Thursday, September 14, 2006

Trickle Down Effect

Entering the 2006 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings were certain about two things regarding their offensive line. One was that the line would look dramatically different from that which finished the 2005 NFL season, with Matt Birk returning, Artis Hicks, and Steve Hutchinson arriving, Chris Liewinski and Adam Goldberg released, and Mike Rosenthal demoted to hope-we-never-need-to-use-him status.

The other certainty regarding the Vikings' offensive line in 2006 was that it would be a work in progress. After one game, it is clear that there is much work left to do.

The Problems

Among the most glaring problems facing the Vikings' offensive line this year is the continuing inability of those on the right side of the line to block in the running game. The problem already has reached such proportions that even the Vikings' coaching staff appears unconvinced that the right side of the line is even worth trying to run behind.

Of the Vikings' thirty-two running plays against Washington, twenty were to the left side of the line, two were up the middle, and ten were to the right. Of the ten running plays to the right, only two came before halftime, compared to nine running plays to the left or up the middle in the first half.

Evident from the first-half statistics is the Vikings' coaching staff's own trepidation about sending a back right rather than left. That trepidation was evidenced not only in the first half of Monday's game, but also--and perhaps more telling--on the Vikings' final offensive series. Despite the fact that everyone in the stadium expected the Vikings to continue to run left, the Vikings ran left.

The reason for the early game and late-game decision to stay left is apparent from the numbers. Last year, the Vikings routinely failed to move the ball running right. When they attempted to do so against Washington on Monday night, they again failed.

On ten running plays to the right on Monday, the Vikings averaged 2.6 yards with a long of eight, seven carries for three or fewer yards, and four carries for one yard or less.

One might conclude that the Vikings' woes running right were simply a matter of a small sample and that, with more attempts, the Vikings will improve their right-running average. So far, however, there is little reason to view Monday's performance as a probable aberration over the course of the season as the right side of the Vikings' offensive line has simply not moved defenders off the line the way that the left side of the line has, at times.

Equally problematic is the domino effect that an inability to run right has for the rest of the offense. Because the Vikings are unable to run right, they are forced to run left more often. Opposing teams realize this and stack the defense over the left side of the Vikings' offensive line in run situations. This makes McKinnie, Hutchinson, and Birk less effective than they would be were the defense required to play the offense straight up.

But an inability to run right also has a negative effect on the Vikings' passing game. With teams loading up against the run to the left and the Vikings' inability to take advantage of what subsequently should be mismatches to the right, the Vikings are forced to pass more than they would like and more than they ought to. That, too, makes defending the Vikings easier and makes controlling field possession and the clock more difficult for the Vikings.

The continuing run-blocking troubles on the right side of the line should not serve to mask the very real improvement that the Vikings' offensive line has shown over last season. Despite two false starts--one by Artis Hicks, the other by Bryant McKinnie--the line looked uniformly solid in pass protection. In part, that's a reflection of Brad Johnson releasing the ball quickly in the West Coast offense. But it is also a sign of maturation for players like Marcus Johnson and Bryant McKinnie, both of whom looked like a revolving door at times last season.

Unquestionably, the presence of Birk and Hutchinson forces teams to play the Vikings' offensive line more honestly--something that could not be said of last year's patchwork offensive lines. But that only points out even more the necessity for continuity and production across the entire offensive line.

Good health and increased familiarity with the system and each other should help the Vikings' offensive line progress. But not every player brings the same abilities to the game. And that latter fact might continue to haunt the Vikings' running game and, as a consequence, their offense, no matter how much time the current linemen spend together.

Up Next: Will Panthers be the First Team to 0-2 in 2006?

4 comments:

Lichty said...

VG:

This is a problem for many teams and many teams are a certain handed when it comes to running game.

This is not a disaster, but a strength that should help the weaker right side and passing game.

If teams are so intent on stopping the left side of the line running game, it will necessarily open things up with the passing and run game to the right. No doubt misdirection can help here.

I think this coaching staff is smart enough to figure out ways to counter any stacking, and players are just good enough to expose such cheating to at least some extent. Of course a non-droppy Troy Williamson will help.

Vikes Geek said...

Lichty,

I might otherwise agree, but, as we have seen last year and early this year, having the defense overload the left side of the offense has meant little for the right side. That suggests that the right side is more than just pedestrian in run blocking but more likely bad. I noted this problem in the column when observing that the Vikings primarily waited until the second half to try to run right. The thought, undoubtedly, was to establish the flow left and then go right. It didn't work.

I give credit to the coaching staff for its general competency. But even competency cannot overcome all physical short-comings. And it is very possible--though admittedly not yet a certainty--that Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson simply are not up to the task of run blocking. Both proved reasonable adept pass blocking in the quick-release passing game, but neither established themselves as a quality run blocker either in week one or last year. Maybe that will change over the course of the year. If it does not, however, overloading simply causes headaches for the rest of the offense rather than opportunities.

VG

Hugin & Munin said...

VG,

Baseball is a much more linear sport than football - there are fewer things going on and there are reams of data about almost every aspect of the game.

Football by comparison is hard for the casual fan to truly analyze and I appreciate your thoughts on the Viking O-Line.

To my eye, I saw the team average 2.5 yards per rush running left, right, or center. Your point that the left side is being loaded up on, and the right side is simply bad at run blocking is hard to support. A counter argument could be that Chester Taylor isn't that good, or the entire line isn't that good.

Can you elaborate more on why you think the left side is being overloaded? Can you counter the argument that Taylor is a middling RB at best?

This will - not could - will be a huge problem because the Vikes will find themselves in a lot of 3rd and longs otherwise. The success of conversion we enjoyed vs. the Skins will not carry over for 16 games.

Appreciate the views.

Vikes Geek said...

H & M,

While Taylor might very well be just an average running back, or worse, he has had more success this season running left than running right in raw numbers. The average, as you note, however, is equally dismal running left as running right. In fact, even discounting for the final three runs from scrimmage that were meant primarily to run out the clock, the Vikings averaged less than two yards per carry running left on Monday. That's against a good Washington run defense, but it's still pretty bad. And that points to either the fact that Taylor probably is a mediocre, at best, back with the ability to catch and block or that the line is not as good--across the board--as some believe. Maybe Taylor's catching and blocking skills make up for his running. And maybe he improves on his running during the season--he actually looked pretty good running left and center on the final drive. Still, the Vikings will need to see improvement in some fashion on the right side.

The overloading observation comes from watching to which side the defense is tending on any given play. And that appears to be predominantly to the left of the Vikings' offensive line. It's admittedly difficult to discern on every play without watching from several different camera angles, but it appears to be happening. Moreover, it makes sense, even without visual confirmation, since the Vikings continue to run predominantly left.

I agree that we do not know for certain why the opponent is doing what they are doing or even, with certainty, what the opponent is doing all the time. I also agree that, given all the possible culprits, we do not yet know the genesis of the Vikings' running woes. And finally, I suspect that the problem probably is some combination of offensive line and running back ineffectiveness.

The problem, however, goes beyond right-left, line-back, and to the core of the team's composition and long-term viability. Because the Vikings have committed so much cap space to McKinnie and Hutchinson, and are likely to commit a chunk to Birk next season, they will have a difficult time addressing the needs of the right side of the line if Johnson and Hicks do not show dramatic improvement. And that all assumes that the line will be the cap priority in 2007 and that McKinnie and Hutchinson are fixtures.

This line can make do as is, but it remains one of the legitimate concerns for the team. There is virtually no depth, the right side is weak, and McKinnie still misses far too many blocks for a player of his size and contract terms. That all equates to personnel and cap issues beyond this year.

Is the sky falling? No. But neither is it sunny all day--a place that the Vikings and Vikings' fans aspire to be.

VG