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.

17 comments:

Ryan said...

I think the Vikings have the second easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. The Cardinals have the first.

It was great to see All Day come out and perform like he did yesterday. I'm not sure what changed between the Green Bay spanking and now, but I love it.

Bill From Arlington, VA said...

Could it be that we've all sold Chili short on his willingness to adjust his system? The continuing turnaround of TJax's game is truly remarkable. Not sure what I would attribute this to but other than the pick he threw he played a nearly flawless game and his accuracy has improved 100%. Ever the voice of caution, however, we need to avoid the pitfalls of the classic trap game going to SF this week where last year's season began to unravel.

RM said...

Congrats to Coach Childress on making adjustments to a philosophy that wasn't working. I've definitely sold him short thus far. I'd love for the Vikings to succeed, and to have to eat a delicious plate of crow. When I see a game plan like yesterday, and T. Jackson looking as though he's starting to get it, it makes me think there's light at the end of the tunnel. Side note: How about our rookies? Productive class so far. And yes Bill, I'm nervous about next week. Let's hope there's no letdown.

J. Lichty said...

That was a kick ass offense. Things have improved since Bevell took over play calling from evil Ned Flanders.

I agree that there has been a change in philosophy but also you have to look at the change in execution. The right side of the line with herrera and Cook is much improved. McKinnie has been much improved. Richardson is a terrific full back and it looks like the receivers have started blocking better. Wade's crackback on a Peterson broken play was a welcome sight.

The zone stretch seems to be working very well as the Vikes line is surprisingly mobile and is getting out into the second level quite easily. I like that they mix it up with more traditional blocking schemes in short yardage. That prevents a defense from schemeing solely against the zone which can lead to gap slanting and completely negating the ability for the weak side linement to seal on the first level.

The pass blocking has been much better as well. Jackson was hurried a few times, but his reads were good. He seemed very calm back there and with a good feel for the pressure and a good sense of when to run, when to check down (which he did nicely a few times).

Jackson's accuracy was very good and the receivers generall ran good routes.

I have to comment on Chilly's fake field goal and his challenge as well.

It was a Bush League move to fake fg up that many points, but I have no problem with him doing it. This team needs to get a killer instinct and if takes being a-holes to do it, I am fine with it.

Also strange to challenge up that many points (although at least he was correct). What rule though says the other team gets to keep the ball when you recover a fumble. Don't know that rule, and if so it is the most ridiculous rule I have ever seen.

Hope that Allsion gets more playing time in liue of the biggest bust since Dimitrius Underwood. Nice to see YAC and an actual td on special teams. Wow.

Thanks again for the great insight VG.

Vikes Geek said...

I'm not sure anyone sold Childress short, except, perhaps, as BFA suggests, with respect to his willingness to change. Instead, until recently, Childress had been selling both his team's talent and conventional wisdom short. Necessity compelled him to consider alternatives to his system. And the results were as Vikings' fans predicted, or at least hoped, they would be.

Throwing past the chains and then relying on YAC is much more sensible than the behind-the-line dump-offs that the Vikings had been running. Allowing Jackson to run for a first down when all other options are exhausted is a nice change as well. For whatever reason, weddedness to a "system" probably being the answer, Childress simply refused to change until recently. Commitment to an out-moded system paralyzed the offense and put even more pressure on the defense.

Although it is true that Detroit has been increasingly putrid the last few weeks--check out Lionbacker.com for some true fan resentment of a team--the Vikings face much of the same the rest of the way and even into the playoffs, should they qualify. That bodes well for a team with a strong running game, a vastly improved offensive line, improving quarterback play, good defense, and strong special teams' play.

Several flaws remain, but those flaws are a bit more palatable today than they were just two weeks ago.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

Ryan,

One of the keys to the lopsided loss to Green Bay was the lack of confidence in Bollinger. Bollinger essentially did not throw a forward pass until the third quarter was nearly over and the Vikings were down 27-0. To be sure, the Packers have a better defense than do the Lions, but that does not explain the playcalling, the result of which was far too many short drives leading to punts.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

BFA,

Tarvaris Jackson played as well as possible yesterday, save for the one pick. He stepped up in the pocket when there was pressure, ran when the pocket collapsed and there was no alternative, got rid of the ball when running and passing were not options, had both zip and touch on his passes, and remained calm. It was a very encouraging display and one, if continued, that should leave Vikings' fans comfortable with the prospect of Jackson being the starter in 2008. Again, Detroit looked awful, but no worse than most of the teams in the NFC, if not the NFL, currently look.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

RM,

The rookie class looks very good. Having three players from any draft produce is promising. The Vikings have five players producing at a sufficient level to merit having drafted them where the Vikings drafted them. Though the Vikings greatly improved their odds of a successful draft by having Peterson on the board at number seven and drafting high in each round, they've shown in the past that talent on the board and high picks don't necessarily correlate with wise selections. Hopefully, those nightmare drafts are a thing of the past.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

Lichty,

That was a kick ass offense--too bad it wasn't in play earlier this season.

I loved the fake field goal. The Vikings were too close in to make punting worthwhile under the circumstances and too far out to make a field goal automatic. Other than keeping the offense on the field to attempt to convert on fourth down, the fake field goal really made the most sense. Plus, it was a very well run play.

Though the official's final call did not make it clear, I believe what happened on the fumble play was that the officials initially blew the play dead as a forward pass. Therefore, any subsequent recovery would be irrelevant given that the play was already dead. Though the officials admitted their mistake by admitting that the play was a fumble rather than an incomplete pass, they could not give the Vikings the ball even with that admission given that the Vikings recovered the ball on a play that was ruled an incomplete pass on the field.

VG

35 yr Vike fan said...

Hi Vikes Geek:
Thanks for the great blog and posts. It can be argued that play calling a more aggressive offense is the reason for this new Vikes team we have seen in the last 3 weeks. But as I have been saying in past weeks, I have seen just glimpses of improvements in TJ, in this win over the Lions it was more than a glimpse. TJ is really making progress now and I have to take my hat off to Childress and his ability to see something in TJ that I didn't. I'm still not a Childress fan and may never be, his style is not what I like to see of a head coach, but if he wins I can live with it.

Also I think that Rice and Allison are showing why they are going to be the big time players for the Vikings. What a great '06 draft we had, has to rank as one of if the best we ever have had. Peterson, Rice, Allison, TJ, and we lost Thigpen to KC in that snafu after training camp. I see Thigpen played for them yesterday and wasn't bad. Hats off again to Speilman, Studwell and Childress and company for a great draft, even though we just got lucky when Peterson fell to us, at least they had the brain power not to pass on him like the other guys did. Man are they crying now. Keep up the great blog VG.

Cabrito said...

Well, FINALLY! After 27 games under Childress, the so-called KAO finally achieved what it is purportedly designed for, the ability to sustain consistent drives down the field and score touchdowns. Do you recall the best game the Vikes played last year, against Seattle. If I'm not mistaken, they won that one with some defensive scores and a 95 yard run. Wins over San Diego and Chicago this year? Yes, thanks to AP going wild. The whipping of the Giants? Credit the defense, which scored three times and set up one of the two offensive TDs (the other was scored on a long pass). If you look at the record over the 27 games, you'll find that not once before have the Vikings managed to do what good teams have to do, maintain ball control by mounting consistent drives. VG, you definitely put your finger on the key factor enabling Sunday's success, namely opening up the offense by throwing intermediate-range passes to keep drives alive. Other factors contributed, of course -- TJ's legs, AP's brilliance, etc. But finally, the Vikings won a game with consistent offensive firepower. Can they keep it up? Time will tell, but at least there's hope for the future.

Peter said...

VG,

Great post. I see a scenario where the Vikings get into the post season, dispatch Seattle or Tampa Bay, get a shot at Green Bay (wouldn't be the first time the Vikes beat the Packers in the post season after being swept in the regular season!) and travel to Dallas to get a second chance against the Cowboys who did NOT play a great game or win convincingly to an inferior Vikings team earlier this year. Holy buckets, is it possible we see the Vikes go to the Supoer Bowl?

I'm really excited to see your next post as I have a flicker of hope that Minnesota could run on New England, could pressure Brady into enough mistakes to be significant, and keep the game close enough to be winnable in the final minutes. Goosebumps.

Bill From Arlington, VA said...

Peter,

As Keith Jackson used to say, "Whoa, Nellie."

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Yes, this was an impressive win but I'm not quite ready to put this team into the Super Bowl or even deep in the playoffs but I was fearful after the Puker humiliation that Chili would lose the team and they'd fold up like a cheap suit.

To resort to an old cliche, let's take them one at a time and this is no time to look past a classic trap game in traveling to the West Coast to play SF where the season really came unglued last year. But looking at the teams and venues on our remaining schedule we should make the playoffs and would nearly be assured of doing so had the Browns gotten that call against AZ y'day.

Interesting note that Chris Mortensen said tonight on the ESPN pregame that Chili had gone back and watched tape of McNabb at a similar point in his career as TJax and said the development matched almost entirely. What's really impressed me about him the last couple of weeks is his ability to check down and make very accurate throws.

VG, et al, thanks again for a really intelligent blog. Why the Strib doesn't just shut down AccessVikings is beyond me. What a waste. 99% pure drivel and flamebait.

GW Mush said...

Yea, I got a chuckle about the superbowl scenario optimism also, hehe

The key is to not get to low when things are going bad, and not to high when things are going good, or you will drive yourself crazy as a football fan.

Lot of good things happening with the Vikings the last few weeks but we shall see if they can remain consistent and not only keep this going for the next four games but into next year.

Tavaris is improving but he has only seen basic coverages because teams always stack 8 men in the box. Now that Tavaris has shown he might be able to hurt teams with the pass, I suspect he will see more disguised coverages on passing downs.
I also noticed that the Vikings are not having penalties from their offensive line anymore. They dont hold or false start. Most of the holding penalties have been from wide receivers. O-line is doing a great job although they can still improve on pass blocking.
Now that the vikes are on a mini roll, lets hope that Tavaris doent get hurt!

GW Mush said...

A question For Vikes Geek.
Is Adrian Peterson's knee brace temporary or are they going to make him wear it forever out of injury paranoi?

Heck, if he is heal, takes the brace off and let it rip!

Bill From Arlington, VA said...

GW,

You might be right about the coverages but without studying the film I couldn't say but TJ seems to be better on hitting his checkdowns and making his read progressions instead of zeroing in on his primary as he was doing earlier. Why Shiancoe isn't involved more is something of a mystery to me. TE is always a key receiver when the other team is playing 8 in the box and in Cover 2
as well.

I think the brace will stay on the rest of the season. It probably gives AP some confidence and based on Sunday's games it didn't hurt his lateral moves at all although it appeared to maybe take a half step or so off his full afterburner.

If I were Chili I'd be showing the lowlights from last year's game at SF as a reminder of where last season imploded.

SirFrancis said...

I'm as thrilled as anyone over the recent turn-around. But we Childress critics were obviously not off-base in criticizing him. After the 2-5 start this year, his record was 8-15. And this came after he inherited a team that had gone 9-7! When you're basically losing two out of every three games, you clearly deserve criticism.

It's great to see Jackson's improvement -- the most tangible reason for the winning streak -- but even then we Childress critics don't owe him an apology. Since poor QB play was obviously holding this team back, where would the Vikings be if they had a Garcia at the helm all year? If you saw the article in the Press on Saturday, the "unnamed veterans" quoted in it mentioned Childress turning the team over to someone so green as Jackson as one of their biggest complaints, even though they all feel Jackson can be a good QB .

Clearly, Childress has to be feeling pretty good right now. And I'm glad he's succeeding since Wilf seemed determined to bring him back next year no matter what. But football, like life, is a fluid situation. We all had legitimate gripes a few weeks ago. Now... well we all have a lot to cheer about.