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Norv Turner's Offense Revisited

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Another look at Norv's offense, what went wrong last year, and the outlook for this season

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About a year ago, I did a FanPost on Norv Turner's offense, and how the Vikings looked to have, or would soon have, all the key elements in place for it to be a good fit and a successful scheme for the Vikings offensive personnel.

In that article, four key elements for Norv's Air Coryell offense were identified as necessary for it to work at its best:

  • A big #1 WR
  • Solid offensive line
  • Solid receiving TE
  • Power running game

And, I would add, a competent QB to put it all together.

The big #1 WR is needed to stretch the field and be the legitimate deep threat in a vertical passing attack; solid offensive line to provide the longer-than-average time needed for longer routes and good run blocking; a solid receiving TE to be able to run all the routes and take advantage of space in the middle provided by longer outside routes; and a power running game to keep defenses honest and provide a balanced attack.

Once again, looking back at Norv's Air Coryell offensive scheme, and the elements he had in place over the years, here is the track record:

Team
Big WR

Power

Run

Game


Solid

Offensive

Line

Solid

TE

Points Per

Game (PPG)

Ranking

2002 Dolphins

X

X
12th
2003 Dolphins

X

X
17th
2004 Raiders
X X

8th
2005 Raiders
X


23rd
2006 49ers

X


24th
2007 Chargers
X
X
X
X
5th
2008 Chargers
X
X
X
X
2nd
2009 Chargers
X
X
X
X
4th
2010 Chargers
X

X
X
2nd
2011 Chargers
X

X
X
5th
2012 Chargers
X


X
20th
2013 Browns
X


X
27th
2014 Vikings




20th

Notice I didn't check any boxes for the Vikings last year.  As I wrote the FanPost last year, all the elements seem to be coming together:

  • power running game - Adrian Peterson
  • solid offensive line-  Loadholt, Fusco, Sullivan, Yankey (I had pencilled in), and a healthy Matt Kalil
  • Big #1 WR - Cordarrelle Patterson (#1 most likely breakout player, right?)
  • solid TE - Kyle Rudolph
  • promising rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater

Well,  s#it happens.  AP was out after only one game, Fusco and Loadholt went down to injury, as did Kyle Rudolph, and Cordarrelle Patterson never materialized, despite the promise, potential and hype.  The only good thing that did happen was that Teddy Bridgewater became the starting QB and looks every bit the franchise QBOTF we had hoped would come along since Fran Tarkenton retired.  All that being the case, I can't really check any of the boxes for the Vikings last year.

And so, with a lot of backups filling in, some better than others, well, things didn't go as planned.

Looking at 2014 offensive performance vs. 2013, there was a significant decline in most major metrics:

  • Average points per game dropped from 15th to 20th in league rankings;
  • Average yards per game dropped from 15th to 26th;
  • Overall PFF rating dropped to -72.3, from a +62.9 in 2013 - a -135 point drop.  Blocking accounted for most of the decline- 108 points worth- as pass blocking went from +14 to -51.5, and run blocking went from +47.1 to +4.
  • Overall, the Vikings offense was ranked dead last in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency by PFF- down from 9th overall in 2013-  and gave up the most sacks of any offensive line in the league.

Needless to say, the offensive line proved, perhaps more than any other position group, to be the weak link for Norv's offense last year.  Looking again at the chart of Norv's offense over the years, it's worth noting that with the exception of the 2004 Raiders, the only times Norv's offense was in the top 10, was when he had a solid offensive line. With that in mind, it may very well be that the offensive line element is the most important element to his offensive scheme.

But there really isn't much value in further break-down of offensive metrics last year- just about everything was down, owing to the dilapidated offensive line, TE, no AP, and a somewhat underwhelming performance from the receiver corps.   Looking back on last year's games, particularly those with Bridgewater starting, it is a wonder the passing game in particular was as good as it was.  Not that Bridgewater didn't do well, in fact he did very well considering how often he was under pressure.  But that's just it- he was under pressure seemingly just about every drop back (2 out of 3 in reality) and that isn't good.

With the offensive line in a shambles, Turner later in the year began altering his scheme to include shorter drops for Bridgewater, in an effort to keep him upright.   Between that, poor pass blocking, and some underwhelming receiver play,  of Bridgewater's total "aimed" (i.e. not including throw-aways, spikes, etc.) pass attempts, 70% were short (under 10 yards), 19% were intermediate (10-20 yards) and 11% were deep (20+ yard) targets.    While you can't say precisely what the optimal mix is for a Norv Turner Air Coryell offense, you could say that a mix closer to 50-50 between short and intermediate/deep would be better to maintain and execute the deep threat necessary to spread the field for the opposing defense.

With all that said, is Norv's offensive scheme still the right / best fit for the Vikings personnel on offense?

Another Look at the Key Elements - 2015 Edition

The short answer is yes.  But with some caveats.  And that doesn't mean it could change, or another offensive scheme may work just as well at some point either.

The main reasons why Norv's version of the Air Coryell offense looks to be a fit this year, is most of the missing elements last year, were missing temporarily due to injury or suspension, and others may be improved for the 2015 campaign.  Let's look at each one in turn.

Power Running Game

Adrian Peterson's return brings that element back, with gusto.  Arguably the best RB in the league, he will draw attention as a legitimate threat from every defense the Vikings face.  Additionally, while FB Jerome Felton is no with the Vikings, it was looking increasingly like Rhett Ellison was doing as good or better job at lead blocking as Felton  last year, and I would not be surprised if he does most of it this year.

Solid TE

Kyle Rudolph was out most of last year due to injury, and he is healthy again this year.  When healthy, Rudolph can run all the routes and make all the catches to be among the top TEs in the league.  That said, Rudolph has an injury history now that raises questions about his durability.  Drafting a guy like Mycole Pruitt, while he may not be everything Rudolph is, may help lessen the drop-off in production if Rudolph should once again go down.  But with Rudolph back, and healthy- and also reportedly doing some things to better his durability, this element is back too.

Big #1 WR

Even with Cordarrelle Patterson a question mark, the Vikings receiver corps is looking a better fit for Norv's offense than it was this time last year.  Two reasons:  Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson.

Effectively replacing Greg Jennings with Mike Wallace this off-season gives the Vikings if not a big #1 WR ala Randy Moss, a legitimate deep threat in Wallace that will garner attention from CBs and safeties.  Wallace doesn't have the height at 6'0", but he does have the speed and ability opposing defenses must respect, or get beat over the top.  That was something that Greg Jennings, despite other strengths, didn't really bring to the table anymore.

Additionally, while Cordarrelle Patterson didn't materialize last year, Charles Johnson looks to have.  While Johnson hasn't shown that play-maker ability in space that Patterson has, Johnson does have virtually all the same measureables as Patterson- including height (6'2"), weight (215 lbs), speed (4.4)  and agility.  And, as the season progressed, Johnson looked to have established a good rapport with Bridgewater, and seemed to be his 'go-to' target at times later in the year.  And, if Cordarrelle Patterson does materialize this year, that brings yet another threat to the table for Norv to utilize in his scheme.

Add to these receivers Jarius Wright- who flashed some play-making ability last year- as a slot receiver, and perhaps even draft pick Stephon Diggs, who has looked good so far, and there may be not only quality, but also depth in this receiver group.  But Wallace, Johnson and Wright are all legitimate deep threats that if anything, make this element more reliably so this season than it appeared to be this time last season.

Solid Offensive Line

Again, perhaps the most important element- particularly when it comes to pass blocking, this one was also the worst of all of them last year, and the one with the most question marks this year.

As things stand at this moment (but which could easily change), it looks like Matt Kalil at LT, Brandon Fusco at LG, John Sullivan at C, TJ Clemmings at RG, and Phil Loadholt at RT.

An optimist could legitimately argue that having Fusco, Loadholt and Kalil back healthy will make a huge improvement over last year, and Clemmings will most likely be better than Charlie Johnson and other backups used at guard last year.

On the other hand, each lineman has question marks too.  Matt Kalil, while healthy, has a lot to prove and regain after two bad campaigns hampered by injury and lost confidence.  Fusco, while continuing to be solid RG before his injury last year, may have trouble transitioning to the left side.  Sullivan, who has been solid at center for years, is getting older now at 29, and didn't have nearly as good a year last year as the previous two.  Clemmings, despite being what appears to be a huge value in the 4th round, and an excellent run blocker, is still an unproven rookie.  And Phil Loadholt, despite putting together some excellent seasons, declined significantly in performance last year prior to getting injured, and has been slower to recover and is now 29.

I think it is reasonable to believe that simply by getting Kalil, Loadholt and Fusco back healthy will make the OL better than last year, barring another rash of injuries.  I would also say that it's reasonable to believe that Clemmings, if he proves to be the other starting guard, will do a better job than Charlie Johnson and the subs did last year.

Overall, projecting performance- a fools errand - and if you look at 2013 as something of a baseline, with Kalil still not good (-6 overall PFF), and Sullivan and Loadholt doing half as well, allowing for age and more recent performance, which equates to +10 for each overall PFF, and Fusco down a third, discounting his performance for moving to the left side, but still +10 overall PFF, and giving Clemmings a par score overall (0 overall PFF rating), and that makes for a solid, if not dominant, offensive line.   I would expect pass blocking to continue to be the weak spot, but also for Bridgewater to do a reasonably good job in making the most of average pass blocking- as he did with poor pass blocking last year.

Obviously, that is not an ideal situation, but perhaps at least plausible given what is known about the offensive line to date.  Getting back to something close to 2013 as discounted above (again, a year when Kalil was not good), would give the Vikings offensive line at least above average status in league rankings.

There is also some reasonable expectation that the depth along the offensive line will be improved over last year as well, with injured players back healthy, some promising acquisitions and David Yankey, as well as the return of Joe Berger, who was perhaps the only backup to perform reasonably well last year.

Overall, it is reasonable to say that the Vikings have 4 of the 5 needed elements (if you include competent QB) to run Norv's Air Coryell offense well, with something of a question mark at perhaps the most important element- offensive line.

Beyond the Key Elements

Looking beyond these key elements, there are other aspects and adjustments that could help improve the effectiveness of Norv's offense- without compromising it much either- to tailor it to current Viking personnel.

1.  Expand use of Rhett Ellison as an F-back.  While Norv hasn't typically used an F-back as much in his variant of the Air Coryell offense, Ellison's versatility makes him an excellent candidate to fill this hybrid TE/FB/RB position, and also an additional pass or lead blocker.   Using Ellison primarily as an additional blocker- whether pass or lead- while at the same time forcing defenses to account for him as a receiving threat, could help fill any potential holes in the offensive line in pass protection and provide an excellent lead blocker for AP,  while not giving anything away to the opposing defense as he can also be an additional receiver with his TE skills.

2.  It's interesting to note that last year, Teddy Bridgewater's QB rating was much higher on passing plays without play action compared to those with play action (92.4 vs. 63.8).  Most of the top QB ratings (Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Luck) were higher with play action.  Though it would seem that play action with AP would be an effective decoy, perhaps that is outweighed if it results in Bridgewater taking a bit longer to read his progressions and deliver the ball.  Perhaps lowering the percentage of play-action passes from around 24% last year to around 20% may help the passing game overall.

3.  Both Scott and Norv Turner are working with Bridgewater to deliver the ball sooner on passing plays.  He is currently on the slower end among starting QBs (but same as Aaron Rodgers) averaging 2.86 seconds to throw.  Shaving even one or two tenths of a second off that average time could make a difference.

4.  Take advantage of (hopefully) improved depth in the receiver corps- including TE.   If between Cordarrelle Patterson, Mycole Pruitt, and Stephon Diggs, one or more of them is able to make significant contributions to the offense, Norv should waste no time integrating them into the offense to create favorable match-ups.  As it looks now, Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace look to be starters outside, with Jarius Wright in the slot.  Should Cordarrelle Patterson emerge, he could rotate with Johnson, or play outside with Wallace in the slot, among other combinations.  Having a stable of talented, and fast, receivers in rotation can wear down opposing DBs, and result in potential big plays that may not otherwise be there.

5.  Expanded offensive playbook.  Now that it is the 2nd season running Norv's offense, Norv should be able to expand the playbook from the simpler version used last year, adding difficulty for opposing defenses to recognize and defend.  Norv's variant of the Air Coryell offense doesn't have as big a playbook as other variants, preferring simplicity, but he did scale back the playbook some last year with Bridgewater coming in as a rookie.

6.  Similarly, with a year in Turner's system under their belt, the receiver corps and Bridgewater should hopefully become more adept with option routes, which allow receivers to choose their route based on coverage.  It takes time for receivers, particularly young receivers, to develop this skill, and be on the same page with the QB in recognizing coverage and the appropriate route option.

Outlook - Promise and Concern - But Mostly Promise

Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Mike Wallace, Kyle Rudolph, and a healthy offensive line have never been on the field at the same time.  In fact, not more than two of those five have ever been on the field at the same time for the Vikings.  Barring injury, all five will be present on the field in San Francisco in September, and the rest of the season.  This creates extraordinary opportunity for the Vikings offense not seen since the 2009 NFC Championship year, with Favre, Sidney Rice, AP, Shiancoe, and an offensive line of Sullivan, Loadholt, McKinnie, Herrera, and Hutchinson.   Sullivan is better now than then, as is Loadholt most likely.  So, if Fusco, Kalil, and (perhaps) Clemmings can do as well as the others, the offensive line should be solid.   That is the promise.

The concern lies in the fact that the current offensive line's biggest weakness is in pass blocking, which is most needed for the vertical passing game to be effective.    Still, the 2010 and 2011 Steelers proved you could go 12-4 in an Air Coryell offense, despite having a poor offensive line.   Even make it to the Super Bowl.  Of course those Steelers teams had a top defensive unit to go along with the offense.  Makes you think though.  I'd say AP has a little edge on Mendenhall too as a RB.   And Bridgewater seems to have something in common with Roethlisberger when it comes to performing under pressure.

In any case, the Vikings offensive line may not be as bad as the Steelers' in those years.  It will be interesting to see how this Vikings offensive line works out.  At the moment it looks like Kalil-Fusco-Sullivan-Clemmings-Loadholt, but that could change.  Moving Fusco from right to left guard makes some sense in that he is probably the best pass-blocking guard right now, and having him on the blind side may help Bridgewater more than on the right.  It's not without precedence either.  Turner moved Nate Newton from right tackle to left guard with the Cowboys in 1991 and that worked out well.  But it also makes sense having Clemmings stick to the right side to make the transition to the NFL a bit easier- both staying on the right and playing guard rather than tackle.  Looking at Clemmings' video at Pitt, he looks dominant in the run game, particularly in space and at the second level.  With the Vikings playing 9 games against 3-4 defenses this year, including 4 of 6 against NFC North opponents, Clemmings at RG could be his best fit as a rookie.

Beyond the changes at the guard positions, what remains is how well Kalil, Sullivan and Loadholt can play returning to their same starting positions.  Obviously Kalil is the most worrisome, but I wonder a bit about Sullivan and Loadholt possibly declining as they get older too.  But if those two can perform well, having a hybrid F-back like Ellison help Kalil out some in pass protection if he continues to struggle, could be the best solution this year.

Overall, Norv Turner's Air Coryell offense looks to be a good fit for the Vikings personnel- more so this year than it appeared last year.   Having played in it for a season will also help players develop mastery of it, while greater depth and quality at skill positions may give the Vikings more weapons and versatility than we've seen in some time.

Later, I'll take a look at some plays common in Turner's offense and how this year's offensive personnel may do a better job executing them.