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.

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