Monday, December 20, 2004

Higher Road

There are two ways to characterize the Vikings' performance on Sunday. One way is to continue lamenting the poor play of the defense, a defense that once again made a less-than-stellar quarterback look like Joe Montana and Steve Young wrapped into one. The other is to focus on what went well for the Vikings.

For one day, I will take the higher road.

What Went Right

There were two things that were much improved for the Vikings this week in contrast with previous weeks. The first is special teams play. The second is the offensive play-calling, at least for quarters 1 and 4.

Special Teams' Play

The Vikings appear finally to have found themselves a punt and kick return specialist in Mewelde Moore. Moore, taking over the return duties from Nate Burleson and Kelly Campbell, provided the type of production that neither of his predecessors had.

Against Chicago and Seattle, Burleson returned 9 kicks for a total of 154 yards. That 17-yard average is not bad, but it is right around the league average. As punt returner in the same two games, Campbell returned 4 punts for 21 yards, or a 5.25 average. That number is well below the league average and looks even worse when factoring in that one of the four returns was for 18 yards while the other three netted a mere three yards.

On Sunday, Mewelde Moore, looking both comfortable and aggressive, bashed through openings on punt and kick returns. Moore returned 3 punts for 27 yards and 5 kickoffs for 94 yards. The kickoff average of 9 yards is impressive for a rookie punt returner. But even more impressive is Moore's nearly 19-yard average on kickoff returns. Although this is a mere two yards greater than Burleson's two-week average against Chicago and Seattle, it excludes a 62-yard return nullified for a phantom holding penalty.

Moore looks like the return guy that the Vikings have been looking for for half a decade. And with improved starting field position, the Vikings' prospects of scoring increase and their chances of incurring a false start penalty on any given drive decrease. And, as Chris Liewinski undoubtedly would attest, that's all good.

Coverage

While the return game looked to be improved on Sunday, so, too, did the coverage unit. Against Seattle, Minnesota allowed 122 return yards on 5 kickoff returns, nearly a 25-yard average (Seattle did not return a punt against Minnesota). On Sunday, Minnesota allowed 83 return yards on 4 returns--not great, but a noticeable improvement at 20.75 yards per return. Minnesota also allowed 15 yards on two punts.

The numbers, though not gaudy, suggest that Minnesota's special teams' play has improved this year. Some of that is due to the coverage, which finally appears capable of filling gaps, breaking wedges, and tackling the ball carrier. But even more evident is the improvement of the kicking. Jose Cortez, a guy that the Vikings picked up only because he had been with the team on a previous occasion, consistently kicked the ball to the 6-yard line or deeper on Sunday, and kicked two into the endzone--something Tice earlier this season implied was not possible on a routine basis with the new K-balls.

Not to be outdone, Darren Bennett put on his own show, punting high and deep or higher and inside the 20. Only once did Bennett have what one would construe to be a poor kick on Sunday, when he lofted a 37-yarder into the endzone for a touchback. Even that, however, is preferable to where the Vikings' punting game was at the beginning of the season or, shudder, at any point last season.

Offensive Playcalling

A second noticeably bright spot for the Vikings against the Lions was the offensive playcalling, at least in the first and fourth quarters. In both quarters, the Vikings mixed playcalling between the run and pass and used a variety of passes--dump, play action, screen, slant--and pass options--running back, tight end, tight end who never catches a pass (Berton), and all receivers not named Campbell--as well as a variety of running plays, to overwhelm the Detroit defense. That healthy blend kept Detroit off-balance and looking as inept as does the Vikings' defense.

If only the Vikings took an interest in following through on the mixed-playcalling approach for an entire four quarters, they might have the unstoppable offense that they believe they have.

Short Take

Many fans today have suggested that the Vikings did not deserve to beat the Lions because the Vikings won only after the Lions botched a PAT. But that observation misses the point. As poorly as the Vikings played in the third quarter (on offense) and fourth quarter (on defense), the Lions played even more miserably. If not for two phantom penalties--one calling back a long kick return by Moore, the other calling back a long reception by Wiggins--the Vikings probably would have won handily and the missed PAT, had it even occurred, would have been a non-issue.

The Vikings did enough to beat a bad Lions team on Sunday, mostly on the strength of the offense. Which means that there should be grist for the mill regarding the play of the defense--tomorrow's topic.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am interested to hear what you have to say about the defense tomorrow. Particularly how much blame do the coaches and management deserve for negelecting the defense for so long. Do you think a new defensive minded head coach might be the way to go? It seems like the offense can mostly take care of itself as long as it has a decent coordinator. It seems to me like a defensive head coach (ala Bill Belicheck) is what the team needs to start turning things around. I heard the Fox commentators hyping Donnie Henderson (the defensive coordinator for the NY Jets) as a potential head coach on Sunday. Is this the man for the job?

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