Vikings Preview: So Much to Ponder

Sunday August 25th, 2013

Having built a football team that relies mostly on a traditional two-back, power offense and a zone-based Cover 2 defense, Vikings GM Rick Spielman is like a man in a backward hat jamming to his Alanis Morissette CD while toting a brick-sized cellphone that isn’t synched to his AOL account. Trendy, 15 years ago.

You can forgive the simple defensive approach. It’s a scheme coach Leslie Frazier has mastered, and Spielman has supplied him with the right type of players to run a Cover 2. But what about the outdated offense? Overwhelming data suggests you can’t win consistently in today’s NFL with just a dominant ground game. Of the last 14 teams to reach the Super Bowl, only three had a top-10 rushing attack while eight had a top-10 passing offense. What’s more, three of those last 14 Super Bowl participants had a rushing attack that ranked dead last. Dead last!

Adrian Peterson had arguably the best rushing season in NFL history in 2012, even if he fell nine yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record. Peterson’s was certainly the most impressive, considering he was just seven months removed from reconstructive knee surgery when he returned to the field. But how much did he really help his club?

The 127 rushing yards Peterson averaged in the Vikings’ six losses were just six fewer than the 133 he averaged in their 10 wins. There’s something to be said for defenses knowing they only have to concern themselves with stopping the run. Tactically, honing in to stop a run game is a lot easier than honing in to stop a passing attack. It’s less about strategy than just sound fundamentals. No matter how dangerous, a running back can’t threaten a defense in the myriad ways a quarterback can.

With this in mind, it’s hard to say any running back can truly be the most valuable player in football. But if a running back ever deserved the award, it was Peterson in 2012. The Vikings can’t possibly expect more out of him. But they want more out of themselves. Owner Zygi Wilf can’t fill his planned new stadium on just the hopes of 10-win seasons. It’s about winning titles, and Spielman knows his Vikings must get with the times. That’s why he drafted a quarterback in the first round three years ago.

OFFENSE

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Ponder has to fix his bad habits and mechanics quickly, as the Vikes are built to win now.

It would be easy to say the Vikings need to give Adrian Peterson more support. But really, they don’t. Peterson’s offensive line features a promising left tackle, Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick from a year ago who has the rare ability to deliver sound blocks on the move from multiple angles. The line also features a steady technician in center John Sullivan. And the supporting blockers aren’t bad. Left guard Charlie Johnson is a limited athlete, but at least he understands the game. Right tackle Phil Loadholt has never taken full advantage of his 6-8, 343-pound long-armed frame, but he’s corrected many of his once-inhibiting weaknesses such as a lack of assertiveness in the run game, an overly stiff lower body in pass protection and a susceptibility to mental mistakes. He’s definitely now a serviceable starter.

The only real problem up front is at right guard, where Brandon Fusco hasn’t honed his technique well enough to play with proficient power. The Vikings might be at the mercy of Fusco’s development; their other options at guard include fringe veterans Joe Berger and Seth Olsen, and late-round rookies Travis Bond and Jeff Baca.

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Peterson also has the luxury of having a serviceable backup in Toby Gerhart who can take carries inside or outside and is slightly the better player on passing downs. Additionally, Peterson plays with a burgeoning fullback, Jerome Felton, who is fresh off his first Pro Bowl. For the longest time, Peterson never had enough patience to smoothly operate out of a two-man backfield. He’d always want to get to the hole before his lead-blocker. But offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave forced his superstar to change; 1,558 of Peterson’s 2,097 rushing yards were picked up using traditional two-back sets.

So it’s not about supporting Peterson; it’s actually about minimizing him, to an extent, as the Vikings must elevate their passing game. Peterson was too big a factor, as Minnesota’s passing game often centered around play-action last season. Christian Ponder was fed a heavy dose of bootlegs, rollouts, designed dumpoffs and simple one-read, short-area throws. It was an extremely rudimentary system. If not for tight end Kyle Rudolph, most of it wouldn’t have worked.

Musgrave didn’t use such a basic system because he’s overly conservative or unaware of more creative concepts. He used it because that’s what gave his team the best chance to succeed. He did what he could with a callow quarterback and a collection of wide receivers that, especially after Percy Harvin’s season-ending ankle injury, couldn’t separate from man coverage to save their lives.

This past offseason Spielman took sharp measures to address the receiver position. He reportedly offered Mike Wallace a $76 million contract, but the New Orleans native went to Miami for $60 million. (Some have said Wallace took less money from the Dolphins, but considering that Minnesota’s state income tax rate for his bracket is 9.85 percent and Florida’s is zero, his net guaranteed dollars between the two deals was probably not all that different.)

Unable to land Wallace, Spielman settled for former Packer Greg Jennings, whom he got for $47.5 million over five years ($17.8 million guaranteed). That’s a bit pricey for a guy who turns 30 in September and has missed 11 games over the past two years due to injury. But if Jennings gets right, his catch-and-run prowess and intermediate route running make him the best all-around fit in this offense anyway.

Unwilling to fill the starting spot opposite Jennings with the unreliable Jerome Simpson, Spielman traded back into the late first-round to take a flyer on Cordarrelle Patterson. The 6-2, 215-pound Patterson showed flash quickness and playmaking speed at Tennessee. He also lined up in multiple positions, which could prove valuable, as the only other true potential gadget receiver is unpolished second-year man Jarius Wright.

It’s not about supporting Peterson. It’s actually about minimizing him, to an extent, as the Vikings must elevate their passing game.

Assuming Jennings stays healthy and Patterson can learn enough to contribute right away, Kyle Rudolph should find his area of the field less congested. The Vikings would presumably love to use Rudolph in more “12” personnel packages (i.e. two-tight end concepts). That would require No. 2 tight end John Carlson stepping up after a miserable eight-catch debut season as a Viking. If he doesn’t, 2012 fourth-round pick Rhett Ellison, who has been more of a blocker thus far, will move past him on the depth chart.

Of course, the wideouts and tight ends are just part of the equation. Christian Ponder has to do his part. The third-year pro still has too many bad habits. Bouts of sloppy mechanics led to many of Ponder’s 12 interceptions last season and several ugly incompletions.

Ponder is better than this. He doesn’t have a cannon arm, but he’s capable of putting the ball through tight windows. He’s also proficient on the move, which the Vikings should continue to take advantage of with bootlegs and rolled pockets. Perhaps even some read-option would be worth trying. Ponder’s career will ultimately be determined by his development as a progression passer. The Vikings can’t afford to bring him along as slowly as they did last season. This is a team built to win right now.

DEFENSE

WORDSTK Jared Allen will continue to be a stalwart on the Vikings’ defense—but for how much longer?

Leslie Frazier and his 43-year-old defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, believe it is advantageous for their team to run a zone-based, mostly Tampa 2 style scheme. The simplicity of the scheme—which both men learned intimately under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis—allows the Vikings to focus on finer details during the week. This includes their self-evaluation and preparation for opponents. This, and the players’ familiarity with the zone concepts, translates to better game speed.

In order for them to be a true Cover 2 defense, they must have a few specific types of players. It starts with a four-man front than can consistently generate pressure. The Vikings should have one this season. Their line is somewhat betwixt (in a good way) between past, present and future. By most indications, this will be the final season in purple for defensive tackle Kevin Williams and defensive end Jared Allen. The respective five-and four-time All-Pros can still play at high levels, but both are on the wrong side of 30 and in the last years of their contracts. And both already see their replacements on the roster.

Waiting in Allen’s shadow is fourth-year man Everson Griffen, who has the potential to be a 15-sack player in 2013. Griffen had eight sacks last season playing a variety of roles, including defensive end and nickel defensive tackle. This year, the Vikings would be wise to let Griffen go to work fulltime at left end (opposite Allen and across from slower right tackles). They’d have to kick Brian Robison to a backup inside pass-rusher role, which would not be totally fair given how effective the seventh-year vet has always been capitalizing on the one-on-one matchups that Allen and Williams afford him. But such is life in pro football; Griffen is too talented not to start.

Waiting to replace Williams inside is Sharrif Floyd, who somehow fell to No. 23 in the draft. The former Gator, whom some esteemed analysts have said can be a major force right away, is capable of playing multiple positions. He figures to primarily shoot gaps from Williams’s “under tackle” spot, which means he’ll likely come off the bench on passing downs. On first and second down, the Vikings will rotate Letroy Guion and Fred Evans at nose shade. Both have great initial quickness but have never displayed it down after down.

Though we’ve covered seven defensive linemen already, the depth keeps going. The Vikings added a solid run defender in end Lawrence Jackson, and hopefully they will still have 2011 fourth-round pick Christian Ballard, a rotational player who is good at disengaging from blocks. (Ballard is currently on leave for personal reasons.)

A dominant front four is the top prerequisite for a Cover 2 based defense. The next is a middle linebacker with sharp key-and-diagnose skills, and the mobility to carry deep in coverage between the numbers. The Vikings have not had this sort of player since E.J. Henderson broke his femur late in 2009 (he played two more years after the injury but wasn’t quite the same).

Undrafted sixth-year pro Erin Henderson is pining for a crack at his older brother’s spot. The younger Henderson has been adequate as a fringe starter on the outside, but the Vikings don’t believe in him enough to just hand over the keys. That’s why they brought in the more explosive Desmond Bishop, who signed a one-year deal after missing all of last season with a torn hamstring. Bishop was more of a blitzer than a cover guy in Green Bay, so he has a transition to make in this scheme (the Vikings may ultimately play him on the outside, where his blitzing prowess would be of slightly more use). At least he’ll be making the transition alongside Chad Greenway, one of the soundest three-down outside linebackers in football. Greenway has very good chase speed in the flats, but in the base 4-3, he aligns on the strong side, where there’s more traffic.

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One benefit of a Cover 2 is the ability to play without top-of-the-line talent at defensive back. But as the Vikings learned the hard way two years ago, that doesn’t mean you can get away with having bottom-of-the-line talent.

After ranking last in touchdown passes allowed (34) and opponents’ passer rating (107.6) in 2011, Spielman took a defensive back in the first round of the past two drafts. The first was safety Harrison Smith, who showed exponential growth as a rookie. The Vikings think Smith can redefine their defense. He’s comfortable in space and plays faster than his raw speed indicates.

This year, the first-rounder is Xavier Rhodes, which is interesting because he was primarily a press-boundary cover corner at Florida State. Entering the league, Rhodes’s zone coverage awareness could probably be classified as a weakness. This suggests the Vikings might be open to incorporating more man concepts on the outside of their zone scheme, similar to what Pete Carroll has done with his 4-3 zone in Seattle.

The Vikings could have the right type of corner on the other side for a press-man wrinkle, too. Fourth-year pro Chris Cook (6-2, 212 pounds) is a talented athlete with hints of play-on-ball skills. His backup, A.J. Jefferson, also has good size (and long arms) at 6-1, 190 pounds. Yet Jefferson, like Marcus Sherels, has been a liability in isolation coverage. That’s why last year’s third-round pick, Josh Robinson, will be the man to fill the departed Antoine Winfield’s spot in the slot (even though Robinson’s experience is primarily on the outside). Rounding out the secondary is strong safety Mistral Raymond, though he could be pushed by backup Jamarca Sanford or converted 2012 fifth-round cornerback Robert Blanton.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Blair Walsh went to the Pro Bowl as a sixth-round rookie last season. At punter, the average but entertaining Chris Kluwe was deemed replaceable, so Jeff Locke was drafted in the fifth round. Marcus Sherels figures to once again handle punt return duties. He averaged a laudable 26.4 yards per kick return last season, but Cordarrelle Patterson, who was drafted in part for his big-play abilities in the return game, now has that job.

BOTTOM LINE

It all comes down to Christian Ponder’s development and the new wide receivers. If they can give the offense a passing attack, this will be a much better team than a year ago. If they can’t, this team will struggle to break .500.

Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.
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