The Minnesota Vikings offense, which had been getting better and better over the course of the season, found itself sputtering against the Washington Redskins' normally weak defense. Their 5.3 yards per play is perfectly in line with the average they've had all season (good for 20th in the league), but stalled in all of the predictable places. Once again, the Vikings stalled in the red zone an couldn't take advantage of their offensive efficiency. We'll take a look at exactly how Minnesota's offense couldn't make good on its otherwise impressive drives and why a team that started out so dominant fizzled in the end.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, first an apology: for those who don't follow me on twitter, the reason these notes are coming in late is because I've been asked to reprise my role as a political organizer with three weeks to go in the election. Before, this job took 70 hours out of my week (not including travel) and it now demands a similar commitment level, particularly with the election so close. I don't really enjoy this work, but I'm good at it and the introduction of super PACs have made this a more lucrative endeavor than before (which is to say, I still don't make very much).
I won't tell you who I'm working for (or more accurately: against), unless you email me or ask me on facebook, I guess. It is neither here nor there.
So, sorry for these notes (and future notes) being late enough that you'll have likely watched another game before reading this.
I won't have time to touch on the Cardinals game, but I've commented enough extensively to let you know my opinion. I'm tracking defensive and offensive plays still, so that I can maintain continuity in my accumulated statistics, but I won't have time to publish notes.
We once again saw the gradual evolution of the offense, with new concepts folded in to old packages. One of the things that Greg Cosell loves about the San Francisco offense is how diverse the running game is, and the Vikings are very similar. Very few teams have been willing to implement two types of blocking schemes for its running game—they typically stick to either "zone" or "man" concepts. The Vikings have long been a zone-running team, making sure to implement simple schemes to break out its powerful running game.
The Vikings have excelled at the inside zone, and used the outside zone (or "stretch" play) to keep defenses honest in the running game, forcing them to flow sideline to sideline in order to keep them honest. Not much is different in these two types of plays, except the aiming point of the running back and the blocking instructions for backside defenders. The running back has latitude in choosing his holes based off the read of a defensive tackle or the inside linebacker.
What's more interesting is that the Vikings are also willing to implement man blocking schemes. Generally speaking, teams will pick one or the other—coaching both requires extensive work and intelligent linemen. Linemen also tend to be more comfortable in one type of blocking than the other. For example, Buffalo's hybrid zone blocking/man blocking front (different than implementing man blocking on one play and zone blocking on another play) was not a fit for current Viking guard Mark Asper, who came from Oregon's (complicated) zone blocking system—the same one that guard Geoff Schwartz comes from.
It's impressive that the Vikings can execute complicated man schemes with pulls, traps and pins while also putting in the time and rigor to effectively execute the zone schemes that offensive line guru Alex Gibbs swears by. In the game against the Redskins, I saw the only Power O play I recall seeing from the Vikings. Against the Lions and Titans, the Vikings were willing to put in smart, difficult technical work to isolate dangerous defensive tackles on man blocking schemes. It's been effective for the Vikings, who have had big gains despite a lot of blocking miscues.
Over six games, it seems pretty clear that the Vikings are engaging in very opponent-specific work, unlike Washington (on offense) and Houston. It's not only the run game that has seen specific game-planning, it's the passing routes as well. The Vikings had developed an effective game plan against the typical underneath man coverage that the Redskins usually play, although Washington played much, much more off coverage than usual.
Many of the route packages went further downfield than in previous games, usually to exploit the separation that crisp route running usually provides—a strength of the otherwise shallow Vikings receiving corps. The savvy of receivers like Harvin and Jenkins was an important part of the gameplan, where offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave gave more latitude to playmakers to beat coverage; receivers used typical landmarks and won their one-on-one matchups. Against zone coverage, Musgrave usually dialed up smart routes and different landmarks to expose seams, but this time the Vikings instead concentrated on exposing matchups.
At the line, Ponder took advantage of matchups, finding receivers lined up against linebackers and using those matchups to find big gains. Instead of the three-step drops fans were used to, Musgrave and Ponder let the play develop more by using the more typical NFL five-step drops.
The Vikings once again played ball control football, but ran some deeper routes to take advantage of the looks they were getting. They once again folded man blocking plays into their zone blocking scheme in the run game to throw the Redskins off track and it paid off, with some good gains.
Not much different here than other weeks—Bill Musgrave shows real innovation in play design, but gets ahead of himself too often. The third down playcalling was much better, with routes running past down markers. The biggest problem with running five similar routes at relatively equal depths is that the field gets congested around the down marker. The Vikings resolved some of this problem with delayed routes, different personnel packages and occasional screens. While the screen calls were poor decisions (why run a screen on third and twelve?), the overall play calling was fine enough to clear defenders out of congested zones. Some receivers ran routes underneath, but they were not the first read, like before.
Instead, the red zone playcalling was abysmal. Percy Harvin wasn't a part of the personnel packages, except in no huddle situations, and Kyle Rudolph was called to block too often and too early in the game. Instead, the targets were to Devin Aromashodu, Rhett Ellison, John Carlson and Michael Jenkins. While before, problems in the red zone may have been attributable to tight passing windows and difficult decisionmaking, playcalling is almost entirely to blame here, with some of the best playmakers off the field or rendered ineffective.
My favorite play was a zone stretch play action, with a pass to Percy Harvin, who crossed behind the line of scrimmage to take advantage of the defenders working to prevent the run to the outside. Once again, the Vikings gave the ball to Harvin in space, using the extra space given by the outside hash marks. Opponents would do well to pay attention to runs aimed towards the near hash marks—they often result in a play action to the "backside" of the play.
The Vikings ran 77 offensive plays by my count. What stands out to me is that the Vikings didn't rely on their "go-to" personnel "11" package very often in the first half, using it 6 times in their 25 plays. Instead, they ran the "12" package (one running back, two tight ends) 4 times, a "13" package once (in the red zone—surprisingly a pass play), the "22" package 4 times, a "21" package twice, and an "02" package once.
In the second, half, when the Vikings were playing from behind, they used the "11" package much more often: 33 out of 51 plays. Of the 39 total "11" personnel plays, the Vikings only ran it twice—extremely uncharacteristic of them. Mixing up the personnel packages and play formations was very effective in the first half, but it's clear Ponder is much more comfortable with the three receiver set more than anything else.
I disliked lining Michael Jenkins up in the backfield, incidentally. It happened more than once, and didn't add anything. The idea is to confuse personnel adjustments and change the look of the defense, potentially forcing them into their base plays. It makes sense, because it will give the offense something they know they've prepared against. Still, Jenkins doesn't add much to the play, and the substitution isn't worth it.
This was perhaps the most boring grading for a quarterback yet. Christian Ponder made the fewest mistakes (this time with luck catching up to him on the interceptions) with nine "poor" plays, but also the fewest positive plays (8). He did have more instances of "borderline" positive plays, where I almost gave him credit, but it doesn't count for much.
The biggest difference in these last two games has been Ponder's willingness to read the field instead of locking down on a receiver. He much more obviously goes through his progressions and makes quicker decisions, which isn't something one sees change that quickly. There were some throws that required more touch, but more than anything he needed to work on footwork.
On some plays, he didn't set his feet on a scramble. On others, he tied himself up before getting the ball off. On the other side of that, Ponder threw a well thrown ball while his legs were wrapped up by a defender (with 6:33 left in the third) to Devin Aromashodu. What's perhaps more fascinating is that the announcer, John Lynch, said that Devin Aromashodu is known for his reliability: "Really a dependable guy. Not a burner by any stretch of the imagination," but you always know where he is and that he can make the catch. Sure, John.
While a number of near misses this year have been the result of poor decisionmaking, his actual interceptions were largely the result of poor throws. That's encouraging, because poor throws are largely regarded as more correctable. Incidentally, all of Ponder's interceptions this year have occurred on third down. Take risks when you need to, I guess?
Ponder's best play was a deep ball to Aromashodu under very heavy pressure. The ball was very well placed (there was room for better placement), but Aromashodu drew the pass interference call in the end zone, which resulted in a one yard touchdown pass. Perhaps if the corner had turned around, it may have resulted in an interception, but it would be just as easy to say that better adjustment to the ball in the air by Aromashodu would have resulted in a touchdown instead of a pass interference call—both are true.
His fumble was puzzling
The offensive line did not have their best day, and Matt Kalil was no different. I perhaps saw a different game than Pro Football Focus, as this is the first time I've disagreed with them in a big way. While he didn't give up too many pressures for how many snaps he was asked to play (77 offensive snaps, a few special teams), he did make a few technical errors in pass protection that didn't end up making a huge difference on plays. More than that, he was once again less than perfect in the run game. He's always been a better pass protector than run blocker, so this is neither surprising nor alarming.
Most impressive to me was the five yard play on second-and-four in the first drive of the third quarter. It wasn't flashy, but he and Sullivan both lose their backside blockers, then move forward to make a play even after being pushed to the ground. Kalil is still learning the scheme, and almost gave up a big play because of it.
Charlie Johnson gave up a sack and several pressures along the interior, but once again the bigger issue was with his performance as a run blocker. More than once, Adrian Peterson had to jump cut out of a poor block by Johnson. At this point, I'm not convinced he's a reliable starting guard, although he would perform as one of the better backups in the league if we draft or find a replacement. His biggest weakness, to me right now, is poor speed, even if his footwork in limited space is good. His calls on screen passes sometimes come late, and he'll whiff the second level blocks on occasion.
Better as both a pass protector and a road grader was John Sullivan, who only made two or three mistakes the entire game. While he occasionally seems to need to continue working on communication with his guards, he continues to find his way to the second level and make plays on the defense's best tacklers. He can pull quickly and is crucial to a number of the screen plays, finding himself in the right spaces to occupy defenders. His penalty for an illegal snap (correctly called) was a mistake that should downgrade him, but he is still in my mind one of the best centers in the league.
Brandon Fusco still looks to be a better guard than Geoff Schwartz, but both were relatively unimpressive against Washington. Fusco still missed a few blocks, but was almost always in the right place. There are still occasions when Fusco will be the best blocker on the play, especially on runs, but he doesn't have all the pieces quite yet. His strength is impressive, and he can drive some of the stronger 5-technique defensive ends in the league. Schwartz didn't have as much time on the field, but showed up in my notes enough to cause problems. He was in on the third drive, and despite it only lasting six plays, he had two bad blocks. On the next drive he does the same. The official snap count says he was in on 12 snaps, and I noted four bad plays in all. Not a good showing, at least not yet.
Phil Loadholt had a few issues as a pass blocker, but wasn't nearly as inconsistent as before. One of the four sacks the Vikings gave up was due to him, but edge rushers didn't normally give him the problems he usually experienced. On the other hand, his run blocking gave left a lot to be desired. For the most part, the issue was more with driving and holding blocks, and less with hand placement or footwork—his usual problems. He didn't do enough to create holes, and was responsible for a few of the stuffs. This could very easily be construed as improvement, but I'm not so sure. Loadholt has always had monster potential, but it looks like he may not reach it.
In what was perhaps his worst day of the season, Kyle Rudolph had two drops and could have dropped a third ball. He is statistically one of the better tight ends of the season (ranked third in ESPN fantasy standard scoring), but he needs to pay back the faith Christian Ponder has shown him by being more reliable with the ball. He's developed a reputation for having great hands, but he's had four dropped passes on the season, third most of all tight ends. He's a good red zone target, but he needs to fix this issue and soon. To his credit, he has massively improved as a run blocker, and this game he exhibited the technique and strength needed to create holes and be an effective road grader. He was asked to block in pass protection ten times and did a fine job, giving up no pressures. The false start was stupid and came in a critical situation. He's probably not at fault for the two point conversion "drop"—it was a difficult catch on a good throw while a defender was holding him. I understand why the flag wasn't thrown, but it is at the very least not Rudolph's fault in entirety.
John Carlson logged one reception, but was unexpectedly good as a blocker. While he started out poorly in run blocking (on the play that Adrian Peterson seemed to have teleported), he made up for it by making good blocks across the formation and pulling well. He and Peterson combined for good pass protection to allow Ponder extra time in the pocket and on scrambles. He's sometimes sloppy when pushing out to block, but he got the job done, at least against the Redskins. If he performs this well as a blocking tight end in the future (although his technique suggests it is unsustainable), he may be able to redefine himself and his role.
For someone who has only been in on 77 snaps for the season (14 against the Redskins), Rhett Ellison is certainly making a name for himself. He didn't do anything spectacularly, but he did perform surprisingly well as a lead blocker, pass catcher and pass protector. He's only been in protection 18 times, so the fact that he hasn't given up any pressure over the season isn't that significant. Still, it's a good sign. He ran six routes, blocked four times as a run blocker and stayed in the pocket to protect Ponder another four. He did all of it well, although he only ended the game with one reception for 16 yards (against Ryan Kerrigan, the worst coverage player they have).
Once again, Percy Harvin remained the feature receiver for the Vikings, finishing with 11 receptions for 133 yards. There isn't much to add here, as fans generally got a good look at what makes Harvin one of the best receivers in the NFL. He generated crazy yards after the catch (98) and 6 missed tackles. To put that into perspective, only six other receivers have produced more than 6 missed tackles all season. For the year, that puts him at 25 missed tackles, which is more than every running back but one (Marshawn Lynch... Adrian Peterson is second in this metric). More than that, Harvin made plays without having the ball in his hands, serving as an effective decoy to take out at least 2 defenders on at least 5 other plays by my count—incredible for any receiver. Only a few mistakes, including the read on a block that should have cut him outside instead of in, on the second play of the fourth drive of the second half (wordy, I know). For the most part, he's an incredible player who also threw his body into some run blocks, which is good to see.
Michael Jenkins was in on more snaps than any other receiver. For the most part, he wasn't too bad. With 6 receptions for 67 yards, Jenkins was an important part of a relatively weak offense. Once again, he was the most "impactful" receiver, according to the "win probability added" statistic, which largely means that he was important on third downs and long conversion attempts. As a safety valve, he was more effective than I've given him credit for in the past, and is currently fulfilling his role as a "possession receiver," moving the chains, but not really making big plays. As a run blocker, Jenkins was fine, not standing out one way or the other—as someone who was willing to fill in a tight end role, this is surprising, given he had tougher run blocking assignments. It's a little late in his career to commend him for newfound flexibility, but watching the Vikings use his skillset in a variety of ways is definitely positive.
The Vikings have seen a bit of a turnaround from Devin Aromashodu, but he was quiet in the game: one catch on two true targets (not throwaways) for thirteen yards, in many ways a part of his inability to generate separation. He still doesn't display the full gamut of receiver skills—not that any receiver is fully developed in every aspect of the game, but it is glaring here—which hurts him when he's on the field. Like I said above, I'm not sure he adjusted to the ball correctly on the deep attempt into the end zone, but he did do enough to draw the flag. Aromashodu has shown this season that he makes a fine backup, but I'm not sure he should be starting in the three receiver set.
Only in for 12 snaps, Stephen Burton had a surprising impact in the game. No, he didn't get any touches (or targets), but he was a great blocker. One good example of this was on the sixth play on the drive, where he won his block in efficient fashion. I didn't like that he blocked down instead of out, but that is a problem of play design, not his execution. I would like to see him on the field more often than Aromashodu, but he doesn't have that speed.
Adrian Peterson's day in Washington was pretty good. It was no Cardinals game, but it was pretty good. While only limited to 17 carries and 79 yards, he manufactured yards when it counted. Only three running backs with over ten attempts (a category of over 32 backs) had more yards after contact than Adrian Peterson, and he was able to move the chains for an offense that couldn't always get it going. The touchdown that was called back was also a good play by Peterson, but I think we were all most impressed by the fifth offensive play of the game:
So, he teleported, yea? People seem concerned about taking Peterson's run away as if it didn't matter or help the game, but it doesn't make sense to "take away" one run and not others. Like I said, the offensive line didn't have a lot of great run blocking, but Adrian Peterson's success rate (his ability to grab a "success" as defined by adding to win probability or not, as per Advanced NFL Stats) was 42.1%, which exceeds the NFL average for running backs. It does not reward a 5 yard run less than it does a 32 yard run and penalizes a 0 yard run as much as a -2 yard run, because every play is simply counted as a "success" or not. This limits out big plays and asks one question: was his running a success, or not? It was a good game. Particularly because he broke the second-most tackles in the league that week despite only having 17 carries.
Jerome Felton played for the Vikings, which I like to see, I guess. In all honesty, his game would grade out to pretty average, but that's not the whole story. He had some great blocks and some big miscues. His best plays were in the first drive, and he was able to keep some holes open while taking on the Buck or Mike linebacker (nomenclature for 3-4 systems escapes me, to be honest), and further did well on the first play of the next drive, which was either the "pin-and-pull" stretch zone play or a variant of the Power O. He didn't lose a lot of blocks, but he did have some problems maintaining the block on defenders moving laterally. I like him on the team.
I honestly did not pay as much attention to Toby Gerhart as I should have, but he only had one run in 14 snaps. He was asked to pass block twice and ran routes the other times. There's not too much to add, except that he's clearly not seeing the field as a result of Peterson's return to dominance. Good on Toby for being on the team, but I'm not convinced that he isn't more valuable as trade fodder.
So there you go. Like I said, I won't be able to publish notes on the Cardinals game, but I have hashed out my thoughts in the comment threads of other posts. Happy hunting!