Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Encroachment Factor

With a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Vikings accomplished something that they had not done all season, they defeated a team that currently has a winning record. In so doing, the Vikings scored 27 points against a team yielding an average of approximately 15 per game. More signifcant, the Vikings limited the Jaguars to 16 points. These accomplishments have led beat writers, fans, and some within the organization to speculate that the Vikings have finally turned the corner. And there is some reason for such optimism.

On Sunday, for most of the game, the Vikings' defense looked better than it has in recent memory. Yes, Brian Williams again missed interception opportunities. Yes, Brian Russell continued to miss tackles in the backfield. And, yes, Brian Russell looked out of his element on a play in which he (1) missed a tackle on Jaguar's running back Fred Taylor; (2) recovered for another missed tackle opportunity; and (3) ultimately decided to pirouette his way away from the play in the apparent hope that another defender would come to his assistance.

Yes, yes, yes. There were mistakes.

But there were also stops, and backside help, and second efforts, and some solid run support--all missing in the Vikings' recent skid, and all missing for the better part of the past half decade. Not on Sunday.

And so there is renewed hope in Minnesota that the Tice/MoComb's three-year-return-to-playoff-prominence pledge may yet be intact. Maybe the defense is strong enough to latch onto the coattails of the Vikings' offense. And, undoubtedly, most suspect, the offense is strong enough to carry any additional weight that it is asked to carry. Yet there is a nagging suspicion, one held by most long-time Vikings' fans, that there remains plenty to sort out.

This is a suspicion apparently shared by Vikings' head coach Mike Tice. When asked whether the victory over the Jaguars, a victory that put the Vikings two games to the good in the race for a playoff spot in the NFC, eased his concerns about whether Minnesota would make the playoffs this year, Tice breathed deeply and said, "brother, not after what happened last year."

And Tice has reason for concern or, at a minimum, reason for lack of sanguinity, for the Vikings have yet to show much. Despite the performance on Sunday, the Vikings have still only beaten one team that currently possesses a winning record. And that victory looks a bit less impressive once we consider the numbers.

As noted in the pregame preview, the Jaguars, with or without Byron Leftwich, are no offensive force. Without Leftwich, the Jaguars have averaged 14.5 points a game. With Leftwich, the Jaguars have averaged 16 points a game. Thus, on Sunday, the Vikings did what the average 2004 Jaguar's opponent has done by yielding 16 points to a Byron Leftwich-led Jaguar offense.

But it is not enough simply to note that the Vikings hit the average in yielding 16 points to the Jaguars. Of greater interest is against whom the Jaguars have produced their 2004 offensive averages. The Jaguars have averaged their 16 points against Buffalo, Denver, Tennessee (twice), Indianapolis (twice), Kansas City, Houston, San Diego and Detroit. Buffalo and Denver are in the top 10 for total defense, Tennessee and San Diego are in the top 15, and Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, and Houston are in the bottom seven. But each of the Jaguars' opponents yields, on average, over 17 points a game.

This raises the suspicion that the Jaguars have a below average offense. And additional numbers bear this out. The Jaguars have scored an average of 3.55 points fewer per game against their opponents than have their opponents' opponents ("encroachment average"). If not for the benefit of an overtime victory against Detroit and an inexplicable 27-point outburst in a victory over Indianapolis, that number would be closer to six. And that is about as bad as it gets in the NFL for teams considered playoff worthy.

The Vikings did hold the Jaguars outside their encroachment average and that is promising. It is also promising to see the Vikings' defense make four big plays in clutch situations at the end of the game. So, despite the fact that the numbers take some of the shine off of the victory, there is some reason to be optimistic about the defensive trends evidenced in Sunday's victory.

It is also important to consider, however, what the Vikings' offensive output means. The Jaguars have yielded an average of 9.25 points less to their opponents than their opponents have been scoring against other teams. That's very impressive. And the Jaguars have accomplished this feat despite playing the number one offense in the NFL twice this season and the number two offense once.

What is disturbing for Jaguar fans, however, is that the 9.25 encroachment number that the Jaguars have established defensively this season is built largely on early season successes and the ability to hold otherwise very high scoring teams to merely high scores. Over the past few weeks, against Houston, Detroit, Tennessee, and Minnesota, the numbers are trending toward the mean, with the Jaguar's defense producing encroachment numbers of -.8, -.5, -.8, and +.5 (meaning that Minnesota outscored its average by .5 points on Sunday). This is in stark contrast to early season numbers of -9.8, -17.4, -7.6, and -11.5, and suggests that Jacksonville's defense may be getting a bit fatigued as the season wears on or that opponents have adjusted to Jacksonville's schemes.

Whatever the case, Minnesota's 27-point performance calls for mixed reviews. Take away a defensive touchdown and the Vikings scored nearly a touchdown less than their season average. That's still better than the defensive encroachment number Jacksonville has averaged this season (-9.5), but it is worse than Jacksonville's defensive encroachment number as reflected over the past few weeks.

What all this means is that, while the victory over the Jaguars on Sunday was nice, it was something that the numbers suggested should have occurred. Moreover, the numbers suggest that an average defense would have held the Jaguars to fewer points and that the Vikings' offense should have produced more points.

Although the Vikings face few quality opponents (cf. challenges) the remainder of the regular season, how theyperform on the encroachment scale will matter once the playoffs begin. Underperforming the mean will no longer be the concern, however. Instead, the question will be whether the Vikings are able to outperform the playoff competition. To reach this goal, the Vikings will need to continue to make defensive improvements. Of that, there is little question. More surprising, however, may be the charge that to succeed in the playoffs the Vikings also need to make improvements on offense. And the less the improvements on defense, the greater will be the need to make improvements on offense.

Up Next: Considerations of Drafts Past.


Lichty said...

It seemed to me the biggest weakness of the Vikes' run defense was their outside contain. Most of Taylor's yards were on slow developing plays to the middle which Taylor then bounced to the outside.

I have only watched the game in real time on TV, but it seems as if the OLB's were gettting sucked in to stop the run. J-ville did not adjust and kept running up the middle allowing the relatively stout interior defense bottle Taylor for the significant parts of the second half.

It really seemed to me that along with the stupid thrid down long out patters which Leftwich did not have the accuracy to hit, the failure to expose the outside run, and oh, let's not forget the costly turnovers, J-Ville would have run away with the game.

Intersted on your take.

Vikes Geek said...

I agree to a degree. Jacksonville could have beaten the Vikings on Sunday had they taken advantage of scoring opportunities and had they not turned the ball over.

The Vikings could also say that they should have run away with the game rather than being forced to make big plays at the end to seal the deal. That's just the NFL. There is no great team this year and most teams are capable of beating any team, ergo games such as Sundays where two teams can claim that they woulda, coulda, shoulda, and the outcome is determined by a handful of critical plays. Few teams if any teams dominate from beginning to end.

As I noted, I do not view the Viking's victory over the Jaguars as any great achievement. The Vikings held the Jaguars to their season average scoring (with Lefty as QB) and scored a half point more than their own season average with the assistance of the defense. Without the defensive TD, I believe the Vikings would have failed to cover (I believe the Vikings were -5).

And I am not all that optimistic that the Vikings have any pushovers the rest of the season, despite playing Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. In fact, I expect the two greatest point differentials to be in Minnesota victories over Seattle and Green Bay. In part, that's because the other games are on the road and Tice still has his players freaked out about playing a road game. But it is also because Minnesota, though a legitimate playoff team, is still only a bit better than the average NFL team. If offense were all that mattered, the Vikings would trail only two or three teams in the NFL. But defense and special teams matter greatly, and they remain an achilles for the Vikings.


Anonymous said...

No great teams? What about Pittsburgh?

Or did you just mean the NFC?

Vikes Geek said...

Pittsburgh has had a good season and they appear to be as good as any team in the NFL, maybe the best. I still have reservations, however. My primary concern is how a team can thoroughly destroy Philly and narrowly defeat Cincinnati and Washington? The answer, I suspect, is that Pittsburgh's QB is much more ordinary than most pundits wish he were (if only to salvage their predictions that he is the next Marino/Montana/Unitas...). What happens when Pitt plays a team that can stop the run and score some points? Of course, an ancillary question is whether Pitt would face such a team in the playoffs.

By "great" teams, I refer to teams like the Cowboys of Aikman, Smith, and Irvin, the 49ers of Montana/Young and Rice, the Larry Csonka Dolphins. Those teams were great. Pittsburgh is not in that class in 2004. They might be better than the rest of the teams in a watered-down NFL, but they are not in a class with all-time great teams.


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