As Troymaine Pope rumbled past and slithered through Minnesota Vikings defenders on Thursday evening, some folks may have had alarm bells going off in their heads. Wasn’t this Vikings rush defense supposed to be improved?
While the final quarter definitely wasn’t pretty, it’s OK to pump the brakes on the Panic Bus.
Pope powered his way for nearly nine yards a pop and got the Seattle Seahawks close to 200 yards on the ground overall against Minnesota’s third-stringers, but head coach Mike Zimmer remained focused on what was otherwise a good performance against the run from his first-teamers with the exception of a three-play, 29-yard second-quarter sequence for Christine Michael. In the first quarter, the Vikings held Seattle to three yards or less on five of seven rushes, including impressive stops on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 to halt a drive.
“With the first group it wasn’t too bad,” said Zimmer on Saturday. “They had one ball that bounced outside of Everson [Griffen]. Actually, we played pretty good and he got grabbed a little bit. Then there was one other six-yard run, I think, but for the most part it wasn’t bad.”
The Vikings moved up eight spots from 25th to 17th in rush defense last year, and, if they have their druthers, they’ll take another significant leap and get opponents’ averages below 100 yards per game in 2016. This is easier said than done, but the Vikings have the personnel to accomplish it.
“With the first group it wasn’t too bad.”
If there’s anything worth sweating about, it’s been the team’s offensive rushing game involving the starters sans Adrian Peterson. Many fans are watching these preseason games as a potential preview of Post-AP life. Unfortunately, the Jerick McKinnon truthers have yet to be rewarded with much arsenal for why the Vikings would be better off without the aging Peterson. McKinnon has 14 carries for 29 yards through two preseason outings and just nine for 15 on Thursday night.
“There was this one play where we had a nice hole and the tight end gets knocked into the tackle, so it gets cut off,” Zimmer explained after watching the tape on the Seattle game. “There was two times that the back missed the cut. There was two times where we blocked it the wrong way.”
In fairness, 14 carries is not exactly a requisite sample size to make judgments, especially when it only takes one long carry to salvage an otherwise lackluster rushing performance. Peterson himself had several feast-or-famine games last season that featured just one lengthy run.
McKinnon certainly has the capability of capitalizing on an open rushing lane. The problem is, he hasn’t had many of them this preseason.
It’s tough to find McKinnon too culpable when he is frequently dodging contact behind the line of scrimmage.
Here, Matt Kalil offers little resistance and Zach Line gets crushed by Mike Morgan (57) on the first play of the game, leaving McKinnon with nowhere to go.
Next, we have a total mess of a play with Alex Boone getting bulldozed by Justin Hamilton (74) while Zach Line blocks Matt Kalil instead of Quinton Jefferson (99).
David Morgan II loses his battle with Frank Clark (55), who forces McKinnon to change directions (well salvaged by Boone, though, who shoves the pile for about two yards).
The issue with flimsy blocking is it can lead to happy feet in a running back. Just like some quarterbacks can get panicky in the pocket, running backs can be overly-shifty and miss their holes. McKinnon picks up three yards on this run but never really gets out of jump-cut mode.
Except for Line, who committed multiple errors (but made a great block on McKinnon’s touchdown), no one person was repeatedly at fault on Thursday night. John Sullivan had trouble occupying rookie Jarran Reed on a play. So did Joe Berger at one point. MyCole Pruitt was shed too easily by K.J. Wright in another instance.
It’s totally conceivable that the Vikings are growing into Tony Sparano’s new blocking schemes and may not click for several weeks. Or maybe they just need Peterson in there to wear down the front seven.
“It’s a work in progress,” Zimmer said.
And still two preseason games to go.