Friday, January 15, 2016

Vikings' Loss Might Be Necessary Evil For Team

Mike Zimmer said it.  Blair Walsh agreed.  A twenty-seven-yard field goal simply must be made.  And in the NFL, they are, at a rate just shy of 100% of the time.  Unfortunately, Walsh's kick now helps comprise the "just shy of" portion of that percentage rate.  And that means that, for what seems like more than just once too often, the Vikings will be exiting the playoffs following a game that they should have won.

There are many fan bases around the NFL that will have little compassion for the Vikings' players or fans, and for good reason.  Despite never winning a Superbowl, the Vikings have been a relative mainstay in the playoffs for the better part of the franchise's career.  Since 1961, the team's first year of existence, the Vikings have made the playoffs twenty-seven times.  In that same time-frame, the Green Bay Packers have made the playoffs three fewer times, the Chicago Bears twelve fewer times, and the Detroit Lions sixteen fewer times.  Only the Dallas Cowboys have made the playoffs a greater percentage of the years in existence than have the Vikings.

That they have had relative success as a franchise, is unlikely to mollify either the Vikings or their fan base in the wake of a loss that, had it turned out differently, could have had Vikings' fans rightfully anticipating favorable match-ups throughout the remainder of the playoffs.  But a win last week might have papered over adjustments that the Vikings need to and can make this off-season--adjustments that could make the Vikings long-term championship contenders, rather than one-year wonders.  As such, Sunday's loss, as painful as it was, might be in the team's long-term interest.

The clear "villain" in Sunday's loss was the kicker who could not connect on a chip shot.  Lost in that myopia, however, is the fact that the game even came down to that play.  Long before that, the Vikings had opportunities to put the game away.  That they did not merely highlighted the near season-long offensive struggles.  Those struggles were the result of several factors, as they normally are, but the chief factors, as they also normally are, were the play of the quarterback and offensive line and offensive play-calling--in that order.

While Teddy Bridgewater showed some flashes of strong play in 2015, on the whole, the season can be regarded little more than a plateau period for him, particularly after what most observers regarded as a relatively strong finish to last season.  If the Vikings want to be a consistent championship contender, they need quarterback play that is consistently average, at worst.  That's not what they received from Bridgewater in 2015 and not what Bridgewater offered in the Vikings' two most important games to conclude the season.  Rather, in those two games, the Vikings relied on defense and hoped that the offense did not give the game away.  That, with a strong defense, is a recipe for making the playoffs, but also one prone to losing any given playoff game.

Too often this season, including several times Sunday, the Vikings entered the opposing team's red zone or close thereto, only to come away with a field goal.  On Sunday, the most glaring such failure came on the Vikings' second possession of the game.  With a first-and-goal from the seven, the Vikings failed to convert, running twice up the middle, before Bridgewater threw an ill-advised pass that was nearly picked.  That sequence cannot happen on a regular basis for a championship-contending team.  It did for the Vikings this year.  And that four-point differential on Sunday was the difference in the game.

To be certain, the offensive line played its own dastardly role in that second drive--and others throughout the game and season.  Had the line had better push or leveraged better, Peterson might have scored and there might have been more play-call options from the seven.  They did not, however, and the onus was placed on Bridgewater to convert.  As was too often the case this year, Bridgewater did not make the play.

Bridgewater might make strides next year, behind what the Vikings expect to be an improved offensive line.  The team has already signaled its concern over the offensive line's performance, jettisoning offensive line coach Jeff Davidson in favor of Tony Sparano.  Given the play of Joe Berger and the cap-friendly number of the improving T.J. Clemmings, the Vikings might be looking at their offensive line for 2016 and hoping that Sparano can line them up properly.  Vikings' fans know that an effective offensive line can be constructed of lesser material--see Mike Tice--and know, as well, that, to get a full read on Bridgewater, the team must address this area.  The loss to Seattle prompted a quick move that might not have been made had the Vikings advanced further into the playoffs.

Finally, the Vikings need to acknowledge that their offensive play-calling has substantial holes.  Unless Bridgewater is simply woeful, it is inexcusable not to better incorporate the wide-receivers into the offense.  Minnesota ranked 31st, 31st, and 32nd in the league in touchdown passes, passing yards, and passing attempts, respectively.  The team ranked 4th in the league in all comparable rushing categories. That shows both a distrust of Bridgewater and the offensive line's pass-blocking capabilities, but also an immensely conservative approach to play-calling.  That approach appears to be instilled in Bridgewater, who, too often, appears to make the cautious play, when a slightly less conservative play is available further down field.  Expecting more of Bridgewater in the offensive play-calling should, therefore, result in Bridgewater looking for opportunities down field, rather than deferring to the dump off.

If this sounds like deja vu' for Vikings' fans, it, of course, is.  From Tarvaris Jackson, to Christian Ponder, to Bridgewater, the Vikings have run conservative offenses, featuring the run, and asking the quarterback not to lose the game.  Jackson was out of his league in the NFL and Ponder showed some flashes but never became consistent.  Like Ponder, Bridgewater has been undermined by his own short-comings, but also by the low expectations of the offensive coordinator.  Those low expectations have reaped the expected return--a conservative quarterback who is timid until the game is absolutely on the line.  That likely will only change if the offensive coordinator raises the expectation level.  And that might be the second shoe--save for free-agency--that falls as a result of the Vikings' offensive woes against Seattle.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Rams Offer Vikings Blueprint for Beating Seahawks

Two weeks ago from this coming Sunday, the St. Louis Rams improved their record to 7-8 by beating the Seattle Seahawks, in Seattle.  The game should be instructive for the Vikings for several reasons and serve as a guide for beating the Seahawks this weekend, even if Seattle does what it always does and Minnesota does what it can be expected to do.


Yes, even if Seattle does what it is expected to do and Minnesota does what it can be expected to do, the Vikings can win on Sunday.

Do tell.

The Seahawks entered the game game against the Rams two weeks ago as 14-point favorites, a monstrous line in the NFL, with simulated games having Seattle winning 38-7.  Sound familiar?  The final score of the game was St. Louis 23, Seattle 17.

The final score of the Rams-Seahawks tilt at the end of December was the least interesting part of the game, however.  Far more intriguing were the game's statistics.  The Rams did what everyone expected them to do on offense, which is to say, virtually nothing.  On the day, quarterback Casey Keenum was 14 of 23 for a woeful 104 passing yards.  Keenum did have one passing touchdown, however, and had no interceptions.

The Rams also had limited success on the ground.  Rookie running back Todd Gurley tallied 83 yards on 19 carries with one touchdown.  The rest of the Rams' rushers gained 19 yards on 11 carries.

As suggested by these statistics, outside of failing to intercept a pass, the Seahawks' defense also did what everyone expected it to do.  It held the Rams to 205 total yards of offense, sacked Keenum four times, forced two fumbles, controlled the time of possession, and limited first downs and third-down conversions.

If you read only these statistics from that game, you would guess that the Seahawks won. Seattle's offensive statistics would only reinforce that impression, with Russell Wilson passed for 289 and two touchdowns and took no sacks.  Wilson also rushed for 38 yards.

Despite all of the numbers in favor of the Seahawks in the game against the Rams, however, there were even more important numbers that operated against them and that resulted in the number that mattered most in the end, a losing final score.  Despite moving the ball well, the Seahawks were the victim of strong defense and offensive mistakes, turning the ball over three times and taking 10 penalties for 83 yards.  The surprisingly relatively disciplined Rams, meanwhile, took five penalties for 60 yards.  And, despite two fumbles, the Rams did not lose either fumble.

The +3 statistic on turnovers is substantial.  Generally speaking--without factoring relative team strengths--teams win 75% of the time when they have one fewer turnover than the other team.  The percentage increases to approximately 88%, when the turnover margin is +2.  Given a +3 turnover margin, the rate of victory is nearly 100%.

That the Rams defeated the Seahawks by less than a touchdown suggests that they probably needed every bit of the +3 turnover differential that they obtained in the game.  Given the expectations entering the game, however, it is reasonable to view the Rams' differential against the Seahawks as essentially resulting in a 20-point swing versus the odds.

That should be of note to the Vikings, who enter Sunday's game against Seattle as a decidedly narrower underdog.  The current line has the Vikings at +5.  But 53% of the money currently is being bet on the Vikings.  If a lesser team in the Rams can parlay a +3 in turnover differential into a 20-point swing from the game's opening line, the Vikings ought to be able to win Sunday's game by being on the positive side of the turnover differential.  The only question is how far they need be on the positive side.

Confounding the analysis are the possible the possible return of Marshawn Lynch and the possible absence of Linval Joseph.  Seattle had no rushing attack against the Rams, totaling a meager 59 yards on the ground.  Lynch's presence should bolster that total, even with Joseph in the lineup, by forcing the Vikings to respect the run and, thereby, creating more opportunities for Wilson to both pass and run.  If Joseph does not play, those possibilities only increase.  And, if those possibilities become reality, the Vikings likely will need not only to have a positive turnover differential, but also to have a differential greater than +1 and possibly, as the Rams did, convert a turnover directly into a touchdown.

The odds are still against Minnesota this weekend, but the odds are merely predictive.  The Vikings have the benefit of getting to actually play the game and decide the outcome based on performance.  And if the Rams--a team that subsequently lost to the 49ers--can defeat the Seahawks with virtually no offensive output, surely the Vikings, a much more well-rounded team, can at least duplicate that feat.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

So, You're Saying There's a Chance?

This past Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings completed their turn-around from a dreadful opening game loss to the San Francisco 49ers by defeating the Green Bay Packers, at Lambeau Field, 20-13.  The game provided a microcosm of what the 2015 Vikings are all about--strong defense, some good rushing, and a spotty passing game.  This year, those ingredients sufficed to win the NFC North for the first time since 2009.  Next week, against a more robust Seattle team, a similar offering likely will not be as kind.

In an earlier season match-up against the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings looked dazed and confused on both sides of the ball.  Minnesota could be forgiven some confusion on the defensive side of the ball, having played without three starters (Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith) and a regular in Andrew Sendejo.  The absence of these players put the Vikings behind, even before the game started, and resulted in a 21-0 halftime deficit.  That meant fewer opportunities for Adrian Peterson and more pressure on Teddy Bridgewater--a formidably bad mix for the Vikings' current offense.

With most, if not all, defensive players available this week, the Vikings should be in far better position to handle Seattle's offense.  That will be critical as, over the last half of the regular season, the Seahawks have averaged 404 yards of offense and 32 points per game.  Those results have come against a mixed bag of defensive opposition, ranging from good (Arizona twice) to awful (San Francisco) and everything in between.

Against the best defense that they faced on the season (Carolina and Dallas), Seattle's numbers dropped precipitously.  In those two games, the Seahawks averaged 18 points and 323 yards.  A healthy Vikings' defense is capable of that kind of performance against Seattle, but that assumes that the Vikings' defense is permitted some time to rest by the Vikings' offense.  With Marshawn Lynch scheduled to return this week, the Vikings might have another worry on defense that they would not have had last week against the same opponent.  If Joseph is ready for Minnesota, that is less of a concern, though still a concern that will put more pressure on the Vikings' offense to produce.  That could be a huge, perhaps insurmountable issue for this Vikings' team.

Against Green Bay on Sunday, Bridgewater was 10 of 19 for 99 yards, one interception, one fumble, and two rushing attempts for 2 yards.  By any measure, those numbers are awful.  What's more alarming is that they were produced against a defense that, while good, had just allowed 38 points to the Arizona Cardinals.  Defensive touchdown aside, Teddy was on the field for just one touchdown against Green Bay, that a rushing touchdown by Peterson.

Even if Bridgewater were playing at the league average for quarterbacks, his performance on the whole this season would portend ominously for the Vikings this weekend.  That's because the Vikings' offense features everything that the Seahawks are designed to address most effectively.

While Minnesota features the run to set-up the pass and then passes short, Seattle's defense is predicated on stopping the run cold, marking the short and mid-range passes with help on the back-side, and permitting teams to attempt to exploit man coverage on the weak side.  That would be bad enough for Minnesota, if Seattle had merely solid players on defense.  But not only does Seattle have solid players on defense, it has several All-Pros.  That's led to the now expected sound results for the Seahawks' defense on a regular basis.

In Minnesota, the talk is that the Vikings can win this weekend, if Peterson can have a monstrous game and Teddy can be at least sound.  That latter might be possible, as the bar is not very high, but the former would be a monumental task.  On the season, the Seahawks have allowed six 100-yard rushing games.  In none of those games did they allow a team to exceed 135 yards rushing.  More alarming for those counting on Peterson to pave the way on Sunday is that, over the final eight games of the regular season, Seattle allowed only two 100-yard team rushing games, while allowing a paltry 64.5 yards rushing on average.

This weekend's match-up was an unfortunate draw for the Vikings, having to play a wild-card round game, as the higher seed, against arguably the best team in the Conference.  But, it is the Vikings' lot this year.  If the Vikings do everything right on defense and everything that Seattle permits them to do on offense, they can win.  That puts even more pressure on Bridgewater, however, not only to make the reads against a zone coverage team, but also to put the ball in the hands of receivers down the lines. So far, Teddy has not excelled in these areas.  And it is unrealistic to think that he will magically excel at them this weekend.  That likely means that, for the Vikings to win, the defense probably will need to play exceptionally well, contributing some points, and special teams will need to contribute to the offense.  Better to have the chance, than not.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Much Ado About Something or What Teddy Needs to Start Seeing

In the latter half of the 2015-2016 NFL season, local analysts have begun identifying a source of frustration in the play of Minnesota Vikings' quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.  The concern has been expressed based on in-game observations, without concrete statistics to support the concern.  In this case, however, the eyes do not lie.

The particular concern pertains to Bridgewater's response to defensive off-sides.  More to the point, the concern is that Bridgewater either is not recognizing the off-sides or that he is opting for the hand-off.  The first is unlikely, as the flag is flying pre-snap, yet the play is permitted to continue.  The latter is simply inexplicable, but for the fact that Teddy still has some highly risk-averse tendencies to his play.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence that Teddy too often eschews the pass for the run in the face of an off-side play, there are the bare statistics.  On the season, Vikings' opponents have been called for off-sides twelve times.  One of those times, the play was whistled dead on an "unabated to the quarterback" call.  Of the remaining eleven off-sides plays, Bridgewater opted for a pass over a run just one time.  If Bridgewater did not know these plays were off-side, the subsequent play would merely demonstrate a remarkably high percentage of running to passing plays on plays that resulted in off-side penalties.  If he did know that these plays were off-side, that's a stunning, likely unparalleled percentage of running to passing plays on plays that resulted in off-side penalties.

The value of passing in off-side situations is demonstrated by the one pass that Bridgewater made on the eleven off-side plays by Vikings' opponents this year.  On that play, against the Denver Broncos, Teddy completed an 18-yard pass to Mike Wallace.  That's a significant play for any team, but particularly for a team that has a point differential of +3.7, and particularly when, in the play-offs, points are generally at a premium.

If the Vikings hope to compete in this year's play-offs, they need stout play from their defense and smart play from the offense.  Bridgewater has demonstrated a penchant for drawing defenses off-sides.  But that ability is diminished if it is not buttressed by the recognition that the off-sides play is an invitation to strike downfield.  Failing to take advantage of such opportunities tends to be the difference between teams that make the play-offs and teams that advance further toward the Super Bowl.