Coming into last week's game, the Vikings were literally the least penalized team in the league. In other words, this was a fundamentally sound offense that averaged only 5.6 penalties for 52.3 yards per game. The Vikings defense was not quite so disciplined though, ranking only 14th overall in total penalties and 11th in penalty yards, but averaged 7 penalties per game for 56.1 yards per game. Still, they were in the top half of the league and better than the average NFL defense in terms of penalties. The Vikings maintained a +1 turnover margin heading into the game as well. In my opinion penalties and turnovers are a symptom of a lack of focus and discipline. Things like jumping off-sides, false-starts, roughing the passer, fumbling the ball...these are all lapses of judgment and focus that stem from heightened emotion that for the most part, the Vikings have avoided, especially at key moments in their first 9 games. Case in point, the Vikings defense was 5th best at stopping teams on 3rd down allowing only 33% conversion rate on average. Similarly, the Vikings offense had only lost 4 fumbles on the year, tied for 7th best in the league.
But last week, with the Vikings beating the Raiders and moving into sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time in many, many years, the hype machine began to take over. I believe this amped up atmosphere took away the mental focus of a young Vikings team, that on average, was the 7th youngest team in the NFL. To see the Vikings give up penalties at the worst moments in the game leads me to believe that they simply lacked mental focus. It was uncharacteristic to see so many awful mistakes at key moments of the game. For example:
1. First play of the game, Kalil is flagged for holding and backs up the team to 1st and 20. So much for the advantage of getting the ball first. We moved the ball a little on this drive, but ultimately ended up punting.
2. Green Bay's first possession, a critical 3rd and 5, Rodgers finds James Jones for a nice 25-yard gain to move the chains. But then their offense stalls out and they are forced to go for it on 4th and 1, backed up just out of field goal range. What happens? Barr gets flagged for off-sides and keeps their drive alive. They settle for a field goal.
Those first two possessions were a microcosm of the entire rest of the game. Mike Wobschall tweeted this stat out this morning:
How impactful were negative plays + penalties yesterday? On 11 of 28 (39.3%) 1st half snaps, #Vikings offense had to-go distance of 11+ yds.— Mike Wobschall (@wobby) November 23, 2015
In other words, with the penalties and lack of execution on offense, we were playing on a long field all afternoon. Meanwhile, the Packers were given second chance after second chance thanks to our defensive collapses. The Barr penalty on their 1st possession lead to 3 points, but it wasn't the only one. For me the turning point of the game came at the end of the 2nd quarter with the score 9-6.
At that point in the game, the Vikings had the Packers backed way up on their own 15 yard line with a 3rd and 15. What happens? Rodgers launches it deep and Newman gets flagged for pass interference. If you're Newman, a 14-year vet, you know the game situation...a pass interference penalty is flat-out unacceptable, and as pointed out above, totally uncharacteristic. What normally would have been a punt from the Packers, with the Vikings given an opportunity to score before the half, turned into a Green Bay advantage of 16-6. In the first half alone, Viking penalties at key moments kept Packer drives alive and eventually lead to 10 points. The Packers weren't even that efficient on 3rd down on the whole yesterday. They were only 6 of 16 for a 38% conversion rate, but it was at those key moments where the Vikings defense broke down and gave the Packers offense 2nd chance after 2nd chance. Rodgers completed less than 50% of his passes, had a mediocre passer rating with a yards per attempt number that was significantly lower than Teddy Bridgewater. In other words, anyone thinking the "Pack is back" needs to think again. If not for all those 2nd chances on dumb Viking penalties and mistakes on their part, this could have been a very different outcome. Rodgers is still out of sync with his receivers and if they want to be successful going forward, that will need to be addressed.
At first glance I agreed that the Packers defense appeared to shut-down the Vikings offense, especially their run defense. But the Packers run defense hasn't been great to this point in the year. They are essentially just like the Vikings: tied for 21st in yards per carry and ranked 22nd in yards per game. They should have been beat-able on the ground, and had been for the first 10 weeks of the year. But thanks to penalties on offense, we were setup in down and distances that were unmanageable and not conducive to running the ball. Case in point, Peterson was averaging 29 rushing attempts per game through the first 9 games, 5th most in the league. But yesterday they ran the ball only 18 times! The Vikings offense threw the ball 38 times, 19 more than their per-game average, because they had to. Remember the 1st possession where Kalil was called for holding? That wasn't the only one, and as Wobschall pointed out above, the Vikings offense shot themselves in the foot so much they couldn't commit to the run game. I don't credit the Green Bay defense for "stopping the run" so much as I credit our offense with a complete implosion. Peterson's fumble was the only turnover of the game, again a self-implosion. It was the most uncharacteristic performance I have seen all year, and as mentioned above I believe it was due to heightened emotions of a big divisional game that derailed the Vikings usual business-like composure. They are a young team whose vets haven't even experienced a lot of winning before. They still need to learn how to handle success.
I do have to give credit to two things that the Packers did well: run the ball and pass rush. Eddie Lacy had a field day against our sub-standard run defense. The Vikings defense is credited with being quite good this year, but there is one area where they struggle: stopping the run consistently. Prior to yesterday the Vikings had held 4 teams under 80 rushing yards this year, but then allowed three other teams to gain 90 or more yards. Our run defense was tied for 21st in yards per carry allowed and 17th in rushing yards per game allowing an average of 4.3 yards per carry and 110 rushing yards per game. In other words, the Vikings run defense is beatable. And give credit to the Packers, because they were committed to the running game, handing the ball off an astounding 31 times (and rushed the ball 8 times more than their per-game average). But this is a complete change for the Packers who up to that point had a running back top 100 rushing yards only once in a game all year. Zimmer's remarks at halftime: "it's pretty simple what we have to do: stop the run" made it all the more clear. Maybe it was Eddie Lacy finally getting healthy, or maybe it was a change in offensive philosophy, but the Packers run game flat-out beat the Vikings run defense. If the Vikings defense wants to be taken seriously, they will need to figure out how to stop the run. It looked to me like our D-line over-pursued against a weakened Packers o-line which gave Lacy all kinds of creases and running lanes that our linebackers were not able to fill. And once the 230 pound running back got past our linebackers and into the secondary, our DBs had a tough time bringing him down. He didn't really have a field day (his longest run of the day was only 27 yards), but he consistently got to the 2nd level of our defense where we struggled to tackle him. I saw Lacy drag defenders on his back for 5+ yards every other attempt it seemed.
The second area the Packers excelled was in their pass rush, and I have to give them some credit here. The Packers dialed up a lot of blitzes and totally overwhelmed our depleted offensive line. Teddy faced pressure on the vast majority of his drop-backs and the Packers sacked him 6 times. While Teddy's passer rating and yards per attempt all look fantastic: 100.7 and 8.0, his Adjusted Net Yards per attempt which include lost sack yardage lowers that 8.0 number significantly to 7.2. When the o-line got beat and Teddy faced a sack, his athleticism (which usually gets him out of trouble to avoid the sack) actually hurt him as he lost an insane amount of yardage. Teddy actually played really well despite all the lack of execution around him. Not having John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt, and having Matt Kalil at only 75% made a big impact.
It was a tough game to watch as so many of the issues (lack of execution, not fundamentally sound, mental lapses) that have plagued this team for the past 5 years suddenly reared their ugly head. After a 5-game win streak I thought maybe we finally had a fundamentally sound, disciplined football team that had figured out how to go out there week in and week out and execute to win games. But yesterday that simply wasn't the case. As a fan it's frustrating to see this kind of stuff, especially against a very beatable Green Bay team. When I look back at how Zimmer handled this week, he had T-shirts printed up that said "Beat the Pack." In hindsight, all that does is place more importance on this game than other games. It turns the game into something more and adds pressure to the situation. Even us fans were amped up for the game like it was the Super Bowl or something. I've not seen the Daily Norseman as active at any point this year. But maybe what this team really needed was a dose of "just another game". They should have instead chosen to take the attitude that, every game is important and the Packers are no different than the Raiders. Just practice, prepare and execute regardless of opponent. When you choose to make the game more important and raise your emotions it can lead to lapses in judgment and focus, and that leads to exactly the kind of thing we saw on the field: penalties, turnovers and lack of execution.
Give credit to the Packers for winning the game and taking advantage of our miscues, but this Vikings team is much better than they showed yesterday. The Packers showed many of the same symptoms that plagued them throughout their 3-game losing streak, and again, had it not been for so many self-inflicted wounds, this was definitely a game that the Vikings could have won. And that's what makes it so hard to accept.