After I finished crunching all the numbers from the Ultimate Power Ranking last week, the UPR had a regular season projection of 11-5 for the Vikings, based on the talent of every starting roster in the NFL. Some of you scoffed at that prediction, but after witnessing the first week of games I'm sticking to it. I can't deny that the Vikings have a very tough stretch of games ahead of them, in which the UPR predicts them to emerge 2-4 heading into Week 7. But this rough stretch is helped somewhat by the fact that 3 of their next 5 games will be played at home. If they can somehow emerge 4-2 , or even 3-3, they should be able to contend down the stretch for a playoff spot as the rest of their schedule is a cake-walk. Is this me getting too overly excited about a single win? After all, there is still a lot of football yet to be played. Perhaps it is, but there were many encouraging signs about last Sunday's performance that, if the Vikings can sustain this level of play, they could be very dangerous this year. Zimmer and company have whipped this team into shape and they should be competitive all season long. In fact, the signs are so numerous, allow me to explain why the victory over the Rams was not a fluke.
First off, the UPR went 10-6 in predicting the higher ranked team to defeat the lower ranked team for week 1. Not amazingly accurate, but 63% is better than a random guess. And again, the UPR has the Vikings finishing the year 11-5. If the week 1 picks are any indication, this projection is at least more accurate than a random guess. I'll be tracking the season-long accuracy of the UPR's Preseason ranks to see what we might expect in terms of accuracy from that 11-5 prediction. But for now, I'm cautiously optimistic about that 11-5 prediction.
The UPR stuff aside, an even better reason to be excited about this win is how the offense performed. We'll start with the QB position. It was generally accepted that Matt Cassel had a good Preseason. He was the 11th highest graded quarterback (out of 98) by Pro Football Focus in the Preseason, and those high marks continued into Week 1 where he was graded 7th best (out of 33 quarterbacks). While Cassel did not attempt a pass beyond 20 yards against the Rams, he completed over 60% of his passes, threw two TDs, and kept the offense moving down the field when it mattered most. While 170 total passing yards may not seem like an elite amount (and is eerily reminiscent of a 2013 Ponder-outing), Cassel only threw the ball 22 times and had a very good adjusted net yards per attempt rating of 7.69, ranked 10th best last week. Football Outsiders also liked Cassel's performance ranking him 10th best in their DVOA metric. By any objective measure of quarterback skill, Matt Cassel had a good Preseason and a great first week against a strong defense. Over the course of his 9 year career, Matt Cassel has had good performances when he is paired with a strong supporting cast, and an exceptionally good offensive coordinator. And he's got both this year in Minnesota. My expectations are appropriately high for Matt Cassel this season, and with Teddy Bridgewater waiting in the wings to push him along, I think Cassel will maintain his focus week in and week out and lead this team into the Postseason. Too bold a prediction? I think not.
The quarterback is just one piece of the offensive puzzle, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Cordarrelle Patterson and the rest of the offensive weapons. They all had decent Preseason performances that carried through into week 1. While Adrian Peterson had a relatively pedestrian performance by his lofty standards (only 3.6 yards per carry and no touchdowns), he picked up yards when they mattered most generating 3 first downs, broke 5 tackles and generated the 17th most yards after contact. It wasn't a poor outing by any means, especially for a player who sat out all Preseason and was up against the 3rd best rushing defense from 2013 in terms of Football Outsiders DVOA metric. But Cordarrelle Patterson was even better, making the most of his touches and able to generate the most yards from scrimmage of any Vikings player. Oh, and he scored a touchdown to boot. Greg Jennings looked like he was back to his 2010 form, leading all Vikings receivers by catching 6 of 7 targets for 58 yards and a touchdown. Like Cassel above, his opportunities were limited by only having 22 passing attempts, but he generated 4 first downs, again making each opportunity count. Even Kyle Rudolph took advantage in the redzone, securing a touchdown.
While the Minnesota offense overall is ranked a mere 20th in overall yards generated, the more advanced metrics give us reason for optimism. After week 1, the Vikings offense is ranked 11th overall in Football Outsiders DVOA metric, and 2nd overall in Pro Football Focus grading. It would appear that Norv Turner's effect on a Vikings offense that is returning nearly 100% of the starters from last year is proving to be positive. But as good as the offense looked against a pretty good defense last Sunday, the Vikings defense looked even more improved.
The Vikings defense last season was, how shall we say, pathetic. Alan Williams was perhaps the worst defensive coordinator the Vikings have had in recent memory, and they certainly put up at least the 2nd worst performance in franchise history. It wasn't that the team lacked playmakers last year, or lacked talent: it was the scheme and playcalling that blew leads consecutively in the final minutes week after week. Enter defensive guru (and now head coach): Mike Zimmer. His defense completely shut down the Rams, albeit with a 3rd string quarterback for half the game. But still, these stats tell a story of a defensive line that harassed the quarterback, and a secondary that outmatched the opposing receivers.
Everson Griffen: 2 sacks and 3 QB hurries (Jared Allen who?)
Linval Joseph: 1 sack, 2 QB hurries and 3 tackles
Josh Robinson: 1 INT and 3 passes defended (who is this guy?)
Harrison Smith: 1 INT returned for a TD and 2 passes defended, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries and a QB hit
Robert Blanton: 7 tackles, none missed
These guys also generated consistent pressure on the Rams QB with at least one QB hurry and hit:
-Anthony Barr (including a team tying 6 solo tackles)
If you notice there are two backups on that list able to generate both QB hits and hurries. I saw a defensive line that was fresh for all 4 quarters, and Zimmer's rotation scheme appears to be working wonders. No defensive lineman had more than 75% of the total defensive snaps, and outside of Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, no defensive lineman saw more than 64% of the snaps. The heavy rotation, especially at the defensive tackle position, allowed the line to apply consistent pressure on the quarterback for the entire game and generate a total of 5 sacks and 2 interceptions in one game. This is a huge turnaround, especially for a team that averaged only 2.6 sacks and 0.8 interceptions per game last year.
This defense had an exceptionally good performance last week, better than any week in 2013, and possibly better than just about any game I can remember from the last 3 years. While the Vikings were only ranked 10th in total yards allowed, Football Outsiders ranked the Vikings defense 4th overall in their DVOA metric, and Pro Football Focus ranked them 7th overall. Oh, and they were tied for the lead in points allowed. I am excited about this defense, and while there are still some weak links to be sure, Zimmer's scheme does an exceptional job at covering those weak links up and staying aggressive all the way through the 4th quarter.
This 2014 Vikings team appears to be destined for a dramatic turnaround under head coach and defensive guru Mike Zimmer. What I saw on the field with my own eyes got me excited about this team. And what I uncovered in looking at the statistics suggests many reasons for optimism. Sure, the St. Louis Rams are a team that lost their starting quarterback...then their backup quarterback midway through the game. The Rams appear to be pretty close to a team spiraling out of control. But if the Vikings really are a good team this year (and I think they are), they should have curb-stomped a lousy opponent like the Rams. And they did exactly that beating them handily, on the road, 34-6. I can't wait to host Tom Brady and the Patriots this Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium and knock them down to 0-2. The Patriots won't know what hit ‘em.