Against the team, who entering the week, sported the worst point differential in the league, Minnesota was hoping (and in many ways expecting) to hang more points than usual against a passing defense that gave up 7.5 net yards per pass attempt, for 5.6 yards per play overall (6th worst in the league in passing defense, 8th worst in yards per play overall). Minnesota came to the game with a relatively average to anemic offense.
After the game, the Vikings didn't move around much in offensive efficiency rankings (that accounted for strength of schedule), a good sign that they did much what they were expected to do. Advanced NFL Stats' efficiency rankings kept them at 21st. In Matt Grecco's offensive rankings (once again adjusted for SoS), the Vikings moved up from 15th to 12th and did the exact same thing in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). These three systems are all extraordinarily good (they all have a record of beating the spread) in predictive value, and do a pretty good job in providing an explanation for how things have gone.
Generally speaking, the consensus for systems is that the Vikings slightly overperformed against their opponents, and the generic game statistics seem to say the same, generating 6.5 yards per play, but only 7.2 net yards per pass attempt (the more predictive of the two measures). They put up 433 yards against the Titans as well, who averaged 423.8 yards allowed per game.
How did this get done? A slightly different philosophy, a more opportunistic quarterback and an adaptive game.
The Vikings have remained committed to the short passing game for all five weeks of the NFL season, and the Titans game wasn't much different. That's not to say the passes over those games have been bad—with a passing success rate of 49.1%, they're 13th in the league (a measure of whether or not an attempt is "good" or "bad" for the offense... completions for small or negative yardage are penalized as much as incompletions)—just that they haven't been as explosive as most other teams.
The average target depth for Christian Ponder over these 5 weeks has been 5.9 yards—last in the league by almost a yard. Average depth of target, incidentally, is what it sounds like: what the average length (along the field, not in the air) of the ball is for a particular quarterback or receiver. It tends to be much more predictable (for receivers as well as quarterbacks) than yards per reception, yards after the catch per reception, yards per attempt, etc. in large part because it eliminates a sample size problem.
For context, between 2008 and 2011, quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts had an ADoT between 13.3 yards (Tebow, outpacing number two—Vince Young—by 1.7 yards, who is 1.1 above the rest of the field) and 7.4 yards (Tyler Palko and Josh Freeman). Christian Ponder's ADoT is extraordinarily low, and it's sort of extraordinary. Without reliable receivers to produce yards after the catch, this strategy would be fatal. As it is, he and Musgrave have designed a system that still generates success.
There seems to be some indication that they're moving out of it, though, and averaged 7.0 yards per target against the Titans (7.4 yards per attempt against the Titans, 6.8 overall). This compares with the other 4 games, where their average depth of target was 5.6 yards overall. It's a very big change, but still puts Ponder at the lower end of quarterbacks, even when only measuring Week 5.
It's still producing success, so it's not yet a criticism. A one-dimensional offense that produces results is still (for the moment) good. The bigger question, of course, is what happens when defenses move their zones a few yards lower or play closer man coverage to the line (something the Vikings have seen an extraordinarily little of) in order to both exploit the Vikings' passing concepts and its strong run game. That hasn't happened yet, so it seems viable so far.
The Vikings did more to exploit the issues with the Titans' intermediate game, with fewer screens and more play-action passes (11 of 35 passing attempts). They did this without attacking the middle much—11 attempts of 35 again (10% lower than normal)— and finding receivers on the outside while taking advantage of nickel looks to rack up rushing yardage. This game was played significantly more aggressively by both Musgrave and Ponder. Musgrave sent more receivers downfield, with or without Jerome Simpson, and played fewer comeback routes.
The Vikings' philosophy was executed to a tee, and they made sure to punish the Titans either for their off-man coverage (usually with screens, sticks, slants or short outs) or traditional zones (with precision route running off of the usual landmarks, including a few yards off the numbers and inside the hashes). This was part of the reason there wasn't much in terms of passes up the middle; too many opportunities for easy yardage existed outside the hashes. Stretching the defense horizontally also enabled the run game, where all of Adrian Peterson's runs occurred between the tackles, and only two of Gerhart's 6 runs moving around the edge.
Part of this is to reduce the impact of Peterson's knee injury—remember, his legs are different sizes right now. Further, reducing the demands of lateral agility probably helped with his slight ankle injury. At any rate, the horizontal passing game meshed well with the coverages the Vikings were likely to see and the runs up the middle, so it looked like the general philosophy worked well.
The playcalling in this game was great once again. Consistently, my biggest criticism of the playcalling was that it wasn't context sensitive (down-distance-time), but this did not seem to be the case against the Titans. Despite a fairly poor third down conversion rate (3-11), the third down play design wasn't terrible, simply poorly executed by Ponder or the receivers.
The most obvious evolution of the playcalling was the use of the zone stretch run, which built on some of the inside zone techniques and man blocking techniques the Vikings had employed in the previous four games. The inside zone tends to be a base blocking scheme, as is the man blocking scheme. Not many teams employ both, because combining the two is not only complicated, but difficult to teach to linemen. Learning two different first steps for run plays, along with assignments in zone and man can be tough for offensive linemen.
The combination of the two requires a lot of technical work to be effective, and relies on precision. More than that, each member of the offensive line must know the assignments of other members, something that is not true in the individual man or zone blocking schemes. In a combination scheme, one must know whether or not the defender covering them is accounted for by the scheme and what needs to be done. The advantage to zone schemes is that there are simple rules for who to block and when, depending on the shade of the defender.
Typically, in an inside zone, the defender will consider any lineman on their outside shoulder or lined up to them as covering them, while defenders on the inside shoulder are not considered to be covered. It sounds a bit complicated, but does make blocking relatively simple, as there are just a few rules for what to do. In a man scheme, each offensive lineman knows who they must shoot out and block. In a combination scheme, being covered or uncovered will be complicated by whether or not the defender in question is accounted for by the linemen assigned man blocking—even if lined up hat-to-hat, that defensive lineman may not be covering the opposing offensive lineman.
Man blocking has predetermined holes for the running back (like in the classic run play, the Power O), while inside zone blocking has a number of lanes that the running back can cut back into if the blocking looks favorable. Naturally, there are schools of thought that prefer both, but zone blocking has recently received attention because of the success of the Houston Texans, whose running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate have both had success with an inside zone scheme, and the success of "Shanahan backs" who are really "Alex Gibbs" running backs.
The Denver Broncos used to employ a stable of running backs that could achieve 1000 yards under the system popularized by Alex Gibbs, and the success of the running back seemed more dependent on the line than any particular skill they had—a reason why "Shanahanigans" have made it difficult for fantasy owners to find the right running back in a Shanahan-led offense, something that helps explain the rise of Alfred Morris with Shanahan's new team, the Washington Redskins.
The use of the outside zone scheme, something that requires different footwork from the offensive linemen and running backs both, is an effective way to keep defensive players off balance, particularly if they've been practicing to stop the inside zone. Instead of stepping sideways (or back) on the first step and stepping towards the number of a covering defender on the second (a crucial move in the inside zone), the linemen will move laterally for several steps before punching forward. This can literally put defenders off balance, but also puts them a step behind in flowing to the ball, generally stepping forward to absorb the pressure of the inside zone blocking demands.
Linebackers in particular will be off-kilter and may take the wrong moves on the initial step of the outside zone, simply because they were expecting to merely have to occupy gaps in front of them instead of moving to find the gap. Without practicing against it (and expecting only inside zone work), linebackers may find themselves wildly out of place.
Beyond that, the use of the outside zone will force run defenders to play horizontally instead of vertically, which stretches the defense even on running downs. This, complemented by the horizontal passing game mentioned above, could be part of the reason that runs up the middle were so successful later on. It's true that the Titans' defensive line was playing wider as the game advanced, so this seems likely.
The inside zone asks its running backs to run to the line ("press the line"), then cut back if necessary. The existence of the cutback lane is a big part of the inside zone—it's a reason the plays run inside instead of out. But the Vikings implement an outside zone blocking scheme for the first time this year (if I recall correctly—tell me if I'm wrong), and it was just one of the many new wrinkles that Musgrave rolls out every week. Tennessee was not prepared for it.
As for specific playcalls, I enjoyed a number of them. Above, I mentioned that Musgrave has found ways to attack both man and zone coverage, and the second to last play of the second drive (on third-and-ten) is a good example of this—the route concept here specifically did a good job attacking the off-man coverage, but also would have been effective against a zone because of how the underneath curl/hook zone was flooded:
On the third play of the last drive of the half, I saw a play I liked as well, which was a play action screen pass that took advantage of the off coverage to turn Aromashodu into a blocker, who held up the first defender—a corner—while Kalil and Sullivan came over. Using a receiver on the same side as a blocker for the first defender is surprisingly rare. The play action used a pulling guard to sell the run, and he functionally made a "wham" block on a defensive tackle. It all coheres very well. Take a look:
Another use of the play action, but this time with a fake end-around packaged in (like last week) pulled linebackers towards the line of scrimmage, then left, giving Peterson acres of space when running his route out into the flat, giving him the open field to convert second-and-long. The person covering his zone was too caught up in keeping track of a "chowed" Carlson (lining up in the backfield on the outside leg of the tackle) that no one cycled in to cover Peterson:
The last play I'll highlight also involves using Harvin as a decoy, this time to set a safety out of position, as Jordan Babineaux is forced to choose between covering the underneath route (Aromashodu) or Harvin running what looks to be a flag or post route. A corner has been assigned to Harvin, but he's just enough of a threat that a safety considers covering him and leaving a receiver entirely uncovered as a better alternative. Ponder throws to Aromashodu for the conversion:
There's a lot of creative stuff here, and I like seeing it.
The only issue I have is with some of the packaging for plays. It seems like (and I can't confirm this) that Musgrave is packaging multiple concepts into the same play, allowing Ponder to make a choice at the line (or even potentially at the mesh point, I should have paid more attention) about whether or not a play would be a run or a pass. What this means is that the receivers will run routes regardless (and hopefully pull CBs away), and the play will either be a play action (where the running back has a designated route out of the hole he was supposed to punch through) or a run. While potentially creative and useful, especially when the defense might be selling out against the run, I don't like it when receivers are not instructed to block, because DBs can slow a play down or even tackle Peterson (as weird as that may sound).
This is a concept that is gaining a lot of ground in college, and does deserved to be looked at, but I'll reserve judgment until I see more of it—if in fact this packaging is occurring. If this isn't occurring, then the receivers are not blocking on a number of run plays and I don't see why. Regardless, it shouldn't be completely disregarded, as this is working extremely well for Washington.
Playcalling isn't the only place Musgrave has found ways to be innovative, incidentally.
Time and again, I've referred to how often Musgrave likes to use a three wide receiver, one running back, one tight end package—called "11" for the number of running backs (1) and tight ends (1). The reason this package is important is because it radically affects how defenses respond. Traditionally, a number of defenses would want to switch to their nickel package, particularly in the NFL's current pass-heavy era. The Titans in particular like to man up in the nickel, and will assign a linebacker to cover the running back.
What this can do for Ponder and the offense is create mismatches. Generally, in the 11 package, the Vikings will line up with 3 wide receivers at the line, one running back set 5-8 yards deep and a tight end either in-line or as an upback. That's true for most teams, and the defense puts a cornerback on each receiver.
The Vikings, however, will show multiple possible formations from that package, including putting Michael Jenkins as a down tight end (he can sort of block, surprisingly), throwing Gerhart out wide, and putting Ellison in at fullback while Harvin remains in the backfield. What was a pass-friendly package turned into a very run-heavy formation.
In the case below, the Vikings did that, but the Titans showed a traditional 4-3. The Vikings opted to pass in this situation in order to exploit the fact that they had several eligible receivers:
The Vikings can also create 5-wide sets from the "11" package and hope to a) force zone coverage from bunched formations and b) either force a linebacker to cover a receiver or bring a safety down to account for all the eligible receivers. In this case, a safety walked down:
There have been a number of situations where Harvin's versatility, the rules of man coverage, and the flexibility of the tight end corps (and apparently Michael Jenkins) can consistently create mismatches in 11 personnel. For a better explanation of how Percy Harvin creates matchup problems, take a look at Pro Football Focus' analysis.
The Vikings were in "11" formation in 34 of the 67 meaningful snaps (I did not count the last three snaps, as they were supposed to be kneeldowns). The two different 2TE sets ("12" and "22" personnel, but no "02" like the week before) were used on 19 snaps and they used "21"—two running backs and one tight end—on 13 snaps. There was one play they were in "13" with three tight ends and on running back.
If you wanted to skip the player's notes, you can just take a look at my notebook!
Or, I guess, just read the notes below.
By my count, Ponder had 10 negative plays, and eight positive plays, putting his performance at "below average"—the idea being that negative plays are plays that an average quarterback would avoid and positive plays are plays that average quarterbacks would typically not make. Certainly one of his worse games, Ponder still had some impressive plays.
The first, biggest, improvement that I saw from Ponder came from ball placement. Some of this may have come about as a result of a more open passing game (which I discussed in some minor detail at the beginning), where ball placement is more noticeable and easier to grade, but Ponder is clearly doing a better job leading his receivers and forcing his teammates to adjust less to the ball, keeping it in stride. Commensurate with that, of course, is making sure he puts the ball in places where only his receivers can get it. On the third play of the second drive, Ponder goes through several progressions of a play action and demonstrates this improvement in ball placement for Michael Jenkins, who is the only person who can catch the ball. Ponder throws it in stride.
His 45 yard completion to Percy Harvin and several other plays highlight this improvement, including a throw on the last drive of the half, with 1:29 remaining. He threads a needle with good zip on the ball, and despite being in heavy coverage, Michael Jenkins hauls it in. Of course, his most impressive moment was another excellently thrown pass to Rudolph in the red zone, where the ball is thrown so that only Kyle Rudolph can catch it. It's perfectly timed and executed on both ends, and Ponder should naturally be happy with that throw.
That's not to say his ball placement has been pristine. His first interception is the result of a wildly misplaced ball to Kyle Rudolph, which he tips to a defensive back. The second one wasn't as bad—Jordan Babineaux did a lot of work to make the play—but Ponder should have thrown it higher with a bit more arc, because the safety was clearly going to close in. Another notable ball placement error occurred on Rhett Ellison's best catch-and-run of his NFL career, where Ponder underthrows him and Ellison needs to adjust much more to the ball than ideal.
The fact that Ellison sheds a tackle and barrels forward, is naturally not to Ponder's credit. This occurs with 2:17 left in the third quarter. An outside lead would have been a better throw.
Overall, however, I feel Ponder has improved in ball placement.
Another area of improvement to celebrate for Ponder is his sensitivity to pressure. This was perhaps my biggest issue with him, and he hasn't resolved it, but he seems to be reading pressure a little better. His first scramble was too early and didn't seem necessary; stepping up in the pocket and waiting would have allowed a receiver to break free quickly. His second scramble was a better decision in response to more obvious pressure. A difficult throw to Harvin existed as did an extremely difficult 3rd/4th read on the backside of the play (an understandable oversight given pressure and timing... and that he would have to throw across his body), but the scramble was the best option on the play.
Again, with 4:21 left in the first half Ponder makes a good decision to scramble in response to pressure, and picks up the first down. His scrambles were a little bit wiser in this game than they were previous. Fans should hope this improves. Sometimes in the face of pressure, he doesn't scramble, but steps up to exploit a blitzer, as he did on the first play of the second quarter. Or rather, he more accurately exploits a cornerback with "green dog" responsibilities—one who blitzes conditionally based on whether or not a backfield player stays in to pass protect. At any rate, he was not in his usual assignment, and Ponder could convert to Aromashodu.
While these are areas of improvement, Ponder had a bad game. Not so many bad decisions as bad throws on those decisions, be they too wide of the receiver or underthrown. There were a number of bad plays that he'll need to look past in order to improve. His touch was inconsistent; sometimes beautiful, like on the "deep" ball to Harvin and sometimes abysmal, like the interception to Rudolph. Most people are generally confident that bad throws are far easier to correct than bad decisions, so there is a reason for optimism nonetheless.
There isn't much to be said about Percy Harvin that we all don't already know. Like I've mentioned before, he leads the league by a solid 50 yards in yards after the catch, and has mind-boggling missed tackle totals. In fact, the second-place receiver in missed tackles has half as many as Harvin, who has 18. Those sorts of statistics are unreal, especially considering Harvin is outpacing all running backs except for three, something that is unheard of. It would look to be a glitch, but...
How do you stop that? That doesn't look anomalous to me. Just skill. Unstoppable skill.
He leads the league in receptions, and proved why he does today. His deep catch displayed his speed, his last touchdown revealed his extraordinary agility, his first touchdown exhibited his hip wiggle and determination not to go to the ground and he had more than one long screen that showcased in anticipation and reaction, once immediately faking an inside move to deke the incoming corner before burning him for ten yards. He's playing like a Top 5 receiver, and Viking's opponents know it. Look at the second still of the run play out of the "11" formation I posted above. Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is pointing at Harvin while the play is progressing so that the team makes sure to contain him.
The next best player on the field was, of course, Devin Aromashodu. Wait, what? Absolutely. He's been playing well all year, and had his best game against the Titans. He caught all three of the catchable balls thrown in his direction, and is in only a small way responsible for the overthrow in the end zone. Naturally, the quarterback has more of the blame attached, but that route did show some of the fundamental problems Aromashodu has. While a strong route runner, he doesn't have a clean release or have the strength to deal with stronger defensive backs who are trying to push him off of his route. It disrupts his timing, and his chemistry with Ponder isn't perfect.
Beyond his pass-catching ability, however, Aromashodu excelled as a blocker on screen passes and even a run, where his downfield blocking seemed more committed than last year. Much better than I thought.
After him was Michael Jenkins, who seemed more pervasive than he actually was, for some reason. Nevertheless, it was a strong (if puzzling) game for him. Jenkins caught three of his four catchable balls, but would have had to put forth an elite effort to hold on to that fourth pass, more Ponder's fault than his. He featured prominently as a pass catcher in the first opening drive, and was available for a conversion on one more.
The intriguing thing about his play was not that he only caught three passes—that seems normal these days. Instead, it was his play as a down tight end, in line with the rest of the linemen.
Behold, on the right—a new tight end is born!
He didn't do terribly here, and was only a tight end on nine of the offense's 67 (meaningful) snaps, but that did comprise about one-fourth of all of his playing time on the field. He didn't do poorly here, but he wasn't asked to run block all that often—even on running plays, he would run routes and/or chip the end (likely as part of the packaged plays concept). On the field as a pass-catcher, he still is slower than what many may have wanted, but has reliable hands and knows the routes and zones well.
Stephen Burton pleased me as well, despite only playing 16 snaps, and generally near the end. I loved the amount of effort he put into plays, particularly to block—he put in a second effort on Rhett Ellison's run to block a defensive back and may have been responsible for a few extra yards late in the third. He needs to run sharper routes, as his timing with the drop is still just off enough to matter—he'll break before the ball does, and can signal to the defensive back where he's going or what the route's intention is. That makes it much harder for the quarterback to get the ball to the receiver before having to take a hitch step, which is important in an offense oriented around short throws.
One criticism of his blocking, however, is that he needs to be more decisive. Had he picked a blocker on Adrian Peterson's run at the end of the third quarter, he likely would have helped Peterson turn a negative yardage play into positive yards.
Jerome Simpson was targeted three times, and caught no passes. To be fair, one of his targets was a good interception effort by Babineaux, but it was still disappointing. Jason McCourty did make a play on him that he should have been able to avoid, however, which resulted in an incompletion—if Simpson had anticipated McCourty or overpowered his grip, he likely would have caught the ball. As it was, Simpson's injury was relatively noticeable, even though he clearly put in as much effort as possible to make plays. His 24 snaps without any production made him the worst receiver on the field, but it's not likely a true indicator of his value or talent.
Always a threat in the red zone, Kyle Rudolph leads the league (along with four other tight ends) in touchdowns. His 19 receptions are not irregular, although his two dropped passes are. They came at the beginning of the year, so it shouldn't be a worry, but Vikings fans are seeing slightly less from him than they may have expected to during the preseason. That's not a big deal; he's making an impact nevertheless. His large frame and relatively good hands make him an ideal target in traffic or in a compressed field. He had some characteristically poor run blocking again, this time on the second offensive play of regulation, the 30th play and the 59th play, where he was overpowered on a run for negative one yard (this was the play right before Harvin forced four or so defenders to miss).
To balance that out, though, he also had great blocking on a number of plays as well—something he had been lacking before, including on some critical runs. He could seal the outside defender, usually an end and found ways to get low. The zone stretch plays demanded more of him than the man blocking plays and he excelled here as well, coordinating well with either tackle and peeling off to find the right block. For someone who had come into the game with a less-than-stellar blocking resume, this was fantastic. Overall, I was more impressed by his run blocking than not, but he still has massive improvements to make here.
Rhett Ellison had a big game and was able to put his catch-and-run skills on display, with more yards after the catch than he had credited yards. It was an impressive performance that certainly embodied the newfound team qualities of grit and determination, but is made all the more impressive with a good game as a blocker, fulfilling pass blocking, in-line run blocking and lead blocking roles.
He does have areas of improvement as a blocker, but this is one of the first times I have more positive blocking notes on Ellison than negative. He did very well with 9:44 left in the third quarter, controlling Ayers at the point of attack to help bust open a 22 yard run.
His worst play was with 3:04 left in the first half, where he was assigned to block a free-rushing Casey but whiffs. There weren't too many of these, and he was a big help in the run game in general. He only saw the field for 24 snaps, but he's shaping up to look like a good investment so far.
Alternatively, fans have a right to be incensed with an obviously poorer investment in John Carlson, who was supposed to be known for his pass catching abilities. At this point, it's clear that Carlson still has a lot of rust to shake off. It's evident that he can't block as well as the other tight ends as he simply isn't asked to nearly as often. In on only ten blocks, Carlson still managed to give up a bad play blocking with 2:54 left in the third quarter, getting thrown to the ground before allowing the defender to participate in an ankle tackle of Adrian Peterson.
He did finally net positive yardage with a two yard catch, but it wasn't notable for much. Carlson's performance wasn't extraordinarily bad, but disappointing given his price tag so far. If Carlson comes back to play at his peak at some point this season, it might be worth the investment, but is so far not returning dividends.
Matt Kalil continues to headline a much improved unit, one with a very heavy set of demands on it given all of the sophisticated work they've needed to go through in order to be effective. The fact that Kalil continues to excel in this regard is remarkable for a rookie, although the more complicated schemes are in the run game—exactly where he has struggled the most. On some plays he has outperformed his previous running performance, getting to the second level as early as the second offensive play of the game. Overall, however, he missed a number of run blocks, almost one a drive.
He also gave up at least one pressure—probably two—responsible for one of Ponder's more well-advised scrambles. His pass protection wasn't fundamentally weak, but he definitely almost gave up his first sack of the year. This obviously isn't the end of the world—only three left tackles didn't give up a hit, hurry or sack in Week 5—but it wasn't one of his more solid pass blocking games. Given his poor run blocking (particularly on the last two meaningful offensive drives) makes it perhaps his worst performance of the year.
To be completely fair, the outside zone is simply another animal from the inside zone and man blocking schemes. There's a lot to learn in order to succeed on this offensive line, and his overall development is not worrisome.
On the other hand, Charlie Johnson might not have a lot of time left if he continues playing like he did against the Titans. It was the worst run blocking performance by a lineman so far, and the scheme changeup did have a little to do with it. That doesn't provide much of an excuse, however, as a sophomore from Slippery Rock vastly outperformed him despite making some mistakes. The only notes I have for Johnson are lists of bad blocks, and unlike Kalil, who may have missed enough blocks to count for every drive, Johnson literally did miss a block on every long drive. He was responsible for the first missed block of the game, potentially putting the stretch run to rest, and was involved in nearly every negative running play.
On the other hand, it should be said that he was the best pass blocker of the game, and he was often singled up against defenders, unlike Sullivan and Fusco. He didn't give up a single pressure, which serves as a good contrast to his running performance.
His game was overall net poor (especially with the penalty), and the Vikings may look to target a guard late in the next draft if they can continue to expect this. An interesting note: the inside/outside zone concepts that the Vikings run are very similar to Oregon's zone schemes, which Geoff Schwartz and Mark Asper are both very familiar with (and successful in). A draft pick here may be a waste given those two bits of information, and is perhaps a reason the Vikings were interested in Asper despite his poor performance in Buffalo's camp.
John Sullivan made some notable mistakes in the run game, but made blocks on the second level more than enough times to make up for it. Sullivan is familiar with the demands of each of the schemes, but struggled early to execute, with some visible problems on the third and fourth running plays the Vikings ran. From there, he was solid for most of the game until the end, where he gave up a tackle for loss. Between play #10 and play #58, he nearly put on a run blocking clinic, with perfect peel offs on a number of his second level blocks including on the first play of the drive that resulted in Harvin's second touchdown late in the third quarter. It was good to see Sullivan is a good run blocker in any scheme and communicates well with either guard.
He was a fantastic pass blocker as well, being one of the eight centers that week not to give up a single sack, hit or hurry.
By the way, he is the only center that hasn't given up a sack, hit or hurry all year. Let that sink in, then make a reasonable argument for why he shouldn't be an All-Pro favorite at center right now. No one is pass blocking better and few run block better (and none in more difficult schemes, save probably Ryan Wendell of the New England Patriots).
Mercurial sophomore Brandon Fusco has demolished any expectations for a sixth round draft pick, but still has a ways to go before he can be a proven, consistent starter in the NFL at guard. This was one of his better games, but I still counted six missed blocks in the passing and running game. He was better in the run game again than the pass game, and gave up three (late) pressures. As a runner, his biggest problems came when he had an uncovered lineman, performing better (odd for a rawer player) in man blocking assignments than in zone. He didn't have the speed to lock down the second level defenders, and longer runs may have been aborted because of this deficiency.
At the end, combining the mistakes with the on-point plays (including very strong blocks at the point of attack), Fusco finished with what could be counted as an average performance. For someone playing in his second year as a developmental prospect, this is phenomenal.
Also inconsistent is Phil Loadholt, who finished with his first good game of the season. Loadholt's biggest knock has been footwork, but he performed the more technical duties in his assignments well, with a great block (like Sullivan) to set off Peterson's long run on Minnesota's second to last scoring drive as perhaps his blocking highlight. He gave up one early pressure, forcing Ponder to scramble, and one late pressure.
Loadholt may have had emphasis on footwork this past offseason because it is looking much better than in seasons past. He seems slightly more tentative in the run blocking game, but this has yet to hurt him or the team. Perhaps I'm mistaking tentativeness for precision, in which case I would be happy to be wrong. At any rate, Loadholt did well, particularly considering his reputation for frustrating fans.
In a story that should be impossible to brush away (but still somehow finds time at the bottom of the media barrel), Adrian Peterson is absolutely crushing games despite coming back early from a knee surgery in not just his ACL, but MCL and both menisci. He is Pro Football Focus' top-graded running back, meaning he has been the most consistently good running back in the NFL, even if his splash plays may be coming further apart. He has been able to turn negative yards into positive plays and continues to make defenders miss, despite playcalling designed to restrict him, particularly on the edges.
His biggest improvement from last year—and yes, he found ways to improve his game somewhere in his rehabilitation—has been as a pass blocker. He's been asked to block on pass plays on about 20 snaps this year and has yet to give up a pressure of any kind. This was more on display against the Titans than any other team, as he was asked to block on five total plays. He has shown good intuition on picking up blitzers and doesn't allow players to get past him.
Against Tennessee, he did a better job reading blocks than he did against the Lions and averaged 5.2 yards a carry as a result. Despite some poor blocking performances by a number of the linemen, Peterson was able to take advantage of the new look in the running game to gash the Titans. He's playing the inside zone game perfectly, pressing the line to execute last-second jump cuts, and his speed allows him to be effective on the outside zones.
He did start off reading the wrong blocks, but improved over the course of the game. At some points, he looked to dance too early or often before hitting a hole, an issue he also resolved over the course of the game. The sixth play of the second drive and the second play of the following drive are both examples of poor reads by Peterson, the second of which led to waiting too long before hitting a hole. He's doing well enough with the fundamentals later, that it even once led to a shorter run, after having made the right read but having the wrong result—in the play I isolated above that had good blocks by Sullivan and Fusco, Peterson makes the right "flash" read (using the opposing helmet/jersey color to determine whether or not to hit the hole) and ends up getting tackled because of quick lateral movement by the opponent.
It may have been Peterson's best pure running game this year, despite not hitting 100 yards or grabbing a touchdown.
Leading the way for Peterson on a number of these plays was fullback Jerome Felton, who has been the most surprising player this season to me. He only played in 17 snaps, but showed up on my radar once again nevertheless. He impressed me in his run blocking five times, sometimes pancaking opposing defenders, and setting up the run well, despite an offensive line that occasionally missed assignments. He did miss one block on the second play of the fourth drive, but the quality of his blocking in his limited time was impressive enough to me to overcome it.
My biggest concern with Felton has little to do with his performance and more to do with him providing a run alert to the defense. When he is on the field, there has been a greater than 70% chance that the play would be a run, which may signal some weakness the Vikings perceive in him as a pass-catcher or blocker. He hasn't been an extraordinarily great pass blocker, giving up a hit and a hurry over these last five weeks in limited pass blocking snaps, although he didn't do that in his two pass blocking snaps against the Titans.
Overall, it was another great performance from the fullback.
Finally, Toby Gerhart is doing what he needs to do to make up for an embarrassing and uncharacteristic performance in Week 3 with a 6.8 yard per carry average; that is the fourth most of any running back with over twenty snaps in Week 5. He didn't run the ball often enough to take a lot of ink in my notebook, and I noted one play—The 22 yard run with 9:36 left in the third quarter—where he made great yardage despite poor blocking, which is something he has been the unfortunate recipient of a disproportionate amount of time. I still maintain, as do many other fans, that Gerhart is a superior running back than most teams have on their rosters top to bottom. This play is one example.
Most Valuable Offensive Player: Percy Harvin
Offensive "Underclassman" of the Game: Kyle Rudolph
Unseen Player of the Game: John Sullivan
Honorable Mention: Adrian Peterson