Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lessons from Vikings' Victory over Jaguars

Entering Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Vikings were 2.5 point favorites at home. Defeating the Jaguars in overtime, the Vikings met expectations, however slightly.

There were many questions for both teams entering this game.  Jacksonville was not certain what it had in quarterback Blaine Gabbert, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, or anyone on the defensive line.  Minnesota was not certain what it had in quarterback Christian Ponder, running back Adrian Peterson, or anyone on defense not named Jared Allan.

Both teams also had things about which they felt reasonably comfortable, as much as that is possible for  teams with a combined 2011 record of 8-24 and with only one high-profile addition each in the off-season.

The Jaguars believed that their running game would be good if Maurice Jones-Drew played, that Gabbert would improve, and that rookie wide-receiver Justin Blackmon would star.  The Vikings believed that their running game would be good if Adrian Peterson played, that their tight end tandem of John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph would terrorize opposing linebackers, and that Christian Ponder would improve.

After the game, some questions have been answered and some presumed certainties affirmed or debunked.  Against Minnesota, Jones-Drew carried the ball 19 times for 77 yards and had three receptions for 18 yards.  Blaine Gabbert was 23 of 39 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.  Justin Blackmon had three receptions on six targets for 24 yards and was open for an easy touchdown, but for an errant throw by Gabbert.

For Minnesota, Ponder was 20-27 for 270 yards.  Peterson ran the ball 17 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns and had one reception on one target for three yards.  Rudolph had five receptions on seven targets for 67 yards and Carlson had no receptions on one target.

The certainties thus seemed to play out for each team, at least to an extent.  Gabbert and Ponder were both better in this game than they had been at the end of last season, Jones-Drew and Peterson both turned otherwise lesser running games into good running games, Blackmon showed his ability, and Rudolph showed his.

Both teams also affirmed what they do not have, particularly on defense.  Outside of Allen, neither team can currently argue that it has a player requiring any special attention from the opponent.  For Minnesota, that's a concern, because there is virtually zero depth anywhere on the defensive side of the ball.  Antoine Winfield is not the player he once was, Chad Greenway is not a strong-side linebacker, Jasper Brinkley looks confused at times and ordinary, at best, at other times, Chris Cook is only as good as he is wise, and the secondary again seems to be little more than a muddled mess.

For the Vikings to have any measure of success in 2012, they clearly must lean on the offense.  This requires significant changes.  It requires, first and foremost, that Percy Harvin be involved in the offense from the beginning to the end of the game.  As Harvin goes, so goes the offense.  Without Harvin, the Vikings can beat few if any NFL teams.

In addition to involving Harvin from the outset, the Vikings must commit to passing to Rudolph until opposing teams demonstrate that they cannot stop him.  Against a Jacksonville team that seemed to have no answer for Rudolph, the Vikings acquiesced.  Against Tennessee, the Patriots threw to tight end Rob Gronkowski six times--he caught all six passes.  For most teams, that would suggested a heavier dose of Gronkowski, except that for New England, there was no opponent and the Patriots have another stout tight end in Aaron Hernandez--who also had six receptions.

The Patriots' 13 passes to tight ends should be the minimum goal for a Vikings' team with less talent at wide-receiver and less certain hands under center.  The more Ponder goes to Rudolph, the more comfortable will he be in the pocket and the more confident will he be also identifying other options.

Finally, the Vikings need to make use of Ponder outside of the pocket, particularly rolling right.  It is utter nonsense to force a quarterback to be nothing other than a pocket passer, unless that is what that quarterback is.  Ponder's greatest strength is his ability to roll out of the pocket.  Even in a system that prioritizes pocket passing, the system must be flexible enough to take advantage of its quarterback's greatest strength.  Forcing Ponder to remain in the pocket is not such a system.

These changes to the offense--two of which the Vikings insist are part of the system--would boost the Vikings' 2012 prospects and set the foundation for future years by establishing a system and comfort level for players within that system.

Up Next:  Webb All But Gone.  Plus, is the front office keeping pace with the NFL?

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