The Vikings found themselves on the other side of the mirror as a last second kick gave fans a perhaps much-needed reality check, but also highlighted some of the deficiencies that revealed themselves in the game against the Jaguars.
Improbably, the offense came alive long enough to put two touchdowns on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter, keeping the game alive. Another defensive breakdown, this time a bit more impactful, forced the Vikings faithful to watch as the dagger of a last-minute kick struck them instead their opponent.
There are a lot of things to take away from the game, but primarily it should be remembered that the team is young. It will make mistakes. Some of these mistakes are irreparable and a few fan favorites may be cut by next season, only to be replaced by even younger, perhaps more consistent talent once more. The process is painful, but necessary, and we saw a good preview of what that pain may look like for the rest of the season last Sunday.
It's been a while getting this set of notes up, but it looks like I've found the time and wiggle room to get this done. What's made these notes particularly difficult has been the absolute absurdity that is the coaches [sic] film feature of Game Rewind.
Long story short, the film for a particular play will not load 99 out of 100 times, and when it does is choppy and moves at a snail's pace.
The pause feature, naturally, moves the film all the way back to the beginning. So this time, we shall do without and speculate with what comes.
Below will be notes on the playcalling, then individual players, per last week.
I once again find myself on the other side of most of the fandom when I find the playcalling to be generally adequate. Naturally, I would like to see more routes go deep, and disagree with the playcall in specific situations, but I felt the gameplan took advantage of the weaknesses of the Colts 3-4 man cover defense. If I may quote myself:
The Colts ran mostly man concepts with their cornerbacks against the Chicago Bears and will likely default to man coverage against the Vikings.
The strength of the game plan against the Jaguars involved receivers running precise routes (a strength of Harvin, Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu) without using traditional landmarks like the hashes or numbers, which made it much easier for receivers to sit in the holes of zone coverage, something that is far less effective against man coverage.
Instead, the Vikings will need to demand more of Ponder in fitting the ball into tight windows and run routes designed to attack man coverage, including inside slants, out routes and high-low crosses.
We saw a number of those inside slants and comeback routes, much more than against the Jaguars. This is particularly effective against man coverage schemes that dictate over and above corners, instead of trailing corners tracking the inside hip of defenders.
There was a lot more movement from out receivers because they couldn't find gaps to sit in and wait for the pass. This is in fact a fundamentally different set of instructions than receivers were given a week before and it's interesting to see in action. It unfortunately limits opportunities to make plays downfield (the corner smash route is nearly useless, for example).
Run game is much more important than in most west coast offenses, it seems, and the Vikings will do much more with it than set up a play-action or force safeties inside. Adrian Peterson isn't fully healthy, and that's evident, but he's clearly a powerful running back. He gives us more options in the running game against a defense that it's better to run on, but nevertheless I'd like to see more Toby Gerhart.
Mostly, it's because—at this point—the running game does not need to be dynamic to be effective, and Gerhart might do more to get some yardage up the middle instead of Peterson moving outside. Still, the Peterson/Gerhart balance wasn't too much of a concern and that's just a small wrinkle.
My biggest issue with the playcalling was that it was rarely situational. While I understand the concept of scripting the first 15-20 plays in order to prevent tendencies from showing up on film, a three-step drop with an over/under crossing route concept is stupid on third and 12 (8:30 left in the first quarter).
Many feel that the playcalling is too conservative, and it's true that there were fewer plays that called for receivers to streak downfield than in most other offenses. Part of this is true play design, and the other part is because the Vikings receivers are actually poor at getting separation from cornerbacks. Folks who call for an offense designed around its players instead of forcing players to fit into a scheme they are unsuited for should be happy with the calls so far.
It is still inaccurate to say that there were no deep routes, however; there were a number of deeper routes called for, particularly earlier in the game. The Colts defensive backs did a good job shutting down the deeper options, and the playcalling grew more conservative from there, to give the passer more options as the game progressed.
That said, there were other third downs the Vikings failed to convert that would not put the playcalling at fault, and more the players, for their execution.
The Vikings deployed the "full house" package a lot less against the Colts than against the Jaguars, and I suspect it is because passing out of this formation is more difficult against man-to-man teams.
Out of 66 snaps (including penalties), the offense was in a two tight end set on 22 of them, and a three tight end set on one. This is significantly more than last week (up to a third from a fourth), and comports with my prediction that the Vikings will stay away from the two tight end base for a little bit while they slowly introduce it as a base offense and Carlson gets reacclimated. We should see even more next week before it levels off.
The Vikings still like the "11" personnel package in situations where they need to move the ball down the field. The three receivers on the field in those situations are Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins and generally split evenly between Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton.
They were in "11" on all but four or five of third down situations, and moved to it more and more often as the game went on. The last thirteen plays were all through this personnel package.
Much has been made of Christian Ponder's decisionmaking and ability over the past few days following this loss, and it's a bit odd to me. He didn't play much differently than last week, when I advocated caution on promoting Ponder's good play after the win. Last week, I said he was worse than proponents were saying. this week, I'll say he's better than critics are claiming.
After grading out his plays, I found eight plays I would call negative, and none in the last two drives. There were 11 plays that I would call positive (using the criteria of "good" and "bad" from last week, compared to a milquetoast quarterback), but none until the fourth drive.
A number of his negative plays weren't incompletions or poor passes, but simply bad decisionmaking.
Below, I've capped two plays using the grainier-than-ever coaches [sic] film to demonstrate that.
First is a play that occurred with around 6:44 of the second quarter left, where Ponder decided to scramble despite minimal (at best) pressure and open receivers.
Below, you can see that Harvin (at the bottom of the field) is inside his man on the 35 yard line with no safety help and a small risk of a linebacker clogging the lane. The safeties are up too far top or right to be relevant. There were ways to thrown Harvin open and the throw is not particularly difficult (for an NFL quarterback).
As he begins to scramble to avoid nonexistent pressure, he turns his head and he might be able to see Carlson running out at the line of scrimmage or a completely open Michael Jenkins, who has space as a result of miscommunication between the coverage players (both of whom are paying attention to the "threat" posed by Carlson). A deep throw here would have gone for a first down, and potentially inside the red zone before the safeties tackled Jenkins.
Below is the next play, which was a sack for a fumble and negative yardage. This play is significantly less of a discredit to Ponder, as the pressure appeared in about 2.5 seconds up the middle; Ponder would not have had time to go through reads. Nevertheless, there exists a difficult throw for Harvin or a more difficult throw up the seam for Rudolph. Avoiding this throw is exactly what some fans may be willing to criticize Ponder for, as it seems to present an acceptable risk for a potentially large gain.
For the record, I would have preferred a pass to Harvin here, but failing that, would have liked the pass to Rudolph. That pass to Rudolph needs to be perfectly thrown to avoid the pick and won't get a lot of YAC. A successful completion to Harvin would have resulted in a first down.
The cap below was taken 0.5 seconds before the sack, which is a razor thin margin of error. I understand why the play didn't occur, and think the offensive line is more at fault than anything, but we would be lying to ourselves if we though that Ponder didn't have a shot to convert here. As it is, I don't think most quarterbacks in the league can convert this play consistently. This is nevertheless an area for improvement.
Other than these selected plays, it is true that Ponder did not have receiving options available to him deep, both as a result of conservative playcalling and a lack of talent in producing separation deep. Still, fans should be (rightly) concerned that Ponder is sometimes avoiding these throws when they appear (rarely).
His second scramble came against no pressure (this was the dumb penalty by Kalil), but no one was open for a good gain. There was a receiver blanketed by a safety 25 yards away, a receiver double bracketed 18 yards away, a receiver with underneath coverage 20 yards away and an open John Carlson behind the line of scrimmage (but with a trailing LB).
His third scramble was much the same, with no pressure, but also no passing options. Harvin was double covered 25 yards away, Rudolph was bracketed with an underneath linebacker 25 yards from the line, and 10 yards away, Jenkins was getting worked by a cornerback.
Ponder's third run was a bit of a mistake, as there was a deep crossing route that had potential from Harvin, but he was also on the backside of the play—Ponder didn't see him, but he should have. Incidentally, Ponder's throwaway with 9:26 left in the fourth may not have been a throwaway. Out of all four routes, Rudolph was the only one who could be considered open (but it is a difficult throw).
If nothing else, the former Seminole has been efficient. Converting a league-high 75.8% of passes for a fifth-rated 8.3 yards per attempt is astonishing. Beyond that, Ponder ranks fourth in my favorite evaluative statistics, adjusted net yards per attempt (which gives penalties to interceptions and sacks, and bonuses to touchdowns and yards, but not completions). In football's most predictive statistic, net yards per attempt, he ranks fourth. This should mean very little after 62 pass attempts, however, and likely won't be significant until Ponder surpasses 200 attempts.
Other than phantom pressure, Ponder has made intelligent decisions to move the chains and does more when given more latitude. My recommendation here is to designate two or three pass plays and one or two running plays per half to audible to if Ponder so feels that it is the best decision. This may already be the case, and if so, I'm happy with it.
He has clearly progressed. An additional deep threat should make things easier, and make Ponder bolder. However, remember that Jerome Simpson was cut for a reason, and that he came cheaply because no other team was willing to offer him more. Simpson is good and has a lot of potential, but he is not a savior.
Ponder is once more at fault for a near interception when targeting Stephen Burton and once again comes away lucky for having thrown a ball without the required zip or elevation to avoid the linebacker and get to the target. It's a rare decisionmaking problem that he should be held accountable for.
As for the discussion of YAC and whether or not it's a reliable method for future success, direct your eyes over to rj-b and UnBannedVikingholic's posts. My take is that high YAC isn't a knock on a quarterback, but that funneling our offense through screens to Percy Harvin (or any one receiver) is unsustainable in the long run. San Francisco is one of the best teams in the country at limiting YAC (although the Vikings are as well, interestingly).
Ponder threw one deep ball deep; it was to the right. It was dropped by Michael Jenkins. He threw 11 passes at or near the line of scrimmage on screens or otherwise for 86 yards (7.8 yards per attempt). When throwing otherwise, he was 7.2 yards per attempt. That makes him 18 for 20 (90%) on screen passes/passes behind or near the line of scrimmage, for a total of 159 yards (7.95 YPA). On other passes, he's 29 for 42 (69%) for 356 yards (8.48 YPA).
It seems that he is still effective when not engaging in designed screens to Toby Gerhart or Harvin. The gameplan is a big part of it, and once again I'll argue that Musgrave has effectively designed the offense around his talent, allowing Ponder the opportunity to win games. Ponder fits the scheme and the scheme fits Ponder. With progression, expect for Ponder's duties to expand.
Interestingly, Ponder didn't have an incompletion until 1:30 left in the first half.
There really isn't a lot to say here outside of mentioning Percy Harvin. Harvin has been phenomenal and has forced more missed tackles (7) than anybody in the league (Steve Smith is second with 5). He's been thrown to (21) more than all but four receivers, and has the second most receptions (18). He has also run the ball 7 times for 33 yards (4.7 yards a carry), meaning he has touched the ball more than any other receiver in the league. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid much attention to the team.
Not only has he been extremely shifty in avoiding opposing defensive backs, he's displayed extraordinary strength in these last two games and is in the discussion (so far) of being the most valuable receiver in the NFL. Harvin has the third highest grade in Pro Football Focus' grading system right now, and has the highest pure receiving grade, and the fourth most yards from scrimmage of any receiver.
Harvin once again uses his elite vision to ensure production and is clearly the most important person on the team, even with a quarterback who has produced 515 yards.
His performance in the Colts game was fantastic, and it's impossible to detail how important he was to the effort. Nevertheless, his offensive pass interference penalty was stupid and was part of the endless parade of flags that killed drives.
Michael Jenkins is no more than what many expected. He's a solid possession receiver who has lost a step, and doesn't come out of his cuts as quickly as he used to. His drop in the end zone was extremely disappointing, and so he'll have had a negative performance despite being useful in third down situations and as a mid-grade yard gainer. He still has a good sense of the ball in the air and a variety of moves off the line that can trick even experienced cornerbacks, but his time as a starting receiver is correctly limited. I had big issues with Jenkins' run blocking, which is usually a strength of his.
Stephen Burton showed good sense to catch the tipped ball in the end zone (perhaps an understatement) with a good reaction to a quickly developing play. I was otherwise unimpressed with him, and his inability to separate from the average cornerbacks that the Colts had to offer wasn't very good. Both he an Aromashodu are at risk when Simpson comes back, although Burton's age should give him an advantage.
Devin Aromashodu was only targeted in the fourth quarter, but his only completion was with three seconds left in the game, when the Colts were playing in very high and off zones. He was the victim of poor ball placement on his first target, but his ability to adjust in the air would normally have given him the opportunity to make an important catch on the sideline. On his second target in the end zone, he fell down.
I did like his block on a run play for Harvin at the end of the first quarter. He and Matt Kalil were fantastic on that play.
Kyle Rudolph has once again played every snap, but wasn't as effective in the second week, with four targets and three receptions for 35 yards. He once again dropped a pass, but made up for it with a touchdown late in the game. Pro Football Focus is once again down on his run blocking, but that doesn't tell the whole story. His blocking has been inconsistent, but he has had good plays to go along with his bad.
When he locks down on a defender, there's not a huge chance that they go anywhere that they want to go. His approach to defenders doesn't prevent them from moving past him, however, so there's a good chance he may miss on a block. More likely, however, are the blocks that are incomplete—his biggest problem has been holding on to poor blocks for not long enough.
He hasn't been quite the outlet that many (myself included) predicted, and it may be because he hasn't done as well as other tight ends in creating safe throws. A few of his targets (more against the Jaguars than the Colts) have been in good coverage, and he's seen a few of his passes deflected away. Once he can find more ways to get open—which is a bit of an assumption—he'll be a great tight end. As of right now, he's a work in progress.
John Carlson has been disappointing as well. I have seen him on several plays being the last off the snap and he's also missed on a few blocks. I don't remember a particular block he held well, but there are a few that I've had problems with. With 13:45 left in the second quarter, he gave up a block with record speed that ended a run that would have gone to the house (with good lead blocking from Rudolph, no less). With 6:08 left in the third (a three tight end formation), he chases a defender, but his hesitation allows them to potentially make a play (irrelevant because of poor blocking by others).
In the receiving game, he is unfairly not getting looks. While he hasn't been open an extraordinary number of times (he's only had 18 snaps, once again), he still has found space on occasion, but has found himself largely on the backside of plays. His silence as a receiver is less his fault than Musgrave's, although Ponder is also somewhat responsible.
Ellison found more time than last week, with eight snaps, but I didn't find too much to either be impressed or unimpressed by. he didn't give up a hurry in his three pass blocking snaps, so more power to him. This is the first time he replaced Carlson on downs instead of merely being the third tight end. He doesn't seem to have enough strength for sustained blocking, as he has an alright block at 13:14 left in the second, but is somewhat overpowered.
Oh boy. Penalties abound.
I liked Matt Kalil's performance overall. He started out poorly, in my opinion, but he made up for it in time. At the end of the first quarter, he does a fantastic job delivering a block that helps break open a long Harvin run when pulling, and is his my favorite play of his in the game. He was easily the best of the linemen, giving up only one hurry, and making sure to consistently provide complete run blocking.
While it is easy to blame Kalil for the sack from Robert Mathis early in the game (and it is partially his fault), I thought Kalil's worst play was at 8:10 of the second quarter, where he gives up a block that aborts a Toby Gerhart run. Otherwise, Kalil was great (excepting a stupid penalty)
I disliked Charlie Johnson. I counted run blocking failure at 14:28 left in the second, a pressure with 6:44 left in the second, and a poor initial effort at 6:02 left in the third (before recovering). He had poor play throughout the game and I felt he could have done better. He had against a better interior pass rush the week earlier. I didn't find him getting to the second level often.
Johnson also got into the penalty game, negating a 9 yard run early in the match. I don't quite agree with the call, but Johnson wasn't completely innocent either—he should have let his outside hand stop grabbing when the defensive end was sliding.
John Sullivan had an unusually poor showing, for him anyway. It was a good performance—once again better than average for a center—but it was more inconsistent than solid all-around. Sullivan engaged in some poor run blocking early in the second quarter, in the middle of the third, and once again in the middle of the fourth. Nevertheless, he gave up no pressures in the passing game and still got to the second level on a few running plays. If this is a bad day for him, I'll take it.
Brandon Fusco is still clearly raw, and gave up a few pressures while being driven back as well. He wasn't as dominant in the run game as before, and still has a little to improve on. Overall, I was only disappointed in his performance in the middle of the fourth quarter, with 7:08 remaining, where he functionally fell into his block and didn't complete the play. Other than that he was serviceable, but not great.
Phil Loadholt. Oof. A terrible game, including two penalties, four hurries and a hit. There's not much to say here, except that he was up to his usual antics, being marginally useful in the run game while being flummoxed as a pass-protector. I had been hoping to see improvement as his first week's performance was good in my eyes. He didn't get low enough on run plays and didn't have the footwork for effective edge rushers on pass plays. Generally, his issues were with the fundamentals and not a higher-level skill. it wasn't Loadholt's worst game by any means (as he could effectively force the pass rushers to at least take time), but it was a game that should put his spot on the roster on notice.
Minnesota ran the ball (on purpose) 23 times. 16 of those times, Adrian Peterson carried the rock for 60 yards (3.8 yards a carry). He's actually been doing a fairly good job despite some blocking breakdowns, getting every yard that was available to him, and then some. Unfortunately, there were very few plays where each Vikings was executing, and Peterson's longest gain was only 6 yards. There were at least two runs where he gave himself space to break it open, but both times he was the victim of a misheld block or a poor effort by a teammate.
He's not back to his explosive self by any means, but he clearly has vision and strength. He was in on more snaps than before (47) and seems to be running routes as well. He caught one pass, but he does tend to be open short when playing in the pass game.
Toby Gerhart was not notable either for poor or excellent play. He was in on 25 snaps, and was an effective runner and pass blocker. He picks up blitzes well, and is an asset as a route-runner, too. He's still not effective laterally and didn't make much of an impact in the game. His 3.0 yards per carry is deceiving, as this marks the second consecutive game that Gerhart happened to have inexplicably worse blocking on his runs than Peterson's.
Jerome Felton was missed when he left, and had a marked impact as a run blocker. He made great plays in the first quarter with 13:50 (as a pass blocker), 10:08 and 9:30 (as a run blocker) remaining.
He wasn't perfect, like last time, and did whiff on one run block, but he was overall solid. The Vikings did much better with him on the field, regardless of whether or not Toby was running the ball or Adrian.
It's pretty safe to say that the Vikings are in a scheme designed around their talents, but still suffer from major execution errors. Ponder is doing what is asked of him, although he's not asked to do much. You only get credit for the plays you make, but it would still be nice to see how Ponder performs in an expanded offense.
Without receivers getting open, defenses will do a better job shutting down the run game or Ponder, and without a sustained push by the offensive line, this will be successful. The offense is missing talent at wide receiver and consistency with the line. Improvements in either will help Ponder along, but only if he has better field awareness. There's a lot to work on with this team, but it is also a team that clearly has talent and potential.
Offensive MVP: Percy Harvin (again)
Unseen Offensive Player of the Game: Matt Kalil
Offensive Rookie of the Game: N/A
Offensive Honorable Mention: Christian Ponder