Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Straw Men Guide Vikings to Another Road Loss

In the wake of last week's road drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings' head coach Brad Childress lamented the fact that he failed to provide his highly paid left tackle with help blocking his man. Instead, Childress stopped the bleeding that was Bryant McKinnie by pulling him in favor of a player that never plays the position. The far-less-player modestly outperformed the starter.

McKinnie acknowledged his awful performance last week stating that he did not blame the coach for pulling him. "I wasn't doing my job," McKinnie admitted. McKinnie laid the blame not on his coach--at least not directly--but on a problem he acknowledged two weeks earlier. "I'm so focused on getting my feet in the right position on every play that it's taking all of my attention--there's too much to think about," McKinnie confided.

In the wake of the NFL's revelation that it would be looking to examine the brains of deceased NFL players for concussion damage, McKinnie's comment was either telling or highly ironic. In the wake of last night's overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, it will be interesting to see if the NFL considers expanding its review to deceased head coaches.

Despite his acknowledgment of the blocking problems last week--problems that, in truth, have existed for the better part of Childress' run in Minnesota--the Vikings opened Monday night's contest with cover for their offensive tackle, but not the left tackle. Instead, the Vikings provided cover for right tackle Phil Loadholt. That still left McKinnie to defend his man straight up on most plays, a task McKinnie decidedly was not up to.

The Vikings continued this theme throughout much of the first half and into the second, favoring cover for Loadholt in the hope that that would help suddenly leaky right guard Anthony Herrera. It did not. Instead, it merely highlighted the Vikings' serious offensive line woes.

At the end of last season, the Vikings had three primary concerns. The most glaring was who would play quarterback. Brett Favre entered the picture and has played well beyond the Vikings' wildest expectations. But that has not been sufficient to overcome either the weaknesses along the offensive line or the in-the-face-of-difficulty decision-making of the Vikings' coaching staff. Add to that the team's persistent problems at safety and the now glaring hole at middle linebacker and the Vikings actually look more in need of retooling now than they did at the end of last season.

The offensive line issues continue because the Vikings are attempting to make do with one high-level offensive lineman in Steve Hutchinson, two average to below average linemen in McKinnie and Herrera, and two often overwhelmed rookies in center John Sullivan and Loadholt. But the problems are exacerbated by the coaching staff's inexplicable inability to adjust to game situations, even when presented a repeating pattern of results.

By the fourth quarter last night, Vikings' coaches finally hit on a successful blocking technique. Rather than merely covering one tackle, they either covered both with a tight end on one end or on both ends, or a tight end on one end and a late-releasing back out of the backfield, or they covered one tackle and pulled the running back to pick up the all-but-certain free roam of the defensive end on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. It was an intelligent move. Alas, the Vikings only employed it long enough to catch the Bears. With the game on the line, the Vikings reverted to their tactics of the first three quarters, leaving Favre open to slaughter.

Clearly, the Vikings have identified at least one effective method for blocking mediocre defensive lines. If they stick with that method for an entire game, they should be able to forge their way through a horrendously weak NFC. I'd suggest where they go from there, but, right now, it is fanciful to consider the Vikings moving beyond even the first round of the playoffs.

That's because, in addition to the offensive line problems, the Vikings now essentially are playing with eight defensive players. Jasper Brinkley is a mess at linebacker and the safeties are invisible.

Brinkley played a role in virtually every Chicago scoring drive on Monday, save, perhaps, for the final dagger. He misread plays, misdirected teammates, and demonstrated zero ability to cover the tight end--a short-coming which he frequently exhibited against the Bears. Playing the nickel the entire game would be preferable to employing the anguish that is Brinkley.

While Brinkley was mostly awful, he at least made an effort. The same cannot be said for either of the Vikings' safeties, neither of whom even appeared on-screen on any of the Bears' passing plays. Had the Vikings played without their safeties, likely nobody would have noticed.

The problem with the Vikings' safeties is not entirely a personnel problem, however. Rather, as was evidenced by the poor performances of both Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' secondary is not reading and reacting to plays. Instead, they appear to be stuck to assigned spots on the field. This might help ensure that no offensive threat is ever left uncovered, but it also ensures that no offensive threat is ever fully covered. It's one thing to give up the yards in front when you have safeties behind and a stout linebacker in the middle. It's quite another when you employ at those three positions the players that the Vikings currently employ.

In his parting shot at the Vikings, New Orleans Saints' safety Darren Sharper lamented the fact that he was not allowed to roam. This year's Vikings' secondary suggests the short-comings of not allowing the secondary sufficient read-and-react discretion. With players not making plays anyway, there is little reason not to introduce such flexibility into the system post haste.

Falling behind by 17 to a Bears' team that had done nothing on offense for almost one month and was playing without several defensive starters is not a good harbinger for a team intent on making a playoff run. With the talent on the Vikings' team, however, there still remains zero excuse for not making a playoff push. That push, of course, requires effort by all involved--not the least of those being the Vikings' coaching staff.

Up Next: Forgetting the Small Things.

6 comments:

DC said...

Come on VG – give Tyrell Johnson some credit. He did make a nice breakup on that one long pass from Cutler in the first half.

Other than his interception against St. Louis, that might be the only other positive play he's made this season.

Cabrito said...

An excellent analysis, VG. I especially appreciated your discussion of the weaknesses of the defensive secondary. Those have been there all season, of course -- clearly evident to anyone who cared to see. Look at the near collapses against SF, Baltimore, Green Bay (game 1), and yes, even St. Louis.

It's conceivable that the Vikings might beat the Giants, and Dallas could get by the Eagles, next Sunday. Should this happen, the Vikings will salvage (barely) the 2-seed position, earning them a week's rest. It's remotely conceivable that the Vikings, playing at home, could then edge one of the survivors of wild-card weekend. But judging from the ease with which opposing passers have carved up the Vikings' secondary all season, they would surely be annihilated by Drew Brees in the NFC title game.

Oh well, there's always next year. Wait, I forgot -- Chili just got a contract extension... But look at the bright side. There's always 2013.

Peter said...

Johnson did have that nice play where he saved Winfield, and Madieu Williams has some nice open field tackles (although always ends up with a couple ugly misses like when he bounced off of Cutler).

Why aren't the Vikings trying Heath Farwell at MLB? Brinkley might have a bright future, but isn't the team trying to win NOW?

Peterson, if he pulls a vintage Peterson, could be the Saints singlehandedly. But let's get there first.

vikes geek said...

DC,

Credit given--but he still has a large outstanding balance.

VG

vikes geek said...

Cabrito,

The Vikings have the talent to beat any of the teams that will make the playoffs this year, but they have to make use of their talent. That's been a long-standing problem for a team that has suffered under, frankly, one stubborn coach after another. My kingdom for an enlightened, flexible coach.

VG

vikes geek said...

Peter,

I'll have more on this soon. Suffice it to say for now, however, it is inconceivable that Brinkley playing middle linebacker or even outside linebacker is preferable to all other options currently available to the team. Rarely have I seen a player beaten so thoroughly or so often (though Winfield gave Brinkley a run for the money on Monday).

VG