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Vikings at Redskins preview: Until further notice

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Could the Minnesota Vikings turn things around this week? Sure, but Daily Norseman writer Eric Thompson isn’t going to believe it until he sees it.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Until the Vikings prove that they can turn things around, it’s hard to believe we’ll see anything different from them on Sunday.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Fool us once, shame on you.

Fool us twice, shame on us.

Fool us every year since 1961...welcome to Minnesota.

We really thought this season had the chance to be different. Despite the injuries, retirements, and turmoil before the season even kicked off, the Vikings were able to ride their exemplary defense to an improbable 5-0 start. Sure, there were signs that the run wasn’t sustainable and the team might come crashing back down to earth. But we had Sam Bradford playing the best football of his life! We had a defense that was one of the best of this century! We had Mike frickin’ Zimmer calling the shots! Surely this team could make a deep playoff run at the very least!

What a difference a month makes. Through five weeks we were talking about the 2016 Vikings in the same breath as the 1998 and 2009 iterations. (It sounds insane now, but it wasn’t really hyperbole in early October.) Now the closest comparison might be the 2003 team that started out 6-0 and infamously flamed out of playoff contention on the last day of the season in Arizona.

Sigh. The more things change…

There were actually some positives that came out of last week’s loss to the Lions, but it’s hard to shake the all too familiar “same old Vikings” dread that resulted in another heartbreaking defeat. It was a movie that we have seen hundreds of times throughout the years—Minnesota snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the most gut-wrenching way imaginable. For me, any hope that this Vikings season might end differently than the first 55 was extinguished when Golden Tate flipped into the US Bank Stadium end zone last Sunday.

I realize that this is a rather gloomy stance to take regarding a 5-3 team that is still alone in first place in their division for the time being. But the Detroit game made me tap out. I just can’t bring myself to believe that this team is going anywhere in 2016. The injuries, mistakes, and bad bounces have finally caught up with the Vikings. It is simply too much to overcome. Last week I mused that Bradford is starting to suffer from Post-Traumatic St. Louis Disorder; after Sunday’s loss I should probably be diagnosed with Battered Fan Syndrome. Like so many seasons before it, being emotionally invested in the 2016 Vikings has become hazardous.

Therefore, I am officially distancing myself from my rabid fandom and attempting to take a much more analytical approach for the remainder of the season. I am obviously still going to cover the Vikings and root for them each week, but I can’t keep living and dying with every snap. Until further notice, I am off the 2016 Vikings bandwagon.

Not forever, of course. (I’ll probably jump right back on the next time the Vikings get a lead.) But I really am going to try to emotionally distance myself unless the team can prove several things to me in the second half of the season.

For starters, the Vikings have to prove that they can run the football at a rate that isn’t historically inept. Minnesota is averaging a mere 2.71 yards per carry through the first half of the season. If that average holds, it would be the worst rushing average since the merger. This severe lack of production is such a shocking departure for a team that has had Adrian Peterson in the backfield for most of the past decade. Of all of the possible problems one could have conjured up for the Vikings in the preseason, being completely incapable of running the football probably wouldn’t have cracked the top 100.

To be fair, “completely incapable” might be a bit of overkill. The Vikings are certainly capable of executing their blocks in the run game, as this first quarter run from Ronnie Hillman illustrates.

The problem is consistently executing their blocks at the same time. Far too often the offense is stymied by one or two players’ lack of execution, causing a domino effect of impotence.

For example, Jerick McKinnon could have had a big gain on this first quarter run. Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, and Jake Long all took care of their assignments. Zach Line was headed toward the second level to help create more space. All defenders were accounted for. But Jeremiah Sirles, usually one of the more reliable blockers the Vikings have had this season, whiffed on his block. McKinnon was forced to hesitate (something that may have been accentuated by the ankle injury he just returned from) and Josh Bynes was able to swoop in from the weak side and make the tackle.

Maybe the rushing offense is closer to serviceable than we think. The constant shuffling of personnel on the line would make it hard on even the league’s best blockers. With Alex Boone returning from his concussion and Sirles (hopefully) moving back to his more familiar position of right tackle, perhaps the line will finally start to jell and be more consistent. Just a little more consistency could go a long way, especially against Sunday’s opponents. The Redskins are ranked 31st in defensive rushing DVOA by Football Outsiders. Only the 49ers are allowing more yards per carry than Washington through eight games. If there was ever a rushing defense (outside of the Bay Area) to get healthy against, it’s the Redskins.

Of course we thought that the offense might finally get on track against Detroit’s last-place DVOA defense last Sunday too. The Vikings did look better overall in Pat Shurmur’s first game as coordinator; six of the Vikings’ nine drives made it inside the Lions’ 30 yard line. Yet the Vikings could only muster 16 points. Minnesota is 29th in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage—they simply can’t finish drives. (For instance, punting after starting a drive in on the opponents’ 18 yard line is generally frowned upon.)

Part of finishing drives involves converting kicks. Blair Walsh has to prove he can still do that. On Sunday Walsh missed his seventh extra point since the league moved the PAT back to 33 yards last year. Walsh is converting 86.8% of his extra point attempts over the past two seasons. The rest of the league is averaging 94.7%. So that means if both the Vikings and the average NFL team scored 12 touchdowns, Walsh would miss one more PAT than the average kicker. When you throw in the four field goals he has already missed this season, those points could ultimately mean the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

“But Eric,” you say, “he didn’t miss the field goal on Sunday. It was blocked! You can’t blame Walsh for that!” Well, watch this slow-motion replay of the blocked field goal and form your own conclusions.

Tyrunn Walker, the Lions defensive tackle that blocked the kick, wasn’t lined up over the long snapper. He was between the left guard and left tackle. Look at the initial trajectory of the kick compared to the location of the goal posts. I know that the camera angle wasn’t straight behind Walsh and kicks can curve back. But unless this kick was going to follow the path of a disc golf tee shot, it was going to end up extremely wide left. Walker might have saved Walsh even more embarrassment with the block.

What wasn’t saved was a six-point swing in Detroit’s favor; the Lions didn’t get a first down after the block yet they notched a field goal of their own. When a game ends up going to overtime, these kinds of things sort of matter.

On Tuesday the Vikings brought in kickers to work out because…well, Mike Zimmer himself asked the media whether they had been watching the games. By Wednesday the team announced they were going to stick with Walsh and Zimmer claimed he “still believes in” his kicker. (My theory: Zimmer believes that the free agent kicker market halfway through a season is bad much more than he actually believes in Walsh.) The usually gruff and no-nonsense Zimmer seems to have taken a softer approach lately. It feels like he’s trying everything he can think of to break out of this funk and keep his team’s tenuous grip on first place in the division. But if Walsh continues to struggle in the coming weeks, he isn’t going to have a kicking leg to stand on. Consider Walsh on double-not-so-secret probation.

So the offense is struggling. The kicker is struggling. These are not new revelations. But now it appears that the vaunted Vikings defense is starting to show some cracks. Overall the defense is still performing at a high level; players like Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman, Harrison Smith, and Linval Joseph are definitely earning their keep. Even perennial punching bags Chad Greenway and Andrew Sendejo played well last week. But the game-changing “splash” plays that were so prevalent through the first five games have nearly dried up over the past three weeks. We haven’t heard much from the likes of Tom Johnson, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter since the bye week. Eric Kendricks has been banged up and Anthony Barr still doesn’t look right. Xavier Rhodes is great until he starts seeing more yellow flags than a NASCAR race under caution. With the massive struggles of the Vikings offense, the defense needs to play at an elite level for this team to win games. They are decidedly not there lately, as evidenced by the Lions converting all four third downs during the only possession of last week’s overtime.

A great tool for getting off the field on those big third downs is sacking the quarterback. Two sacks over the past three games simply isn’t cutting it with all the talent the Vikings have on their front line. Getting sacks against the Redskins won’t be easy either; left tackle Trent Williams is Pro Football Focus’ highest rated offensive lineman this season. Washington’s line is ranked third in both adjusted sack rate and adjusted line yards per rush. Unlike the Vikings, Washington made Philadelphia’s defense look penetrable. This is the kind of blocking that fans in Minnesota can only dream of.

Matt Jones, Chris Thompson, and Rob Kelley are just like McKinnon, Hillman, and Asiata, except for the fact that the Washington running backs usually pass the line of scrimmage before they’re gang tackled. Kirk Cousins had a very shaky start to the 2016 season but has been playing better during Washington’s recent 4-1-1 stretch. He certainly has plenty of options in the passing game. Jordan Reed is one of the best tight ends in the league (provided he isn’t concussed). Vernon Davis still makes for a viable backup/bookend at age 32. DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, and Jamison Crowder can all beat you with big plays. If Cousins has time—which he often does—the Redskins offense is more than capable of marching up and down the field on even the best defenses.

Cousins has been far from perfect though. He is capable of stopping promising drives at a moment’s notice. He loves to take shots downfield, even if they are incredibly ill-advised at times.

Despite their general success moving the ball (only the Falcons average more yards per play), the Redskins have struggled nearly as much as the Vikings at finishing off drives. In fact, Washington is right behind Minnesota in red zone touchdown percentage. If the Vikings can show more consistency on offense, force Cousins into some mistakes, and actually capitalize on them when they occur, perhaps they can come away with a road victory and maintain their slim lead in the NFC North.

But as I stated earlier, I can’t bring myself to believe in this Vikings team until they show me more. They have done next to nothing in the first half of every road game this season, and the Redskins are too good of a team to fall behind against. Remaining one-dimensional against Josh Norman and the Washington secondary could be very dangerous.

These last three weeks have felt too much like the “same old Vikings”—the kind that could never win road games on grass against a good opponent. I think the offense should continue to see improvements but not quite enough to turn things around yet. Unfortunately, I feel like the losing streak will continue in our nation’s capital.

But look on the bright side: for many of you, the Vikings losing is only going to be the second most disappointing thing to come out of Washington D.C. this week.

Prediction

Redskins 24, Vikings 16


And now for the rest of my Week 10 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

RAVENS over Browns

It would be sort of poetic for Cleveland to get their first victory of the season against the franchise that stole their team, their happiness, and their souls. But the Browns are poetic like Fred Durst was a rapper.

Chiefs over PANTHERS

Carolina is on the world’s least convincing two-game resurgence. I think it ends against Kansas City.

SAINTS over Broncos

Drew Brees at home is practically a guaranteed 27+ points. I’m not sure how Denver’s offense can match that.

JETS over Rams

Seriously, how bad is Jared Goff? Can he like, not throw a spiral consistently? That’s the only logical explanation, right? Or maybe Jeff Fisher is waiting until the Rams’ ninth loss of the season before starting Goff, ending the season on a meaningless win streak, finishing 7-9 like he always does, and fooling ownership into giving him another ludicrous extension based on the “momentum” at the end of the season? THAT must be it.

Packers over TITANS

I said it on Twitter last Sunday, and since it probably won’t be true after this week I’ll say it again here: the Vikings are a train wreck, but at least they aren’t a third place train wreck.

Falcons over EAGLES

I think it finally might be time to admit that Carson Wentz isn’t [REDACTED—MUST NOT PUBLICLY CRITICIZE OBVIOUS SHORTCOMINGS OF ANY FELLOW NORTH DAKOTA STATE ALUMNUS]

Texans over JAGUARS

The only way I would watch any portion of this game would be if the losing quarterback was banished from the NFL forever.

Bears over BUCCANEERS

Picking this one based solely on fantasy football interests. With Andrew Luck and Derek Carr on byes, I’m starting Jay Cutler in all three leagues I’m in. YOLO!

CHARGERS over Dolphins

Only a handful of home games left before the Bolts bolt for LA! Dean Spanos is going full “Ron Burgundy will read anything the teleprompter says” on his team’s soon to be former city.

CARDINALS over 49ers

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 7-2 on the season after the Chiefs took care of the Jags last week. That smart trick the Niners pulled before halftime last week against the Saints will likely be the biggest highlight of their season.

STEELERS over Cowboys

Only because I want to see Jerry Jones make Jason Garrett throw a rusty Tony Romo in there at the first signs of Dak Prescott struggling and watch the Cowboys’ fan base summarily implode.

PATRIOTS over Seahawks

Easy way to pass out before halftime: drink every time NBC alludes to a Super Bowl rematch, Marshawn Lynch, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s political leanings, or Malcolm Butler’s interception.

Bengals over GIANTS

Cincinnati probably isn’t as bad as their record and New York probably isn’t as good as their record. That said, I wouldn’t bet either way on this game. Both quarterbacks could go for 400 yards, or five interceptions, or both at the same time.

Last week: 7-6
Season so far: 78-52-2