Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Bears was tough to watch. In my opinion, this was the first game all season in which the Vikings looked like an absolutely horrible football team from start to finish. There weren’t just a few plays and a few players that let the team down on Sunday night. All phases of the Vikings game looked horrible. It was a complete and total team meltdown.
Now before I get too far into the misery of Sunday’s game and our 1-5 record, let me remind you that run of the mill fans like you and me don’t really have it that bad. By comparison, there are other people out there who have it much worse. For example, here’s a picture of two women working the toughest job in Minnesota right now.
Yup, that’s right. These poor women not only have to watch the Vikings, but they also have to smile and look happy while they do it. The cynic in me suspects that this year either the Vikings recruited cheerleaders who don’t understand the rules of football, or that the Wilfs added Prosac to the 2011 cheerleader health plan. What else could explain these ladies unfailing cheeriness in the face of such misery?
And if miniskirts and pom poms aren’t your thing, here’s a picture of a different sort for you. I say, "Whatever floats your boat."
Alright, here’s fair warning. That’s about all the warmth and glow you’re going to get in this post. We’re a team in crisis and no amount of matching purple tank tops and miniskirts or sticker-covered Stanford helmets are going to change the reality that this Vikings team is B-A-D.
In past weeks there were parts of each game in which a fan in a semi-delusional state could use to hang his or her hat on. Unfortunately, this past week things got ugly quickly and didn’t let up. Yes, we were playing on Vikings kryptonite on Sunday (i.e. natural grass). And yes, we were playing in front of a hostile crowd. And of course, I haven’t forgotten that the game-time temperate was at least 20 degrees chillier than the normal conditions in the climate controlled Metrodome. However none of that should have mattered. We were playing a division rival who had only two wins. They had a notoriously weak offensive line that was partly responsible for the fact that their quarterback no longer has a chin. Seriously people, even their secondary was thought to be worse than ours.
So where does that leave us now? Candidly, we’re in a tough spot. We stink, but at the moment, we aren’t stinky enough. There are other teams out there who remain winless, and even the Cardinals are ahead of us in the draft sweepstakes. It seems a long time ago when I seriously thought that this team would go 6-10 on the season. Boy was I wrong. At this point, I could see us being a 3 win team… and even that feels like it is just picking a number out of the air. I want to say that it’s obvious that we’re better than the Henne-less Dolphins, Manning-less Colts and Bradford-less Rams. However, the truth is that on Sunday we looked really, really bad. We could have and likely would have lost to any team in the league on Sunday.
So with all of that out of the way, here goes my take on where the Vikings stand today and my observations coming out of Sunday’s game.
Candidly, I’m not a fan of Leslie Frazier as a head coach. Maybe he’ll grow into the role of head coach, but at this point he seems overmatched by the position of head coach and is learning on the Vikings’ nickel. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been disappointed by his game management skills as well as his unwillingness or inability to make difficult personnel choices (and by “difficult” I mean easy personnel calls that require having a tough conversation with a veteran player). On Sunday, Frazier’s decision to take a time out on the heels of a 2 minute commercial time out was mind blowing for me. Frazier needed the extra time in order to backtrack on his decision to attempt a field goal. As I saw the decision unfold, I had flashbacks of Frazier changing his mind about kicking a field goal during the Bucs game. I find myself surprisingly unsettled by Frazier’s indecisiveness. The waffling is obvious in situations like the aforementioned field goal fiascos, but I am now wondering if this trait isn’t also manifesting itself in Frazier’s personnel decisions. I just can’t come up with a good reason for why Frazier refuses to sit unproductive veteran players? Surely he can see the poor performance and lack of production that we all see, but somehow he just seems unable to pull the trigger on change.
I continue to like Bill Musgrave, but I am questioning a few things in his approach. On the positive side of the ledger, Musgrave once again had some really cool plays and formations. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Bears call a time out on the second play of the game when the Vikings started with a 3 TE formation on the right of the line and then put Kleinsasser and Shiancoe in motion to the left side of the line. After the Bears time out, it was fun to see Musgrave keep the same 3 TEs on the field. He started with Kleinsasser and Shiancoe on the left of the line and then put them in motion. They then returned to the right of the line next to Rudolph – the set up that the Vikings had started with on the preceding play. Unfortunately, despite all the moving around, the Bears had the last laugh when they stopped Peterson for a two yard gain on the play (in large part because Kyle Rudolph once again struggled with his blocking assignment).
However, as much as I like Musgrave’s creative play calling, I think Musgrave needs to throw the Blazer (Webb) package out of his play book. To the best of my recollection, the Blazer package hasn’t worked all season. In fact, it has mostly served to saddle McNabb with 3rd and long situations. I tend to think that young QBs (and even old veterans) do well when they have a rhythm going. The Blazer package disrupts that rhythm for little apparent benefit.
I also think the draw play from the Minnesota 40 yard line with only 6 seconds left on the clock in the 1st half was silly. The Vikings were down 26-3 at that point, and the clock was not their friend. What’s wrong with a Hail Mary to finish out the half? So what if the worst case scenario plays out, and the Bears intercept it and run it back for a touchdown. There’s hardly any difference between being down 33-3 versus 26-3 at the half. Simply packing it in at the end of the half was very disappointing to me.
Pagac’s defense got carved up on Sunday. It looked awful. His schemes didn’t work that well, and his players didn’t perform. I might have been inclined to give Pagac a pass on his players’ on-field performance but for the fact that once again he put Tyrell Johnson into the game BEFORE Sanford was injured. And once again, Tyrell Johnson dropped an interception opportunity. I’m beyond frustrated with this issue and will blame anyone associated with Johnson seeing playing time including Frazier, Pagac and the equipment manager who should have thrown Johnson’s helmet into the stands before the game started.
The first two offensive series of the game set the tone as receivers dropped balls that ended drives. Shiancoe dropped a ball that was thrown high and behind him. However, it was a catchable ball. On the next drive, Bernard Berrian dropped a ball that would have bounced off his jersey numbers if it hadn’t hit his hands of stone first. I don’t know what had me more upset: the fact that Berrian was even on the field, the fact that Berrian’s drop ended the drive, or the fact that Berrian was smiling after his drop.
McNabb struggled a bit early in the game, but then played pretty well. He ended up going 19 for 24 for 177 yards. The five incompletions included three drops by receivers. Unfortunately the O-line mostly played poorly, and Peterson was incredibly ineffective in the backfield. All in all, the Vikings have been incredibly consistent in their inconsistency. As a case in point, Bernard Berrian actually showed up and after getting the obligatory first drop out of the way managed to catch five passes. As a result of this season high performance, Berrian has now increased his catches per game average to OVER one catch per game (1.17 to be specific).
But let’s get back to McNabb for a moment. McNabb was inaccurate at times and had one really boneheaded play in which he was pushed down for a sack by Peppers rather than throwing the ball away. However, he had a pretty good game as the stats would support. Once again, he did enough to remain the starter if Frazier is so inclined. The truth is that I was still happy to see McNabb pulled from the game, but I don’t think Frazier had any great epiphany when making that decision. I think McNabb was pulled from the game simply because the game was unwinnable, and because McNabb had just been sacked four times in seven plays. Pretty soon afterwards Camarillo was playing wide receiver and Peterson was replaced by Gerhart. As much as I want to think that Frazier came to his senses and decided to give Ponder (and hopefully Webb too) some experience, I basically think that Frazier pulled McNabb and others from the game to save them from getting injured in an unwinnable game. That’s what I think anyway. While Ponder wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, he did just fine for a rookie. As a result, I can’t think of one good reason why Ponder shouldn’t start over McNabb against Green Bay. Oh wait a minute! Here’s one: Webb. (kidding of course… sort of).
The Offensive Line (or What was Left of It):
The offensive line looked awful on Sunday. In fact, I think they looked worse on Sunday than they did against the Lions D-line. Charlie Johnson was beaten like a drum by Julius Peppers throughout the game. Peppers speed made McKinnie look awful two years ago. It was Charlie Johnson’s turn yesterday. In the early part of the second half, Peppers made Johnson look like he was playing in sand. Sunday was an off day for Hutchinson too. Hutchinson had five bad misses in the second half which also included a holding call with 13:37 remaining in the 4th quarter. I think Herrera played okay yesterday, but I think it’s unlikely that the Vikings will resign him at the end of the season. With that in mind, after yesterday’s game, I would go into the offseason with a view to replacing all of the starters on the entire offensive line. Charlie Johnson might turn out to be a good guard or right tackle, but he looked awful on Sunday at left tackle. I think the Vikings need answers and improvements across the rest of the line. And of course, if we’re talking about regulars who struggle with blocking, I should probably mention that Rudolph again struggled with his blocking assignments.
Joe Berger came in and replaced Sullivan at center after Sully was hit in the side of the helmet by a stumbling Lance Briggs on the third play of the second half. On the whole Berger played well but was by no means perfect. He is definitely stronger than Sullivan and handles one-on-one blocking well. He is also tougher than Sullivan. I really enjoyed seeing him pancake one of his blocking assignments into the turf after the defender managed to get around Berger. However, Berger sometimes didn’t look around the line as much as I would have expected. On one play, he exclusively focused on Hutchinson who was engaged with his guy and missed the fact he was needed by Herrera. He also had a bit of difficulty when the Bears threatened to rush linebackers up the middle on a blitz. One time Urlacher came to the line and appeared ready to blitz but pulled away into coverage as the ball was snapped. Berger swiped at Urlacher but missed a DT who ran between him and Herrera. On the next play, both Herrera and Berger missed a blitzing Briggs. It occurs to me that some of these struggles might be the result of a lack of familiarity between Herrera, Berger and Hutchinson. On 30 plays, I saw six plays in which Berger got caught in a difficult position either of his own making or as a result of a potential mistake by Herrera or Hutchinson. Berger also had one poor shotgun snap to Ponder. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Berger outplayed Sullivan and should be the starter going forward.
Patrick Brown started the second half at right tackle in place of Loadholt after Loadholt was put on the bench due to a knee issue. I’d been hoping to see someone else get some snaps at right tackle in place of Loadholt. I didn’t have Brown in mind when I had dreams of seeing Loadholt replaced, but I figured anyone was worth a try. Well, I hate to say it, but if Brown is the best back up right tackle we’ve got on the bench, then Loadholt’s probably going to play out the rest of the season. It seemed to me that during the first 14 plays of the second half, Brown really struggled. He was badly beaten on three of those 14 plays and ended up blocking the wrong guy on one play. He had a couple of good pass defense blocks, but in general, he looked out of place. However on the final 19 offensive plays of the game, Brown improved and looked more comfortable. He had one play on which he was called for a holding, and he was definitely beat on the play. However it looked to me as if he pushed his guy down and then drove him into the ground. I didn’t really see what the ref saw. Regardless, Brown seemed to settle down and play okay. That said, I do think Loadholt’s position at right tackle is secure for now.
“The Other Key Cogs on Offense”
Peterson: Peterson had a poor outing yesterday. He had 12 carries for 39 yards. His carries were for the following yards: 1, 2, 5, 0, 4, 2, 3, -1, 8, 8, 4 and 3. In other words, 42% of his carries were for 2 yards or less (w/ 40% of those being for 0 or negative yardage). 33% of his carries were for 3-4 yards. The remaining 25% of his carries were for 5-10 yards. Peterson didn’t have any carries for over 10 yards. The depressing numbers for me are Peterson’s continued failure to lower his percentage of short and negative yardage plays. This has been Peterson’s MO all season, and honestly, pretty much his entire career. Furthermore, Peterson’s blocking regressed again. The safety on McNabb in the first quarter occurred as a result of Sullivan completely whiffing on his block and Peterson being ineffectual on his block of the same defender as well. For all the talk about Peterson being awesome, I’ve come to think that Peterson is part of the Vikings problem. Here’s why: 1) He blocks poorly and struggles to catch balls on the run which makes it difficult to use him as a 3rd down back even though he has stayed in on 3rd downs through a good portion of the season thus far; 2) He has a high percentage of no gain and very short yardage gains (in part because his ability to spot the holes that open up is not great) which puts the offense in difficult down and distance situations; and 3) The fan base and media are so impressed with his combination of speed and power, that it puts a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to use him even when he’s not the ideal answer to a particular situation.
There was a figure used on the Sunday broadcast that I thought was interesting. Donovan McNabb has had the following passing stats through the first 5 games of the season:
On 1st down: Comp% = 74.4%; Yards/pass = 9.3; Passer Rating 108.6
On 2nd down: Comp% = 55.6%; Yards/pass = 6.1; Passer Rating 73.9
On 3rd down: Comp% = 39.0%; Yards/pass = 3.6; Passer Rating 55.8
I haven’t gone back to re-watch each game, but my recollection is that the Vikings use Adrian Peterson on a lot of 1st down plays. If the run goes well, they often use him on second down too. Unfortunately, with Peterson’s high proportion of negative and short yardage runs, he puts the Vikings into obvious passing situations. This allows the opposing defense to pin their ears back and pass rush which challenges our already weak O-line. That’s one of the reasons that I think the Vikings are struggling. Another reason, which I’m sure is entirely coincidental, is that more often than not when a Vikings receiver drops a ball it’s on 3rd down. The first two series of Sunday’s game followed that pattern with the drops by Shiancoe and Berrian.
Anyway, I’ve said this before, but I fear that Peterson’s big payday is going to be an albatross around the neck of the Vikings for years to come. I really do question the wisdom of signing a running back to that sort of deal, particularly when the Vikings could have had him for the rest of this season and put the franchise tag on him for next season (note: the announcers on Sunday Night’s game suggested that franchising Forte in 2012 would cost the Bears $8M and change). Before or during his franchise year, the Vikings could have traded Peterson or just let him play out his contract and know that he’d go find his bigger, better deal somewhere else. The Vikings and Peterson could have parted company knowing that the Vikings had had his best years.
Unfortunately, I believe that the decision to hand Peterson a new and huge contract was a business decision rather than a football decision. Peterson is very popular, very exciting to watch and sells a lot of jerseys. And I fully admit that I like having him on the team. However, I wouldn’t have paid him $13M - $14M/year. Franchising Peterson next year would have saved the Vikings about $6M next year which could have gone a long way to securing a much needed upgrade on the offensive line. In my opinion, that O-line upgrade would have done more to improve the running game than signing a phenomenally athletic, but less-than-complete running back.
Now excuse me for a moment while I step into my flame suit. (pause) Okay. Feel free to flame away now.
“The Number One Back Up”
Perhaps the biggest bright spot in all of this disappointment is that Christian Ponder saw his first action on Sunday. He played a little over a quarter of football and went 9 for 17 for 99 yards. Those stats aren’t all that impressive, but I liked what I saw out of Ponder for the most part. He was very mobile in and outside of the pocket. He was composed enough to make good, accurate, short and mid range throws. Unfortunately, he was wildly inaccurate on the 20+ yard attempts of which I counted three. He also essentially looked for his primary receiver and very rarely managed to look for his second receiving option. Still, for a rookie, I thought he was pretty decent and showed flashes of being very good.
My observation about Ponder is that he has improved somewhat from the pre-season but still has some of the same issues to continue to work on. In the pre-season, Ponder was very inaccurate on his deep throws. He also seemed to throw to his primary target even when tightly covered rather than looking for his second and even third options. And of course, like most athletic rookies, he seemed to run when things got slightly uncomfortable in the pocket. Ponder also had a habit of ending his scrambles with head first dives. All of these things were apparent during Ponder’s appearance on Sunday.
The biggest improvement I saw in Ponder was that he seemed to calm down in the pocket after the first 4 or so plays. He still showed that he had great mobility in and outside of the pocket, but he was more judicious in his decisions to scramble as he settled into the game. Importantly, his in-pocket passing accuracy has improved a great deal since the pre-season. Still I counted four wildly inaccurate throws out of 19 attempts. He also missed an opportunity to make a completion to Asomashodu when he threw a ball high and wide of the receiver. On the other hand, Ponder also had some really great throws. His completions to receivers running slant routes was particularly accurate and effective. On balance, despite Ponder having an O-line that was struggling, he had a good outing for a rookie QB.
While I’m still dressed up in my flame suit, I can’t resist adding that I think Ponder’s outing on Sunday was a lot like Joe Webb’s play last season. Webb was athletic, highly accurate at times, not as accurate at other times and was elusive and difficult to tackle when defensive linemen broke through the line. However, I would say that Webb seemed to be more accurate on the deep throws than Ponder has been. It’s way too early to judge either player, but I will say that at this stage of both players’ development I’m not yet convinced that Ponder is the better QB option than Webb. Regardless, I like what I saw from Ponder on Sunday and hope to see lots more of both of them through the remainder of the season.
I mentioned last week that I thought Jared Allen has become less of the extraordinarily versatile defender that he used to be. Last year, Allen sold out on the run in order to improve his poor pass rush performance in the first half of the 2010 season. This year, Allen is again being exploited on the run, and last night was particularly noticeable. If one looks at the Bears running stats from the game, you’ll see that the right side of the defensive line performed very poorly against the run. Here are the yards for runs to the following positions on the offensive side of the line. (Please don’t get confused as I jump back and forth between talking about the offensive left side of the ball and the defensive right side of the ball):
Offensive Left End: 3, 10, 11, 0, -2 (avg. 4.4 yards/rush; remove the last meaningless play of the game and avg. is 6 yards/rush)
Left Tackle: 5, 16, 3 (avg. 8.0 yards/rush)
Left Guard: 21, 3, 5, 2, 14 (avg. 9.0 yards/rush)
Right Guard: -2, 5, 5, 9, 2, -1, 1 (avg. 3.8 yards/rush)
Right Tackle: 3, 1, -2, 0, 4 (avg. 1.2 yards/rush)
Right End: -5, 7, 1 (avg. 1.0 yards/rush)
Basically, the left side of the defensive line held up very well against the run, and the right side of the line was beaten to a pulp. And it wasn’t just Allen who struggled against the run. Kevin Williams had problems too. It could be his foot, or it could be his age, but Kevin Williams did not have a particularly good game. In fact, it may have been a couple of years since Williams last had a difference maker kind of performance. The Bears 3rd series had Kevin Williams playing on the right side of the defensive line, and he was stonewalled on two consecutive plays in one-on-one action with the Bears’ center. The first was a 21 yard run by Matt Forte, and the next play was a 3 yard run through a huge hole in the line left by Williams. That play was a touchdown. Williams appears to be compensating for his diminished physical skills by guessing and taking chances more as was exhibited on the 3 yard run in which he left his gap wide open for Marian Barber to exploit.
In the secondary, Griffin was beaten badly once again for a touchdown. In fact, Griffin seemed unable to keep up with Hester through a good portion of the game. By about the second quarter, I began wishing that the Vikings would put Sherels on the field opposite Hester thinking that Sherels’ speed and coverage skills would be a good match for Hester. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.
Special Teams was awful last night. Kluwe was uncharacteristically inconsistent. He shanked an 18 yard punt in the second quarter. He also kicked to Hester in the 3rd quarter. I felt lucky when Hester’s return only ended up being 27 yards given the fact that less than two minutes earlier Hester had taken a Longwell kickoff 98 yards for a TD. Longwell had a rough game on Sunday as well. In addition to the Hester return, Longwell missed a 37 yard field goal attempt. As mentioned, the coverage teams were regularly beaten and beaten badly by Hester and company. And Marcus Sherels once again made a mental error by calling for a fair catch on the 5 yard line. Special teams have been the difference maker throughout the season. When they do well, typically in the first half, the Vikings do well. However, when they do poorly, typically in the second half, the Vikings keel over and die.
“A Summary of Futility in 2011”
I think the following succession of plays exemplify the futility of the Vikings this season. The plays involved bad coaching, penalties and bad execution:
1. With 2:16 left in the 2nd quarter, McNabb had been rolling. He’d just had 5 of 5 completions on this series interspersed with a Peterson 8 yard run and a Gerhart 3 yard run. And once again, Musgrave called in the “trick play” unit (aka the Webb Blazer package). Webb was in the shotgun and took the ball on a designed run around the right end for a one yard gain. The Vikings actually got lucky on the play. Webb committed a facemask penalty while trying to stiff arm a defender. It was the second time this season that he has done that. The first time he was flagged for a 15 yard penalty. This time the referee missed the call.
2. After a 2 minute commercial time out, Frazier called a time out to take his field goal team off of the field. Collinsworth suggested that Frazier might have called the time out because he was considering a fake field goal and decided that he didn’t like the Bears defensive alignment. That’s a charitable guess at a possible reason for the time out. However, I don’t buy it. The Bears defensive alignment at that particular time was no different that the alignment on the earlier field goal by Longwell nor any different than the subsequent attempt. I personally don’t think there was anything that the Bears did that made Frazier go a different direction.
3. After bringing McNabb and the rest of the offense back onto the field, Michael Jenkins committed a false start. The ball is placed five yards back.
4. Longwell and the rest of the field goal unit then came out onto the field and proceeded to miss a 37 yard field goal.
“A Few Random Observations”
It looked to me like Asomashodu is the new favorite receiver when the Vikings go with a 3 TE set. In the 3 TE set with 1 receiver, Asomashodu was repeatedly the guy on the field.
Despite the intro video by the Sunday Night Football crowd, Berrian was not a starter on Sunday. He didn’t get onto the field until midway through the Vikings 2nd series. He then promptly ended the drive with a perfectly executed drop.
Has anyone else noticed the fact that whenever Culter gets hit, he ends up with his chin strap up around his mouth? It must happen 20 times a game. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another quarterback wear his chinstrap up around his mouth quite as much as Culter does. Do you think it has something to do with the fact that Culter doesn’t have a chin?
So that’s it for this week. And actually this is going to be my last “Upon Further Review” post. Thanks for reading these posts and for all the great comments and debate. Thanks also for the very kind words. They were very much appreciated.