With a 25-16 win over the Tennessee Titans, the Minnesota Vikings have certainly avoided the missteps that led to the stunning loss in the first week of 2015, against the San Francisco 49ers.
The first half of the game made it easy to hit the panic button on a season that had already started inauspiciously, with starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater going down with a knee dislocation before a preseason game he wasn’t even slated to play in.
Down 0-10 to enter the half, the Vikings defense was marked with inconsistency, poor tackling and lost assignments, while the offense could pave lanes for a running back who himself didn’t have much of an ability to create anything beyond what the line could give him. Beyond that, Blair Walsh missed both of his kicks in the first half, also missing an extra point in the third quarter.
The defense and return units resolved some of those concerns in the second half but most notably created several turnovers, scoring on two of them and setting up the offense for field goals on other drives.
A 61-yard return by Cordarrelle Patterson created a field goal opportunity after a three-and-out, which Blair Walsh made from 50 yards out. Shortly after that, an interception influenced by Everson Griffen’s pressure and brought home by Eric Kendricks added six points to the board and a fumble recovery from Danielle Hunter in the fourth quarter led to another touchdown that added seven points to the board.
The offense also were given the opportunity to score on short fields created by the defense in the fourth quarter, receiving the ball at their own 43-yard line on their final scoring drive.
But the problems for the Vikings offense are real. Minnesota was 6/14 on third down, and though they converted all of their short opportunities (going 4/4 on 3rd-and-three-or-less), they had issues with conversions on intermediate distances (0/4 on distances between six and four yards) and moderate success on 3rd-and-long (converting 2/6).
Out of 24 first down attempts, only six gained at least four yards. Most of the failures were incomplete passes, and many of those incomplete passes are the fault of Shaun Hill, but drops from Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph with poor adjustments from Peterson and Charles Johnson didn’t help him either.
Those concerns double down when considering the kicking unit as part of the offense. The Vikings offense scored on 25 percent of their drives in part because of their kicking game. Last year, the Vikings weren’t known as an exciting offense, but they ranked 14th in points per drive because they scored on 38 percent of their drives—the seventh-best mark in the NFL.
Only one team over the course of the 2015 season averaged worse than 25 percent, and that was the St. Louis Rams.
Hill, despite playing a relatively risky, deeper-passing playstyle (with a low completion rate), managed the game well. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he threw a dropped interception, but found ways to deliver on deep third down opportunities, including converting 3rd-and-10 as well as 3rd-and-15.
His pass to Adam Thielen on 3rd-and-22 was excellent, and the Vikings were one yard from converting and probably should have gone for it on fourth down, especially as they only netted 36 yards on the subsequent punt.
While Hill’s ball placement was spectacular, it was good enough. Thielen and Diggs did a fine job adjusting to those passes and when targeting players who weren’t running backs, Hill averaged over eight yards an attempt with a 59 percent completion rate. That doesn’t account for the obvious lack of chemistry that he and Charles Johnson demonstrated, either, and that may not be Hill’s fault either.
For now, the Vikings might be fine keeping Hill as Bradford progresses through the playbook well enough to put together meaningful performances.
Peterson averaged 1.9 yards a carry on first down (the league average on first down is 4.31), dropped one pass and poorly adjusted to another, meaning he was involved in ten of the failures on first down while only creating two successful runs—a seven-yarder and a four-yarder.
There is a lot to put on the offensive line for those running statistics—tackles for loss don’t happen by magic—and certainly most of those runs allow one to identify an offensive lineman who didn’t perform up to par on his assignment. Newly-signed Alex Boone in particular had issues holding down a powerful Titans defensive line in the run game.
But the issue for Peterson is not that he’s a bad running back for not producing more than what was blocked for him, but that’s he paid to overcome the obstacles that having a bad offensive line creates. In many years, he had more than respectable production despite occasionally subpar blocking in front of him. In 2012, he had the perfect mixture of a good run-blocking line and the kind of burst, vision and power that makes him such a good back.
In this game, it seemed much more like he was a running back that needed his offensive line to perform in order for him to create the kinds of runs he’s known for. A running back limited by his offensive line is less of a threat—and much more difficult to build around—than one who adds yards regardless of what happens in front of him.
Per Paul Kuharsky, ESPN’s Tennessee Titans reporter, Peterson only gained nine yards after contact on nine carries—the lowest average he’s had since they’ve started tracking the statistic in 2009.
Peterson did miss lanes at times, but the bigger decisionmaking issues from him stem from a poor mix of patience and aggression, where Peterson was too patient for runs to the outside and too aggressive on runs on the inside.
It didn’t help that play design often brought more defenders into the box by adding more blockers inside—sometimes it was fine, like when David Morgan lined up in the backfield and at other times it caused more problems than it solved, like lining up Stefon Diggs next to the tackles and bringing linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage.
Maybe looking at a sample that includes Peterson in an opening game and a subzero temperature game is unfair, but if he’s declined, this is what it looks like.
There were some highlight performances on the offense, however—Diggs and Adam Thielen were standouts, with both displaying a larger catch radius than they’re often given credit for and adjusting to difficult catches extremely well. Center Joe Berger may have been the only offensive lineman who succeeded in both pass protection and run blocking, though even then he had a misstep.
Defensively, the Vikings turned it on (and had to) in the second half. The two return touchdowns were critical—the Vikings scored only 12 points otherwise—and they shut down the Titans’ running game. In the first half, they averaged 3.25 yards per carry and in the second half averaged 1.0 yards a carry.
Against the pass, they were a bit more successful with an interception saving a somewhat similar second-half. Quarterback Marcus Mariota averaged 6.85 yards per attempt in the first half and 5.95 yards per attempt in the second half.
The biggest difference came in sacks (two in the second half for a net of negative 19 yards) and an interception, with Mariota throwing a touchdown in either half.
While the defensive line was largely solid outside of the first two drives, the cornerbacks and linebackers were subpar. On the outside, cornerbacks had a lot of difficulty planting and driving in response to throws underneath—either below the zone assignment, on comeback routes or on slants against off coverage. That’s a big reason Trae Waynes had ten tackles.
Two of them were good—one brought Mariota down short of his goal and another was a smart tackle of Derrick Henry. Another one was pretty neutral, as he was the first player to actually help take down Henry on his impressive run-after-catch early in the game after missed tackles from Anthony Barr, Chad Greenway, Linval Joseph and Harrison Smith.
Mariota was up against it in terms of pressure, but the ability to target his outside receivers on a consistent basis kept the Titans in the game. Thankfully, the success of safeties like Harrison Smith prevented the Titans from targeting deep too often, which is why they only averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt despite a 61 percent completion rate.
Smith and Sendejo were also important in stemming the bleeding from receptions given up to Harry Douglas and Andre Johnson throughout the game as well as playing as force players in the run game. Both of them made mistakes, but they were relatively rare.
Anthony Barr had an uncharacteristically bad day with issues in coverage and run defense and didn’t impact the game much positively except on rare occasion. Chad Greenway didn’t affect the game much in his limited rotation either, and his speed was exploited by the defense when possible.
Eric Kendricks played well and despite some issues getting off of blocks earlier in the game, ended up making fantastic plays not just on his pick-six, but in the run game as well—willing to shoot gaps and attack the runner to make big plays.
Honestly, the defense should be concerned about the sustainability of their performance going forward. Only six teams in post-merger NFL history have averaged more than half a defensive touchdown per game, and no team has averaged three-quarters of a touchdown in games. Those six teams had a sum total win-loss record of 0.500.
Not only that, if the punt unit should be considered part of the defense, the punting was abysmal.
A rush success rate of 47 percent means they haven’t resolved much of the concerns they had in the running game and though the Vikings have clearly moved forward with multiple ways to attack the read-option and option-pass concepts, they also showed weaknesses dealing with minor wrinkles in the offensive game.
They need to demonstrate that they can cover running backs who can catch out of the backfield and were lucky that the Titans didn’t have the personnel or inclination to truly test them deep in the passing game.
The offense has its own cleaning up to do, but if the Vikings are truly going to win with their defense, they’ll have to remember what Mike Zimmer himself said a few weeks ago.
The Vikings defense made a lot of good, big plays. Sacks and turnovers will keep a defense in the game. But they had a lot of problems with the little details that can kill a team over time. If they want to justify their bold moves this offseason, they’ll have to tighten up next week against a team that does as much as possible to exploit those small advantages.