I'm not freakin out about the loss to Detroit. Disappointed, but not calling for Ponder's head, or Musgrave's. My first reaction was how poorly we played in the trenches. And linebacker play was poor as well. That's primarily why we lost.
A quick statistical comparison among QBs when under pressure yesterday, and their QB rating:
Colin Kaepernick: 50.3
Christian Ponder: 46.2
Aaron Rodgers: 26.7
The problem for the Vikings was that Ponder was under pressure 50% of his drop-backs. Kaepernick was under pressure only 25% of the time, and Rodgers just over a third of the time. And we like to think we have a better offensive line than the Packers. Not yesterday. And did you notice how long Kaepernick had to pass? Any longer and I think they would have had to go to commercial break before the play was over. No wonder he threw for 400+ yards.
I'm looking at the other PFF numbers that just came out. Charlie Johnson was the highest rated offensive linemen. Kalil and Fusco (-3.0 & -2.8 respectively) were by far the worst. On defense, Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson were easily the worst rated- -3.2 & -4.3 respectively. Both played the whole game, and I'm guessing part of the reason behind the poor performance was because they were gassed. Given the number of plays on offense, that can't be the excuse for the offensive line. And Kalil was playing against some warm body most of the game, not a quality player. Anyway, there it is. And BTW, Locke sucked too. -4.3.
Overall the offense was rated -11.5 (Ponder contributed -1.8 of that total FYI).
Overall the defense was rated -4.9. -9.5 for run defense, +4.2 for pass rush, -1.0 pass coverage, +1.4 penalties.
So much for the Week 1 results.
The big action items that spring forth here are 1) Linebacker problem needs to be addressed; and 2) offensive line, particularly pass blocking, needs to be addressed. I think the defensive line short-comings were not as bad as it seemed initially and should be improved next week with Kevin Williams back in the line-up, so that's my only recommendation there.
But let's look at the linebacker group. Obviously Chad Greenway's poor performance is disconcerting in the same way Kalil's performance was. Both are usually good players, and neither have good replacements. Henderson is another issue. In any case, let me start by saying that I think the linebackers were gassed. Greenway and Henderson played the whole game, and unlike the DL, were not in rotation. And unlike the DBs that played the whole game, I don't think they are conditioned well enough to handle it. Detroit's game plan focused on the perceived weak link on defense- the LB group- which is something I expected to be the case throughout the year. The screens, runs and dumps to RBs coming out of the backfield put the onus on the LBs to fill or make the play, and both Henderson and Greenway came up short.
Additionally, this was Henderson's first game calling the defense. One wonders how much of an effect that had on the defensive performance. In any case, there are guys that could step-up - players like Mauti and Hodges- and take some reps. Or compete for starting positions. In Mauti's case, the starting position. In Hodges' case, reps- particularly in nickel situations.
As far as the offense goes, the focus needs to be on fixing Kalil. What's going on there? He played mostly against a 2nd or 3rd string DE - a warm body- and had a horrible game. Leslie Frazier said there were technique issues with Kalil, which led to the poor performance. Jeff Davidson & Co. need to help him get that fixed in a hurry.
Fusco, on the other hand, was going up against Suh most of the day, so a much tougher match-up. But that's no excuse. There needs to be competition there. Whether that's Baca, or the Vikings bring in a Fernando Velasco, something needs to be done there. Hopefully Fusco will improve- their were reports he had a good camp- but competition is good and Fusco is not the most talented in the group.
But beyond individual player performance and competition, I'm thinking about schemes. Both offensive and defensive. It both cases, I think the Vikings have become too stale and predictable. Sometimes I think that comes from limitations based on personnel. But other times it comes from coaches not doing enough, or adapting enough, to take advantage of personnel. It's early, but here's my thoughts:
On Defensive Scheme:
Starting the year, Alan Williams had to feel good about the defensive line. LBs and DBs were more questionable, particularly the LBs- although at least there were vets in place at the starting positions.
But starting the regular season, things are beginning to shake out. Defensive line, once Kevin Williams is back, should be strong, with solid players in rotation at every position.
Defensive backs, despite the loss of Winfield, holding their own- and should improve with experience.
But the linebackers are not looking good. Detroit game-planned to take advantage of the perceived weakness there- and it worked. It should tell you something that they focused on the linebacker group. And that the LBs were unable to stop it.
Williams used the nickel package extensively against Detroit- 75% of the time- given the Lions formations, taking Mitchell out and adding a CB. That made perfect sense. And yet it wasn't enough. In fact, it was what they were expecting. I don't blame Alan Williams here, this game. I think there were some definite surprises in player performance. But I do know the Chicago Bears will be game planning this week with this game tape at their disposal. And the Bears are a very similar team on offense as the Lions. They have Matt Forte to the Lions' Reggie Bush. They have Brandon Marshall to the Lions' Calvin Johnson. They have a lot of new faces on the offensive line- just like Detroit. And, like Detroit, they have a strong armed but sometime erratic QB. They also have a new coach installing a West Coast offense. You better believe they will test the same weaknesses they saw in the Vikings against Detroit. Guaranteed.
So what should Williams do? The short answer is to become less predictable, more aggressive, and limit the match-up problems for your LBs. That means adapting your scheme to fit your players better, and the team you're playing.
Williams needs to go with more man/press coverage on the outside. He did that some against Detroit- and it was largely successful. But he also needs a better match-up against a speedy back out of the backfield- either running, screens, or the dink- and dump game. Answer: Harrison Smith mirroring Matt Forte. Wherever Forte goes, Smith goes. That should go a long way to helping shut Forte down, and taking away the short- to intermediate passing game. In longer down & distance situations, blitzing Desmond Bishop from the weak-side should also help pressure Cutler and force him into bad decisions. All together, this should shut down the Bears offense much more effectively than was the case against Detroit.
On Offensive Scheme:
Leslie Frazier was asked some questions on offense regarding scheme- were they too conservative, did they limit the offense because of Ponder, did they think they should pass more on first and second down. Frazier basically said no to all those questions, and I think accurately so for the most part- with the exception of too many first down runs between the tackles- which has become too much of a tendency.
In any case, establishing the run and running the offense through AP has become stale and predictable. At our best, it still works because we have the best back and solid players blocking for him. But every team playing against the MVP will game-plan to stop or limit that player's impact on the game. So having to fight against a game plan is harder than countering it. It is also a disservice to the rest of the newly acquired talent on offense to run the offense through only one player. The Vikings need to get the ball to the play-makers on offense, not just AP. They need to be different. They need to be fresh. They need to break away from tendencies. Here are some observations:
I don't know if the power wishbone formation we saw yesterday was more pre-planned, or more need-based because of poor offensive line performance ( I suspect more of the latter), but I'm not sure that is the best formation for either run or pass. As a run formation, it creates too much traffic for AP to run effectively. He likes to bounce around as need be and the extra traffic from that formation limits that ability and effectively contains him, rather than create space. As a passing formation, most of the time I think it limits the number of receivers and I think makes coverage easier for the safeties. The only exception would be a short yardage situation - 2nd or 3rd and 1 or red zone where you could use it with play-action effectively to disguise a down field passing attempt.
I think spread formations are a much better way to utilize the Vikings offensive talent. Having Jennings, Simpson, Wright and Patterson on the field at the same time is gonna create match-up issues for any secondary in the league. You could also go with a big spread formation with Simpson, Rudolph, Webb and Patterson that also is guaranteed to create match-up advantages. Keeping AP in the backfield in a 4-wide set completes the formation which creates the most problems for any defense to handle. Play-action to AP, who stays to block, then a quick out or slant- or a shot down the field. It's all good. But you gotta have blocking.
You could run the whole offense out of that formation with a solid offensive line. With AP in the backfield, every option is on the table.
In any case, going past offensive formation, I think the Vikings need to use AP as a decoy in establishing the pass. Every team the Vikings face this year is going to focus on not having AP beat them. They will game plan for it. Some teams won't have the personnel to be effective against the run, but every team will focus on having Christian Ponder, not Adrian Peterson, beat them.
So let's do it.
Only it won't really be Ponder that beats them. It will be the receiving corps. Looking at the game against Detroit, Ponder had some off throws that Jerome Simpson was able to haul in. Sometimes he was able to climb the latter over the DB and bring it in. Other times deep down the middle it was either a pass he'd bring in, or it would be an over throw. Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson- even Joe Webb- can make those kind of deep catches too. I think it's selling the talent pool short not to simply throw to those match-ups and let the receiver make the play- or at least prevent an INT on a less than perfectly thrown ball.
We know we have a less than elite QB right now when it comes to throwing the deep ball. But he can do it well enough. The key is to throw to taller and/or faster receivers on post, fade, and corner routes- not the lower routes on the tree like outs, digs, curls and comebacks where a less than perfect throw and/or good coverage is more likely to be intercepted. From a receiver standpoint, the key is getting past press coverage, where it exists and letting them know the ball is coming to you- make a play.
From Ponder's standpoint, he really need focus on a few basics: stay in the pocket, don't underthrow the ball, and don't throw underneath. I think yesterday's game will help his confidence throwing down field to Simpson, and will make it easier to progress to other receivers from there. But he has to make the throws.
In time, the threat of the deep ball will loosen coverage and open up the underneath routes to guys like Jennings and Rudolph. And of course the run game.
But it all starts with throwing the deep ball. Early and often. Creating the threat is just as important as success doing so. It will take every single opponent off their defensive game plan.
In that sense, it would have been more disruptive if the Vikings first play from scrimmage yesterday was a 78 yard TD bomb to Simpson instead of a 78-yard TD run by AP. The former would have screwed up their game plan. The latter only reinforced it.