Now that the dust has settled, and our focus is beginning to turn towards London and our matchup against another 0-3 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, I thought it would be a good idea to take a step back and re-evaluate where things stand. While this season is almost surely destined for a mediocre finish, and the playoffs are all but lost, there are a few things that could bode well for the future (either immediately or next season).
First, let’s look at the offense. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with the QB or RB position, so let’s look at the other pieces. Our offensive line is ranked 21st in the league in "Adjusted Line Yards" for run blocking by Football Outsiders, which is to say…not very good. We’re even worse in pass blocking, ranked 27th. On an individual level Pro Football Focus ranked 4 out of 5 of the lineman near 0 or worse on their floating grading scale. And you’ll never guess who has the highest rating: OG Brandon Fusco, who’s the only lineman graded in the green through the first three weeks of the year. Charlie Johnson is the only member graded truly bad with a negative red rating. After being a Top 10 unit last season, they have regressed big time.
An extension of the offensive line; our tight ends and fullbacks have also not fared very well. Admittedly, this group is without Pro Bowler Jerome Felton, but never-the-less all tight ends and fullbacks on the Vikings, with the exception of Rhett Ellison (who has a small sample size and limited snaps) have a bad rating from Pro Football Focus, graded in the red.
The one bright spot on offense is maybe the most surprising: wide receiver. Football Outsiders ranks both Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings in the Top 50 of all NFL Wide Receivers in their Defense Yards Above Replacement metric, which is not awesome, but not bad either. Pro Football Focus likes their performance even better though, as they both graded in the "green" with Simpson’s grade ranked 22nd overall. Both players could improve upon their blocking but they are having a positive impact in the passing game. With the dumpster fire that our wide receiver corp was in at the end of last season, this is excellent news! Cordarrelle Patterson is also rated in the green, although his small sample size and limited snaps should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, there’s a lot to like about the receivers this year and going forward.
Overall, the Vikings offense is ranked by Football Outsiders 25th in their Offensive Value Over Average metric, and Pro Football Focus ranked the offense 19th overall with a slight negative rating. In short, our offense is not performing as well relative to the rest of the NFL so far this season. We have given up a LOT of turnovers (both interceptions and fumbles), allowed too many sacks and are still having trouble sustaining drives. Never-the-less, we’re 7th overall in Points per Game and there are some encouraging signs that things are a little different compared to last year:
20+ yard pass plays are being attempted at almost double the rate from last year
Passing Yards Per Game are up from 183.4 to 230.3
Yards per Attempt are up from 6.1 to 6.9
Rushing Attempts Per Game are up from 21.8 to 23
RB Receiving Yards Per Game are up from 13.6 to 17.3
So, if the offensive line can shore up their blocking, and Ponder and Peterson can stop turning the ball over, this offense could turn itself around later in the year. There are glimpses of improvement, but they are not there yet.
It was often said that Week 1 was lost in the trenches. And that storyline can pretty much be extended to Week 2 and Week 3. The defensive line is struggling, and the presence of Kevin Williams did not do much to shore it up. Football Outsiders ranks the defensive line 25th overall in Adjusted Line Yards allowed, and 25th overall in adjusted sack rate. This is terrible. There is not a single defensive tackle on the Vikings that has garnered a positive grade from Pro Football Focus through the first 3 weeks. In fact, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans are ranked near the bottom of the league in overall ranking (59th and 61st out of 66 respectively). Shariff Floyd is the highest rated tackle with a neutral 0.0 rating. That said, both Brian Robison and Jared Allen have positive "green" ratings from Pro Football Focus, and they have been generating a little bit of pressure over the first three games with 2 sacks, 6 quarterback hits and 21 quarterback hurries between the two of them. But we simply need better play from our defensive tackles. The defensive line has not been able to contain opposing team's running backs at the point of attack (allowing 114 rushing yards per game, 21st best).
Of all the linebackers on the team Pro Football Focus has graded, only one has a "green" rating through the first three weeks: Desmond Bishop, and he’s had the lowest snap count by far (so take it with a grain of salt). Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell have been abysmal, with all three starters graded negatively and in the red. The one bright spot is Erin Henderson’s ability in coverage, where he has garnered a slight positive grade, and is allowing a QB rating of 20.1 when thrown to, and only 47% of passes thrown his direction are completed. This is obscenely low and tops in the league in both stats. His run defense grade however is nearly league worst (44th out of 48). Chad Greenway has no bright spots, and he is the worst graded 4-3 OLB by Pro Football Focus overall as well as in pass rushing. This includes being compared to every single 4-3 OLB that has played at least 1 snap (folks, that is terribad). Marvin Mitchell is about average in coverage, but has been similarly terrible in run defense and pass rushing. It remains to be seen if the problems of the linebackers can be traced to the defensive-line not fulfilling their end of the deal, but either way, it isn’t pretty. It would appear that the Erin Henderson experiment at MLB so far, isn’t working.
Quick, take a guess who Pro Football graded most highly among all Minnesota cornerbacks. Did you guess Marcus Sherels? Because his 66 snaps last week against the Browns earned him a green grade and the highest overall rating of any Vikings CB. Take it with a grain of salt though, as it was only one game, and it was the Browns. Rookie Xavier Rhodes is having an excellent year, with another positive green grade through the first three weeks, going up against some of the league’s best in Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. Chris Cook is having an ok year, aside from failing to stay on the field. His slightly positive rating is being overshadowed by his negative red rating in run defense though. Pro Football Focus does not like Josh Robinson’s performance as he finds himself in the red. With Chris Cook nursing a pulled groin (again), it remains to be seen who will see the field more between AJ Jefferson (who struggled on Sunday) or Marcus Sherels. But this is an up and down unit that hasn’t been terribly reliable. The only other bright spot in the secondary is Harrison Smith, who also got a green grade (Sanford was in the red). The future of this secondary has some pieces to build around in Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, but they will need to reload in the next couple of off-seasons to fill it out.
Overall, Football Outsiders rates the defense 19th overall in their Defense Value Over Average metric with a slightly positive score. This is likely because of the large number of turnovers they have generated, and not because of their 3rd worst Points Allowed statistic. Football Outsiders also ranks their pass defense 14th overall and their run defense 23rd overall. This defense has regressed from last season on the whole, but the secondary is beginning to take some strides forward. If we can shore up the run defense, and generate even more pressure, this defense could make major strides. Unfortunately, the team pretty much ignored upgrading the linebacker and nose tackle positions in the off-season, and our run defense is paying the price.
There’s not a lot to say about Special Teams. Blair Walsh hasn’t missed a kick yet, and is the #6 ranked kicker by Pro Football Focus overall. He and Cordarrelle Patterson are the two bright spots on Special Teams (Patterson is the #3 ranked kick returner by Pro Football Focus). Jeff Locke has a Top 11 punting average, but is still graded in the red overall by Pro Football Focus, mainly because his maximum hang time is not great and the percentage of kicks returned is also high. Therefore his net yards metric is also pretty high relative to the rest of the league (which is a bad thing). Football Outsiders is also down on the Vikings Special Teams, ranking them 21st in the league in Defense Value Over Average. Football Outsiders projects the Special Teams ranking to slip even further by Season’s end, unfortunately. So, while we have an excellent kicker and returner, the rest of the Special Teams leaves a lot to be desired…too bad we spent that 5th rounder on a punter, huh?
So, the team is at 0-3, and 0-2 in the division. There are a few things to like about this team, but a lot to be upset about. We’ve been playing the blame game around here for the past few days, and it sure is fun. But, it’s healthy to take a step back and review just what we’ve got as a team. If things keep going the way they have been going, it will be difficult for this team to win on Sundays (or Thursdays, or Mondays). But there are plenty of positive things that are happening, and there are some solid pieces in place to continue to build around for the future.