- The Vikings dropped their second straight game—this time to Jay Cutler and the Bears—and Minnesota is going to have to find some answers for its stagnant offense if it wants to be a real contender.
Norv Turner may not have gotten the Vikings’ offense into the mess it’s currently in. But if Minnesota’s offensive coordinator cannot figure out some way to dig his team out of it, Minnesota’s once-promising season is going to go up in flames, in a hurry.
One week after a disheveled, four-turnover performance in Philadelphia, the Vikings showed almost no signs of life Monday night against the Bears. The result: A 20-10 loss that opened the NFC North race wide open, really for the first time since Minnesota downed Green Bay back in Week 2. Jay Cutler returned from a five-game injury absence and threw for 252 yards and a touchdown.
“We didn’t play very good offensively, so they kind of got after us up front,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “They controlled the game and controlled the tempo of the game.”
If the loss to Philadelphia did not make it obvious, Monday should have: Turner is working against a stacked deck, to be sure.
Sam Bradford is not suddenly going to become a Pro Bowl quarterback, because that’s not what he is. The offensive line might be able to improve incrementally by getting Jeremiah Sirles in the lineup—right tackle T.J. Clemmings couldn’t protect Bradford from the rain with an umbrella—but it’s not going to become dominant overnight. And at running back? Adrian Peterson is going to be gone for a while yet, but neither he nor Jerick McKinnon nor Matt Asiata has found room behind that maligned front anyway.
Personnel-wise, then, the Vikings are what they are to a large extent. Perhaps GM Rick Spielman swings a trade or two before Tuesday’s deadline, but he’s already down a 2017 first-round pick (sent out in the Bradford deal) and is tight against the cap.
In other words, there’s probably not much in the way of reserves on the way. So, if the Vikings are to get anything of value out of their offense this season, Turner will have to find a way to unlock whatever secrets are still hiding.
A couple of (possibly obvious) suggestions: Forget the deep ball and crank up the tempo. Turner wants to stretch the field vertically, hence Minnesota’s ill-fated addition of Mike Wallace last season, but he just doesn’t have the luxury. Deep routes from receivers mean a deep drop and extra time in the pocket from Bradford—a recipe for disaster given the woes Clemmings and new left tackle Jake Long are enduring.
Maybe living in the short and intermediate distances is not the preferred approach, but it worked well enough with Teddy Bridgewater last season to get Minnesota to the playoffs. Bridgewater attempted just 48 passes of 20 yards or more in all of 2015, and he was inconsistent at best on those throws. Philadelphia has simplified its offense with Carson Wentz; Dallas has done the same with Dak Prescott. Ideally, Bradford’s experience would allow the Vikings to expand their options, but again ... there’s a lot working against them.
Which is why cranking up the pace could be of some help. Even when they were down multiple possessions in the second half, the Vikings took their sweet time in between plays. Facing a 20-3 deficit late in the third quarter, they embarked on a deliberate, five-minute drive that resulted in a punt from midfield.
Merely playing up-tempo does not turn a mediocre offense into a great one, but Bradford has had success with such an approach before. He excelled in college in an up-tempo offense and was better than he’s given credit for under Chip Kelly last season.
If nothing else, a little urgency combined with an emphasis on getting the ball out of Bradford’s hands quickly would help drain the relentless pass rushes Minnesota has seen. Bradford was sacked five more times Monday night, after Philadelphia dropped him six times in Week 7.
“We gave up five sacks, so protection wasn’t real good,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t make any plays ... we didn’t make any plays. They made them all.”
The heat is squarely on Turner now. So much so, in fact, that the shelf life for this column might be brief. It would be a surprise if the Vikings sent Turner packing this week, but not an unforeseeable outcome.
Assuming he sticks around for awhile, the veteran play caller has to find a few creative strokes. This offense cannot live with Asiata grinding out yards behind an overmatched O-line—Monday’s overly predictable game plan saw Minnesota attempt a run on nine of its first 13 first-down plays. Turner must get the ball out of the pocket, outside the tackles, by whatever means necessary. He has playmakers there, in guys like Stefon Diggs, TE Kyle Rudolph and even Cordarrelle Patterson.
Minnesota also will need more than it received Monday from its highly touted defense. The Vikings were exposed on that side of the ball unlike they have been at any point this season, with Chicago topping 400 total yards and Jordan Howard rushing for 153 and a TD. When that unit struggles, the Vikings are going to be in trouble.
The offense, as it is, is not capable of overcoming a rough night from the defense or engaging in a shot-for-shot battle with the opposition’s attack.
The sky’s not falling and the season is not over. Minnesota is 5–2 and still on top of the NFC North, with a critical game vs. Detroit coming next Sunday. A win in that game would right the ship and temper the panic.
To accomplish anything of note this season, though, the Vikings will have to turn their offense into a competent, if not dangerous, one. Turner is running out of time to make that happen.