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.

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