Monday, December 21, 2009

Curing the Vikings' Woes

At 11-3, the Minnesota Vikings face three possible playoff scenarios. Two more wins and two New Orleans' losses and the Vikings finish with the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage for as long as they can remain alive in the playoffs. Two more losses and two Philadelphia Eagles' wins and the Vikings finish with the third seed in the playoffs and homefield for the first round, but a road trip in round two. Any other scenario and the Vikings likely finish with the second seed in the NFC and a first round bye but with no guarantee of home field through the NFC playoffs.

For any of the Vikings' playoff scenarios to be relevant, however, the Vikings must become relevant. Until the their listless performance in Arizona, the Vikings looked as good as, or better than, any team in the NFL. The running game wasn't functioning at a high level, the offensive line was missing blocks and failing to block in the running game too often, and the secondary was inconsistent, but, overall, the team had shown better than had most any other NFL team.

The Arizona game exposed the Vikings' flaws, however, as the Cardinals' defensive ends blew past the Vikings' sloth-footed tackles, the Cardinals' receivers exploited the Vikings' nearly invisible safeties, and the Vikings failed to offer any semblance of a balanced offensive attack even before the game turned into a route.

Two games later, one a sound victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the other a blowout loss to the woeful Carolina Panthers, and the Arizona performance seems more a trend than was the recovery against the Bengals.

There is hope for the Vikings, however, assuming the Vikings' coaching staff figures out quickly what time it is--time to start thinking out of the box, or at least outside of head coach Brad Childress' box.

With the Vikings leading 7-6 on Sunday night, Childress made an unusual proposal offer to his starting quarterback, suggesting that Brett Favre sit for the rest of the night to avoid the pummeling he had been taking courtesy the windmills otherwise known as Phil Loadholt and Bryant McKinnie. Favre would hear none of it, insisting that the call to bring in Tarvaris Jackson to save him from injury was absurd. After a brief sideline back and forth, Childress relented.

The irony of the story is that Childress would have made the right call in pulling Favre. With zero protection, Favre could do nothing in the pocket and, with Shiancoe and Berrian opting not to play and Harvin mostly on the sidelines, the game had been reduced to an ineffective running game and an occasional attempt to pass to Sidney Rice in double coverage. Unfortunately, Childress caved to Favre's obstinance.

The result was predictable. Favre got pummeled some more and soon began making awful to bizarre passes. The Vikings' fate was sealed.

It's not as though Jackson would have resurrected the Vikings' fortunes on Sunday night. Given the poor performances by virtually all members of the team, there was little that could be expected of a backup quarterback. But at least Jackson would have been able to run for his life and avoid most of the blitzing defenders that sieved into the Vikings' backfield.

Replacing Favre with Jackson would have been a wise though entirely precautionary move. It also would have been a concession that the Vikings' coaching staff did not properly prepare the team to play on Sunday.

Bolder moves are required to resurrect the Vikings' suddenly moribund offense, however. A good starting point is to use a two tight-end set to cover the two tackles. The Vikings can then either go with an empty backfield or a three-receiver set that includes Percy Harvin.

Adding a running back to the backfield in the two tight-end set reduces the Vikings' options for receivers, but gives the team balancing options for running and passing. The tight ends should help stabilize blocking and provide a particular advantage for running around the ends.

The Vikings also have the option of using two backs out of the backfield with the two tight-end set and using one wide receiver. Clearly, such a formation favors the short game. But that should suit the Vikings well as they look to re-establish what should have been the core of their offensive system this year.

In goalline situations, there remains no reason not to overload one side of the offensive line with two tight ends and to use a fullback along with a running back in the backfield.

Clearly, these are not standard out of the box suggestions. Rather, they are primary in-the-box maneuvers for most NFL teams. For whatever reason, however, the Vikings seem insistent on eschewing the tried and true in favor of going down the path that has proven most vulnerable--keying on the passing game and forgetting about the running game. If changing that mindset means thinking outside of the box, then that is what the Vikings need to do to resurrect their playoff hopes.

Up Next: NFL's Interest in the Vikings.


Peter said...

Do we really own the tie breaker over the Eagles? I thought if they win out and Minnesota loses even one more (or the Eagles lose once and the Vikings lose twice) then Philadelphia would take over the 2 seed.

Peter said...

"The Vikings also have the option of using two backs out of the backfield with the two tight-end set and using one wide receiver. Clearly, such a formation favors the short game. But that should suit the Vikings well as they look to re-establish what should have been the core of their offensive system this year."

VG -

This is exactly what I said in my comments in the previous post. Kleinsasser & Shianco, Peterson & Taylor, plus Harvin OR Rice. I think Kleinsasser could block with Taylor chipping on whatever side the rush would be anticipated weaker, and that there would be a LOT of rush/pass options with Taylor, Harvin and Peterson in the mix.

SupaFan said...

Isn't it a shame! Good article though.

The worst thing that happened to the Vikings since the Arizona game isn't the too losses it is the contract extension of their head coach.

Cabrito said...

I agree entirely with SupaFan. It's beyond my comprehension why Wilf would give Chili a contract extension when the latter hasn't yet accomplished anything of note beyond defeating a bunch of losing teams, some of those victories being nail-biters.

But I have another issue to raise with you, VG. I was wondering if you had an opinion on the great difficulty that even good teams seem to have with stopping the pass. In the old days, a 300-yard passing game almost ensured victory. Now it's commonplace for the quarterback who throws for the most yards to lose the game. Consider the Pittsburgh-GB game last week. The Steelers won on the last play, but they could easily have lost. If they had, Roethlisberger's 503-yard total would have been a few yards less, as he presumably wouldn't have completed that last TD pass. But imagine: a team would have passed for nearly 500 yards, and lost! How many yards did Rodgers have? I'm not sure, but I think it was over 400. These numbers are staggering. The NFL has obviously changed radically since the 70's, 80's, and even 90's.

Do you have any explanation for this? Are rule changes responsible? Are quarterbacks and receivers that much better? And is a weak pass defense necessarily a huge detriment to a team? The latter question is particularly germane, since the Vikings are surely not competent to shut down a high-powered passing attack come playoff time.

vikes geek said...


You noted the primary reason for the increase in passing yardage from the early years of the NFL to the modern day--the rule changes. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to defend a well-thrown ball to a capable receiver covered by a single defender. Even in the cover-2, defenders are at the mercy of taller receivers and well-thrown passes. The league wanted more scoring and more long plays and the rule changes got that for teams able to find decent quarterbacks and capable receivers.

Another factor contributing to the increase in passing yardage is the limited roster. With injuries in virtually every secondary on a yearly basis, almost every team faces short-handed situations at some stretch during the season.

Finally, there seems to be an athlete shortage at cornerback and, more particularly, at safety. It's not that the safeties and corners are not good athletes, but, rather, that they are not as gifted at their positions as are those whom they must defend. This disparity would make sense, given that the better athletes will stay on the offensive side of the ball when they arrive at college, while others will convert to corners and safeties. It also makes sense in terms of market and Darwinian processes are concerned, as cornerbacks and safeties generally receive less money over their careers than do receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks of similar regard at their respective positions.

In short, rules, process, and market dynamics have all contributed to the abundance of passing yardage in the modern era. Imposing a misfit defensive scheme has not helped Green Bay any this year, however.