Thursday, December 27, 2007

Old Habits, Off-Season Shortcomings Rear Head in Vikings' Loss

Following a suspect victory over the Chicago Bears last week, the Minnesota Vikings, while acknowledging their mistakes, congratulated themselves for showing resiliency in the face of adversity and perservering for a victory. Sunday, against a measurably better Washington team, the Vikings showed that all the mettle in the world is no match when faced with competency. And little mettle at all is even worse.

In the aftermath of a second, consecutive disappointing on-field performance, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented his hesitancy to pass the ball down the field against a Washington defense clearly poised to stop the run and begging the Vikings to pass. Unfortunately, Childress' epiphany occurred to him only after the fact rather than when the game was still in reach. The result was a well-earned drubbing at the hands of Washington and what will probably be yet another season without even an appearance in the playoffs.

As Childress' laments suggest, the Vikings' problems on Sunday night were largely the consequence of the Vikings' inability and unwillingness to challenge Washington's secondary. Through one quarter, the Vikings had attempted but one pass of any meaningful distance beyond the line of scrimmage; an implausible way to stretch the defense and a particularly confounding approach to matching a defense that the Vikings understood prior to the game would stuff the defensive line of scrimmage to stop the Vikings' running game.

The results were predictable. The Vikings gained virtually no yardage in the first quarter and surrendered a safety. The second quarter offered more of the same with the Vikings building a tidy 0-22 deficit by half.

As coaches with job security are wont to do, Childress accepted responsibility for the conservative play-calling. As coaches with a sense of limited job security are wont to do, Childress refused to defuse questions about the play of his quarterback as a contributing factor in Sunday's meltdown.

There is no question that Jackson, for the second straight week, played below the level of that required of a starting NFL quarterback. Of course, that's often what happens to rookies, save for the truly exceptional ones. Unfortunately, as with his post-game epiphany regarding the team's offensive game plan, Childress has waited far too long to realize what most rightfully and readily recognized last Spring, namely, that experience at quarterback is a prerequisite to success at the position in the NFL.

What the 2007-2008 season will bring for the Vikings is anyone's guess. The team continues to lament its lack of depth at wide receiver, using the contention as a crutch to explain away everything from lack of offensive line protection for the quarterback to Tarvaris Jackson's spotty, sometimes poor play. The truth of the matter, of course, is that, as goes the quarterback, so goes the offense. And right now, the quarterback play is regressing.

Up Next: Numbers. Plus, free agency.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Repercussions of the Eight Man Box

As a prime component of their defensive strategy against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, the Chicago Bears lifted a page from the playbooks of each of the Vikings' post-San Diego opponents, placing eight defensive players in the area commonly referred to as "the box" and daring the Vikings to run. The Vikings took the Bears up on that challenge and, though the team posted reasonably successful rushing totals, fell far below the rushing totals to which they and their fans have grown accustomed this season.

The lingering question is why the Vikings, despite having some success against the eight-men-in-a-box defense for the better part of the 2007 season, have suddenly found the running more difficult against two teams that have had their difficulties stopping the run this season? The answer to that question, as well as to a corollary question regarding Chicago's too-often ease of access to Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, is one and the same.

To answer the question of how two teams can bottle up a Vikings' rushing attack that other teams, using similar tactics, found difficult to address, it is useful, first, to answer the question of how a team successfully attacks a defense that stacks eight defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage? The answer, of course, is that the offense must show an ability and a willingness to pass, particularly when the down and distance suggest a running play.

On Monday, as was also true against San Francisco the previous week, the Vikings simply did not evidence a strong enough passing presence to compel the opposition to withdraw defenders from the box. Clearly, the Bears were content that players such as Bobby Wade and Robert Ferguson could do little damage if they did get free in the resulting man coverage, that others such as Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser posed no threat in the passing game, and that the blitzing pressure that they could put on Jackson with eight men in the box would be sufficient to rattle an inexperienced quarterback. The Bears were correct on all counts, save for slow-man Ferguson's improbably long, painful-to-watch plod down the field.

As he had done earlier in the season, Jackson made some poor decisions early in the game against the Bears and had difficulty putting air under the deep pass. That cost the Vikings some valuable separation from the Bears that resulted in a tight game which, subsequently, kept the pressure on Jackson and compelled the Vikings' coaching staff to tighten the reigns somewhat.

Because the passing game never stabilized, despite decent overall passing yards for Jackson, the Bears continued to keep their defensive players loaded in the box. That, along with the blitzes that the eight-man-front enabled, made rushing difficult for Minnesota.

The suggestion has been offered that to relieve the pressure of the blitz, the Vikings need to resort to more screen plays. The difficulty with relying on the screen play is that opposing defenses are staying home and staying locked on the Vikings' running backs, realizing that the offense runs through the Vikings' running backs and not through the quarterback. That makes screen plays difficult, at best, on most downs.

The better solution is to get the backs and receivers moving both vertically and on slant routes, relying on intermediate passes to set up the deep pass and both passes to set up screens. All of which, if executed, would compel opposing teams to drop defenders into coverage, once again making it possible for the Vikings' offensive line to create running holes.

That's the short answer to the Vikings' recent rushing predicament. But to accomplish the goal set forth above, i.e., to remove the current impediments to the Vikings' rushing attack, the Vikings need to commit themselves to being a threat both to pass and to run. And, for the Vikings, that means convincing teams that they have the ability and desire to pass in a fashion that matters to the outcome of the game--a steady diet of dump-off passes, the type easily defended by defenses that already have eight players in the box, will not do the job.

To improve the passing game, the Vikings need to give Jackson sufficient time in the pocket. Several times on Monday, Bears' players were in the Vikings backfield on the snap. Two plays, in particular, stand out, with Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher running freely past otherwise occupied Viking center Matt Birk.

Birk has received strong criticism for the holes in the Vikings' offensive line Monday night, but is too much of a party-line player to point out that, though he might have been able to slow the Bears' defenders more than he did in certain instances, the responsibility for many of the gaping holes availed to the Bears' defenders on Monday night was Jackson.

It is the responsibility of the quarterback to check the defense and to alter the snap count and direct running backs to pick up a blitzing defender when the quarterback sees the play developing. In two instances in particular on Monday night, Jackson misread the blitz, allowing his back to leave the pocket and snapping the ball on what appeared to be the normal count. The result was a back out of position to assist in picking up the blitz and, rather than a defender guilty of encroachment, a defender lauded for jumping the count.

As Jackson gets more experience under center, he will become more adept and at picking up the hot blitz and directing his backfield on proper assignments. Until that day arrives, however, teams will continue to seize on Jackson's inexperience, creating more clear shots to Jackson. Keeping a proper balance between the passing game, including the form of the passing game, and the running game, will help alleviate this presure by affording the defense fewer blitzing opportunities and making blitzes more difficult to disguise. The rest, however, will have to come through the maturation process.

Up Next: Postgame from Bombay. Plus, can Williamson fill the need for a speedy slant receiver?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Searching For That Mother

In what can most generously be described as one of the uglier NFL football games of the 2007 season, the Minnesota Vikings prevailed over the hapless Chicago Bears on Monday night by a deceptive score of 20-13. In which direction that score is more desceptive, however, depends upon your point of view.

On one hand, the Bears' defense did a respectable job forcing the Vikings to go with plan B--anything involving quarterback Tarvaris Jackson--far more often than Vikings' head coach Brad Childress appeared comfortable with so doing. The result was, by Vikings' standards, a second straight week of sub-standard rushing as the Vikings' running backs tallied a well-below average 109 yards rushing on 25 carries, and three picks for the hurried, harried, and harrassed Jackson.

Jackson's errant passes, sometimes off his back foot, often in a crowd, offered a glimpse of what Vikings' fans might be witness to in the short term should the Vikings, any time soon, be compelled to rely on Jackson to lead a comeback--something Jackson has yet to do in the NFL.

Unlike the past two weeks, when Jackson had ample time to sit in the pocket and no pressure to resurrect a flagging offense, against Chicago the opposite was true. Trailing for much of the game and mostly stymied by the Bears' run defense, the Vikings turned to Jackson to move the offense. In some respects, the gambit worked, as Jackson passed for 249 yards. In other respects, it failed to reveal the progress that Jackson hinted at the past two weeks as two of Jackson's three picks were squarely the result of ill-advised passes.

While the Bears' defense and Jackson conspired to make the Vikings' offense look its plodding worst for most stretches of the game, the Vikings' offense shone as a veritable blueprint for offensive success in the NFL in contrast to the woeful, nearly non-existent entity to which some unabashedly refer as the Bears' offense. Whatever that entity actually is, it surely is one of the uglier sights the modern NFL era has witnessed.

With third-string quarterback Kyle Orton starting for soon-to-be-releasedfirst- and second-string quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, and no running game of which to speak, the Bears' offense truly was something for which only the mothers of those associated with that offense could muster any positive sentiment.

Putrid hardly describes the Bears' offense on Monday. On the night, the Bears had a measly 11 first downs, were 1 of 14 on third-down attempts, averaged 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, and, in a statistic that would make even Childress blush, averaged 8 yards per completed pass against the 32nd-ranked passing defense in the NFL. Orton's unbelievable heave down the field with the game still in the balance and no need to panic merely highlighted the Bears' offensive dysfunction, with Vikings' safety Darren Sharper mercifully putting the woeful show of ineptitude out of its misery with the Vikings' sole pick of the game.

If ever a team should hang its head in victory, this victory comes close for the Vikings. It's nice to win a tight game. It's nice to show some fortitude in the face of unexpected adversity--even if it is the backup quarterback that is showing the lion's share of that fortitude. And it's nice to win a game that was a near must-win. But it really could not have been any less pleasing of a game to watch had it been scripted as such.

Up Next: Stubborn or Realistic? Plus, whither Williamson?

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Other Shoe

In the wake of the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, one stat line leapt out more than did others for the Vikings. That line--116 rushing yards for Minnesota--seemed improbably low for the well-healed Vikings' rushing game, especially coming against the 49ers.

One explanation for the Vikings' low rushing total against the 49ers is that the 49ers simply improved their defensive play, particularly against the rush. Under that theory, the one commonly supported around local water coolers, the 49ers blitzed the Vikings' running backs, attempting to force the Vikings' offense into the hands of Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. That led to more passing plays that resulted in either missed opportunities by Jackson or dropped passes by Vikings' receivers in the face of single- or no coverage.

The play of the 49ers' defense--and the schemes that the 49ers ran against the Vikings' offense--unquestionably offers a partial explanation for the 49ers' success stopping the Vikings' running game. But other explanations are required, as the 49ers confounded the Vikings' running attack even without resorting to the blitz.

The second explanation for the Vikings' relative rushing woes against the 49ers on Sunday is that, in the second half of the game, the Vikings simply reverted to the offense that led them to their 2-5 start. That reversion limited the running backs' total number of rushes to 22 for the game and, not surprisingly, stunted the rushing totals for the game.

Against the Detroit Lions the previous week, the Vikings' running backs rushed 33 times for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Despite holding a 35-10 lead at halftime, the Vikings entered the second half of the game with the plan of attacking the Lions' defense. The result was 184 yards of offense and one touchdown on 30 plays over three second-half drives--the fourth and final drive resulting in two kneel-downs.

With a similar half-time lead against the 49ers, the Vikings went into an offensive shell in the second half, running a meager 21 plays for 47 yards and no points, despite having six second-half possessions. The opening drive of the second half was indicative of the type of plays that the Vikings ran in the second half against the 49ers, with Jackson throwing two passes short of the sticks for four yards total and Peterson attempting a run up the middle on second down for zero yards. The result was five punts in the second half.

As running backs tend to fair better in the second half of games than in the first, it is not surprising that, facing fewer Vikings' offensive plays and less-threatening play-calling, the 49ers limited the Vikings' rushing attack to almost nothing in the second half of Sunday's game.

In the end, the Vikings won by a comfortable margin. But one has to wonder what the second half was all about. If it was about milking the clock, the Vikings' failed, holding the ball for just over 12 minutes. If it was about continuing to establish an offensive rythym, that, too, clearly failed.

About the only thing that can be said of the second half of Sunday's game for the Vikings' offense is that, aside from being ineffective, it did not produce any turnovers. In a must-win, conference road game, perhaps that was the goal of the second half. And that might be just fine. But it might also go a long way to helping explain why it was that the Vikings' running attack never got on track the way that most Vikings' fans have grown accustomed to over the bulk of the 2007 NFL season.

Up Next: Vikings' Greatest Improvement from Last Year. Plus, the Millen Gallows?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Running Issues

One of the confounding results in the Minnesota Vikings' 27-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday was how a Minnesota team, averaging nearly 180 yards rushing per game entering the game, could finish the game with 116 yards rushing? Take away the 80-yard rumble by Chester Taylor and the Vikings had a meager 36 yards rushing for the game, three for Adrian Peterson on 14 carries.

As spectators left scratching their heads, two explanations were offered. The most common refrain was that the Vikings simply were up against one of the league's better run-stopping defenses. That explanation clearly is inadequate, however, as the 49ers rank in the bottom six of NFL teams in stopping the run, allowing 123.5 yards per game on average--seemingly fertile ground upon which the number one rushing offense should flourish.

The other explanation was that the 49ers sold out against the run, giving up the passing lanes. That explanation appears more plausible, but not entirely satisfactory. While the 49ers clearly cheated up with their corners and focused on Peterson, on several Vikings' offensive downs on which the play was not dictated by down and distance, they did not. On those plays, the 49ers blanketed the Vikings receivers, forcing Jackson, who had received ample time in the pocket, to scramble.

That suggests strong overall defense by the 49ers, rather than a defensive scheme that sold out against the run.

There are two other explanations for the Vikings' atypically average rushing performance on Sunday. The first, an old nemesis, is that the Vikings simply are continuing to have problems on the right side of the line.

Of the Vikings' 23 running plays by either Chester Taylor or Adrian Peterson on Sunday, seven went to the left, ten went up the middle, and six went to the right. Taylor gained 97 of his rushing yards running to the left, 4 running up the middle, and 11 running outside of the right tackle. Peterson gained -1 yard on three carries to the left, 8 yards on six carries up the middle, and -4 yards on five carries to the right.

While the numbers look bad across the board, with the exception of Taylor's 80-yard touchdown run to the left and his 11-yard scamper around the right end, it is telling that the Vikings ran only five plays behind the right guard and right tackle and that four of those five plays resulted in negative or zero yardage.

The problem thus appears to be two-fold for the Vikings with respect to executing running plays. The first is that the team's coaches still lack confidence in the right side of the line, calling plays to the right only in the hope of forcing the defense to at least respect runs to the right.

The other is that, when called upon to provide run support, the right side of the line still has problems. Had the Vikings been up against Pittsburgh's or Green Bay's rushing defense, that might have been more understandable, but against the 49ers' defense, it is not.

Up Next: A Second Explanation.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Vikings Beat Up On Little Sisters of the Poor

On the strength of another strong defensive performance against another underwhelming offensive opponent, the Minnesota Vikings moved to 7-6 on Sunday, solidifying their prospects for making the 2007-2008 NFL playoffs. While the 27-7 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers should lay to rest concerns about the Vikings not being prepared to win games that they should win, the victory was not without its reminders that the Vikings still have several things on which they must improve before they are ready to challenge the two or three heavy-weights in the NFL.

The primary area of concern for the Vikings in the big picture is that, while they have been winning of late, and while they have been winning by sizeable margins, the team's victories have been coming mostly at the expense of the league's decidedly lesser teams. While these trends were positives on Sunday, the Vikings will have to show that they can continue their trend of positive play against the lesser teams when facing the league's better teams.

The Vikings' seven victories this season have come over teams with a combined winning percentage of .416. The team's six losses--two against the Packers--have been against teams with a combined winning percentage of .585.

Should the Vikings make the playoffs this season, they would be facing a field with an approximate winning percentage of .719. That's a sizeable improvement in the caliber of team that the Vikings would be facing in the playoffs over what they have faced in all but one of their victories this season.

All of which is not to suggest that the Vikings are incapable of beating some of the better teams in the NFL. They might very well have made some of the adjustments necessary to stop strong passing attacks and to maneuver through stalwart passing defenses. But whether they have made the adjustments to address weaknesses most dramatically laid bare several weeks ago in a loss to Green Bay, however, will not be answered until the playoffs, as the Vikings face three more weak teams in their final three games of the regular season.

Up Next: Some Good Signs and Some Continuing Concerns. Plus, is it the end of the Millen Era in Detroit?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What the Vikings Have That the Patriots Do Not

With the NFL playoffs nearing, the New England Patriots stand at 12-0 and remain the pick of most NFL wonks to win the Super Bowl. Odds aside, however, the Patriots remain sorely lacking in two critical phases of their game--two phases in which the Minnesota Vikings largely excel.

In their past two games, both narrow victories over otherwise struggling teams, the Patriots have begun to show some vulnerability. Analysts have noted the Patriots' inability to stop the pass and the ability of smart defensive coordinators to create unfamiliar blitz packages to put pressure on Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady. And while those two ingredients appear to have been part of the make-up of the Patriots' past two games, there are two far more troubling common themes from each of those two games--at least for the Patriots--that extend beyond the past two weeks.

Against both the Eagles and the Ravens, the Patriots had difficulty making defensive adjustments. Against the Eagles, a team starting the suspect A.J. Feeley at quarterback in place of the injured Donovan McNabb, the Patriots clearly game-planned to stop what appeared to be the Eagles' only offensive threat, Brian Westbrook. The Patriots had modest success against Westbrook, holding him to 52 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries, but much less success against the far-less threatening Feeley, allowing 345 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Facing a similarly challenged Ravens' offense, the Patriots appeared not to game-plan at all on defense, allowing Kyle Boller to pass for 210 yards and two touchdowns--a quiet triumph for the former first-round pick turned benchwarmer. Not to be outdone, the Patriots' defense surrendered 138 rushing yards and a touchdown to Willis McGahee, who surpassed 100 yards rushing for just the fourth time this year and bested his previous season-best rushing total of 114 yards attained against the Buffalo Bills.

For many NFL teams, the Patriots' flaws would be welcome. But for a team with designs on the NFL Championship, the Patriots' flaws could be crippling. With four-touchdown leads in numerous games this season leading opponents to eschew the running game, the Patriots have had the luxury for most of the season of rushing three or four linemen and cherry-picking opposing quarterbacks. In tighter games, however, such as the games against the Eagles and Ravens, the Patriots' defense has been forced to play honest defense and, at times, even to blitz when a pass play was not a certainty. The results have been revealing.

But it hasn't just been the past two weeks that the Patriots have evidenced vulnerability. Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots focused on Manning and left Addai to run wild to the tune of 114 receiving yards and 112 rushing yards. In the absence of Marvin Harrison, the Patriots eked out a victory over the Colts, but, in so doing, they appeared far less invincible than they had against the very numerous dregs of the league that they have pummeled this season.

Equally disconcerting to Patriots' fans as the Patriots' defensive issues should be the Patriots' most glaring short-coming, the inability to run the ball. Whether Laurence Maroney is hurt or Patriots' head coach Bill Belichek simply is so intent on overtaking the Vikings' regular-season points' record that he refuses to coordinate a running game, the Patriots simply have not been able to run the ball when it has mattered most.

Against the Eagles, Maroney led the Patriots in carries and yards with 10 and 31, respectively. He also led the Patriots in these categories against Baltimore, with 13 carries and 44 yards, and against Indianapolis, with 15 carries and 59 yards. As the numbers accurately reflect, the Patriots not only have struggled to establish a running game in their close games, they have also failed even to attempt to establish a running attack.

Price of Tea in China

What all of this has to do with the Vikings should be evident to Vikings' fans. What the Patriots lack, the Vikings' most have, with a sublime running game and a defense that has shown an ability to adjust in most games, despite having to play mostly in tightly contested games.

As most NFL coaches will concede, what matters most in the playoffs is a team's ability to run the ball, stop the run, and slow down the passing game. While the Patriots are on pace to set the single-season record for points scored in the regular season, that record will be meaningless if the Patriots fail to shore up their weak rushing attack and suspect defense before the playoffs begin. If Belichek does not make those adjustments, Patriots fans will be justified in questioning their head coach's seeming dismissiveness of the running game in favor of an aerial show.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fundamental Changes Pay Dividends

Three weeks ago, after a demoralizing 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings appeared headed for a second straight dismal finish to their season. The loss to the Packers was complete in every sense of the word with the Packers running rough-shod over the Vikings' previously celebrated defense and the Vikings' offense clearly doing nothing. The loss put the Vikings at 3-6 and well on the outside looking in--if even looking--at the playoff picture.

Three weeks later, the Vikings' situation is much changed. After successive victories over the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions, the latter two by wide margins, the Vikings have positioned themselves in the driver's seat for one of the NFC's two wild-card spots. With the weakest remaining schedule of any team in the NFL, the odds appear strong that the Vikings will make the playoffs in 2007. And with a fundamental change in how things are done on offense, the Vikings now might be an unwelcome opponent for NFC playoff teams.

In week one of the 2007 season, the Vikings beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-3. In that victory, the Vikings had 23 first-down plays. Of those 23 first-down plays, the Vikings called eight passing plays and 15 running plays. Of the eight passing plays, the Vikings did not throw a ball more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage until the 13:12 mark of the third quarter.

In week ten of the season, the Vikings' 34-0 loss at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had a meager 11 first-down plays in the first three quarters of the game, by which time the score already read Green Bay 27 and Minnesota 0. Of those eleven plays, the Vikings threw six passes and ran the ball five times. The Vikings' first pass thrown more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage did not occur until the 2:12 mark of the third quarter, with the game in desperation mode.

This week, the Vikings ran 22 first-down plays by the 2:34 mark of the third quarter, the point at which the Vikings took a comfortable 28-10 lead and the point at which the Vikings rightfully opted to shift to a run-first mind-set to manage the game clock. Of the 22 first-down plays, the Vikings ran 11 pass plays and 11 running plays.

The shift in emphasis from the run to the pass between week one and week 13 is readily noticeable. But that shift in emphasis is only meaningful because the shift led to results that a similar shift in emphasis to the more balanced offensive playcalling did not lead to in the Vikings' week 10 loss to Green Bay.

While the Vikings did not attempt a non-dump-off pass in the week 10 loss at Lambeau Field until nearly the fourth quarter, on Sunday against the Lions, the Vikings threw several passes beyond the sticks in the first half alone, and many more for the game. Those passes forced the Lions to honor the option of the intermediate and deep routes opening up the running game and swing passes. The Vikings' long-overdue unshackeling of Jackson as a running threat only added to the Lions defensive concerns. The result was a much more explosive Minnesota offense than Vikings' fans have seen under head coach Brad Childress. And it was a welcome sight.

Opening up the offense not only paid dividends for the Vikings on offense, it paid equally significant dividends for the Vikings' defense. Unable to rely on the Vikings playing for a close victory, the Lions were forced to adhere to more predictable offensive schemes, thus giving the Vikings' defense an opportunity to work blitzes and normal rushing techniques more effectively. While it always helps to play a Mike Martz offense, particularly one that loses a key receiving weapon such as Roy Williams, the Vikings' game plan on Sunday likely would have shone against any opponent.

The lessons from Sunday are evident. After much resistance, Childress has finally come around to the notion that a balance between a meaningful passing scheme and a running attack are more formidable than is the dump-off game best left in the 1950s. If the Vikings continue with the formula employed today--particularly when it incorporates wide-receivers Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison into the game plan--they could be looking not only at the playoffs, but an opportunity to mean something in the playoffs.

Up Next: What the Vikings Have that the Patriots Do Not.