt they had to abandon the run, and that would have done away with all the fake handoffs and option-type stuff that had the Vikings defense confused and off kilter the following three quarters. It may have forced Washington to call slower developing pass plays, rather than the quick slants it favored. It may have forced RGIII to hold onto the ball longer while waiting for those slower developing routes to materialize, which Jared Allen and company would have liked very much. In short, a 17-0 or 21-0 deficit might have made RGIII and the Washington offense more one dimensional and easier to defend.

This is a problem that isn't going away, either. Jerome Simpson, the Vikings de facto deep threat, hasn't made much of an impact due to a suspension and a troublesome back injury. Rookie Jarius Wright is a slot guy in the Harvin mold and has yet to dress for a game. And you know what you've got with Jenkins, Aromashodu and Burton, and it isn't a deep threat. This is a problem that won't be rectified until 2013 at the earliest.

For five games, one of the Vikings glaring weaknesses wasn't exposed. Against Washington it was. Let's hope it's the first and last time.             

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Coming Off the Ledge: Washington 38, Minnesota 26

Washington-Minnesota Box Score (ESPN)

I pin this loss on two relatively obvious factors.

Christian Ponder's turnovers gave Washington easy points.
As far as moving the ball goes, the Viking offense didn't play notably better or worse than it has played all season. But the Vikes would have lost to the Jags, 49ers, and Lions as well if in any of those games Ponder had both a fumble that gave the opponent the ball on the six and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Quarterbacks throw interceptions. Good quarterbacks throw interceptions. Great quarterbacks throw interceptions. Great quarterbacks make those interceptions rare, and great teams have the talent to overcome those interceptions. The Vikings are a good team this year (I think?), but not so good they have a significant margin over most of their opponents. They had that margin last week against Tennessee. But most weeks, the Vikes won't have a talent and execution margin high enough to overcome key turnovers. They didn't this week. And they will need to avoid those turnovers to control games in the future.

The Vikings didn't know what the %$#@ Robert Griffin III was doing.
Griffin's numbers (17/22 for 182 yards passing, 13 for 138 rushing) obviously show his production and efficiency. But there was really no point in the game when the Vikings seemed to know if Griffin was handing off, running, or throwing. Alfred Morris didn't do much, but off the play-fake Washington spun the Vikings around in circles. There were throws from the pocket, design QB runs, rollouts, and scrambles. Defenders just didn't seem to know what to do, and when they did seem to know, they weren't quick or fast enough to get to Griffin in time.

The Vikings have forced pocket passers to struggle mightily this season, but the two rookie QBs that bested them both showed mobility and creativity that the Vikings couldn't deal with. The good news for the Vikings is that such QBs are pretty rare, and mostly don't show up on the rest of the 2012 schedule.

Coming off the ledge
The Vikings just lost on the road to a well-coached team with a dynamic quarterback. It wasn't entirely unexpected, nor is it entirely disastrous. We know more about this team now, its strengths and limitations.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A look at the Vikings defensive line rotation – or lack thereof

Sports teams should be at their best when their best players are on the field. So there was a lot of attention paid to defensive coordinator Alan Williams' desire to rotate his defensive lineman freely during games this season.

Five games into the 2012 season, however, and the rotation hasn't really materialized, as ESPN's Kevin Seifert pointed out Friday. Starting defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison are playing just as much as they did last year (and in Robison's case, even more than last year). Defensive tackle Kevin Williams is playing less than in 2012, but the difference is pretty small, as he's logged a mere seven per cent less snaps per game than he did last season. One starter (Letroy Guion) and two of the main backups on the defensive line – interior players Fred Evans and Christian Ballard – are playing about the same amount of snaps as they did in 2012. The only player whose snaps have gone up considerably is Everson Griffen, who has played 50 per cent of the snaps so far compared to just 25.5 per cent in 2011.

If you believe that Allen, and particularly, Robison, tired at times last year and aren't built to play 90 per cent or more of the defensive snaps per season, these stats are worrying. The Vikings defense generates quarterback sacks and hurries (which often lead to incomplete passes) based largely on the pass rush Allen and Robison create. If they are tired for a stretch this season and can't put the required heat on opposing quarterbacks because they are worn down, that's going to lead to bad outcomes for the Vikings – opposing QBs with lots of time to throw the ball, opposing QBs completing lots of passes and throwing lots of touchdowns, and lots of Vikings losses.

The Vikings defensive staff has wisely found a way to get Griffen on the field more this season. But as Seifert points out in his post, he's played more snaps at tackle (98) than at defensive end (69), which is his natural position and where he can give either Allen or Robison a break.

Taking out elite players like Allen, and good players like Robison, is always difficult (I've complained about Percy Harvin's snap count in the past). When is the right time to give your best players a breather? Just about every plays means something during games, and if you're playing a backup in a starters spot, you're making your defense weaker.

A big reason the rotation system hasn't materialized up to this point is Griffen's the only guy the Vikings trust to play capably at defensive end if Allen or Robison are out. D'Aundre Reed is the other backup at defensive end, but he's only played 13 defensive snaps in five games, and some of those were as a nickel rusher at tackle. He wasn't even active last week against the Titans.

It's a situation worth monitoring as the season progresses. If the Vikings are to continue their winning ways, the team will need stellar play from their best players more than ever as the games get more important. But will Allen and Robison – and to a lesser extent Kevin Williams – be too tuckered late in the season to be the players the Vikings need them to be?

Percy Harvin love

I tweeted this link two days ago, but it's worth linking to here. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus has a really good breakdown of how the Vikings are using Percy Harvin. This is required reading if you are a Vikings fan.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

National Friday League, Week 6

Minnesota-Washington Preview

The Vikings once again get to face a terrible defense: Washington ranks 28th in points allowed, 26th in yards allowed, 26th in first downs allowed, and is especially bad against the pass (31st in yards allowed, 32nd in TD passes allowed, 29th in net yards per attempt allowed).

But Washington's offense ranks well in just about every area: 8th in points and 7th in yards, top 4 in rush yards, rush yards per attempt, and rush TDs, and 2nd in net yards per pass attempt. I think, given the opponent, this is the Vikings' toughest defensive test.

The best any QB played against the Vikings this season was Andrew Luck. From my view (I should note that the night before this game my TV quit working, I watched the Colt game on a small TV, and then went and bought a new TV immediately after), the Viking pass rush was as penetrating in that game as in any other game this year, but Luck just kept beating it. Luck consistently moved to avoid the pass rushers and/or threw the ball before taking the sack.  Since that game, the Vikes have succeeded in making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket: the combination of effective pass rush and effective coverage has made the last three QBs the Vikes faced look simply bad.

But Washington is coached by Mike Shanahan and quarterbacked by Robert Griffin  III. There will be rollouts and moving pockets.  I don't think Shanahan is going to regularly let his rookie QB stand in the pocket to either face the hits of a tough pass rush, or to read defenses and make decisions against a tough pass rush (I hope I'm wrong!). There will be great responsibility on the secondary to hold its coverage and great responsibility on the front seven to contain Griffin's movements.

In the Vikes' favor, they may be able to make Washington one-dimensional: according to Football Outsiders the Vikes have the #2 rush defense in the league. They'll have to. If Washington is successful running the ball, we'll see successful play-action bootlegs, linebackers and defensive linemen hesitant to move quickly on Griffin, defenders getting out of position for coverage, and a general mess of sustained drives.

This does feel like a Monster AP Game.  He has had between 60 and 102 yards rushing in all five games this season, but hasn't had a touchdown since week one.  It seems like he has a 130-160 yard game in him when the Vikings will need it.  Maybe they'll need it this weekend.

What accounts for the Viking defensive improvement?
The answer is probably amazingly simple: the 2012 defensive backs are largely different players than the 2011 defensive backs.

Just take a look at the Vikings' starting defensive backs for the last three games last year:

Week 15: Asher Allen, Marcus Sherels, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Brandon Burton
Week 16: Cedric Griffin, Jamarca Sanford, Benny Sapp, Mistral Raymond
Week 17: Cedric Griffin, Asher Allen, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond

The only players still heavily involved in the current Viking secondary is Jamarca Sanford: all of those other starters from last year are, in one way and for one reason or another, not usually on the field when the Viking defense is.

Because the NFL now makes snap counts public (helpfully posted at Football Outsiders), we can see the documentation that the Vikings are simply relying on better players in the secondary now. Harrison Smith, Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford have been playing nearly all of the Vikings' defensive snaps.

Harrison Smith, Antoine Winfield, and Chris Cook are much better players than the defensive backs that finished the 2011 season. Jamarca Sanford has played much better, probably a combination of individual improvement and not being exposed when surrounded by better teammates. And Josh Robinson has also played a good number of snaps, and played well. The secondary is greatly helped by regular pressure from the defensive line, but has been great in its own right: in the last three weeks, the longest pass the Vikings have allowed was a 26 yarder. The DBs aren't getting beat for big plays, are contesting most passes, and are tackling extremely well.

Going into the year, we knew the defensive line was one of the team's strengths, we weren't sure about the linebackers, and we were terrified about the secondary. The line has been at least as good as expected, the linebackers have been generally terrific (did you think we'd see a run defense this dominant again?), and the secondary has been a revelation. Put it together and it's a defense that ranks 4th in net yards per pass attempt and 2nd in rush yards per attempt.

Fearing the mirage
In the last decade the Vikings have had a few hot starts that ultimately turned out to be fool's gold (I already used "mirage" in the subtitle: I want to shift to another image for something that looked appealing but ultimately turned out to be nothing). In '03 they started 6-0 and ended 3-7. In '04 they started 5-1 and ended 4-8. In '06 they started 4-2 and ended 2-8. Maybe that's why I still don't quite believe in this Viking team as a quality team. The defense can't maintain, this, right? They're going to get exposed, right?

I'm encouraged to see the Vikes rank #7 in Football Outsiders' DVOA, a metric designed to try assess a team's intrinsic quality (and they've already beat the #1 DVOA team). Maybe the team really is good? Maybe some of the big weaknesses of last year really have been cleared away by player improvement and personnel improvement? Is this really happening?

Arian Foster steps out of my dreams and onto my fantasy team
I appreciate the mainstream attention superstud Arian Foster's vegan diet is getting: during games, announcers will mention it, and as announcers primarily exist to praise the players they are talking about, they either talk about it in a matter-of-fact way or tell us what positive things Foster has said about it. I like that during a football game, veganism is talked about as something normal, not some stereotyped hippie thing (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But right now I'm afraid that Gary Kubiak is running Foster into the ground, and that next year Foster may struggle and/or get hurt, as often happens with RBs that were previously run into the ground (or as eventually happens with running backs anyway, who can have very short primes), and then various ill-informed spectators from fandom and media will blame Foster's vegan lifestyle for injury or poor play. Gary Kubiak: don't run Arian Foster into the ground. Maybe throw him a few passes (well, I mean, don't you do it: tell Matt Schaub to do it).

Players and Health
Football is a violent game. We are in an era of awareness of the dangers to players' health, and of improving efforts to protect players' health. We don't want teams to put performance and wins ahead of a player's long-term physical well-being (even as we glorify the toughness of players who risk their bodies and play through injuries). But there is a current MLB executive criticizing one of his own players for trying to stop using tobacco because it affected his performance. So I guess there are other games of entertainment where the bosses consider productivity more important than a human being's health and well-being (though as Arthur Miller showed us, with Willy Loman pleading that "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away! A man is not a piece of fruit!," that this is hardly a new problem and hardly isolated to sports).

Other Interesting Games
Week 6 Schedule

Houston-Green Bay. Last Sunday, it took me a long time to take the special pleasure that comes from a Viking win and a Packer loss in the same day: I was so football-demoralized from January 2010 through December 2011 that I lost any energy for rooting against the Packers.

Cowboys-Ravens. In recent years, the Cowboys have actually been perfect for what the rest of America needs from the Cowboys. They've been mediocre, but flashy enough to not seem mediocre, so that there's always drama: a big win or an ugly loss always seem so much bigger or uglier when it's the Cowboys doing it, and they're always doing it! I can't wait to see what the Cowboys do against the Ravens.

Giants-49ers. I have a feeling this game is going to be fantasy poison.

Broncos-Chargers. Are the Broncos becoming a fantasy juggernaut? Well I hope so, as I fell into a Willis McGahee trade this week.

When you are looking for something to do on a crisp October weekend, just ask yourself: what would Mr. Autumn Man do?

Have a good weekend, suckers. Except Washington and Green Bay fans.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Blair Walsh – Minnesota Vikings super rookie

"I've never thought using a draft pick on a kicker was a good idea."
Darren Campbell, Kick Ass Blog, April 29, 2012

Yes, I actually wrote that about five months ago when the Vikings used their sixth round pick in the NFL draft on Georgia kicker Blair Walsh (for proof, here is the post in its entirety).

In a year when the Vikings have already gotten ample production from three other draft picks – Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson – as well as occasional contributions in limited playing time from Rhett Ellison, Robert Blanton and Audie Cole – Walsh has been a revelation as a replacement for accurate but weak-legged veteran Ryan Longwell.

Coming off a senior season at Georgia where he missed 14 field goals, Walsh has been deadly accurate, nailing 12 of 13 field goals so far. His leg has been as strong as advertised. He's made all three of his field goal attempts from 50 yards or more. And he's been clutch. His 55 yard field goal with no time left in the game – a field goal the Vikings couldn't even have attempted if Longwell were still around – sent the season opener against Jacksonville into overtime. Walsh then drilled a 38 yarder in OT, the eventual game winner for the Vikings.

But field goals only tell part of the story of how valuable a weapon Walsh has been as the Vikings have sprinted to a surprising 4-1 start. Kickoffs also tell a tale of a player who is adding great value to the team.

In the Vikings five games, 16 of Walsh's 26 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks – approximately 62 per cent. Last year, Longwell had 19 touchbacks the entire season. On Walsh's 16 touchbacks, the Vikings opponents have not had a chance to return the kickoff and instead have been forced to take the ball on their own 20 yard line and march 80 yards to score a touchdown.

This is important not just because the touchbacks force the opponent to manufacture long drives to score points, but also because the Vikings kickoff coverage teams have been solid, but hardly infallible the first five games of the 2012 season.

In the 24-13 win over San Francisco, the 49ers Kyle Williams returned two consecutive kickoffs 94 and 50 yards, respectively. And against Tennessee, ex-Viking Darius Reynaud had returns of 32 and 31 yards.

However, it's not just the depth Walsh is getting on his kickoffs that is impressive. It's also the hangtime. As Tom Pelissero noted in his weekly review of the game tape from the Vikings 30-7 shellacking of the Titans, Walsh's average hangtime on his seven kickoffs was 4.2 seconds. This gives his coverage team plenty of time to get down the field and meet the opponent's return man before he's got a full head of steam. Walsh's booming kickoffs are allowing the Vikings to win the field position battle against their opponents. It's one of the those little things that can go unnoticed as we marvel at the play of Percy Harvin and the improvement of Christian Ponder and the Vikings defense. But it's one of a number of little things that can add up to victories for the team that's doing them. In this case, that team happens to be the Minnesota Vikings.

I don't think we can say Blair Walsh is the Vikings most valuable rookie with the way Kalil and Smith have played so far this season. But the fact he's even in the conversation – and I think he should be – shows just how good he's been.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven Part Two: A grab bag of stuff

Here is Pacifist Viking's take on a glorious 30-7 win by the good guy Vikes over the bad guy Titans.

I just got to watch this game this evening, after spending the weekend away from home (and away from my NFL Sunday Ticket package) while visiting the inlaws for Canadian Thanksgiving. Here are some quick thoughts on the beatdown.

* When I read Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had thrown his first two interceptions of the season and hit a couple of other Tennessee defenders in the hands, I worried I'd be watching some rerun from 2011. But I agree with PV that this was Ponder's second best game of the season. Lots of decisive, quick throws by Ponder with zip on them. He showed great touch on the deep throw to Percy Harvin and the TD toss to Kyle Rudolph. He also scrambled smartly and effectively. It was a nice bounceback back game in the air for Ponder and the Vikings after a ho-hum performance against Detroit. Minnesota can win – maybe even dominate – when Ponder plays like this.

* It also helps when Ponder isn't pressured at all – and he wasn't against the Titans. In the past three games Ponder's been sacked three times, and two of those – one by Detroit's Kyle Vanden Bosch and the other by the Titans Mike Martin – were scrambles where Ponder was (barely) caught from behind near the line of scrimmage. It's been a while since a Vikings quarterback has dropped pack to pass and I've felt this confident he wouldn't take a pounding. I'm starting to feel like that now. Left tackle Matt Kalil might have some work to do in the run game, but not when it comes to pass protection. I take it almost as a given that whomever he's blocking is going to post a donut in the sack and hurries column. And this is a unit that has had less than a year to play together. It's been an impressive turnaround for the Vikings offensive line.

* I like that the Vikings keep running those short screens, which are really long handoffs, to Percy Harvin. We've seen Detroit and now Tennessee really key on this play the past two weeks and they've snuffed out a few. But if you're split second late on reacting to it, those screens are almost an automatic first down with the way Harvin can make the first defender miss and then run over anyone else that gets in the way. Offenses can't get away from what they do best even if a defense tries to take it away from them. The Vikings aren't getting away from the screens to Harvin.

* Has the John Carlson experiment already been abandoned by Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave? It sure looked that way against the Titans, as I saw a lot more of #40 (Rhett Ellison) on the field than Carlson's #89. I haven't seen the snap count from the game yet, (Update: Ellison played 22 snaps, Carlson 20, as per Tom Pelissero's weekly game tape review) but my bet is Ellison played many more snaps than Carlson. That makes perfect sense because Carlson is not a blocker, whereas Ellison can do that. Where Carlson is supposed to be the better player is in the pass game. Unfortunately, he's got two catches for one yard so far in 2012. Ellison has two catches for 35 yards. Ellison's been the better player. He should keep Carlson on the sideline until the veteran tight end proves he doesn't belong there. (As an aside, couldn't the Vikings, out of respect for Jim Kleinssasser, have put a one year moratorium on the use of his #40? That feels like it would have been the right thing to do.)

* Aggression has been Harrison Smith's ally in an impressive start to his rookie season. You can see that aggression in the way he hits people, and in the way he breaks on pass plays. On Sunday that aggression got him kicked out of the game early in the second quarter when he pushed aside a referee during a brief scrum. Smith is an aggressive, feisty guy who won't back down from anyone. During training camp he and Harvin almost came to blows during a couple of altercations. I like that part of his game. However, I'm thinking future Viking opponents have noticed this and will, henceforth, be looking to use that aggression against Smith: to goad him into taking stupid penalties that cost the Vikings defense yards and maybe get him kicked out of another game or two. Smith has become too important a player to the Vikings improved secondary and defense to lose for any length of time. He's a smart guy who I think will figure this out quickly. But he'd best be ready to be the target of more post-play shenanigans from the opposition.            

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 30, Titans 7

Today was a combination of a dominant performance by the Vikings against a team that was (today, anyway) utterly terrible. One needs only to look at the averages to see that this game was dominated at the line of scrimmage by the Vikings. The Titans averaged 4.2 yards per pass attempt and 2.7 yards per rush attempt, while the Vikings averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt and 5.6 yards per rush attempt. To put this in another (pointless) way, the Vikings out-passed the Titans by 3.2 yards per play, and out-ran them 2.9 yards per play.

The Viking offensive line asserted its will in this game, opening up some massive holes for Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Toby Gerhart (it's not often that a RB gets a run up the middle untouched near the line of scrimmage: there were plays today where Titan defenders were barely on the screen during runs up the middle) and ensuring that Christian Ponder was rarely threatened by any pass rush. This is where we should mention the Titan defense is terrible.

And the Viking defense was incredible. The front seven was totally dominant: smothering the run game, rushing the passer, tipping passes, making tackles. It's also truly amazing that today we watched the third consecutive good game by the secondary. It's hard to even credit a single defensive back: so many of the individual players made stand-out plays: tight coverage, deflected passes, well-timed hits, effective tackles. The reason we could feel more comfortable than usual with a lead today was that the Titans never even really threatened to mount an offense. In the end, they had no pass completions longer than 18 yards.

Christian Ponder's interceptions today should not concern us overmuch or change our opinion of him: frankly, they gave me something like relief. Ponder has thrown balls off of too many defender's hands already this season, and that luck was going to run out. Ponder was (and still is) going to be intercepted, and I'd rather see those picks in a game the Vikings are able to control anyway. I actually liked Ponder's performance a lot today: the 49er game was still his best of the year, but this was second. He picks his spots to run extremely well--much better than last year. And today he completed a lot of mid-range passes. I like seeing a QB that can complete passes to receivers that are past the first down marker, and today Ponder regularly did. I continue to believe the Vikes can't compete week-to-week throwing a majority of their passes around the line of scrimmage. That doesn't mean they have to go all Tecmo Super Bowl and chuck it deep constantly: it means they'll have to do what they did today, efficiently completing passes 10-15 yards downfield. Here we ought to mention again that the Titan defense is terrible.

The Vikings did things a playoff contender should do. They overcame sloppy play to dominate an inferior opponent (in the numbers and on the scoreboard). When they had a lead, they went for the kill instead of trying to sit on it. It really looks like they are building something. And they even made me slightly complacent as a fan today. What, I don't have to pace around during the fourth quarter? I don't have to stand up and stare at the TV until the end? I don't have to jump and holler? I don't have to feel euphoria at the end: quiet satisfaction is fine?

Skol, friends. We'll be trailing clouds of heaven all week.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What Thursday night's Rams-Cardinals festivities says about the Minnesota Vikings 2012 future

I recently wrote a column like this one after the infamous Green Bay-Seattle Monday night game. And after watching the St. Louis Rams-Arizona Cardinals game Thursday night - two teams the Vikings play on Oct. 21 (Cards) and Dec. 16 (Rams), I've decided to do it again. I hope you will indulge me.

When the Vikings play the Cardinals

Any assessment of Arizona starts and ends with its left and right offensive tackles - D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie, respectively. They are awful. During Thursday night's game, the Rams consistently terrorized QB Kevin Kolb using basic four-man rushes - only occasionally sending an extra man or two. St. Louis defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn whipped Batiste and Massie with both speed and power, as the Rams sacked Kolb nine times. And this isn't an anomaly - Kolb was sacked eight times the week before against Miami. Tell me Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Co. won't have a field day when they play the Cards in the Metrodome two weeks from now.

This might not be so bad for Arizona if it had a strong running game. It does not. Beanie Wells won't be back until week 12. His replacement Ryan Williams is averaging 2.8 yards per carry. Behind him is somebody named Alphonso Smith. This is not a running attack that will shift the Vikings focus off of the Cardinals passing game. There will be no need to bring Viking safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford into the box for run support. Speaking of that passing game, Larry Fitzgerald is as dangerous as ever and second year tight end Rob Housler shows promise. But with Kolb - assuming he's still in one piece come Oct. 21 - running for his life on every snap, the Cardinals offense had a frantic nature to it against the Rams that isn't conducive to success. Arizona could only score three points on the road against St. Louis. I wouldn't expect them to do a whole lot better on the road against the Vikings defense - if the Vikings defense that showed up for the 49ers and Lions games shows up against Arizona.    

Defensively, Arizona looked fine against an underwhelming St. Louis offense. They didn't look as good as I have been reading they were, however. And they did let Rams running back Stephen Jackson rip off some big runs in the second half. They play a 3-4, which Christian Ponder and the rest of the Vikings offense didn't handle particularly well against the Colts. The following week they stuck it to a vastly superior San Francisco 3-4 defense. I dunno. The Vikings offense will do what it does – try to run Adrian Peterson a lot, get the ball into Percy Harvin's hands as much as possible, and try to take some deep shots with Jerome Simpson. The unit has been able to score at least 20 points in its first four games. That should be enough to get a victory against Arizona.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson is a very scary punt returner, and from a Vikings perspective, I mean that in a bad way. He's a threat to take it to the house, Marcus Sherels style, every single time. If the Vikings punt coverage team isn't on its game against Peterson, he could produce points for the Cards all by himself.   

When the Vikings play the Rams

It's hard to know what shape the Rams will be in come mid-December. But two months worth of games and practises isn't going to make this offense look any prettier. I really thought quarterback Sam Bradford was going to be good coming out of Oklahoma. What I saw Thursday night was a guy with a decent arm, a funny throwing motion, not much mobility and a tendency to make poor decisions. The offensive line protecting him isn't much better than the one "protecting" Kolb, by the way. Again, the Vikings defensive line should do some damage when these two teams meet in December.

Bradford might look better if he had anyone to throw to. The Rams receiving corps makes this year's Vikings WRs look like the 1998 Vikings WRs. Stephen Jackson looks like he can still get it done in the running game. His combination of speed and power will test the Vikings defenders tackling abilities, which was first-rate against San Francisco and Detroit. Overall, the St. Louis offense looked pretty bad on Thursday. An average QB. Poor receivers. A very good running back, but one that doesn't have a much of an offensive line blocking for him. The Vikings defense can handle these guys.

The Rams defense looked very strong against the Cardinals, but that was helped by the Cardinals brutal offensive line. Long's a hustler who never quit on a play. Quinn (three sacks against Arizona) showed the same effort, and he might have better physical tools. The Rams will likely try to rush just four lineman and drop seven in coverage. Sound familiar? Matt Kalil will be responsible for keeping Quinn off Ponder's back. Phil Loadholt will have to keep Long at bay. It will be a challenge. The Rams cornerback duo of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins looked pretty solid to me. Jenkins is a rookie, and got beat on some double moves against the Cardinals, but he has stellar recovery speed – kind of like the Vikings Josh Robinson. The Vikings WRs always struggle to get open. Don't expect it to be any different against the Rams.

I guess I always expect the Vikings to be able to run the ball as long as Adrian Peterson is breathing. The Vikings haven't been running outside the tackles at all, so Long's reputation as a poor run defender probably won't get tested in this game. It's hard to tell how effective St. Louis starting tackles Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers are at clogging up the middle. The Cardinals couldn't get anything going. But that's the Cardinals. We know the Vikings will try.

One of the Rams best weapons so far has been rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. In five games he's already become a local legend, "Greg the Leg" he's called. It's a nickname that fits. Zuerlein was drafted four picks ahead of the Vikings Blair Walsh and he might have a stronger leg than Walsh. He's 14 for 14 on field goals through five games and is four-for-four from 50 yards or more, including a 60-yard field goal. Against Arizona he hit a 53-yarder and made it look like an extra point. One other thing about Zuerlein's big leg. All four of his kickoffs against the Cardinals went for touchbacks. If Zuerlein can do that on his kickoffs against the Vikings (hopefully there won't be too many of them when the Rams play the Vikes), that takes away one of Minnesota's best weapons – Percy Harvin's kickoff returns.