The Vikings are 6-2 at the mid-way point of the season, and while there was really only one bona fide stinker- opening week at SF in prime time- there have been other less-than-impressive performances in subsequent weeks. Fortunately the results of those sub-par performances have been wins, and better an ugly win (the last four) than an somewhat encouraging loss (at Denver). But let's take a moment to assess the season so far:
The Defense, for the most part. The Vikings defense is tied with Seattle for second in fewest points allowed after 8 games, and only one point more than Denver. That's pretty good company, as those are damn good defensive units. Ours is pretty damn good too. The defense ranks in the top few on 3rd downs, in the red zone and in points per game allowed with only 17.5, and have never allowed more than 23. Zimmer has also made some good half-time adjustments in a few games that proved to be key in stopping opponents in the second half.
The stand-outs on defense, according to PFF stats, include Linval Joseph (93.8/100, 2nd best in league), Harrison Smith (93.7, 2nd best), Anthony Barr (90.9, 3rd best), and Captain Munnerlyn (86.9, 7th best). More than the individual performances, however, has been the ability of the defense to work as a unit to get the job done. There have been relatively few mis-tackles- a product of good coaching. There have been several games that depended heavily on the defense getting off the field and keeping it close- allowing the offense to score just enough to get the win, or holding off the opponent late in the game to preserve the win.
Special Teams, for the most part. Special teams have been a big net positive for the Vikings this year, whether helping to win the field position battle, coming up with a clutch return, or kicking the game winning field goal- the Vikings unit has done what they are supposed to, and with few mistakes. It's probably one of those things that you don't appreciate as much until you don't have it, but the solid play on special teams has been a hidden asset so far this season. Blair Walsh has been clutch in kicking the game winners the past two games, and has made 15 straight since his last miss week four at Denver. Marcus Sherels has also been solid at PR so far this year, with a big TD punt return at Chicago, and another nice return against the Rams in OT to help the Vikings get in field goal position to win the game.
The Emergence of Stefon Diggs. Diggs has been a big part of the offense ever since he started against Denver, and was key in the wins over KC, Detroit and the Bears. Diggs' 87 overall PFF rating (tied for 9th best with Odell Beckham), and 461 receiving yards in 5 games make him the Vikings top receiver in the first half, despite being inactive for 3 games. The second half will hopefully yield even better results.
Veteran Free-Agent Turn-Around. Linval Joseph, Captain Munnerlyn, and Mike Harris were anything but spectacular last season. They are now tops or near top in the position group on the team. Joseph is making a serious push for All-Pro, while Captain Munnerlyn has stepped-up considerably since playing exclusively in the slot, and Mike Harris has done very well in his move to guard, bettering his line-mate Fusco, who hasn't done as well in his move to the left side.
Teddy Bridgewater in the Fourth Quarter. While Teddy has struggled with accuracy the first part of games often, he continues to come up big in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. I think he benefits from the adrenaline and intensity of playing with the game on the line, and it seems to influence his mechanics (he steps into throws more often) and velocity getting the ball to receivers, and also the quickness of his reads and progression.
Being Tied for First Place in the Division. No arguing with success. 6-2 and tied for first with the Packers, and currently the 5th seed in the playoff race is a good place to be at the mid-way point, all things considered. Current power rankings have the Vikings in the 7th-8th range, which is good too.
The Vikings opponents, with the exception of Denver. All of the Vikings victories (with the possible exception of the Rams), and one of their defeats have come against teams that are pretty much out of playoff contention and looking already to next year. The first half of the Vikings' schedule didn't look so soft at the beginning of the year, but with the collapse of the Lions, and both Kansas City and the Chargers disappointing from the get go, the only real playoff contender the Vikings have faced so far is Denver.
Now, many people may say the Vikings didn't determine their schedule, which is true. The issue is not that the Vikings have only played bad teams this year for the most, it's that in most cases they were close games. The Vikings failed to dominate poor teams, either home or away, which although they won all those games except week one at SF, it leaves questions about how strong this Vikings team really is against playoff competition. The loss at Denver may have been encouraging as it was a close game, but the Vikings still need to prove they can beat the big guys. Green Bay in two weeks will be the test.
The Offense, for the most part. In contrast to the defense, the offense is ranked near the bottom in most metrics, with the exception of rushing yards per game. But points per game, yards, passing yards, 3rd down and red zone metrics are all near the bottom of the league. Despite having a much better QB in Teddy Bridgewater, and better receivers in Wallace, Johnson, and now Diggs, the Vikings pass offense shows little difference in pass yards per game than in 2013, when Ponder and Cassel were at the helm. The Vikings have averaged 210 yards per game passing so far this year, while in their 2013 season average was 214. Not good.
While Joe Berger, Mike Harris and Matt Kalil have proven a pleasant surprise in the reconstituted offensive line, TJ Clemmings and Brandon Fusco have disappointed so far with PFF stats below 50 for the season. But while the offensive line has struggled, especially earlier in the season, it has improved in more recent games. And yet the passing game has not. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Vikings so far this year. The reasons for the poor passing game comes down to a few key components:
The Development of Teddy Bridgewater. While Teddy does well in many areas, and in many aspects of his game, I haven't noticed much improvement as the season has progressed so far. There seems to be a disconnect between Bridgewater and Mike Wallace, which has resulted in in-completions that could have been big or key plays in a drive. A couple have been drops by Wallace, but most have been poor throws by Bridgewater, particularly on longer passes where he tends to over throw Wallace. I'd estimate the misfires to Wallace have lost about 50 yards a game in passing yards, and roughly 2-3 points a game in lost points. Both of those are significant. There are a few other things as well that I was hoping for more improvement, such as getting the ball out quicker, reads and audibles at the line, and in general just better consistency in his mechanics and accuracy in his throws.
The Lack of Production from the Tight End Position. I'm looking at Kyle Rudolph. His 175 yards receiving and 8 yards per catch have been a non-factor so far this year (ranking him 28th and 67th respectively among league TEs), and his 3 TD receptions were more the result of a good play call rather than particularly good execution on his part. Rudolph just doesn't have the speed or quickness to get separation. In a system that can really give a TE the chance to shine, Rudolph has been a burnt out bulb.
Offensive Line. Both run- and pass-blocking have improved somewhat as the season has progressed, but starting from a low-level. Clearly the injuries hurt initially, especially the loss of John Sullivan- not so much for the drop in blocking (Berger has done fine), but for his leadership and experience calling protections. But Loadholt has also been missed, as Clemmings has struggled since filling in for Big Phil.
Red-Zone Offense. While it improved slightly against the Rams, Overall red-zone offense for the Vikings has been disappointing. Too many times the Vikings have settled for field-goals, when TDs were very much in reach. At about 41% TD efficiency, the Vikings offense ranks 30th in the league in the red zone. That stat needs to get above 60%.
The Loss in San Francisco. I don't think there is much else need be said about the opening week man-handling the Vikings received courtesy of the now 3-6 49ers, other than it was a poor showing from beginning to end. It may have served as something of a wake-up call, but it certainly was a game the Vikings will wish they had back, especially as things get tight toward the end of the season.
The wins, for the most part. Sure, an ugly win is always better than a loss, whatever the variety, but most of the wins over mediocre teams were not dominant, and while the fight the team showed in pulling out the victories was promising, the fact that the Vikings have struggled and just barely got the win against the bottom of the barrel leaves questions about how they will fare against the cream of the crop.
The next five weeks. At a much improved (4-4) Oakland team, home against the (6-2) Packers, at the (6-3) Falcons, home against the (4-4) Seahawks, and at the (6-2) Cardinals is a brutal stretch, no doubt about it. All of them are potential playoff teams, and all of them are currently in the top 10 in power rankings, except Seattle. This stretch will define the season for the Vikings. If the Vikings can go 3-2 or better, they've got a good chance at the post-season.
Okay, that was the easy part- outlining the good, the bad, and the ugly in the season so far. The more difficult task is how to get to elite from here. Here's my take.
GETTING TO ELITE FROM HERE
The first thing to mention, which is very encouraging, is that this team can become elite. The Vikings currently have all the players and coaches they need to be an elite team in the NFL. Rebuilding is officially over. We don't have All-Pros at every position, we've got injuries, and players that disappoint, etc., but so too is the case with every team in this league. We have a top rated defense that isn't a fluke. Looking at the current line-up on defense, the only weak spots I would include right now is strong safety, and when/where ever Chad Greenway is playing. We have elite players at every level of defense (Joseph, Barr, Smith), corners that can cover, quality and depth up-front, and rangy, sure-tackling linebackers. And our defensive play-caller (Zimmer) knows what he's doing.
Special teams is also not a problem, nor is the running game, for the most part.
That leaves the passing game, which is among the worst in the league. This is where the Vikings must improve. We have a quarterback that has everything he needs to do the job well. We have solid, even explosive receivers. We don't have a good tight-end. At least not yet. And we have an offensive line that is improving, but still a work in-progress.
Improving the passing game
Clearly there are a couple of things that need to (continue to) be worked on in practice in order to improve the passing game. First, Teddy needs to work on his downfield accuracy- doing a better job stepping into those throws- and working on his chemistry with Mike Wallace. Wallace gets open on occasion downfield, but too often the throw is either not made, or is inaccurate. Connecting on what have been mostly over-throws in the past will make a big difference.
Part two of improving the passing game is to give Mycole Pruitt more of a role at TE, particularly on longer routes. I'm not saying this is the be-all, end-all, but Pruitt has got decent speed for a TE, which Rudolph does not. In particular, I'd like to see Pruitt on the field for a couple of Turner classics- the 288 and Bang-8:
I like this call on 1st-and-10, or other times where a run is in play. It is designed to beat man coverage, but also works against zone. I've shown it here against man coverage, and a 3-4 defense, although it works just as well against a 4-3. What I like about it is from the formation and personnel, the strong-side run must be honored.
The play starts with play-action to Peterson, which should hold the linebackers and SS for a second, and allowing Pruitt to get behind them. Diggs and Wallace breaking inside, along with Teddy looking the safety to those routes, should leave Pruitt alone against a linebacker- a favorable match-up and a potential big gain.
Against zone coverage, Wallace and Diggs across the middle become the primary target, and if all else fails there is Peterson as an outlet. Overall a tough play to defend as nothing is given away initially- running occasionally out of this same formation makes it all the more effective- and Pruitt should be able to gain separation against LBs in coverage, or in the case of zone coverage, either Diggs or Wallace should be open, or Peterson should have a lot of green in front of him for the outlet.
But here's another Turner classic, that can sometimes be effective near the red-zone as well.
Once again, same formation and personnel, which could easily be a power run, especially when used in appropriate down-and-distance, and when used alternatively with power runs- but really is a four-vertical. I've shown it again vs. man coverage, but it can be made to work against zone coverages as well. Once again, with play-action to hold the LBs and SS for a second, then Teddy looking to Wallace and Diggs, hopefully getting the FS to focus/cheat over on those routes, then bang- pass to Pruitt on the fade route. But other possibilities exist as well. If, for example, the SS covers Pruitt, and the FS looks first toward Wallace and Diggs, that leaves Ellison against a LB with a lot of ground to cover- and a nice opportunity for a rumbling, stumbling big gain.
In both plays, I don't mean to discount the threat of either Diggs or Wallace. In both cases if the FS opts to cover the streaking Pruitt, and lets say Diggs beats his man inside, that's a big play, as would be the case if Wallace beat his man over the top.
Just to emphasize the importance of the run- and therefore the need to defend the run, here is a power run diagram, although there are various versions of this same play. Once again, same formation and personnel.
If the LBs and SS don't honor the run, then they'll be out of position or too late to make a play on the best RB in the league, allowing a big gain off from a very simple play.
Improving Red Zone Offense
In Norv's offense, being able to run effectively in the red zone is a key to success. That has been a problem the first half of the year, although that has improved some more recently. Defenses typically play different coverage schemes with a more limited space to defend, which takes away the general idea of an Air Coryell offense - stretch the field. But being able to pass effectively in the red zone, despite the short field and typically variations of a cover 4 defense, is key to improving red zone efficiency- and also make the run more effective there too. Here is a great cover 4 beater in the red zone:
In this play, I have the DBs each covering a quarter-zone in the end zone (cover 4), although sometimes the CBs can play man too, with the ILBs dropping into a hook zone underneath. The primary focus of this play is to get the SS to bite on one of the TE routes (most likely Pruitt), clearing the lane for a strike to Wallace. But there are other options too, depending on coverages and position. If, for example, the CB covering Wallace plays man coverage, Rudolph has the corner option to what should be an easy TD reception. Also, depending on which way the FS goes- either picking up Pruitt or falling back to help cover Diggs, the other should be open at some point, even with the LBs dropping into coverage. Lastly, if all else fails, there is AP as an outlet, or if the LBs play man on the TEs, the option of Teddy running it in. Blitzing ILBs should lead to a quick pass to a TE, who needs to power through a safety into the end zone.
Obviously no one play is going to be a silver bullet to make a team unstoppable in the red zone, but in conjunction with Teddy being able to read coverages quicker, this is a type of 'mainstay' red zone play that is always difficult to defend, and leaves many options for success. Running it often in practices against ever-changing coverages and blitzes should help Teddy master getting the ball to the open receiver- as savvy veteran QBs like Brady and Rodgers seem to do with consistency.
Leadership / Message to the Team
Obviously taking a talented, hard-working bunch of players and turning them into an elite team doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it can take a few years. And often it never happens at all. A lot has to happen for everything to fall in place, and even then keeping everything in place in the face of adversity is difficult as well. Zimmer has a good grasp of all this.
When Zimmer was talking about the 'four learns' a couple weeks ago- learning to compete, learning to win, learning to handle success, and learning to be a champion- he knew well what he was talking about. When I think of Mike Zimmer lately, I see kind of a hybrid between Bill Belichick and Norman Dale- the coach played by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. Both Zimmer and Belichick were defensive coordinators under Bill Parcells, and share a lot of similarities as a result. Coming from the defensive side of the ball gives them both a sense of caution and focus on eliminating mistakes that coaches on the offensive side don't have as much. But Zimmer also is more animated and passionate than Belichick- and that's the Norman Dale part of him- who also shares a similar 'focus on the fundamentals and technique' focus that you hear often from Zimmer.
I like all that. Zimmer's focus on fundamentals and technique has led now to the Vikings being one of the least penalized teams in the league, and among the best tackling teams as well. The team is well coached, team chemistry is good, and the talent level is there. They are making progress.
After the debacle in San Francisco, this Vikings team learned what it means to compete- the first of the four learns. After that fairly thorough thrashing, they certainly learned what not competing is, and thereafter changed their ways.
This team has also come a long way in learning how to win. Win at home. Win on the road. Win division games. They have learned how to overcome not-so-great performances and mistakes, fight on and prevail when time expires. They have not learned yet how to beat a good team, nor have they learned how to dominate a weaker team. The defense has learned to impose its will at times, but the offense has really yet to do so. The end results have been victories where the worst team just didn't have enough, rather than the best team truly finishing them off. So, there is still a lot more to learn, but this team has seems to have the fight and determination to make greater strides.
They've also done well so far handling success, such as it is, by not being satisfied, nor seemingly spending much time thinking about it. This is good, because there are no awards to mid-season results. I think the general sense is that they have yet to play their best game, nor have they been particularly close to that level yet. There is, perhaps, more of a sense of things coming together among defensive players, rather than on offense- which comes with the degree of success of each unit, and the consistency of their performance over time.
This team has also not learned the last of the 'four learns' - how to become a champion- that course doesn't begin until January, and finishes in February- and there is no credit for incompletes.
But from where this team is now, working on how to win and handle success, they could use more confidence. Confidence comes mostly from doing, and achieving success, but can also be aided and strengthened by a more positive message.
By that I mean that while there is nothing wrong with a 'a focus on fundamentals, just doing your assignment, and eliminating mistakes' type message, but it can result in some tentative play at times, and doesn't always motivate. That shows up on the field in lackluster play at times, even against lesser competition. A more positive message at this point may help build more confidence and reduce the lackluster play:
'Trust in your technique, being fundamentally sound, doing your assignment- It will lead to making plays, and allow you to take advantage of your opponents mistakes. Doing so consistently will allow you to gain dominance, impose your will, and wear your opponent down. There is no team more talented, no team smarter, no team tougher or more physical than you are. No team works harder. But you have to want it more than they do, and be more disciplined than they are, if you want to come out on top on game day. We have everything it takes to beat any team- home or away, inside or outside, prime time or not, winning record or not, division or not. We can score on any defense, and we can stop any offense. But it all starts with trusting in what we've learned, and practiced, and putting it out there on the field each and every play.'
Something like that.
Sometimes Zimmer can be a little more focused on the 'not making mistakes' aspect, which is a similar but negative message. Good teams often play worse if they focus on 'not making mistakes.' Good teams play better when they focus on making plays. Both require sound technique and fundamentals, doing your assignment. But one is inspired by confidence, the other lacks it.
The Vikings need that added confidence to not only reduce the tentative and lackluster play at times, but also fuel their ability to make plays. Both will be necessary for the Vikings to prevail against the tougher opponents on tap over the next five weeks- and to make the jump to the next level- and join the elite team conversation.