Prior to Saturday's stirring home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Minnesota Vikings' defense dedicated itself to stopping the run. Having allowed nearly 120 yards rushing in the first half to the Baltimore Ravens' rushing attack the previous week, that was a reasonable and one that the defense largely attained. Unfortunately, the focus of the Vikings' defense in readying for the regular season did not carry over to the offense.
So irritated was Vikings' head coach Brad Childress with the play of his offense in the first half on Saturday that, despite every inclination in his sun-hat covered pate to the contrary, he marched the starters back onto the field to start the second half. If the intent was to wake up the zombie-like unit, the maneuver failed. After a poor first half, the Vikings' offense continued with its poor play in the second half, regardless of which unit they or the Steelers had on the field.
Entering the pre-season, Childress offered the cliche that the team's two goals were to improve every week so that the team was ready to "come out on all cylinders on opening week" and to avoid serious injuries. The latter objective has become one of degree, the former far from a reality. While injuries to Farwell and Jackson clearly matter, so, too, does the poor play by the offense.
It could be argued that, had Jackson played, his mobility would have allowed him to avoid some of the pressure that a strong Pittsburgh defensive front put on backup quarterback Gus Frerotte. But even with his scrambling abilities, Jackson sooner or later would have had to throw the ball or tuck and run. And there appeared to be little help in meeting either objective with any degree of success. Moreover, as bad as Frerotte sometimes looked on Saturday, his numbers were not markedly different from Jackson's against Seattle.
Adding to the Vikings' offensive frustrations was the team's utter inability to open holes for the running game or for Adrian Peterson to create his own openings. The result was as predictable as Childress' playcalling at times can be. Peterson finished the game with 12 carries for 21 yards. Chester Taylor chipped in four carries for five yards.
When the Vikings' offensive front was not committing a penalty or being pancaked off the snap, it seemed to be more full of holes than ever before. Where left tackle Bryant McKinnie looked awful at times last season, presumed suspension fill-in Artis Hicks predictably looked far worse. And, as poorly as he played last season, right tackle Ryan Cook was merely a shell of that husk on Saturday. Even the Vikings' hope on the right side, second-year starter Anthony Herrera, apeared lost.
When the Vikings' offensive line did provide protection for the quarterback or blocking for the run, the Vikings responded by running the same mundane plays for which Childress has become known, and reviled, his first two seasons in Minnesota and making the worst of those plays. Whether Frerotte was throwing an out short of the sticks to a receiver who broke up the field or the team was setting up the long third down with two first-down runs, the offense never got things going on Saturday and looked miserable even trying to do so.
Some of the Vikings' poor showing undoubtedly is on the play of Frerotte. Some of it is on the absence of the guy who has been getting the reps as the starting quarterback all season. Some of it is on the fact that the Vikings "don't want to reveal all of their secrets in the pre-season." And some of it is on the solid defensive play of the Steelers. But the first drive pretty much summed up the overall performance--false start on Herrera, sack of Frerotte, Peterson to the left for three yards, false start Birk, false start Shiancoe, four-yard pass on third and twenty-three, punt.
If this sounds like a repeat of the last two pre-seasons, that's because it is. For each of the first two seasons in Childress' run as Vikings' head coach, the team has stumbled on offense and ridden the defense in pre-season. Fans were chided for criticizing the obvious short-comings, admonished by the team and resident media cheerleaders alike that the "full offensive package" would not come out until the start of the regular season, even if the full defensive package already was being unveiled. Two years ago, the "full package" never emerged. And last year, save for Peterson's spectacular performance through the middle part of the season, the offense again failed to reveal itself in all of its purported glory.
In week one of the pre-season, against what has become a challenged Seattle Seahawks defense, the Vikings trotted out the passing game for the first time ever under Childress, with considerable success. The inclination was to believe that, by incorporating then absent running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings finally would have an offense capable of operating on all cylinders--as long as the cylinders were allowed fully to fire.
Following weeks two and three of the pre-season, however, the Vikings appear to be regressing. And it cannot all be attributed to penalties or Jackson's absence. Clearly, the Vikings need to commit fewer penalties on offense, but penalties and inability tend to go hand in hand in the NFL. And for an offensive line consisting of a minimum of two suspect NFL players, not only should one expect penalties but also penalties against veterans working to cover the short-comings of the weaker players on the line. Whether Jackson, Frerotte, or JD Booty is under center, the play of the offensive line simply needs to improve by leaps and bounds.
The Vikings can look at the final tally from Saturday and argue that they played a tight game against one of the AFC's better teams. That's true. It is not true, however, that tight means solid. For, while the defense appeared ready for the challenge in most instances, the offense remained AWOL. If the Vikings want to compete in the NFC, let alone the NFL, that has to change, change dramatically, and change this week.
Up Next: Considering Adrian Peterson's Role.