Vikings

Vikings Give Fans Heart-Wrenching Loss in Season That Has Everything

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The Vikings have blown out opponents, and have been surprisingly rolled themselves. They’ve won some incredibly close games and come back from behind, so it’s only fitting that they lose a close game by allowing a late-game rally. They did it in a pretty novel way, too.

As is the case in close games, there were a lot of elements “at fault” that could have swung the game with more reasonable performances. An extra point miss may have informed a fourth-down decision—which could have made the subsequent touchdown more meaningful, and a blocked field goal might have been the fault of a low kick trajectory from Blair Walsh.

Certainly, Blair Walsh will earn most of the ire of the fans, but his impact is actually a bit more nebulous than one might image—blocked kicks are usually simply extraordinary plays by the opposing team, and a made extra point paradoxically may have been worse because it would encourage the Vikings to settle for overtime, where they subsequently lost.

There’s an argument that people are making that the kick was going to shank, but that’s frankly ridiculous; it’s difficult to tell the trajectory of a kick that soon, and many similar kicks from the hashes take a harsh angle before hooking in.

The Vikings could have won without Walsh making those kicks; had head coach Mike Zimmer waited longer to call the time out near the goal line on third down, the Lions would not have had the time to rally for a field goal drive. Prevent defense calls are also worthy of scrutiny as the three-man pass rush didn’t force Stafford to throw any earlier than he wanted to—and a defensive backfield that has eight in coverage against five receivers should cover better.

But aside from coaching and special teams, a defense with late third-down conversions, including one allowed by penalty from Xavier Rhodes allowed the Lions to set up the final touchdown, a result of two missed tackles from Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith.

And of course, an offense that finds itself with gifted field position should do more—a drive that starts in the red zone shouldn’t end in a punt, and that was more a result of individual offensive player problems than playcalling; a false start, holding call and negative run preceded a bad sack that ended in a scoreless drive.

So, how do we evaluate individual performances?

Offensively, we saw a significant change in the playcalling and offensive style. With many more screen passes in this game than we’ve seen in some time—eight in this game alone, compared to 21 over the first seven games of the season.

Along with those passes behind the line of scrimmage came a variable-tempo offense and some one-step and three-step drops to relieve pressure. Immediately, we saw some different formation work with three receivers to one side of the field and a tight end empty to the open side of the field.

The variable tempo is interesting. Some drives were slow—37.3 seconds between completions/rush attempts (because the clock stops on incompletions, we won’t count those) in one drive, followed by 28.6 seconds between those plays on another drive.

Soon after, we saw some innovation with Linval Joseph in at fullback, but a play-action pass to a tight end or a jet sweep to Rhett Ellison following. We also saw Matt Asiata in wildcat with Stefon Diggs taking the end-around and a heavier emphasis on slants in the short passing game.

Sam Bradford performed his role well there, though he wasn’t lighting the world on fire. He had occasional bouts of inaccuracy that hurt the Vikings, but for the most part made quick decisions and the right decisions. His play in the red zone was great, and the Vikings were lucky a drop in the end zone was followed by a touchdown on another innovative play called by Shurmur.

Generally speaking, Bradford executed—not just because there was less pressure, but in part because he handled the pressure well. The biggest nit to pick is probably inconsistent ball placement, and he was hidden a bit by receivers in this capacity. Still, he made the right decisions and put the ball in a place only his teammates could get it, even if he didn’t make it exactly easy for them.

Speaking of which, the Viking should be happy once more with the left side of the line. Ezekiel Ansah logged one pressure on 33 pass-rushing snaps and in total, the Lions defensive line could only log 11 pressures. There are still some problems on the right side of the line as Brandon Fusco and T.J. Clemmings would have communication issues and allowed Kerry Hyder two sacks on stunts.

Still, even the subpar play of Fusco and Clemmings wasn’t too bad in terms of pass pressure given up, relatively speaking, and Devin Taylor was also held without pressure. Fusco alone gave up five pressures, but it really looks like there were communication errors between the two, so blaming only one of them would be a big problem.

Berger should additionally be happy with the work he did in the running game, and both Sirles and Long weren’t too bad there either.

After that disastrous first game, it really looks like the Vikings’ investment in Jake Long is paying off better than even a healthy Matt Kalil. Naturally, there will need to be at least one more game under his belt before we determine that he’s fully free of his first-game jitters (especially as last week he was better but not “good” like he was this week) but for now I think there’s a reason to be happy with the protection on the left side.

Photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media
Photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media

Generally speaking the run game performed poorly, though with Ronnie Hillman in it seemed to do a much better job. I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the individual talented of the running backs involved.

It’s usually specious to say a player received “better blocking” in the same game, but it can be said that the Vikings put Hillman in a position where fewer blocks were key—outside runs with only one or two blocks needed to break some key yards, with Hillman creating some yards of his own late in the first quarter and in the beginning of the second.

McKinnon did what he could with what was in front of him, but with failures from Fusco and Long in the blocking ahead of him, there wasn’t much he could do with contact arriving so early before the line of scrimmage appeared.

Something that contextualizes it: McKinnon received contact, on average, a half-yard behind the line of scrimmage, while Hillman received contact 2.4 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage. It’s extremely rare to see negative yards before contact, and it speaks to the fact that McKinnon did in fact receive “worse blocking,” which is normally a pretty suspect argument but fits here.

I’m not sure there was much there to assess McKinnon’s game, and we saw failures not just from Long and Fusco, but Berger and Clemmings contribute to his poor output.

In fact, as positive as the contributions from the offensive line were in the passing game (relatively speaking), they were pretty poor in the running game. Hillman didn’t have to rely much on OL blocks on his outside runs, instead using excellent blocks from Zach Line and Rhett Ellison to spring to the sideline.

Matt Asiata ran fairly vanilla plays and outside of one nifty run read, didn’t generate much within his assignment, and couldn’t make short-yardage runs unambiguous enough to convert. He continued to struggle in pass protection, and allowed a high-profile hit on Bradford late in the game.

Receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs balled out, while Cordarrelle Patterson did well with what he was asked to do as well. What’s unusual about this game is that receivers were given much more specific, narrow roles. Stefon Diggs ended up with 13 catches… for 80 yards. It’s a line similar to Miami’s Jarvis Landry.

He led the team in yardage, but it might be the case that Thielen was more impressive. He converted four of his six targets into 68 yards, including the catch of the game—an acrobatic wonder that erased some poor ball placement from Bradford.

thielen-highlight-catch

Patterson was an option on screens, as was Diggs, but he found some additional work as an intermediate threat at times. While his drop in the end zone is indicative of a problem, it’s at least some comfort that it’s his first drop of the season and that on that drive, the Vikings still scored. His route-running seems to have improved to the point where he can be expected to contribute every week for the offense.

Charles Johnson and Adam Thielen had the same usage pattern, but it’s clear Johnson didn’t perform as well. There was one instance that he shouldn’t have been targeted at all, as he was never open throughout any point in the route, but even when targeted was largely just adequate. Losing another catch through contact, followed by a slant where he should have done more with the room he had, Johnson received quite a few snaps and didn’t do much with it.

Laquon Treadwell grabbed his first catch, and it wasn’t bad—highlighted with an excellent release off the line of scrimmage.

Both Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison should be happy with their performances both as skill players and run blockers. Ellison was a beast in the run-blocking game in a way he hasn’t been in some time and Rudolph wasn’t too bad either.

Defensively, the oldest players highlighted the best performances. The player of the game might be Chad Greenway, whose most impressive play probably wasn’t the interception (caused by Danielle Hunter), but his consistent appearance in the run game to create stops and tackles for loss. He did an excellent job shedding blockers and only had a few missteps in coverage, as opposed to what he did in the past few games.

Unfortunately, Lamur in his place in nickel did a poor job in coverage, while Audie Cole was largely a nonfactor in base, though he did free up Greenway for some of those excellent tackles. Cole wasn’t bad, which is a good thing for a substitute middle linebacker.

Anthony Barr had another poor game, and he couldn’t deal with blocks at the second level once more. So how did the Vikings hold Detroit to 3.9 yards a carry, especially after giving up a 42-yard run early? The defensive line and Chad Greenway.

There’s been a lot of questions about the Vikings defensive line from fans in the past few weeks, and it’s certainly understandable. They generated pressure on about 30 percent of dropbacks in this game, which is a little below average for the NFL but pretty good against the kind of offense Detroit employs, which emphasizes quick dropbacks.

It’s also not too far from the Vikings’ season average of 36 percent, though obviously that would be much better. The difference between that average and this performance would be about two more pressures.

The issue that people are identifying is not pressure production, but sack conversion—only two sacks in the past three games is a far cry from the 15 sacks in the first three games. Sacks are obviously preferable to completions, but the pressure the Vikings have created in the past few games (including a 39 percent rate just a week ago) has forced interceptions and hasty throws.

greenway-interception

Carson Wentz threw an NFL passer rating of 2.8 when under pressure and Stafford’s interception on Sunday was a result of pressure as well. All of these pressures may not be obvious or result in sacks, but they are pretty plentiful and impactful.

Besides that, the Vikings defensive line did better than they’ve usually done shutting down the run game. Yes, a long  run from Theo Riddick really hurts the total numbers, but given that it was up the A gap and in this case the responsibilities were with the linebackers in the Double A look—it looks like Lamur was the primary culprit.

Most of Detroit’s runs were failures, and that should be acknowledged.

Everson Griffen and Shamar Stephen were forces in the run game, and they did a fantastic job shutting down runs in their direction. Not only that, Griffen produced pressure at a high rate for 4-3 defensive ends.

Linval Joseph was his usual self, which is pretty dominant as a nose tackle. He once again produced pressure above the rate of most three-technique tackles and produced as a run defender, though this time it happened a little les soften at the line of scrimmage and more often cleaning up mistakes others made.

Danielle Hunter performed as a situational rusher, but Brian Robison had his issues generating pressure, setting the edge or creating tackles in the run game.

That leaves a secondary that was replete with issues, excepting Terence Newman who bounced back from a big mistake in the Chicago game to having a near-perfect game in coverage this week, both outside and in the slot. Xavier Rhodes uncharacteristically struggled, though his issue was tackling, and not just on the final play of the game. Harrison Smith was even more of a liability, missing four tackles while not eliminating throws in his direction as a coverage defender.

Trae Waynes rode the line again between legal and illegal cornerback play, but it worked out for him in this game. Within that context, he had a pretty good game, with a highlight play in coverage that narrowed the window for Marvin Jones deep downfield (it ended up hitting Jones in the hands, but it was nevertheless good coverage).

 

We’re aware of the problems in the kicking game and the several turning points throughout the game, but for the most part, we have an understanding of the individual players that helped or hurt the Vikings through their play. The most positive takeaway has to be Shurmur’s immediate influence on the passing game, which should do a better job of protecting Bradford while enabling the YAC strengths of the receivers.

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