After going 5-1 in one score games last year, it seems as if the time has come to pay the piper. Bummer. A common theme in Vikings games this year have been turnovers, both take- and giveaways. Some of the former have been lucky (aka bad decisions by Jay Cutler) while some have been merited. The same can be said for giveaways. All three opponents thus far do have reputations for giving the ball away, while future opponents such as Seattle, Cincinnati and Chicago (again) should continue to force turnovers. Then again, the stat nerds suggest that turnovers are a highly variable statistic so the optimist in me suggest we forget that entire point.
Good Defense, not Clutch Defense
It is simple enough to look at the box scores and infer that a defense allowing over 30 points every single game is the problem. They don’t pay this guy the big bucks for easy analysis though. This past week, Cleveland was able to steal 7 points off of special teams fakes (the fake-punt run led to a field goal, while the fake-field goal pass led to a touchdown instead of a chip shot FG), not to mention that they boasted an average starting field position of their own 30 yard line. At Soldier Field, 7 of Chicago’s 31 points were scored off of a pick six, while Chicago converted one of the short fields provided by Devin Hester into a touchdown.*(check end of article for footnotes) Let’s put 4 of those 7 points on the special teams, while also crediting the defense for the touchdown Brian Robison scored. That’s a whopping net of 18 of Chicago’s 31 points that are not on the defense. I won’t bring up Detroit, since I’ll concede that the Vikings defense put on a horror show, but that was without Big Ticket, and the other two games, given timing and similarity, are more likely indicative of the trend going froward.
So you can hang your hat on the 10 ‘forced’ turnovers, or the amount of points the defense actually conceded in the past two weeks. You can hang your hat on Jared Allen dominating Jermon Bushrod of the Bears, or Brian Robison making Mitchell Schwartz look like a Bar Mitzvah boy instead of an offensive tackle who was drafted in the first round. But what about those game winning drives?
I watched both over, and there does not seem to be a common theme. Against Chicago, Alan Williams had the ‘backers feign many a blitz, while against the Browns 5+1 (the HB often stayed in protection, so an extra LB would come in) was a pretty standard number of rushers. This made sense, as our front four harried Cutler all game, while Hoyer stayed clean until the blitz was brought out frequently in the second half. Chicago’s receivers simply found spaces in the zone by hook or
crook by bowling over Josh Robinson. Additionally, not only did the Vikes fail to adjust to the cover 3 busting route combo the Bears employed on the game winning touchdown, but either Henderson or Greenway failed to pick up Martellus Bennett in the shallow flat three plays prior. Thus the Bears easily refreshed their downs on what should have been a difficult set at 1st-and-20. Against Cleveland, a couple of missed tackles** combined with a short field,*** helped to put the Browns in a position where Alan Williams (or Leslie Frazier?) called for a blitz on 3rd down that put Jordan Cameron in one-on-one coverage.
No clear problem means no clear solution. The defense is good, but not quite where it needs to be. Maybe Sharrif Floyd will slowly become the interior pass rushing beast he was drafted to be. Maybe Marcus Sherels will displace Josh Robinson as the slot corner; he certainly looked a lot better last Sunday. Maybe Desmond Bishop running over Cleveland’s fullback en route to stopping the ball carrier behind the LOS in the 3rd quarter is a portent of things to come. Maybe our best pass rusher won’t be going against a three time All Pro every week. If we were not in a 3 game hole, these questions would not be quite as pressing.
Just Another Streak
After the 0-2 start, there was no shortage of damning statistics about this team’s playoff prospects. At 0-3, the figures are even bleaker: Only three teams since 1990 (when the NFL expanded the playoff entrants to 6 per conference) have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.
Now I don’t get paid enough to crunch all the numbers, but what if starting 0-3 is just another three game losing streak? Imagine timing of said streak actually had no correlation with a team’s overall record. It seems eminently possible, and maybe one day someone will prove (or disprove) this. For now it is just something to think about
Let us then see how likely it is for a team to achieve success and have a three game losing streak. Instead of defining the former as qualifying for the playoffs, I will define it as a regular season total of at least 10 wins. The reason for choosing this definition is because while any one team can not control whether it plays in a weak division, thus making the playoffs at 7-9 a la 2010 Seahawks, or whether a .500 record is good enough for a Wild Card spot, we will focus on what it can control – wins. 10 wins is also a pretty good proxy for playoff qualification; since 1990 only 9 teams with 10 wins or more**** have missed the playoffs. There were 276 playoff spots in the period. For further illustration consider that every 3 years, we can expect only one 10 win team to miss the playoffs.
All this explaining, so what’s with the results? It turns out that of the 236 teams to win 10 or more games since 1990, 38 of them have had a three game losing streak.***** That is 16%. Not exactly encouraging, but not as impossible as the above figure on 0-3 teams suggests. As for distribution, if we divide the season into thirds from weeks 1-5, 6-10, 11-15 (a three game losing streak cannot start any later than week 15) we find 11 streaks in the first third, 8 in the second third, and 19 in the last third. There clearly is a bias towards the latter part of the season, explained perhaps by good teams easing off the pedal after a good run of earlier results. Regardless, winning 10 games is doable, even with a three game losing streak.
To put that into context for our 2013 Minnesota Vikings, there are five games I have (very scientifically) defined as high degree of difficulty (GB, home and away, @ SEA, @DAL, @CIN). If we drop three of those, we cannot let up against PIT, CAR, @NYG, WAS, CHI, @BAL, PHI, and DET. The most likely route is a perfect record at the dome (plus London), and a split on the remaining road games. Let’s do this. If not, there’s always 9-7!
Variations on a Screen
With Cordarrelle Patterson not being fully shoehorned into the Percy Harvin role, it seems that the Vikes have given up on the screen. I can count the two to the rook in the first two games, while Jerome Simpson was involved in a WR screen in the ultimately failed final drive against the Browns.****** I am disappointed because Patterson made a bunch of people miss on his way to two first downs, despite being an obvious tell by virtue of only playing a handful of snaps in both games as a known quantity – bleh route runner, tremendous open field runner. Sidebar: The former Vol and Hutchinson Community College Blue Dragon also looked pretty capable on his two catches for first downs against the Browns, especially on the 9 route with CB Buster Skrine all over him.
Even if #84 is a tell, I have seen about 3 other teams this week alone run very effective fakes off of the bubble/tunnel screen. As the dbs come up to snuff out the screen, the putative blocker is wide open 15 yards downfield.
Moreover, yes I have heard and seen Adrian Peterson’s shortcomings as a receiver but ultimately the goal is to get him with the ball in space. Against Cleveland, it seemed that at best the O-line is simply stopping the opposing front from getting penetration, as opposed to actually moving them and creating holes. This makes it hard for All Day to do his thing, and hard to get blockers into the second level. If you cannot succeed against their defensive line, why not merely ignore it? Run more screens. If it is not looking good in practice, just practice it some more. This team really needs it.
Bill Musgrave: A Beautiful Mind
This headline will surely stick in many fans’ craws, but I cannot blame the man for what often times seems like lackluster execution; I don’t doubt that Ponder is told about improving his pocket presence, or setting his feet outside it – as failing to cost our favorite team a 15+ yard gain with Jerome Simpson sitting pretty open on the right side in the second half.
His play calling seems to be the major gripe for all the unemployed Don Coryells out there. One of his favorite calls is that bootleg with a TE, typically Rudolph running a flat route. Considering the makeup of the offense (feared running game, athletic quarterback) such a call makes sense. Teams, however, are catching on. The past two years at Soldier Field, a Bear LB would be right in Rudolph’s face as Ponder looked up to find him. Against the Browns last week, they eventually blew the play up by the second half. Tendencies are picked up. Not to mention that Rudolph’s (and Carlson’s) strength is not exactly open field running. When teams start getting aggressive against that bootleg is when something else will open up. Dear Billy, please find that ASAP!
Despite this new and exciting heading, in light of the announcement on the QB’s rib injury, I will refrain from evaluating his errant throws, and poor-ish decisions in addition to his accurate throws and good-ish decisions. His last pass attempt of the game, where Jerome Simpson actually had a decent shot given the situation, did look pretty good. I also don’t know how the rib injury would cause him to overthrow Joe Webb on that end zone fade******* and Greg Jennings later on. Yet I will demur until at least next week.
If the defense cannot bring pressure against Pittsburgh, preferably with four, I am ready to start worrying. At least it could be convenient with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Everson Griffen and Fred Evans on the last year of their contracts. It would be more convenient if the DL just looked like they did last year and for most of Week 2.
I am pretty worried about Antonio Brown, with our open field tackling being a bit suspect, something I feared after losing one of the greatest tackling cornerbacks in the game. If Sherels ends up getting a lot of game time in the defensive backfield, however, open field tackling should improve.
While not as flashy as it once was, Dick LeBeau still brings a solid unit across the pond. They probably have the strongest back end the Vikings have faced so far, if also the weakest defensive line. Maybe our line will be able to create holes for the reigning MVP.********
A turnaround has got to start somewhere! Until next week.
*The other short field was followed by a Cutler interception and subsequently Chicago returned the favor, all the way to the end zone.
**Andrew Sendejo on Ogbonnaya’s 11 yard reception, Erin Henderson on Gordon’s third catch of the drive for 10 yards
***A 35 yard punt by rookie Jeff Locke allowed Browns returner Travis Benjamin to fair catch the ball at their own 45
****In 2008, with current Viking Matt Cassel starting 15 games the New England Patriots missed out on the playoffs with an 11-5 record. The other 8 teams all missed out with 10 wins.
*****Some of the teams observed even had four game losing streaks, including the 2012 Bengals.
******The Jerome Simpson reception was against prevent so is less relevant
*******Throw easily could have been better, but I would have expected Jennings, or Simpson to catch it
*******Given how hard I have been on him in the past, I should say that Brandon Fusco had a pretty good day the office last Sunday, creating a decent amount of movement in the run game, especially compared to his peers