Monday, August 27, 2007

Vikings' Moves Show Signs of Admissions

The Vikings announced several roster moves on Monday, including the release of quarterback Drew Henson and wide-receiver Todd Lowber. Henson, in his second training camp stint with the Vikings, vindicated the Vikings' decision to cut him last season by doing nothing this year.

Not to be outshone, Lowber completed his stint with the Vikings by producing zero stats this pre-season. Lowber came to Minnesota as a free agent, having played no football to that point in his life. The Vikings' front office, looking to put a good face on its inability to restructure a woeful receiving corps, introduced Lowber to the fans by extolling his exceptional athleticism and speed. Unfortunately, though predictably, Lowber had no football ability.

Unbowed by the news of his release, Lowber told fans not to worry about him. "I'm fast. I'm in great shape. I'll just catch on with another team." Sorry Todd, you're unlikely to find a second team as charmed with mere athleticism as are the Vikings.

Speaking of athleticism and speed, the days in a Vikings' uniform could be numbered for current Viking wide receiver Troy Williamson. While the Vikings have spent the better portion of two plus season explaining away Williamson's ineptitude on the field, head coach Brad Childress appears on the verge of pulling the plug on one of the worst first-round draft decisions in team history.

With last week's signing of former Green Bay Packer Robert Ferguson, his immediate insertion into the Vikings' starting lineup, and the strong slot play of Bobby Wade, Childress has already signaled his inclination to move on without Williamson and may have latitude to do so.

Should the Vikings opt to release Williamson, the team would have Bobby Wade, Robert Ferguson, and Sidney Rice as the top three wide-receivers, with Aundrae Allison and Billy McMullen serving as backups. That's still a diseased receiving corps with no down-field threat, but it's cheaper than one with Williamson and absent one less non-factor.

Brooks Bollinger also looks to be on his way out after the Vikings swung a sweatheart deal with the Philadelphia Eagles for purported quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Rather than wait for the Eagles to cut Holcomb, the Vikings, convinced by the word put out on the street by Holcomb and Holcomb's agent that another team had expressed an interest in Holcomb, gave up a sixth-round pick for him--about what the Dolphins gave up to get Trent Green.

The Vikings contend that the move was about gaining a veteran presence to serve as a backup should Tarvaris Jackson falter. Interestingly, Holcomb has started just 21 games in twelve NFL seasons. Bollinger, the man Holcomb will be replacing, has started 12 games in just three NFL seasons. The two players have comparable statistics, otherwise. How about a Fresca?

Up Next: More Cuts--Any Additions?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ring Around the Rosies

Again displaying some signs of improvement or, at least, promise in certain areas of their game, the Minnesota Vikings nevertheless were on the short-end of a lopsided loss on Saturday night in Seattle. And while the Vikings still have another week of pre-season play to work out their numerous remaining issues, it is becoming painfully evident that the Vikings are what they are and not what head coach Brad Childress envisions them to be when he dreams of sugar plums and fairy dust. That is to say, the team could still use another pocket full of posies to cure the rings around their rosies.

The Promising

Despite the loss, there were several promising aspects to the Vikings' play on Saturday night. Chief among those was the play of free-agent wide-receiver acquisition, Bobby Wade. Wade finished the night with five receptions for eighty-five yards and looks like the possession receiver that the Vikings never identified last season. A true deep threat would make Wade even more valuable, but, apparently, you cannot expect to have all the pieces to a standard receiving corps, so the Vikings will take what they can sell.

Wade's performance was made possible, in large part, by several good throws by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson showed good arm strength and an ability to find Wade before the defenders jumped the route or collapsed, making Wade a decent threat across the middle as well as along the lines. While Jackson's focus on Wade could become a liability, it is still refreshing to see a pass completion in this offense.

On defense, three players stood out in a positive fashion--middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, cornerback Antoine Winfield, and cornerback Cedric Griffin. Henderson and Winfield seemd to be in on every defensive play, combining for twelve tackles, several broken-up passing plays and, in the case of Henderson, at least two hurried passes. Despite missing two tackles in the flat, Griffin was able to contain his man for most of the night.

The Concerns

Most of the issues for the Vikings at this point in the season are really no surprise. The right side of the offensive line continues to look awful, Bryant McKinnie continues to underperform on the left side of the line, the wide receiving corps lacks a downfield threat, the defense lacks a pass rush from the starting ends, the linebackers continue to struggle, althought less so than last year, covering the pass, the playcalling, on the whole, remains woefully conservative, placing the team in far too many third and long situations, and punt and kick coverage looks to be a weakness.

In addition to the usual suspects, however, the Vikings added a new issue to their list of concerns last night with kicker Ryan Longwell missing a very makable field goal. If the Vikings hope to win games this year against teams whose offenses they can shut down, converting field-goal attempts will be critical. Longwell was brought to Minnesota not only to convert long attempts but also to convert what should be the automatic field-goal attempts. With that being the case, last night's kicking performance was at least mildly disconcerting.

Also disconcerting was the downfield play of the Vikings' offense. While Jackson looked good in the short-passing game, his deep pass is in need of a substantial overhaul.

There are two primary flaws in Jackson's deep pass that need immediate addressing. The first, evidenced in the second quarter of last night's game, is Jackson's penchant for underthrowing the defense when the defense is playing short. Jackson displayed this flaw in the second quarter last night when he failed to lead the open Wade, forcing Wade to pull up well short of the endzone and allowing the defenders to catch up to the play. The result, rather than an easy touchdown, was a near-interception.

Jackson's other primary passing flaw on deep routes, related to his penchant for underthrowing, is his penchant for throwing the football equivalent of an ephis pitch. When Jackson isn't underthrowing his receivers on deep routes, he tends to overthrow them--not too deep, but, rather, too high.

As he has done on several deep passes already in his brief career, Jackson again did last night, launching a pass far higher in the air than deep down the field on a deep route. The result was a pass far short of the intended receiver and one that allowed the defense nearly to intercept what was essentially an up-for-grabs pass.

Opposed to the dart that Jackson throws when he is underthrowing the receiver, and which needs more arc, the ephis throw needs less arc. And both passes need to be deeper to allow the receiver to use the endzone to guard against the safety breaking up the play from behind.

In addition to his difficulties with the deep pass--a pass that Jackson understandably struggles with given how seldom it is employed in the Vikings' system--Jackson struggled when the Seahawks began pressuring him. Against the standard defense, Jackson looked composed and delivered the ball with zip and on the money, at least in the short game. Against a heavy rush, Jackson looked flustered.

Jackson showed promise of being a good quarterback in the future, but he clearly remains a work-in-progress. From his difficulties passing downfield, to composure issues against the blitz, to taking unnecessary timeouts, Jackson looks like what he should look at this point in a promising career. That's not bad if you have a long-term view of things, but it is frustrating for Vikings' fans who have been asked to have a long-term view for too long now, particularly when the defense seems capable of carrying a merely competent offense.


While the Vikings look to be working on most of the issues currently afflicting the team, two issues look unaddressable absent roster changes. Those two issues, unfortunately, center around three highly touted, recent draft picks, Erasmus James, Kenechi Udeze, and Troy Williamson.

James can be excused, at least for another week, for failing to contribute in a game. Udeze, however, cannot. And after a promising first two weeks of play, rookie Brian Robison came back to Earth on Saturday, registering a single tackle and leaving the Vikings' slim on alternatives to their disappointing starting two ends.

The play of the Vikings' ends was a concern going into the off-season and remains a concern now. And for a team with two recent first-round defensive end acquisitions, that's troubling.

Also troubling is the non-existance of Troy Williamson. It appears that, despite all the rhetoric, Williamson truly is, at best, a run-of-the-mill, short-yardage receiver. Williamson is no longer even a starter and, if not for his first-round selection status, would probably be a no-brainer as a pre-season cut. And it is now probably clear to the Vikings what has long been clear to most of the rest of the world--Nike isn't about correcting eye problems, it's about selling itself. And the company did a whale of a job selling the Vikings on some snake oil.

Up Next: Final Tune-Up.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Another Grain of Salt

If it is true in a loss that pre-season games are valuable, not for their outcome, but for assessing a team's strenghts and weaknesses, it is equally true in victory. Thus, while it is encouraging to see the Vikings beat up on a New York Jets team that made the playoffs last season, the outcome is fairly meaningless in contrast with the value of assessing the positives and the negatives of the game.

The Vikings did several things well on Friday night, particularly on defense. Despite facing the Jets' number one offensive unit for the bulk of the first half, the Vikings' number one defensive unit forced the Jets to resort to the run after making Chad Pennington look like a rookie quarterback. That's not all that bad for a Jets' team with a strong running attack, but it doesn't appear to be what the Jets had in mind entering the game, particularly after a week in which Pennington threw only one pass.

On Friday night, Pennington threw three ill-advised passes in the first quarter, two of which led to touchdowns for the Vikings and the third which just as easily could have gone the other way if Vikings' cornerback, Cedric Griffin, had not hesitated in the midst of already jumping the route. Pennington did finish the night with a seventy percent completion percentage, but the two touchdown picks and the forty yards total passing make his high completion percentage virtually meaningless.

And, when the Jets attempted to open holes in the passing game by resorting to the run, they found the sledding even more challenging on the whole. Though Leon Washington continued to show the strong running that he displayed from the mid-point of last season until late in the year, the Vikings forced the Jets to run outside for meaningful yards, with Pat and Kevin Williams again shutting down the interior running game and impressive rookie defensive end Brian Robison putting pressure on the end as well as inside.

Offensively, the Vikings again showed some encouraging signs, particularly, if not exclusively, in the running game. Adrian Peterson, on two or three occasions, showed some good power, forcing his way through what otherwise appeared to be a poorly blocked right side of the Vikings' offensive line and looked right at home in the goal-line offense, running up the middle as though playing against children for an easy touchdown. And Chester Taylor proved a good foil, particularly running behind the left side of the line, albeit in very limited action.

Two additional significant positive signs from the Vikings on Friday were evident on special teams. The performance of the field-goal unit in the waning moments of the first half was particularly encouraging. With no time-outs remaining and the game clock quickly running down, the Vikings calmly marched their field-goal unit onto the field and, with five seconds remaining in the half, set the line, snapped the ball, and got the kick off. Not only did the Vikings orchestrate a routine field goal attempt under significant time constraints--something that would have been unthinkable two years ago--Ryan Longwell split the uprights on the 54-yard field goal attempt.

While there were many encouraging signs on Friday night, there continue to be problems for the Vikings on both sides of the ball.

On defense, the Vikings continue to struggle covering the pass on passing downs. While the Vikings did a fairly good job covering the Jets' passing attack in the base package, the difficulties that the Vikings had covering receivers in clearly passing situations again reared its head, with the Jets either converting far too easily on third down or having the opportunity to convert given the Vikings' coverage, but for poor passes.

One of the problems for the Vikings appears to remain the team's tendency to play the corners off the line. Last year, the Vikings' coaching staff contended that this was a necessary and acceptable component of the so-called Tampa Two defense. That seemed misguided last year when teams routinely picked up easy yards in front of the Vikings' corners and managed far too many first downs after the catch. It seems equally misguided this year.

While the Vikings are far from the only team to play their corners off of the line, they are one of the few teams that does so despite having two--if not three--corners who are perfectly capable of playing on the line and still covering their position. Though older, Antoine Winfield still has the quickness and tenacity to bump and run. And there is every reason to believe that rookie corner Marcus McCauley and second-year corner, Cedric Griffin, are equally, if not more capable. Having such capable and otherwise physical players cede such an advantage is both inopportunistic and likely to aggravate the Vikings' pass-coverage issues throughout the season.

Aside from the corners' lack of aggressiveness on the line of scrimmage, the Vikings also continued to have issues with the linebackers providing pass support in nickel and dime packages. In a Conference in which most teams will force the Vikings to play almost exclusively in nickel and dime packages, the linebackers simply need to perform better against the pass if the Vikings are to live up to their hype as one of the League's best defensive units.

That might require moving Henderson outside where he not only can help what was a questionable run defense on the edge last night, but also allow a more seasoned linebacker to handle the middle linebacker duties. Alas, the rub, as Vikings' fans well know, is that Henderson is the most seasoned linebacker currently on the Vikings' roster. And that might mean either hoping to land another team's pre-season cut or hoping for the best.

A third way to improve against the pass unquestionably is to get Robison into the game. Playing a greater percentage of the snaps last night than did starter Kenechi Udeze, Robison responded well with five tackles, four of them solo, a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown. That's a better line than Udeze posted for the entire season in 2006 and far superior to Udeze's familiar absence in the post-game stat box last night.

Offensively, things remain far more unsettled for the Vikings than they do on defense. When Childress suggests that the "defense is ahead of the offense" at this point in the season, he's both underselling the defense and overselling the offense.

If the League banned the running game today, the Vikings would have no offense. After two pre-season games, the team has accounted for just one offensive touchdown, that being a rushing touchdown.

While the Vikings' running game again looks sound in most respects, the running game can do little when, as likely will be the case at points this season, the Vikings are forced to play from more than one touchdown behind. That will require the Vikings not only to show an interest in the passing game but an aptitude in that realm.

Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson finished his play last night with two completions on four attempts. Bollinger equaled those numbers. And, for the night, the Vikings totaled a mere eight completions on eighteen pass attempts.

Though it is tempting to look at the final score and argue that the Vikings kept the ball on the ground to preserve the win, both logic and head coach Brad Childress' own words run contrary to such thinking. For, if this game was supposed to be about assessing the Vikings' talent at key positions moreso than it was about winning, the Vikings did a poor job assessing the talent of their quarterbacks. And that means that they also did a poor job assessing their receiving corps, which amassed a paltry seventy-two receiving yards.

The focal point for criticism of the Vikings' play-calling since last season has been on the Vikings' short-of-the-sticks approach to third-down play-calling. What's often lost in the rightful displeasure over this play-calling, however, is the overly conservative play-calling on first and second downs that puts the Vikings into third and long situations. Last night's opening drive was the perfect case in point.

On first down, Jackson attempted to dump the ball off to Vishanthe Shiancoe after recognizing that the downfield play that purportedly was called was covered. It's agonizing enough that the Vikings have no receiver on their roster capable of getting downfield separation, but, while Jackson's response on first down is acceptable, even laudable, to follow up the first-down miss with a dump off on second down virtually ensures a third and long, as the Vikings then faced.

The difficulty with the Vikings' play-calling under Childress/Bevill, is that it puts far too great a premium on converting on every single play. Given the short yardage sought on any given play, a failure on just one play in the first three plays inevitably leads to a very high percentage of three and outs. In the old days of 10-9 scores, that might have worked wonders. It doesn't today.

While the playcalling contributed to some of the shortcomings in the Vikings' offense, poor execution exacerbated the situation. The right side of the offensive line continues to flounder, Bryant McKinnie continues to get exploited in pass protection, and there remains too little evidence that the Vikings' have pro personnel at key spots on the line, in the receiving corps, and passing the ball.

Based on the final score, the Vikings did well on Friday night. But the team clearly has important issues to resolve before the season begins. On the positive side, the play appears improved since last week, thanks, in large part, to some good runs by Peterson, some awful Pennington throws, and some nice defensive plays. On the other side of the ledger, the Vikings need to improve pretty much everything that they had trouble with last season--passing, protecting and blocking on the right side of the line, putting pressure on the quarterback, and eliminating penalities.

Up Next: Without Ball?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Some Promise, Some Stagnation

While it is difficult to draw too many solid conclusions from a pre-season performance, the Minnesota Vikings' play on Friday against the St. Louis Rams does suggest a few. Among the conclusions that seem reasonable to draw are the following:

1. Tarvaris Jackson has the speed that we thought he had. On several occasions, Jackson freed himself from certain trouble by relying on his legs over his arm. That turned what last year would have been a certain sack for Brad Johnson into positive yardage.

2. Tarvaris Jackson's passing game has yet to catch up with his running prowess. Despite throwing some bullets to receivers in the short game, to the extent that he was given the opportunity to go deep, Jackson's deep pass still looks as bad as it did last year. Jackson tends to throw higher than he does deep and appears to have difficulty gauging the proper lead on the pass.

3. Brad Childress is intent on showing the world that an offense featuring predominantly runs up the middle and to the weak side of the offensive line and passes to the line of scrimmage are the key to winning football. Although Jackson was allowed to throw a few passes down field, most of the plays were designed as the same type of short passing play that Chilly called so often last season. This seemed to be particularly true on third down and red zone play-calling, when the Vikings made no attempt either to throw past the sticks or into the endzone. To call the play-calling diseased would be an understatement.

4. Troy Williamson has no speed. Despite being timed running somewhere in the neighborhood of a 2.2 in the 40 during his combines, Williamson remains unable to bring with him whatever speed he possesses in drills to the playing field. It's nice to see Williamson hold onto passes thrown to him--and even one thrown a bit off of the mark--but as a slot threat, Williamson is no better than Ryan Hoag or Chris Walsh if he cannot get separation. In single-man coverage, Williamson is just too easy to stay with. Maybe corners are just getting faster than in Williamson's heady draft days. Or maybe Tice and company simply used a defective stop watch. Either way, if this is the best that the Vikings can hope for from Williamson, he not only clearly was not worth a high, first-round pick, he might not even be worth retaining on the roster past this season.

5. The Vikings will continue to struggle to shut down the pass. Though Marcus McCauley gives the Vikings three good cornerbacks and a good nickle package, the Vikings still appear vulnerable in dime situations. When Bulger needed yards, he seemed able to pick them up by hitting the tight end or the short-route receiver. That's on the dime corner and the middle linebacker and that means that the Vikings will be relying on a rookie corner and what is essentially a rookie middle linebacker to stop the bleeding.

6. Brian Robison, the Vikings' fourth-round draft pick out of Texas, is as promising as Kenechi Udeze, a former first-round selection. Robison appeared to be everywhere on the field, registering one sack and three tackles. Udeze appeared to be nowhere. Maybe he didn't play. Would anyone know the difference? If Robison can play as he did Friday against the first-team offense, it might be time for the Vikings to switch to the Big Twelve and away from the always disappointing PAC-10.

7. The right side of the Vikings' offensive line is as advertised, which is to say that it is not too good. The Vikings routinely had trouble running right--the side they favored heavily on Friday night. Only the bootleg appeared to have much success.

8. The Vikings are poised for another season near or below .500. While Bobby Wade appears to be an upgrade over anything the Vikings had at receiver last season, he did no better against the Rams on Friday than most teams' number two receivers did against their opposition in the first pre-season games of 2007. That's no slam against Wade. Rather, it is an indictment of the Vikings' receiving corps which still lacks a down-field threat and a legitimate number one receiver. Much-heralded rookie Sidney Rice accounted for one yard on one reception with no receptions or passes thrown to him in the red zone--his purported area of highest proficiency. Todd Lowber, the player that the Vikings hyped so heavily during free-agency after failing to land a number one receiver? He finished the night with Udeze's line.

While Jackson looked promising in a controlled game that meant nothing to either team, extrapolating the numbers over the course of a game and against a rapidly adjusting, more frenzied defense than he is likely to face in pre-season suggests an average quarterback performance in 2007 with some potential for nice scrambling plays to keep drives alive. Average would be a positive after last season's performance and a nice stepping stone to 2008. But, with Chilly influencing the play-calling, it is difficult to see how average will ever improve beyond that.

Up next: The Other Guys.