After taking a look at the offense and how it put points on the board, it's critical to take a look at the defense and how it prevented production from a surprisingly much-improved Jaguars. The defense came into the season with a number of questions and more potential than proven talent.
A review of the film revealed a few surprising things about players I had already judged to be poor after the game. There's a lot going on, and sometimes it's easy to miss while live. Perhaps most fascinating is that the Vikings played the Tampa-2 coverage and Tampa-2 concepts fairly rarely.
There are some changes from the defense run by Pagac and Williams, and I'll do my best to cover the changes. After that, we'll take a look at special teams play.
Playcalling and Scheme
The only instance of a Cover-2 defense I could find in the first quarter was late, with 5:47 left. It was not a Tampa-2 play, although there was a linebacker dropping into coverage to protect the seam should the Jaguars hope to challenge the deep third. It was not Jasper Brinkley, though, it was Chad Greenway. Brinkley and Erin Henderson blitzed.
The Vikings were very comfortable using their nickel package, and used it nearly half the time they were on the field by my count. They used a nickel package on every third and long, and on a number of first downs (5 of the 19 that I kept track of—in full, they had 22 first downs).
The safeties tended to play single-high coverage with the other safety dropping into the box, with the corners playing man or deeper zone concepts. There isn't a lot of coverage rotation, but the Vikings have done quite a bit of work to disguise their coverage looks. There were quite a few Cover 3 looks as well as some quarters coverage, but the fundamental philosophies from the Tampa-2 system remains a core part of their defense.
The Vikings have continued to emphasize limiting yards after the catch, and generally focus on keeping receivers in front of their defensive backs. It continues to be a defense that is designed to prevent yardage gains more than turnovers. They will attempt to force quarterbacks to prioritize short routes in their reads, by creating smaller, harder to penetrate zones.
Because of the smaller zones, there are still ways to encourage turnovers more than in the past. An effective use of bracketing will allow defensive backs the leeway to jump routes for interceptions, as will closing speed and good reads.
In the picture above (which is extremely grainy, I know. Coaches film.), you can see what looks like a receiver getting free at first glance, but is in reality extremely well covered. The cornerback is releasing the receiver into the safety's zone, but is turning in at the same time to clog a passing lane and potentially grab an interception. The picture doesn't show it, but with no one in the flats, curl or hook zones, the corner is free to read the quarterback while loosely patrolling his assignment.
As for the playcalling on the Cecil Shorts touchdown, it looks like I was both wrong and right about the playcall. First, take a look at the play with the coaches [sic] film:
I was right that it was a Cover 3, I was wrong about it being a 3-3 zone, because no one blitzed. It is instead a deep 3 cover with 4 players covering the hook, curl and flat zones. I was also wrong about the nature of Cook's mistake, as per Frazier's presser, too. Instead of being pushed outside, as man coverage would dictate, Cook needed to keep the receiver in front of him, and break on the ball when necessary.
Part of this deep coverage also keeps receivers in the middle of the field open, which makes sense, because it would drain the clock. The play call is fine, but Cook's coverage was not as dictated by the scheme. This is partially why he didn't have a sense of the ball as it approached Shorts.
Overall, the zone packages seem fine, but I would like zone plays to be more situational if possible. Hook and curl zones are generally designed to operate within 7-10 yards from the line of scrimmage, but there were too many third downs that were passing plays under 5 yards that were converted because of the high zones. Calling for plays designed to prevent shorter passes in third down situations would probably be superior. Many of the "poor coverage mistakes" by the defensive backs in this situation actually seem to come from executing the plays that were called.
One thing that is clear, however, is that Alan Williams' defensive playcalling is significantly different from Fred Pagac's.
The defensive line did not register a single sack for the first time in 25 games, and disappointed a number of observers. There were some good things and some bad things about its performance that are overshadowed by its low production, and the most disappointing and least disappointing performances were both along the line.
Jared Allen is the heart of the line, even though his position in the scheme is significantly less important than the nose tackle. As last year's sack leader, he embodied the type of production that the Vikings needed if they were to remain competitive. With a wide variety of pass rushing moves, a high motor, good speed and a strong frame, Allen was able to power over defenders to get to the quarterback. He did not do that against Eugene Monroe. He did not pressure the quarterback very often and only registered one hit. He was quiet all game, and his silence may have been the most disappointing individual performance for any player on the team. He didn't have a game this bad since the fourth game of 2010 against the New York Jets, and he had at least recorded two tackles then. Jared was blanked from the stat sheet.
Some folks want to know if the call was legitimate. This is one of the few instances where I think a potentially wrong call was not the fault of the referees, replacement or not. Jared Allen did jump before the snap, and I don't think that's too debatable. The foul, however, is not for linemen jumping; defenses could jump as often as they want. The foul is crossing the line of scrimmage and that is a little more ambiguous. I do think Allen likely was across the line before the ball was snapped, but a better angle could convince me otherwise. Still, I would not have disagreed with whichever call any referee makes in that situation. Troy Polamalu has done the exact same thing without being called.
On the other hand, Brian Robison was perhaps the best defensive player on the field. Despite recording no sacks, Robison had three quarterback hits, six pressures, three tackles (one for a loss) and a pass deflection. He was a consistent threat in the run game and pass game. Runs to Robison's side averaged 1.7 yards, while runs elsewhere averaged 5.1 yards. This is no coincidence, as Robison consistently occupied key blockers and redirected Jennings and Jones-Drew to bounce out of key holes. Both inside and outside the stat sheet, Robison had a fantastic game.
Kevin Williams was also surprisingly anemic, and only had some minor penetration. He missed a tackle and only made up for it with two tackles of his own. He didn't get much done in the pass game and just a little more in the run game. He found himself pushed around a bit too often. What's interesting is that the way Williams was obviated from performing was largely through the use of traps or dummy blocks. He was baited to overpursue or found the fullback in his face after shedding a block or two from the interior linemen. There was nothing wrong with Kevin Williams' technique, he was just schemed for.
At a critical position, Letroy Guion did much better than I initially believed. Upon film review, it seems as if Guion had improved. While his statistics are not any better than Williams, his time on the line was not nearly as difficult. He shed blocks and moved laterally well, and could plug holes enough to redirect runners. He got surprising penetration on double teams, although he didn't translate much of this into pressure on the quarterback or actual tackles in the run game. Nevertheless, he had some good technique. He missed a tackle once, but made up for it. I recorded six plays that impressed me and four plays that were failures on his part. There's nothing here to indicate that Guion can be anything more than an average nose tackle, but as someone I like to criticize, he outperformed my expectations.
As for Guion's penalty, it was incorrectly called and executed, although the actual fact of the flag is somewhat debatable. The penalty given was "after the play, personal foul," which is impossible because the play was not whistled dead. Further, the penalty was enforced from the line of scrimmage of the play before the snap, and should have instead been enforced from the spot of the ball after the play died, meaning it was a 22 yard penalty instead of a 15 yard penalty.
Personally, I don't think Guion should have been flagged at all, although he was not making a smart decision. The play was not whistled dead, so Gabbert could have gotten up and extended the play. If Guion pulled up to touch him instead of fall on him, the quarterback could have gotten to his feet before the touch would have ruled him down, given that there was no whistle.
If there was a flag to be had, it should have been merely unnecessary roughness, as Gabbert was defenseless and Guion could have been employing a "potentially dangerous tactic." It does not require for the play to be dead.
Used as a backup, Fred Evans outperformed Guion in his short time, generating a hit and a tackle in only 18 snaps. I particularly liked his explosiveness of the line and his penetration. He is also credited with a pass deflection by the NFL statisticians, and it was a great play; a smart move to pull up and clog a passing lane to prevent the play from succeeding. I thought Evans looked good out there. He is more physically gifted than Guion, and his best day is better than Guion's best day, but his streakiness generally keeps him out of the lineup. He can disappear at times. It seems as if Sunday was not a day that Evans was content to disappear.
Everson Griffen is a wickedly fast edge rusher, but he didn't have a huge impact on the game. He was out there for 33 of the 81 defensive snaps (more than any other backup on the line by a significant margin) and generated a hit and a hurry. He was not generally tasked with defending the run, as he mostly was used as a specialty pass rusher, and he missed some opportunities to make plays (although he did not miss a tackle). His penetration came less from technique and more from schematic calls like stunts and his pure physical talent.
Even with responsibilities geared towards pass rushing, Griffen missed opportunities in the run game that could have helped the team in a big way. Without more consistent pressure in the passing game, it's an important deficiency to take note of. If he had been able to present himself as more of a threat, this could be brushed under the rug.
The veteran on the linebacker roster, Chad Greenway, showed why he's a Pro Bowler in this game. He was a devastating force in the run game, accumulating 9 solo tackles and 13 combined. I counted at least five instances where he exhibited patience and good playreading to plug a hole and make the tackle on the runner. He was able to stop every single running back the Jags had at least once (Jennings, Jones-Drew and Jalen [Parmele]) behind the line. Beyond just finding the correct hole (or correctly choosing to take the lead blocker to free up another defender), he also shed blocks well and still found time to make the play even after taking the lead blocker on.
Coverage was a big weakness of his last year. Against the Jaguars, he was much better. I counted three coverage failures, but only two he was targeted on. In coverage, I also felt he did well on four or five plays, but again only three he was target on. The pass to Marcedes Lewis early in the game was a reminder to many Vikings fans about his deficiencies, but he more than made up for it the rest of the game. With two excellent pass deflections late in the game, Greenway displayed an ability to read the quarterback, generate burst in short spaces and react to the ball. It was a great game all-around for him.
What's even better is that Greenway's first deflection wasn't even in his responsibility—he shed the receiver he was covering in the slot after reading the quarterback and made the play.
Erin Henderson was not too different from Greenway, although he often took backside blockers instead of lead blockers (who are generally easier to shed). He showed a similar ability to find holes and plug them. He didn't often overpursue on plays, read them well and wrapped up well. He missed one fewer tackle than Greenway (one to Greenway's two), and did an even better job making sure that running backs failed, getting credit for tackles on many (seven) running plays that would constitute defensive stops (plays graded as offensive failures, as determined by a metric of success dependent on down and distance). His day against the run was even better than Greenway's, including a tackle for loss.
Henderson also grabbed a sack on a blitz as well as a quarterback hit, while Greenway was not a threat to bring the QB down. To be fair, Henderson was sent on blitzes four more times than Greenway, who rushed the passer on three occasions.
Jasper Brinkley played in slightly more than half the snaps, playing every in every base 4-3 personnel package. I wasn't impressed by his play in general, although I do recall a good looking tackle or two. He showed up in the backfield and made plays to stuff running backs on at least two different runs, but I also recall two missed tackles. He had six tackles overall, four solo. He was called for a penalty that actually should be attributed to Erin Henderson.
The Vikings used the nickel package without Brinkley fairly often, and I think this is a sign the Vikings do not trust their coverage in the base set—a sign that might mean they don't want Brinkley in coverage. He didn't cover the deep third very often if at all, and was only involved in 26 coverage situations while rushing the passer on two other running plays. He was not thrown at on any of his coverage snaps, which is a good sign. On some of these plays, he had his receiver covered well enough that he may have forced Gabbert to find a different receiver in the progression.
There wasn't much to judge Brinkley on, but it was slightly worse than it was better.
The oldest man on our roster, Antoine Winfield, is still our best cornerback. His much-publicized pitch count didn't seem to be in too much effect, as he was on the field for 76 of 81 defensive snaps. He had the best day by far, with three defensive stops, and only three targets. Winfield took 23 snaps covering the slot receiver. He was only targeted once when he was covering the slot, but it was underneath the curl zone that Winfield was covering. Unfortunately he didn't close well enough to prevent the first down. The veteran has lost a step.
A man who only missed 5 tackles in 2010 continued his efficiency by hitting every tackle attempt, and was a demon in the running game. He recorded three defensive stops and, by my count, had 5 tackles. He was also tuned into the direction of the plays and stood up bigger running backs while also demonstrating picture-perfect tackling form.
EDIT: My original interpretation on Justin Blackmon's drop in the endzone/blown coverage by Winfield was a busted defensive call. After being challenged on it, I realized I was wrong. Winfield was bad on the coverage and should receive a negative grade from me. This doesn't change the award I give him below, but it does mean his performance was closer to average than I had originally thought. His contributions in the run game do make up for this problem (caused by a referee pick and a high-low crossing route... good playcall by the Jaguars), but not as much as before. Thanks to VikingsFanPage for calling me out on it.
Chris Cook had an up-and-down day, but was generally good aside from the mistake noted above. He was targeted 10 times, and allowed four receptions. He had one more play in off coverage for a zone package where he gave up too much, and this might be his biggest problem: he is much worse in off zone coverage than in press coverage or man-to-man coverage, although these might be mistakes that are relatively easy to correct.
He still hasn't showed the ball-hawking skills that the Vikings may want from him, but he can blanket a player if he's assigned man coverage. The Vikings are running more man concepts than they have in the past, so this may not be a wasted talent as much as it may have been before. He made about two mistakes, but also had two very good plays that I recorded. He needs to have more awareness of the ball in the air, but otherwise reads receivers and their routes well.
Also, good job on that blitz, Cook. Dial it up.
In on over 35 snaps was Josh Robinson, who took over for Winfield and Cook when they weren't on the field and was also the third receiver in the nickel packages. I didn't like Robinson's tackling, and he may have had two missed tackles on six or so attempts. It isn't simply that he has bad form or seeks to hit a ballcarrier instead of wrapping up, it seems to be that he doesn't hit the offensive player head-on and can't get a good grip.
Other than that, he was OK. He made two coverage mistakes and had two good plays, including an excellent read on a screen play that resulted in a loss of yardage for a pass intended for Justin Blackmon. This means that overall, Robinson has some work to do, but clearly has the instincts to read NFL offenses and react appropriately. He doesn't just have straight line speed; he displayed agility as well. His read is generally good, but he can still be tricked by receiver moves. It seems that he has a lot of potential to take over as a starting cornerback in the future, and right now is an able third corner. As the season progresses, expect Winfield's snaps to actually go down once Robinson becomes acclimated, so long as he improves his tackling.
If Robinson were to play in the future like he had in this game, then he would be a less than stellar third cornerback, but there's no reason to think he won't improve.
Harrison Smith and Mistral Raymond are clear upgrades over the safeties the Vikings were forced to allow on the field the previous year. They have massive room for improvement.
Harrison Smith wasn't bad. He wasn't good, either. He was actually excellent in coverage, although the ball wasn't thrown to him all too much (twice), he covered his assignments well and shifted out of the zone by reading the quarterback very well. He had great instincts on the running game, but whiffed on one tackle and was Mack Truck'd by Maurice Jones-Drew on the other. Those were the only two plays where I graded Smith negatively, and I gave him credit for four good grades on plays.
Mistral Raymond was awesome... if your standard of comparison is last year. Otherwise, he was just pretty good. I loved his instincts in pass coverage, although those seemed to be related to reading the receiver more than the quarterback, and he placed himself well in the run game to force good angles for other tacklers, or (thrice) putting himself in a position to tackle. He missed a tackle on a running play, and had a small highlight when he knocked the ball out of the hands of Mike Thomas on a deep route (a play Erin Henderson busted coverage on) with 11:49 left in the fourth quarter. Great play.
This kid has fantastic closing speed, and sooner or later it's going to get him an interception.
For special teams, it's much easier to identify notable players than it is to describe scheme or design, then go player by player for everyone with significant snaps.
Let's not even pretend like Blair Walsh doesn't deserve a first mention here. You know why. In.Cred.Ib.Le.
But also, I'll mention what I liked: four field goals, and it was cold-bloodedly efficient. Not just the 100% accuracy on field goals and extra points, though, but how he did it. With time expiring in regulation as the Vikings were down three, the offense gave him 55 yards to keep the dream alive in his debut as a rookie. Not only does he nail it in a loud stadium, he has room to spare. Cleaning it up with a 38 yard game-winner was nothing after that.
Three touchbacks on six kicks, which exceeds the NFL average on kickoffs and was only beaten by seven kickers in 2011. He ranked sixth in average starting position after a kickoff for kickers with five or more kickoffs (19.5)
Matt Kalil made a huge impact play by blocking a kick with his 6'7" frame by jumping up and extending his hands at the right moment. I detailed some of it in the comments:
It was the third kicked block in a season opener in Vikings history.
The other two players to block in a season opener were Nate Allen (1976) and Randy Holloway (1979).
The last time we blocked a PAT at all was in December of 2009 (Ray Edwards).
Speaking of 1979, the Vikings blocked 4 kicks on November 25th of that year-2 extra points, a field goal and a punt. They led the league in blocked kicks that year, with something approaching a dozen and beat the Bucs that day by one point, denying them the opportunity to clinch the division. For an ironic pregame preview, check out the first few seconds of this video.
And, speaking of 1976, some people think the 1976 Vikings were the best kick blocking team in history. Page, Blair and Eller all got in on the act. They blocked 4 field goals and quite a number of extra points and punts. (Opponents were 14 of 22 on PATs). The Raiders are the only team to have two PATs blocked in the Super Bowl (to the 1976 Vikings). Earlier, the Vikings blocked a chip shot field goal by the Rams in the first quarter of the NFC Championship game and it was returned 90 yards by Bobby Bryant. The Rams wouldn't score until the third quarter. Opponents only scored 14 of 22 extra point attempts.
Individual record for Vikings blocked kicks (career) goes to Matt Blair, with 20. He also holds the individual record for blocked kicks in a season as a Vikings (5) in 1979. Alan Page is the first to have two in a season, and it was in 1976.
Kalil blocked kicks 6 times in college, although he says it's 7.
Other than that, there were a few things to highlight.
Chris Kluwe punted quite well, and by that I mean better than the average punter. Every kick within 60 yards of the opponent's 20 yard line was punted within the twenty (all four of them) and only one of them outkicked the coverage (it was caught at the 11 and downed at the 21, so not a real downgrade over a touchback). He had one kick ten yards short of ideal, but it bounced favorably (although this is not as rare as you would believe) for an additional nine yards. That kick was 50 yards, while the other kicks were (in order) 48 yards (downed just inside the 20), 65 yards, 64 yards, and 50 yards. All of these are independent of coverage, and are just pure air yards. No touchbacks with 4 touchback opportunities is great.
I liked Jamarca Sanford gunning punts. He would occasionally overpursue and get pushed out of the play, but he would also get back into the play and was tenacious. Usually the first one to the ball. He missed a tackle, but ended up helping make the play. I graded him as having a negative punt and two positive punts.
Josh Robinson was also a fast gunner who could get to the ball quickly. He made an impact in the game by closing off an option to run; the punt returner usually would return to get away from Robinson. I graded Robinson as having one good play.
Tyrone McKenzie did well to fix what would have been a great play on the kickoff in overtime by Larry Dean, who shed a block and outmanuevered three others in the unit to show up right in front Parmele before getting embarrassed by a cut to the left by the returner. McKenzie had patience and left his blocker just in time to make the tackle. Good move to contain the most important Jaguars offensive drive.
Everson Griffen got in on two tackles on special teams, one on the punt unit and the other on the kickoff unit. He missed a tackle on kickoffs as well. He's got good intuition for special teams, and of course, the speed.
Marcus Sherels is an average punt returner. No worries or electricity.
Defensive MVP: Chad Greenway
Unseen Defensive Player of the Game: Brian Robison
Defensive Rookie of the Game: Harrison Smith
Defensive Honorable Mention: Antoine Winfield
Defensive goat: Jared Allen (that was tough)
Special Teams MVP: Blair Walsh
Unseen Special Teamer of the Game: Jamarca Sanford
Special Team Rookie of the Game: Matt Kalil, only because I won't give someone two awards
Special Teams Honorable Mention: Josh Robinson
Special Teams goat: Larry Dean