For the second time in four years, the detested Packers of Green Bay have rolled into the dome and absolutely demolished the Vikings. The start was encouraging enough. Cordarrelle Patterson’s record kick return saw the game unfold much like this fixture has over the past two years. In 2011, Christian Ponder matched the anticipation surrounding his first start with an opening 72 yard salvo to Michael Jenkins. Last year, the win-and-in scenario dovetailed with Adrian’s record chase to create a palatable buzz. That buzz ramped-up as Minnesota’s offense opened with a five minute scoring drive while the defense subsequently forced a 3-and-out. There were no 3-and-outs this time.
To the national audience tuning in, it may have come as a surprise that Green Bay achieved great success running up the middle. Per Pro-Football-Reference’s play charting, Green Bay rushed for 103 yards on 19 carries in between their guards. By the second half, this theme was as blatant as the rat scurrying across the screen before the credits in The Departed.
Despite those deep seated memories of the Williams Wall, and a very solid run defense last year (4th in the NFL yards per carry (YPC) allowed), the 2013 Vikings present an entirely different reality. In late downs, with two or less yards to go for a first down or touchdown, what Football Outsiders calls Power situations, the Vikings defense currently sits at 25th in the league, with 74% of such runs being allowed to succeed. This confirms what looked so evident against both Carolina and Green Bay. The defense (or more appropriately defensive line) also ranks 25th in second-level yards (those in between 5-10 yards of the LOS) allowed per carry. All this can be seen clear as crystal right here.
Where is the problem? Per Pro Football Focus, the only lineman on the interior to grade positively against the run is Fred Evans. Sharrif Floyd and Letroy Guion are getting killed, yet other than Kevin Williams who has the highest snap count despite missing a game, the three other defensive tackles are rotating evenly. Compared to last year, it appears that Kevin Williams has been average instead of pretty good, while Fred Evans continues to look like a stud against the run. Sharrif Floyd is obviously new, and has been pretty bad in this aspect thus far. The rookie has flashed as a pass rusher though, and he is, after all, a rookie. Letroy Guion, however, just continues to suck wind. Beyond the gimmick of using him as a fullback, which is always fun, let’s hope to see less of 98. More snaps for him mean less for our best run defender, and our #1 pick who has shown a need to further develop.
What’s Left to Ponder?
In order to write about something fresh (just kidding) and use one of my favorite Zoolander clips (semi-kidding), I will take a whack at the old quarterback piñata.
Firstly, Christian Ponder looked like the worst version of himself. We saw the dual and related faults of happy feet, and tunnel vision. It is hard to say whether this is the normal Ponder, or if the whole quarterback carousel has reduced him to a ball of nerves. The most frustrating thing about watching Ponder when he’s off, which has been too often this year, is his pocket “absence”. Pocket presence is understood to be a quarterback’s ability to stay calm amidst a messy pocket, and to make subtle movements to both evade rushers and allow his blockers to regain leverage. The former Seminole often displays the opposite of these traits. The play that comes to mind from Week 8 is that 2nd-and-6 midway trough the second quarter. After faking the handoff, Ponder waited for a little over two seconds before sprinting to his right, with no receiver on that side of the field. By NFL standards, however, the pocket was quite clean. To boot, Greg Jennings came free running a post.
Secondly, it does make a fair amount of sense to me why Cassel has been relegated to the third string. Christian Ponder’s money is fully guaranteed into 2014. Matt Cassel, on the other hand is slated to make $3.7 million in 2014, which looks as if it can be voided by the team and per Tom Pelissero it can be voided by the player himself. Matt Cassel has on balance played better than any other Vikings quarterback in 2013, but he offers the least for the future. Missing the playoffs is assured, especially with the defense – the chief reason for Sunday night’s loss – playing as it has. The value of the 2013 season for its own sake is thus diminished. I don’t think that means the team has packed it in. What I do think is that the front office is very involved when it comes to the quarterback situation, and it is their job to have a wider perspective than the “week-by-week” boilerplate we hear from the players and the coaches. Having Ponder, Cassel, and Josh Freeman/a first round pick at QB is not a tenable situation for 2014. Someone has to go, and the team can either cut Ponder and absorb a $3.2 million cap hit, keep him and cut Cassel for free, or try their very best in turning up every rock looking for a trade partner for Ponder. I do think a decent amount of teams would be happy to sign him as a backup, but I don’t think the trade market is quite so robust for a backup quarterback with his profile. Look at it this way, everyone involved is getting used to who the #2 quarterback will be at Winter Park in 2014.
Thirdly and lastly, with Cassel out of the race to start next week, and Ponder’s shoddy performances this year outside of the second half at Solider Field, I think it is pretty easy to decipher Frazier’s cryptic messaging on who will start at quarterback. It will be Josh Freeman unless his practices indicate he will be roughly what he was at the Meadowlands. For those who incurred memory numbing as a result of PTSD, I think this graphic representation will remind you how that game went without inducing that PTSD anxiety:
Moreover, I think this means that Freeman gets just about all the reps in practice since he clearly needs them. I’m anxious about how good a job the staff will do in coaching him up. My misgivings about the offensive staff, namely Messrs. Musgrave and Johnson, is how Ponder has been developed. I am generally okay with the play calling and game planning. Given the quarterback play they are quite hamstrung, and when they have “abandoned” the run it has been dictated by the situation. The fact that Ponder has kept making the same basic mistakes does raise questions. It is hard to know how to apportion blame. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Jim Harbaugh gets a hold of Christian Ponder and makes him into a younger yet improved Alex Smith. Maybe #7 just doesn’t have it in him. Either way, Freeman needs good coaching, especially as the defense looks nothing like the units Alex Smith has played with.
I really do hope Cordarrelle Patterson’s twitter handle catches on as a nickname. It’s pretty sweet. The reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week has been one of the few bright spots on this team, and he has been a delight to watch. The economy of movement with which he returns kickoffs is elegance embodied. Ceeflashpee never does too much zigging and zagging, instead he trusts the blockers directly in front of him (typically John Carlson, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Felton, and Joe Berger), offering a slight change of direction before exploding through a hole, not always a big one, into the open field. The acceleration is elite.
There is a pretty good breakdown of the film here, and after re-watching that 69 yard return against the Giants, both his patience and decisiveness are apparent. I both understand (frequent use of heavy sets) and am frustrated (need to be more explosive given our defense) with why Patterson has featured on less than a quarter (23.5% to be precise) of the offensive snaps. If the season continues to go south, though, it will be imperative to greatly increase that percentage. For now, I just plan to enjoy watching him when I can.
My alcohol soaked undergraduate years, and the cult of fanhood are responsible for short-circuiting my memory i.e. I am very excited for Sunday’s game in spite of the Vikings’ travails. While Dez Bryant may be giving some of you night terrors, Dallas’ anemic rushing offense (24th in YPC, 25th in yards) means the safeties can stay deep, while Romo’s erratic brilliance means that unlike Rodgers he may leave some first downs on the table. Dallas is also down the two franchise DEs (in Anthony Spencer’s case, literally) that were supposed to start the year, while Morris Claiborne is shaping up to be one of the bigger busts in recent memory.
If the game stays close, Adrian should have some opportunities – Dallas ranks near the bottom of the league in both YPC allowed between 5-10 yards from the LOS (28th) and beyond 10 yards from the LOS (23rd). Offensively, the Vikings ranks first in the latter category, thanks mostly to the most explosive back in the league (not to mention garbage time touchdowns from Ponder and Gerhart). We can expect to hear lots of this:
Beneath all that froth, I can only pray Josh Freeman rediscovers his mid-autumn 2012 form, that Chris Cook and Josh Robinson, both in the top 3 of highest quarterback rating allowed by CBs per Pro Football Focus,* get it together , and that Brain Robison actually sacks the quarterback once he beats his man.
*In all fairness to Chris Cook, I doubt PFF accounts for coverage busts; so when the Bears call a Cover 3 beater, forcing Cook to sit between two Bennetts (no relation) running 9 routes, and he is then helpless on the back shoulder throw to the larger Bennett, PFF records that Cook conceded a touchdown. To wit, he was also shouting like crazy pre-snap for an adjustment. His numbers still look bad without that game winning touchdown, but I guess I brought it up because I am still bitter about that birthday loss.