The Vikings put together their second-straight three-phase win, getting positive returns from their offense, defense and special teams. After reasonable questions about the sustainability of wins produced defensively, the offense has stepped up both in terms of pure points and internal statistical measures.
This is the second week in a row where the offense was 50 percent on third down (7/14 today, 8/16 last week) after multiple weeks going 4 for 14 and the like. While the last four games have featured a statistically incredible Sam Bradford, problems with an early-game running attack and penalties kept the Vikings from turning a good passing performance into offensive points—even with the occasional boost in field position provided by a stellar defense and generally good special teams unit.
Now, the Vikings offense might be rolling, with early running success from Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata complementing an even more effective Sam Bradford—who was hampered by an injured offensive line and a receiver corps lacking playmaker Stefon Diggs.
Bradford himself had a phenomenal game—more reminiscent of his debut against Green Bay than his statistically friendly but otherwise uneven performances against Carolina and New York. His ball placement was consistently on point, and even passes where receivers needed to win contested catches were placed in the best possible location.
With only a few off-target passes—a near-interception from John Simon on a screen pass and a somewhat misplaced ball that resulted in a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson—Bradford can be proud of a game where he overcame consistent pressure off the edge and pushed the ball downfield to a variety of targets.
Bradford was pressured on just over 37 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, which is an upgrade over recent weeks but still very high relative to the rest of the league. Many of those pressures came from T.J. Clemmings’s side, as he filled in for an injured Matt Kalil.
Clemmings hasn’t received much criticism from fans, but his poor performances in the past few weeks have been hidden by the level of play Andre Smith and some of the other offensive linemen put together. Without that cover, his issues have come into sharp focus. Not only did Whitney Mercilus log five quarterback hits (including a 1.5 sacks), but Jadeveon Clowney also created four tackles-for-loss in the run game. The vast majority of those were achieved when lined up against Clemmings as a primary blocker.
Jeremiah Sirles suffered from some problems as well. With two false starts and a few mistakes in the run game, he wasn’t perfect but he did operate cleanly in pass protection.
In the interior, Zac Kerin put together a predictable game after Brandon Fusco went down. It was not that great in pass protection—a liability that likely would have received more attention if it wasn’t for Clemmings—but he was an able run blocker.
Alex Boone and Joe Berger continued to perform well and this marks Alex Boone’s second consecutive impressive game for the Vikings after earlier being a problem more than a solution. Both Boone and Berger generated movement in the running game with Berger getting to the second level well enough. Boone was even better in pass protection and might have been perfect in terms of pressures given up.
The skill players were a pleasant surprise. Adam Thielen was the star of the night among them, recording his first 100-yard receiving game (a total of seven receptions for 127 yards) as well as a great touchdown. Thielen displayed the skills of a complete receiver, compiling receptions at every level of the field, winning tough catches in the air with a receiver draped over him and demonstrating effective route-running technique.
Along with him were players like Kyle Rudolph—the only healthy tight end at the end of the night—and Cordarrelle Patterson. Sam Ekstrom here at Cold Omaha went over Patterson’s night and seeming transformation from a busted gadget player to effective offensive weapon but it’s worth mentioning again if only briefly. Patterson was used as a runner, screen weapon and traditional receiver and contributed in every role—even twice as a decoy in the backfield, opening up fullback dives.
Kyle Rudolph was not a winner in the box score with only two catches on four targets for 15 yards but was forced to perform in a variety of rules better suited for tight ends like Rhett Ellison and David Morgan, who were both out with injury. He performed those roles well enough. He wasn’t perfect by any means but today should be counted as a positive performance for the up-and-down tight end.
In the running game, Jerick McKinnon got hot again early, but tapered off—matching his contributions from other games; he’s averaged 5.0 yards a carry in the first half of games and 1.5 yards a carry in the second half.
Like Sam Bradford’s unusual first-quarter/rest-of-game split we mentioned last week (where Bradford was throwing for 4.4 yards an attempt in the first quarter from Weeks 2-4 and 14.8 yards per attempt otherwise), this may be statistical noise (Bradford was excellent in the first quarter of this game) that could go away. But it’s another split worth noting.
A problem might have been consistently asking McKinnon to run to the left. Of the six negative yardage plays he recorded, five of them were runs to the left (out of 20 runs, 11 of them were to the left). He ran for 0.8 yards per carry overall running to that side. While the 3.3 yards per carry to his right isn’t ideal, it’s a good deal better and points to the abysmal run-blocking T.J. Clemmings was providing.
Not all of it is on the offensive line; some of it has to do with McKinnon but he was uniquely creative and did a better job finding yards that weren’t there than one would have originally expected.
Asiata closed out the game and did a better job navigating smaller spaces for efficient yardage later on, having a mirror game to McKinnon. His first five runs went for 0.8 yards per carry, and adding the six-yard run he had to close out the half, he finished the first half with 1.7 yards a carry (like for McKinnon, these numbers are complicated by short-to-go runs) . In the second half, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
He demonstrated his trademark vision and the speed he seems to have developed over the past two years that he didn’t have as a rookie. With all of that, he hasn’t lost much power.
The Vikings logged 14 quarterback hits with four sacks against the Texans. That’s a stunning number of hits, and it’s rare that an offense recovers from that. There aren’t many games that reach those heights and a cursory look at the top five offenses in QB hits allowed (Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis) as well as the top five defenses in sacks (Minnesota, Denver, Arizona, Buffalo and Green Bay) reveals that there is likely only one game this year where a team recorded more quarterback hits: Denver against Tampa Bay in Week 4.
14 hits is an astonishing amount, and more even than the number of hits the Vikings levied on Cam Newton—remember, most sacks count as hits and the Vikings took Newton down eight times.
Leading that effort was rotational rusher Tom Johnson, who recorded six quarterback hits (including a sack). He was a force in the pass rush, which is significant given the fact that the Texans only ran the ball eight times until their final drive, with 40 passing dropbacks outside of that last drive to pair with those eight runs, all from Lamar Miller.
That was one reason that Linval Joseph didn’t record too many stats to load up into the box score—so few opportunities in the run game limited his statistical impact to one quarterback hit and four tackles, which is still pretty good for a nose tackle. He recorded a somewhat above average pressure rate and was a force in the run game—of the eight runs Houston called before that last drive, Joseph had the tackle on three of them.
He was a primary reason the Texans went to the air early and often, and therefore a reason—even when he wasn’t on the field—that the Vikings were able to hit the quarterback.
Alongside Joseph were of course the rotation of defensive ends; Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter were all impactful. Aside from the fact that all of them recorded hits, Hunter and Robison earned sacks (one and two respectively) as well with Griffen forced to deal with one taken away from him on a penalty that was later revealed to be a legal play on the broadcast replay.
They weren’t bad in the run game, but neither were they necessary. Instead, their constant harassment was the hallmark of the Vikings’ defensive performance, only allowing six points until there were four minutes left in the game.
Brian Robison was perhaps the best pressure creator of the three, with the three of them together grabbing fourteen pressures, per PFF.
Last week, the linebackers were both a bit of a liability but in this game they were stunning. Kendricks turned around a weak tackling game from the Giants victory into a strong all-around performance as a run defender, coverage player and even as a pass-rusher.
Anthony Barr earned pressure on his rushes—about once every five rushes—and also played a key role in keeping Miller to 2.5 yards a carry. The movement Barr had into rushing lanes to force the running back into other defenders was critical to how the Vikings run defense forced the Texans into a one-dimensional passing game.
The coverage unit performed their job near-perfectly in response. Though the Vikings could have had more; two dropped interceptions and a forced fumble recovered by the Texans means that the turnover margin (+1) could have been much, much larger.
In the secondary, Harrison Smith did a fantastic job closing down DeAndre Hopkins when assigned up top over him, while Terence Newman remained stride-for-stride with Will Fuller, essentially negating the need for safety help. On two occasions, Newman broke up passes intended for Fuller.
Xavier Rhodes shadowed Hopkins when on the field, and took advantage of the leverage Smith provided.
Beyond that, Smith was dominant as a run defender on the few snaps that it mattered for and generated some pressure as a rusher, too.
Though the touchdown at the end of the game didn’t affect any outcomes, Rhodes will want to improve his technique against red zone slants to make sure that doesn’t happen in a higher-leverage situation in the future.
Neither Hopkins nor Fuller caught one pass until midway through the third quarter, when the Vikings already had a three-possession lead. Two of Hopkins’ five receptions didn’t appear until the final drive—well into garbage time.
Captain Munnerlyn, faced with a theoretically disadvantageous matchup against jump-ball receiver Jaelen Strong, acquitted himself very well. Though Strong did end up having the most impactful game out of all of the Texans receivers, it was still a limited outing and he could only ever create yardage underneath.
Andrew Sendejo had a number of missteps, but a phenomenal interception at the end of the game makes everything much more palatable. While Sendejo continues to fall short a little bit in a number of ways, he still provides assignment-sound football that will occasionally express themselves into those big plays. For now, he’s holding off a push from either Anthony Harris or Jayron Kearse to start.
The Vikings had another complete day. Blair Walsh didn’t miss a kick (out of five attempts—four of them on extra points) and Jeff Locke had a decent outing. It wasn’t as good as his most recent performances and he had one punt he may want to take back (out of six), but he’s earned credibility at this point and did well with some of his other tries.
The Vikings return game stalled in part because an unusual strategy to have linebacker (and former Viking) Brian Peters kick the ball allowed them to bring an extra tackler in on kickoffs while also kicking short but predictably in favor of the coverage unit. Of the three different returners from the Vikings to advance the ball, none advanced it past the Houston 25.
Punt returner Marcus Sherels, on the other hand, had a banner day. Even without his 79-yard punt return touchdown, his 7.0 punt return average would have been a decent outing. With that return touchdown, of course, his average (and impact) skyrockets. He does this all while making very few mistakes as a returner.
The Vikings should be happy with the win, and though this wasn’t a “statement” game like the home opener against the Packers, they put away a 3-1 team in resounding fashion. No matter how much of the Texans’ record overstates their actual ability, the Vikings performed like a dominant team ought to.