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?


DC said...

Dear Vikes Geek:
Good post, as usual.
Two things really worry me about the Vikes offence right now (besides the mess that is its receiving corps.) One - the team's vaunted left side of the O-line isn't so vaunted. Birk isn't what he once was and McKinnie's never been what he was supposed to be. Even decent speed rushers give McKinnie fits. So, the left-side of the O-line, supposedly the team's strength, has a fading center and a left tackle who can't keep pass rushers from climbing all over his QB's back. Not good.

Concern number two: Jackson threw a grand total of four passes last night. We all know he's raw. We all know he needs as many snaps in game situations as possible to learn how to be a starting QB. We also know - barring an injury - he'll be our starter come week one. So, why did Drew Henson, Tyler Thigpen and Brooks Bollinger, for that matter, get as much or more PT as T-Jack against Jets? Shouldn't they be preparing this kid for what he's going to see in week one and beyond? Each day I lose a little bit more faith I have in Chilly. And I didn't have much to begin with.

Vikes Geek said...

Thanks DC. It's a fair question you ask regarding Jackson's limited number of passes. Childress undoubtedly will contend that it's simply how things worked out in this game--the offense wasn't on the field much in the first quarter and, as a result, Jackson had few opportunities to pass. Chilly also purportedly wanted to find out if Bollinger is a suitable backup by playing him against the Jets' number one offensive unit (if that was the test, by the way, Bollinger failed). Chilly probably also figured that it made little sense to go back to Jackson in the second half to play against the eager-to-prove-something second- and third-team players, just to get some pass attempts in.

While I don't necessarily disagree with Chilly's logic, given what he has given himself to work with at quarterback, his playcalling once again is partly responsible for the short opening drive and the plays called thereafter that focused on establishing the run.

Although it's important to enter the regular season with a quarterback who's not afraid to pass the ball, it's going to be tough for Jackson to react during the regular season to situations taht the coaching staff is shielding him from in pre-season. And that's eventually going to haunt the Vikings.

The pity in all of this is that the Vikings could have kept Jackson in the wings for another season or two and allowed him to learn as a backup as most teams do with raw rookies. With a limited window for some of the defensive stalwarts, finding a veteran such as Trent Green--someone capable of leading a passing attack but also willing to hand the ball off--might have made the Vikings a much better team now, while allowing Jackson to step in a year from now much better prepared to run the offense.

Now that the Vikings have cast their lot with Jackson, however, it would seem incumbent upon the team to get him the practice he needs in real game situations. I don't believe that the team has done that enough so far this season. Maybe there's still time.


DC said...

I understand Chilly's thinking Friday night regarding the PT given to Jackson. Still, what I would have liked to have seen is that once the master plan broke down - thanks to the Jets having the ball most of the first quarter - Chilly having the sense to realize Jackson needed more reps and then play him most of the second half.

Like you say, they're stuck with what they've got at QB behind Jackson for this year. Bollinger's useless. Henson's hopeless. And Thigpen's a seventh rounder. They need to take the kid gloves off Jackson and get him more game action this preseason, or else they are headed for 4-12 or 3-13 land. And if that happens, there may not be a year three for the Childress Administration. But maybe that's not a bad thing...

Vikes Geek said...


I agree with you. Even if the Vikings had discovered this week that Bollinger was not a worthy starter, it isn't clear how such a discovery this week versus next week or the week after makes any difference. There seems to be nothing to gain by cutting Bollinger now when, as you argue, Henson is worse and Thigpen is a rookie, particularly when there currently is no viable replacement on the market. Given that, there ought to have been no rush to evaluate Bollinger this week, particularly when the Vikings are all but certain of having the opportunity to play Jackson two quarters each of the next two weeks while still having at least one quarter for Bollinger to start against the opposing team's first unit.

Unfortunately, it looks all but certain that, even if Chilly posts a 4-12 season, he's here for at least the length of his contract. He has four years left on his deal and Zygi has already laid the groundwork to soften fan disappointment for the next two seasons, having given his "three-year-plan" speech, one year after giving his "we-have-the-talent-to-compete-immediately" speech. Yawn.