Before Sunday afternoon's game against the Buffalo Bills, the Minnesota Vikings believed that they were on the cusp of a break-through. After three consecutive weeks playing some of the league's top defensive teams, the Vikings thought that they were catching at least a bit of a break against the good, but not uber good Bills' defense.
Either the Vikings misassessed the Bills' defense or they grossly overestimated the ability of their own offense. And, unless my eyes are deceiving me, it is the latter to which the Vikings primarily can point for their loss on Sunday.
Throughout the off-season, the Vikings attempted to persuade their fans that their receiving corps had the possession receiver it needed in Travis Taylor, a red-zone threat in Marcus Robinson, and a deep threat in Troy Williamson. So far, only Robinson even remotely resembles the bill of fare promised fans in a receiving corps that looks less and less capable each week.
The problems for the receivers begin with an inability to catch the ball. Against Buffalo, Troy Williamson contributed two drops on well thrown balls to two receptions, Robinson contributed several catches and a touchdown but also one glaring drop that could have meant the difference between an ugly win and an uglier loss, and Taylor seemed more bystander than contributor, with the exception of his ill-timed pass interference penalty, catching four passes for a pedestrian 28 yards.
If the Vikings hope to have a legitimate offense sometime this season, they will need to have much more of a contribution from the receiving corps. That starts with having a possession receiver who can get open in crunch time, a red zone threat who holds onto the critical pass at the critical time, and a deep threat who actually is a deep threat.
Most alarming for the Vikings' receiving corps, though not the least bit surprising, is the poor play of last year's number seven pick in the draft, Troy Williamson. Williamson not only continues to drop passes that NFL receivers routinely catch, he also seems utterly incapable of gaining separation from the defender. As was the case last week against Chicago, the Buffalo Bills found Williamson eminently coverable by man defense.
Williamsons' persistent dropsies and inability to stretch the field have created a predicament for the Vikings who put all of the eggs in the Williamson basket once Koren Robinson properly was dismissed from the squad. At present, there is but one option on the market. And that option is only palatable from the perspective of the Vikings' absolute need for a deep threat. That option is current Oakland Raider Jerry Porter, currently residing on the inactive list.
Porter's tendency to spout off about coaching moves, his seeming me-first attitude, and his complete obliviousness as to how to resolve his differences with the Raiders make trading for Porter a questionable proposition for the Vikings. At this point, however, it's a toss up whether a trade for Porter is any more dubious than would be sticking with Williamson as the deep threat.
If only the Vikings' offensive problems could be laid entirely at the the feet of the sub-par receiving corps. Unfortunately, the Vikings' offense has at least three other significant issues with which the coaching staff must soon deal. All three were on display on Sunday.
A contributing factor to the poor showing of the Vikings' receiving corps the past two weeks has been the less than stellar play of Vikings' quarterback Brad Johnson. On Sunday, Johnson threw for 267 yards, but he had to throw the ball 44 times to reach that mark. And of those 44 passes, two were picked--and both picks were entirely on Johnson. Presumably, that's not the kind of play that Vikings' head coach Brad Childress had in mind when he dubbed Johnson his "protect the ball and make smart plays" quarterback.
Johnson can be forgiven some of his poor play, however, given his lackluster receiving corps and his apparently well-overpaid offensive line. Against Buffalo, the Vikings tallied a meager 63 yards rushing despite the Vikings' offensive linemen having a sizeable advantage over the smaller Buffalo defensive linemen. No matter for Buffalo, however, as the Bills simply pushed their way through the Vikings' linemen on both sides of the line.
Adding to the poor play of specific individuals and units was the continuing and alarming escalation of penalties owing to nothing other than sheer stupidity. Rashad Baker nearly stole the show with two difficult to fathom plays for which the Vikings were penalized--one for interfering with the kick returner's right to field the ball on a fair catch play, the other for running into the punter. The latter play was truly remarkable as Baker had no opportunity to block the punt given his maneuver, but a near certainty of sliding into the punter, which he did. Nice work.
But Rashad's brilliant play was outdone by the Vikings' defensive line, specifically Kenechi Udeze and Kevin Williams. Udeze was flagged for two offsides calls, the latter on a critical play late in the game that gave Buffalo a first down and helped prolong a clock-draining drive. Not to be outdone, Williams again demonstrated geographic comprehension issues, lining up in the neutral zone two more times this week.
We could discuss the possibility that the Vikings' nearly non-existent running game is attributable to the team's reliance on three yards and a cloud of dust Chester Taylor, but that would shift far too much blame to players who have been called upon to do what few backs could do--run through non-existent holes. If and when the Vikings' offensive line begins to earn its keep will an assessment of the running backs be worthwhile.
What It Means
The Vikings are saddled with one of the lesser offenses in the NFL, an offense that, against Buffalo, had only one drive of more than ten plays, with ten "drives" of six plays or less, five three and outs including four straight three and outs, and no sense of urgency between the opening scoring drive and the mad dash at the end of the game. Even with a poorly performing wide-receiver corps, a mostly ineffective offensive line, a non-existent running game, and a quarterback who suddenly cannot protect the ball, however, the Vikings should have beaten Buffalo. But they did not. And if the Vikings continue to lead the league in penalties and persist in failing to take advantage of scoring opportunities, a season that looked headed in the right direction could go south quickly.
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