First off, I know how this headline looks. The Vikings, the NFL’s last unbeaten team, are unbeaten no more. Thus, Joe Knee-Jerk, of the Professional Knee-Jerk Association (or “media,” as some call it) writes that, now, they stink. Oh, and by the way, he knew they stunk all along. (Bam!) And now he gets to sit back and wait for the oh-so-sweet social media attention to roll in.
But that’s not what this is. Or, not exactly, anyway. The Vikings are a legitimate 5-1 club. They’re not to be written off. But they’re also a legitimate 5-1 club with a legitimate problem.
It’s one thing to go on the road, not play your best and lose to a quality team like the Eagles. It’s another to lose by having your most glaring weakness so thoroughly exposed.
Mike Zimmer already touched on this weakness, saying in his postgame press conference “We didn’t block anybody. We were soft, got overpowered.”
The Eagles’ pass rushers—Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Fletcher Cox—are skilled but not a true NASCAR group. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being horrible, 10 being great and 5 being average, Philly’s pass rush is about a 6.5. And yet it got after Sam Bradford from the get-go. On the Vikings’ second series, Graham pressured Bradford into an interception (his first in purple). On the Vikings’ next play, Barwin registered a sack-fumble (recovered by safety Malcolm Jenkins). In all, the Eagles sacked Bradford six times and hit him 12 times. As the game progressed, eventually defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz abandoned his season-long M.O. of playing straight coverage and started calling blitzes, usually favoring a linebacker, slot corner combo pressure. That, too, was successful.
But this was more about Minnesota. The game’s most revealing moment came at 9:32 in the first quarter. That’s when offensive tackle Jake Long came in off the bench. That’s not Jake Long, four-time Pro Bowler and former No. 1 overall pick. Or, well, it is, actually. But more accurately, it’s Jake Long, 31-year-old man of nearly bionic knees and, for most of the previous 290 days, a civilian. Long is who Barwin beat for the sack-fumble. Safety Rodney McLeod also got one on Long in a blitz with linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
That offensive coordinator Norv Turner and O-line coach Tony Sparano would choose to put Long on the field speaks volumes about their lack of trust in current starters T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles.
Indeed, as feared after a decent 2016 debut showing against Carolina, Clemmings has been exploited for his tendency to play too upright in pass protection. Opponents have consistently dipped around his corner. Sirles is an undrafted third-year pro with now three career starts. Prior to these two playing, Minnesota’s original starting tackles, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, had also been struggling, but not to this degree. (Both are on IR now anyway.)
And so the Vikings are down to their fifth offensive tackle. Not many teams have made deep playoff runs with that. And the tackles aren’t the only issue. Center Joe Berger is 34 and has been a backup much of his career. To his credit, he’s improved steadily in recent years, as has right guard Brandon Fusco. But we’re still talking about low-ceiling players. At left guard, Alex Boone has been mostly up-and-down, just like in his final few years with the 49ers.
Last Friday, as the Vikings headed into their bye week, I wrote in my All-32 column that there was a silver lining to Adrian Peterson’s absence: This offense has an opportunity to develop a more stylistically diverse rushing attack. Peterson is an all time great, but as an inherently impatient runner he’s largely confined to straight-ahead carries. You don’t see many outside or misdirection runs with him. All things equal, you’d take AP over Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata a dozen times out of 12. But if you’re stuck with McKinnon and Asiata, at least you can run more out of shotgun and to the perimeter (mainly with McKinnon).
Except here’s Part B of that equation: The Vikings ran mostly north-south to accommodate not only Peterson, but their offensive line as well. This front five is not athletic enough to consistently reach the perimeter, get out in space or land blocks on the move. That’s why Turner’s ground game, even in Peterson’s absence, still mostly runs behind old-fashioned plow-ahead, double-team blocks. This ground game might be a little more diverse without Peterson—its shotgun rushing numbers have almost tripled, for example—but by no means is it multifaceted. The diversity you do see tends to be gimmicky: wildcats, end-arounds, the occasional H-back wrinkle. Not surprisingly, this rushing attack ranks 31st in yards per game (74.3).
That’s a problem when you’re built around a dominant defense.
With a dominant defense, you’re wise to play the field position game and, paradoxically, try to sustain drives to keep that defense off the field. This in mind, Minnesota’s best option might be a quick-strike passing game. But that’s not how Turner’s system is built. If they’d known during the offseason that Peterson would be gone and Bradford would be the one under center, perhaps Turner and Mike Zimmer would have spent time installing more quick-strike concepts. But what they’ve practiced are the things that have long defined Turner: deep-intermediate route combinations; play-action; field-stretching shots to wide receivers, both vertically and horizontally; red zone plays for tight ends. The majority of these rely on deeper dropbacks—something Minnesota’s O-line isn’t capable of protecting.
Fortunately, Turner’s scheme is set up to add extra blockers to the equation. Tactics like tight ends chipping edge rushers or two backs aligning in the backfield, with one (maybe even both) staying in as an extra blocker. This past January at the Senior Bowl I had coffee with a Vikings assistant coach and he made a salient, succinct point. “Two things are very clear in the NFL right now,” he said. “One is that the wide receivers are better than the cornerbacks. And two is that the defensive linemen are better than the offensive linemen.”
The coach said this before he knew his club would be signing and playing Jake Long off the street. It illustrates how Turner and his staff were prepared to cater their system around helping their pass-blockers if need be. Interestingly, Turner can be pretty liberal in how he applies that pass-blocking help. For coaches, a concern with keeping tight ends or running backs in to block is what happens if one of those guys faces a defensive pressure concept that pits them against an elite edge rusher one-on-one? Turner doesn’t get overly concerned with this sort of thing. His attitude is more along the lines of just block the man in front of you. The implicit thought here is: If you’re in that sort of mismatch, chances are the defense is in a mismatch of its own somewhere else. Trust that your quarterback to capitalize on that.
If backup tight end Rhett Ellison or McKinnon and Asiata (who must block better than they did against Philly, by the way) become more prominent in pass protection, Bradford will either be throwing with more time in the pocket (which potentially means throwing deeper downfield). Or he’ll be working against blitzes that, in theory, create space for hot throws that allow the ball to come out before even a subpar O-line can lose.
That’s a lot of pressure on Bradford. But as the Vikings learned at Philadelphia, better the pressure be figurative than literal.
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