After the first quarter of the Vikings season most fans, including me, were riding high on a 4-0 start and I even gave us 10 things to believe in. The defense was dominant, and the offense was doing just enough to keep the chains moving and put a few points on the board. Fast forward three weeks; and after a BYE week that may or may not have featured mutilated stuffed animals, more injuries, and two embarrassing back-to-back road losses this team looks like a shell of its early season self. I knew there were concerns about whether the incredible statistics were sustainable, and I hinted at a few alarming stats that could rear their ugly head at end of that article after Week 4. Unfortunately, those things have become relevant. So much so that I am beginning to have serious doubts about whether the Vikings can not only hold off the Packers to retain the NFC North crown, but even make the playoffs at all. So what follows are 10 reasons to doubt the Vikings playoff chances.
1. The remaining schedule is not easy.
While I wouldn't say the remaining 9 games of the season are particularly difficult (our opponents currently sport a combined 28-31 record), it's not exactly easy either. Of the 9 remaining games, 5 of them are against teams that have a winning percentage of 0.500 or better. On the plus side, only 4 out of the remaining 9 games are on the road. The most difficult remaining games are going to be hosting the 6-1 Cowboys, going on the road to face the Packers, Lions and Redskins and hosting the under-achieving Cardinals and Colts teams (3-4 and 3-5 respectively). If we assume all but one of those "tough" games are losses on the schedule and we pick up home wins against the Lions and Bears (and sneak out of Jacksonville with a win as well), we finish the year 9-7 which is usually a bubble playoff team. On the other hand, if ignore the home/road splits and only pay attention to the win/loss records of our opponents...and then assume we lose to the teams with 0.500 records or better and beat the teams with losing records, then we would still finish the year...9-7. But based on the some of the things I have yet to mention, even 9-7 might be too optimistic.
2. The injuries we've sustained on offense are likely too difficult to overcome.
When news of Teddy Bridgewater's injury hit days before the season opener, fans of the Vikings let out of a collective gasp. Would this derail the playoff run this team was destined for? Well, the Vikings went out and traded for Sam Bradford, and after the early going it seemed the answer to that question was, yes, we would overcome losing our starting quarterback. But then things got worse. We lost Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil after week 2. It's never good to lose the reigning NFL rushing leader and former league MVP. While he struggled to move the ball in the first game and a half of the season, he has traditionally been a slow starter out of the gate. But losing Peterson is something we've seen before and Mckinnon and Asiata seemed up to the task to replace him. As maligned as Matt Kalil has been, our depth at tackle was already paper thin when Phil Loadholt decided to retire right before training camp. No matter, we could slide his backup T.J. Clemmings in and try to hold this thing together. And we did for 2 games. But then Andre Smith went down, and this is when disaster hit. We simply didn't have two starting caliber tackles behind Kalil and Smith (who were already below average talent to start with). We collectively joked, "It can't be much worse than Kalil and Smith amiright?" Well...it's worse. Clemmings and a combination of Jake Long and Jeremiah Sirles have been awful. On top of that, Jerick Mckinnon has been dealing with an ankle injury which has forced Matt Asiata, our undrafted free agent, 3rd stringer (who ran a 4.67 40-yard dash coming out of college) into a featured back role. When you consider the fact that Stefon Diggs has missed a week due to injury as well, it all adds up to a recipe for disaster on the offensive side of the ball. The team signed tackle Jake Long and running back Ronnie Hillman off the street out of desperation to try to fill the void caused by injuries, but both have looked lost, rusty and out of game shape (as expected). To make matters worse, the Vikings are up against the salary cap with no money left to make any more moves and the trade deadline has now passed. In other words, we're stuck with what we've got.
3. The offensive line can't block.
As mentioned above, we've been hit with the injury bug and are devoid of talent. But after the first four weeks, our offensive line received surprisingly good marks from Football Outsiders in their adjusted sack rating, which is a measure of pass blocking efficiency. We have since slipped dramatically. Since Week 4 our pass blocking has dropped from the 8th best line to the 26th best line. We've allowed a total of 13 sacks over the last three games. It should be no coincidence that this drop in performance coincides with the loss of Andre Smith, which forced Jeremiah Sirles and Jake Long into starting roles at tackle. Our run blocking has been terrible all year though. It is currently ranked 31st in the league by Football Outsiders in adjusted line yards, which is pretty much where it was after Week 4. In the early part of the year we could move the ball a little bit by using the pass to set up the run. But now we can't do much of anything, because the offensive line is getting beat. Maybe I'm over-reacting to the Eagles defensive line (which ranks 1st in Adjusted Sack Rating and 6th in Rushing Line Yards allowed), but I don't think it's a coincidence that the line has shifted from allowing an average of 1.5 sacks per game through the first four weeks, to allowing 4.3 sacks per game over the last three weeks.
4. Our running backs are not doing our offensive line any favors.
Yes, our offensive line is bad and is not opening any holes for our running backs. But let's not kid ourselves here: neither of them are on the level of Adrian Peterson in his prime. Perhaps we've all been a bit spoiled watching the best running back of a generation (maybe all time?) for the past 9 years, but the fact remains that Mckinnon and Asiata rank near the bottom of all NFL running backs in Football Outsiders "success rating", "Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average" and "Effective Yards". Let me put it to you this way: of 40 qualifying running backs in the NFL, Asiata and Mckinnon rank 38th and 39th in yards per carry, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry this season. Neither of them has a single run longer than 29 yards on the year either. Without a running game, defenses can key on the passing game which leads me to the next thing to worry about.
5. Sam Bradford is not playing with the same level of efficiency as he was in the early part of the year.
While the defense was playing great during the first five games of the year, Bradford was also playing the best football of his life in those same games. After Week 5, Bradford had a QB rating of 109.7, the best 4-game stretch of his career. He also hadn't turned the ball over. In the last two games since the BYE week, he has looked like "the same old Sam Bradford", which is most likely a by-product of the stuff mentioned above: no running game, and no offensive line blocking. The drop in efficiency has been dramatic too the past two games, with him recording a QB rating of only 79.6 and turning the ball over multiple times. Perhaps it's a byproduct of not only being on the road, but also facing a tough Eagles defense, and a Bears defensive line that ranks 12th best in Football Outsider's Adjusted Sack Rating. Either way, Bradford's performance has dropped right along with the rest of the offense.
6. The Vikings offense is one of the worst in the NFL.
I think the reasons the Vikings offense is performing so poorly is outlined pretty well above, but what it all boils down to is the fact that our offense ranks near the bottom of the league in a large number of offensive team statistics. We rank 31st in total yards per game, 23rd in total points per game, 20th in 3rd down percentage, dead last in 1st downs per game, 26th in total sacks allowed and 25th in total QB hits allowed. According to Football Outsiders our offense also ranks 31st in yards per drive, 28th in points per drive and 26th in their "Drive Success Rate", which all speak to an offense that is very inefficient overall.
7. The Vikings are no longer dominant on kickoff returns.
Lately, teams have been kicking away from Cordarrelle Patterson who has a reputation for being one of the league's best kick returners. However, so far this year the Vikings are only averaging 22.8 yards per kickoff return, ranked 8th best in the league and very far behind the league leading Eagles and Ravens who average 37.3 and 28.5 yards per return. On the bright side, somehow our average starting field position ranks 2nd best in the NFL (average start at the 31-yard line), but this is largely due to our dominant defense controlling the field position game. This isn't to say that the Vikings are "bad" at kickoff returns, because they aren't bad. But they're not league best anymore either and it's probably because Patterson isn't always the one returning kicks. Patterson's average is down too compared to his rookie year and last year when he averaged better than 30 yards per return. This year he's only averaging 27.2 yards per return.
8. Blair Walsh has continued to struggle.
While Walsh has looked decent the past couple of games, so far on the year he is ranked 21st overall in field goal percentage making only 79% of his tries. This isn't terrible, but it isn't great either. More alarming though is his extremely low extra point percentage. He is only making 86% of his extra points, ranked 31st in the NFL. It's worth pointing out that 12 NFL kickers have made 100% of their extra point tries so far this year and half of all NFL kickers have made at least 95% of their extra point attempts.
9. The Vikings defense is inconsistent stopping the run.
While the Vikings defense has been dominant in every game this year there is one area where they could stand to improve: run defense. They allow an average of 4.1 yards per carry, ranked only 13th best in the NFL. Football Outsiders has their run defense ranked 13th best as well in their Adjusted Line Yards allowed. They are also ranked only 22nd in stuffs and 19th in open field yards allowed. In the end, they are still ranked 8th in rushing yards allowed per game (and this ranking dropped some after last week), but there are some holes in this run defense that teams are beginning to exploit. And with Andrew Sendejo sidelined (one of our better run defending safeties) we could see more games like we saw in Chicago where they racked up over 150 rushing yards.
10. The Vikings are no longer a top 5 team in Football Outsiders "DVOA".
Football Outsiders uses the "Defensive-Adjusted Value Over Average" metric to measure the efficiency of lots of individual performances, but they can use it on the overall team as well. The Vikings currently rank 8th best overall, a drop of 4 spots compared to last week. The defense is still top 5, and but the offense is ranked 24th overall. I've been harping on the offense during the vast majority of this article, but the bigger point here is that these offensive short-comings do matter and they are pulling down the overall performance of the team. If the team efficiency continues this downward spiral, we can expect the overall DVOA to drop right along with it. It's also worth pointing out that Football Outsiders has downgraded our playoff chances by over 8% since last week. We now have a 77.8% chance to make the playoffs per their simulations, which is still good (6th best playoff odds in the NFL), but the downward trend is alarming. On the bright side, it's still the best odds in the NFC North and we're still 60.5% odds to win the division (compared to only 31.7% for the Packers).
I wish I could retain my level of optimism for the Vikings that I had after the first four weeks, but these past two games have revealed a lot of holes on this team. The offense simply can't sustain anymore injuries to starters, especially on the offensive line. We are already down to the bottom of the roster with nowhere else to turn should the injuries continue to pile up. There is a part of me that wants to chalk these back-to-back losses up to being on the road, and to the backup lineman not "gelling" yet. It's possible that is all that it is, but I think the issues run deeper than that. The Vikings haven't been able to run the ball all year, and the defense has been inconsistent stopping the run all year. If this team wants to be able to make a deep playoff run, it must be able to win the battle in the trenches when the ball is on the ground. Unfortunately, we haven't shown that we can consistently do that on offense or defense. And with our recent struggles in the air on offense to tack onto all that, we're left with just a dominant passing defense, which isn't going to be enough to sustain wins, especially on the road. Despite my pessimism, if there is anyone that can figure out how to turn it around, it is Mike Zimmer.