This past Sunday was a rough day for the Vikings and their fans. After the previous collapse against the Chargers, it was tough to see history repeat itself. As the 4th quarter played out, it almost seemed inevitable that the Vikings were going to lose. I’m not proud to admit that, but it just felt like the Vikings were letting things slip away.
As I do every week, I’ve gone back to re-watch the game and every play therein over and over again. We’re now two weeks into the season, and I have formed some strong opinions about our team. I’m still surprised by the fact that the Vikings have scored virtually all of their points in the first half of games and scored only 3 points in the second half. What follows is my best attempt to explain the disparity between the first and second half performances in the most recent Vikings/Buccaneers game as well as my view of where the Vikings have exposed weaknesses that teams are exploiting.
First I'll start with the first and second half scoring flip flop. I believe it happened as a result of several factors:
PENALTIES: The Bucs hurt themselves with penalties in the first half, and the Vikings hurt themselves in the second half. For example, Peterson’s holding call (albeit a bit ticky tack) in the first series of the second half on a third down passing play nullified Shiancoe’s first down reception and created a third and 16 situation that the Vikings couldn’t convert. The Bucs ended up with very good field position after the punt. Late in the 3rd quarter, Robison was called offsides on a play in which the Bucs fumbled the ball and the Vikings recovered at the Bucs 10 yard line. That play alone changed the outcome of the game in my opinion. Instead of the Vikings getting the ball at the 10 yard line, the next play ended up being a short pass to Preston Parker over the middle. He went for 51 yards after a missed tackle by Winfield. Later there was a roughing the passer call on Jared Allen that added 15 yards to the end of a long passing play in the fourth quarter. This stuff just killed the Vikings in the second half, and you can’t blame the coaching staff or McNabb for this.
THE BOUNCE OF THE BALL: Let’s not forget that a pivotal play in the second half was the Bucs onside kick. A number of the Vikings were leaning the wrong way when the ball was kicked. Nonetheless, if you kick that ball 10 times the same way, I think Kenny Onatolu recovers that ball for the Vikings 7 times out of 10 (and Sanford gets it the eighth time).
PASS RUSH: The Vikings pass rush was much more effective in the first half than the second half. In the second half, the Vikings were in down and distance positions that kept them guessing as to what the Bucs would do. Generally speaking, in the first half, great plays (e.g. Sanford’s backfield tackles) and Bucs errors allowed the Vikings to guess with a high degree of accuracy what would happen on later downs, and they took advantage of it.
DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL IDIOCY (aka replacing Sanford with Johnson). In the first half, Sanford was a tackling machine. In the second series alone, Sanford made two key tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage which created favorable pass rushing situations for the defense. By making these plays, the Vikings defense was in the driver’s seat. At the start of the second half, Johnson was playing in place of Sanford. It took the Bucs two plays on their first series to score. They had a 17 yard pass to Stocker followed by a 27 yard run by Blount. On plays of that distance, you’d expect to see an active safety in the picture. At no time on either play was Johnson within five yards of the guy with the ball. On the pass, he was too deep and reacted too slow. On the run, he was on the far side of the field and overran the play and, as usual, ended up chasing the play from behind. These are just two examples. I think the rest of the game basically played to the same script. When Sanford played most of the series and most of the downs, the defense held the Bucs to 3 points. When Johnson played at safety for the complete series, the Bucs scored touchdowns EVERY time. In watching every play, again and again, I am absolutely confident that this is not a coincidence.
Now I’ll switch gears for a moment and give some general thoughts about the Vikings offense. On offense, the Vikings got good games out of Peterson, Gerhart, McNabb, Kleinsasser, Shiancoe, Harvin, Herrera and Hutchinson. While not as strong, I believe that Charlie Johnson and Michael Jenkins did just fine as well.
All in all, I was very pleased with McNabb’s play. He made good decisions. Most of the time his “errant” throws had a reason – either pass rush pressure or throwing to a receiver in tight coverage. Unlike Favre, McNabb tends to place his balls low or high when receivers are tightly covered. Sometimes that makes the balls look inaccurate (e.g. the throw into the end zone to Shiancoe, or the long throw down the field to a blanketed Berrian). However, unlike Favre, McNabb isn’t getting intercepted. On these apparent underthrows and overthrows, the only person with any conceivable chance of catching the ball has been the receiver. In addition, I’ve been incredibly impressed with McNabb’s pocket presence. He’s moved around in the pocket well and has had some unbelievable scrambles in both games this season. McNabb’s scramble for a first down on 3rd and 12 in the 2nd quarter was a case in point. I was not pleased that the Vikings picked up McNabb this season, but I have to say, other than the first play of the season against the Chargers, I have been impressed with McNabb. He has continued drives with runs and passes in many instances in which he could reasonably be forgiven for not making the play. One example at the start of the fourth quarter was an eight yard pass to Percy Harvin. Despite being rushed by an unblocked DE, McNabb threw off balance and connected with a perfect throw for a first down. McNabb’s stats haven’t been great, but let’s not forget the fact that his receivers are getting virtually no separation when they run their routes. McNabb has been solid in my opinion.
I have heard a lot of complaints about the Vikings offensive play calling. From my perspective, I thought the play calling was very good in both halves. I really like what Musgrove is doing with the offense. He is doing a lot of TE heavy formations, but he’s doing it in very creative ways. And, importantly, he’s including a bunch of other formations too. One technique I’ve seen a couple of times that I’m not quite sold on is a 3 TE set with 2 receivers. All 5 receiver options go out about 5 yards and turn around. The effect is confusion for the defense, but it must also be difficult for the QB to pick up his options quickly. While not convinced that this particular play call is a winner, I really do like a lot of the other play calls, and Musgrove did a great job of mixing things up. My biggest problem with Musgrove right now is that he is utilizing Berrian and Rudolph too much. I’ll get to that point later.
Adding to the good news is the fact that Hutchinson and Herrera have been playing very, very well. Kleinsasser has been amazing as well. In his role as fullback, he is a wreaking machine. Whenever he’s in the backfield leading the way, good things seem to happen. And while Peterson has been very good, I think Gerhart has been even better. In fact, I’d say Gerhart has been flawless. Peterson is amazing, but he is far from being a complete player. Gerhart is much less flashy, but I’m beginning to believe that he gets very inch that is offered to him on every play. He had some fumbling difficulties last year (1 on a running play and 2 as a receiver). If that’s behind him, I think this guy is going to have a great season. And, I believe that he can lead the running game if called upon to do so. In fact, in a number of situations, I could see him as being a favorable alternative to Peterson.
Peterson and Shank both played very well all things considered. I say this about Peterson not only because of his unparalleled athleticism but also because he did a good job of improving his blocking from the week before. Shank also blocked very well throughout the game.
Now for the bad news on offense: I believe the Vikings’ offensive challenges are largely the result of four players who are, in my opinion, not able to carry out the duties reasonably expected of them at their position. These players are Sullivan, Loadholt, Rudolph, and Berrian. Unfortunately, I believe that Sullivan and Loadholt are the only viable options at their positions at this time in the season. However, I believe that better alternatives already exist in the cases of Rudolph and Berrian. In my opinion, based on their play to date, neither Rudolph nor Berrian should see the field until either they dramatically improve their game (in Rudolph’s case) or until hell freezes over (in Berrian’s case).
There are two main issues I have with Sullivan: 1) he appears unable to bring the beef when and where it is needed; and 2) he frequently gets caught leaving his area of responsibility exposed. This game showed plenty of examples of both issues.
While Sullivan isn’t fleet of foot, he also doesn’t have the sort of strength that would allow him to hold his own when paired off against a DT. When working in tandem with Hutch or Herrera, he does fine for the most part. However, when on his own he doesn’t just lose, he often gets blown up. A case in point was on the first play of the Vikings 3rd possession. On this particular play, Sullivan was pushed 3 yards into the backfield by Gerald McCoy who then made first contact with Peterson behind the line of scrimmage. After that point, the play was a complete mess and ultimately culminated in Peterson’s first fumble of the season. Variations of this Sullivan*gets*beat*in*one*on*one occurred throughout the game, and it was clear it had an impact throughout the game including on first and 10 from the Bucs’ 10 when Peterson was stopped for a 2 yard loss after Sullivan got blown up by Price (a guy who is playing with two hamstrings surgically attached to his pelvis)!
On passing downs, Sullivan often seems to get caught looking the wrong way. It almost seems as if he suffers from myopia (i.e. only able to see what’s right in front on him). On a couple of occasions on passing plays, he helped where he wasn’t really needed and end up missing defenders who came up through the resulting hole in the line. One play ended a drive in the 3rd quarter. Sullivan followed a blocker to the right who was well engaged by Herrera. Instead of looking back in the other direction, Sullivan stayed with Herrera’s guy while providing no real assistance. On the other side of the play, Hutchinson was engaged with a defender who moved to Sullivan’s open space. Hutch had to stay engaged which opened the line to a big gaping hole through which two Bucs did a delay blitz. Peterson picked up one, but the safety, Sean Jones, got through untouched and sacked McNabb to end the series. The Vikings were forced to punt. McNabb never had a prayer on the play. Later, on a promising drive in the 4th quarter from the Bucs 12 yard line, the Vikings were forced to go for a field goal after Sullivan inexplicably turned his attention the wrong way and let a blitzing safety run at McNabb uncontested. Again, McNabb never had a prayer and the pass was incomplete.
I am now pretty much at the point at which I no longer believe that Loadholt is a starting caliber right tackle. He is massive but appears to play in slow motion. He is also penalty prone. It is clear to me that Loadholt is better positioned to succeed when the Vikings are running the ball than when they are passing, but even in the running game Loadholt’s limitations are obvious. As an example of his limitations, I would point to four out of the first five plays of the second half.
Play 1: On the first play, a hand off to Peterson, Loadholt and Herrera team up to block Gerald McCoy (one of the Bucs defensive tackles). After initial engagement, Herrera released the block to Loadholt and Herrera went off hunting for more Bucs. Unfortunately, Loadholt wasn’t able to hold the block. Gerald ran him down the line of scrimmage and tackled Peterson for a measly one yard gain.
Play 2: On the second play, another hand off to Peterson, Loadholt performs what I can only describe as a slo-mo, tuck and roll block. He was attempting to cut the legs out from under the McCoy but was so slow that the defender simply side stepped him. McCoy then tracked down Peterson and tackled him from behind after a 6 yard gain. I believe Peterson would have had a much bigger gain on the play had Loadholt taken out his assignment as expected.
Play 3: With McNabb in the shotgun position on what looked to be a passing play, Loadholt was called for a false start.
[Play 4 was a holding call on Peterson]
Play 5: On 3rd and 19, Loadholt blocks on a draw play. He’s out in space and whiffs on his guy who ends up tackling Peterson. The field was pretty wide open at this point which plays to Peterson’s strengths as a runner. But for Loadholt completely missing his guy, Peterson had a chance, albeit a remote one, of making a big play.
To be clear, Loadholt is absolutely capable of destroying defenders on some plays. The 3rd play in the 1st half was a 10 yard run by Peterson. On the play, Loadholt pushed the DE about 8 yards done the field. I’d use this as an example of the fact that when Loadholt is able to engage his man, he generally wins the battle. However, because he’s slow, it appears to me that Loadholt is frequently a half step too slow and can’t get position on the defender he is assigned to take out.
While you can teach technique, I don’t believe you can teach quickness. In my opinion, Loadholt will not be able to deliver what the Vikings need from him, and the Vikings will need to find an answer elsewhere – if not this season, then in the off season.
In two games played, Kyle Rudolph has one catch for 15 yards. That’s not very good for a pass-catching TE. However Rudolph’s lack of production is not my concern about his play. My concern is that Rudolph is the worst blocking TE I have ever seen in my life. I can easily point to a dozen missed blocks over the course of the game against the Bucs, and unfortunately, a number of these missed assignments were on critical plays.
In the 2nd offensive series for the Vikings, Rudolph exhibited a Pop Warner level talent for blocking, and I’m going to cite 4 examples. On the fourth play of the series, Rudolph offered a “love tap” to his assigned defender who then tackled Peterson without much trouble for a 1 yard gain. Three plays later, on Gerhart’s 31 yard run, it looks like Rudolph got away with a hold and may have been spared the call because he was unable to sustain the block. Kleinsasser, who was a FB on the play, ended up having to clean up Rudolph’s assignment. Had Kleinsasser been free to continue blocking down field, I think there’s a pretty good chance that Gerhart would have finished his run another 30 yards down field in the end zone. Three plays after that, Rudolph engaged a linebacker at the line of scrimmage and ended up watching the rest of the play while sitting on his rear end behind the line of scrimmage. Peterson ended up with 2 yards on the play. And on the final touchdown play of the drive, Rudolph made another “love tap” shoulder block that had no effect on the Bucs safety Sean Jones. After Rudolph “disengaged,” Jones attacked Peterson at the goal line and almost stopped Peterson from scoring.
Those are four terrible blocks in just one series of downs. Unfortunately, it was like this throughout the game and was the same way against the Chargers too. It would take too long to point out each and every missed assignment by Rudolph, but here are two more big plays from the 1st half alone. Rudolph was responsible for a sack on McNabb when he missed his assignment in the middle of the line, and he potentially cost Gerhart a 60 yard touchdown when he opted to “assist” Shank on a block that Shank had well under control rather than leading the way downfield to block the safety on the play.
I have hope for Rudolph that he’ll get his blocking sorted out with more practice. However, at this stage, Rudolph is missing far more blocking assignments than he is making, and it is costing the Vikings critical yards. Until Rudolph’s blocking is much, much better, he should sit on the bench.
And speaking of players with 1 catch after 2 games…
The nicest thing I can say about Berrian is that he blocks better than Rudolph. After that, I simply can’t think of a way in which Berrian adds value to this team. On the plays I was able to watch Berrian (i.e. plays in which the TV showed him throughout the play), I can’t recall one play in which Berrian wasn’t completely blanketed by the defender. And on top of everything else, Berrian still drops balls at a rate only bested by the now legendary Troy Williamson. To me, Berrian appears to be the opposing team’s best defensive weapon. The surest way I know how to end a drive is to throw to Berrian. Either he won’t be open, or he will drop the ball. Sorry. I don’t have anything constructive to add on this point. Berrian is awful. And at this point, I blame Frazier and Musgrove for keeping him not only on the team, but actually putting him on the field.
I’m going to keep this part brief, because I’ve gone on too long already. The biggest on field impact that I believe led to the Vikings loss was the Vikings coaching staff’s decision to put Johnson in on series in which they believed the Bucs would be primarily passing. Sanford is not a perfect safety, but I am beginning to believe that he is the best safety we have (including Abdullah). Sanford is a tackling machine, and his coverage, despite what I have heard others say, has been very good this season. I saw him make one wrong move on Sunday. It occurred in the first quarter when Sanford came in to support the run defense. In the process, he missed the Bucs TE, Winslow, who went out for a pass. Sanford was clearly fooled, and the play ended up going for an 18 yard gain. However, Sanford was a difference maker on a number of plays in both run support and pass defense. He was all over the field and played as Winfield did the week before. It’s clear to me that the coaching staff is biased towards Johnson when they believe that the Bucs are likely to be passing. I believe this is a mistake, because I truly believe after watching last week’s game and this week’s game (and Johnson’s performance in prior seasons) that Sanford is better at defending against the pass than Johnson. And when the Vikings are playing the run, Sanford is one of the best players on the field. Johnson doesn’t just suck. He double sucks, because he actually takes one of the backfield’s most active players off the field when he’s on the field.
Even though it’s too late for me to be brief, I’ll go ahead and be overly general. I think the defense played quite well throughout the day. In my opinion, what killed the defense in the second half was 1) the Bucs starting field position; 2) penalties; and 3) playing Tyrell Johnson in place of Sanford.
Okay. That’s it now. I didn’t sit down with the intention to write something this long but obviously things got away from me. I’d apologize, but at this point I’m pretty sure I’ve lost 99% of my audience. Eh, sorry anyway.