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Vikings vs. Lions preview: Turn(er) down for what

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The Vikings offense has been terrible and their coordinator left. Can they turn(er) things around at home against Detroit?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Houston Texans
Matthew Stafford has been dealing this year.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Say what you will about the Minnesota Vikings, but there is one immutable truth about my favorite football team:

They’re never boring.

We have already had Phil Loadholt retiring, John Sullivan being cut, the Teddy Bridgewater injury, the Adrian Peterson injury, the Sam Bradford trade, the Matt Kalil injury, the [nearly everyone else on the offensive line] injuries, the improbable 5-0 start despite all the injuries, the inevitable two-game crash back down to earth due in part to those same injuries, all while the team’s first round draft pick has yet to catch his first NFL pass. And those are just the high-level bullet points from the past two months.

Now we have the Offensive Coordinator suddenly “resigning.”

We aren’t even halfway through the season yet.

This Vikings season has truly been a white-knuckle thrill ride. Right now we’re at the part where the ride shuts down and we’re all stuck upside down in a loop-the-loop. It was a blast at first but now we’re starting to get sick. Can they get things started up again as the Vikings return home to face the Detroit Lions?

Pat Shurmur taking over as Offensive Coordinator should give us a modicum of hope. There was plenty of talk before the season that Shurmur was the “coordinator in waiting.” The Vikings obviously didn’t bring Shurmur in to be tight ends coach forever—they knew Norv Turner was going to be out fairly soon. Of course we didn’t expect that it was going to be this soon.

I could speculate for hours as to exactly why Turner stepped away so suddenly. If Zimmer’s press conference on Wednesday is to be taken at face value, the decision came as a shock to the Vikings head coach. But I’m not buying that this came out of nowhere. With three former head coaches on the offensive staff (Turner, Shurmur, and Tony Sparano), perhaps the old “too many cooks in the kitchen” adage came into play. There were probably a lot of different views about how to fix the offense, especially after it screeched to a halt over the current two-game losing streak. No matter what the actual reason was behind the resignation, the Shurmur era is suddenly upon us.

The good news is that Shurmur was Bradford’s coordinator last year in Philadelphia so the familiarity should help them get up to speed quickly. Shurmur was a big advocate for the Bradford trade in the first place since the two enjoyed a decent amount of success together with the Eagles. Bradford had 3725 yards passing in just 14 games last year, a number that hasn’t been reached in Minnesota since Brett Favre in 2009. Shurmur was also the interim Offensive Coordinator with Bradford in 2010, the year Bradford set the NFL record for completions by a first-year player. Shurmur’s emphasis on quickly getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers seems to be a much better fit for Minnesota’s personnel.

The bad news is that Shurmur still has to coach the exact same players that Norv had, including that atrocious offensive line. Every time you think the unit has hit rock bottom, they find new ways to be bad. Case in point--the incredible Jake Long/T.J. Clemmings synchronized holding display they put on against the Bears on Monday night.

To Long’s credit, he actually had a much better game than he did in Philadelphia. Clemmings, on the other hand? He had the lowest graded game by a tackle from Pro Football Focus in over a decade. How Clemmings keeps getting snaps ahead of Jeremiah Sirles, a traffic cone, or a mannequin is absolutely mystifying.

No matter who the Vikings decide to throw out there on Sunday, the line play needs to improve in a hurry. It’s pretty amazing that Bradford hasn’t been hurt yet. However, I fear that Bradford is already starting to suffer from PTSD: Post-Traumatic St. Louis Disorder. The constant pressure seems to be causing flashbacks of his early years with the Rams. Even on the rare occasion that the line gave him a couple of seconds to scan the field on Monday, it appeared that he started to hear footsteps before the defense actually arrived:

That play reminded me of the Warren Moon days where the aging quarterback would do just about anything to avoid taking a big hit. Bradford was always unlikely to maintain the incredible level of play he had during his first four games with the Vikings, but these last two weeks have appeared to erode his confidence more than his actual performance. A change needed to be made in this broken scheme before it literally or figuratively broke Bradford.

And to be clear, I don’t mean to put all the blame at the feet of Turner. He is one of the more bright and experienced offensive minds the profession has seen. But I really got the feeling that the old dog was refusing to try new tricks. His system feels outdated in today’s NFL unless you have an elite offensive line and running back—both of which are decidedly not currently a part of the 2016 Minnesota Vikings. Hopefully Shurmur can minimize the offense’s glaring weaknesses and put his players in a better position to succeed. It’s unrealistic to think that Shurmur will be able to transform this offense into one of the league’s better units, but even upgrading from “bottom of the barrel” to “below average” might be enough to salvage the season. After all, the Vikings still have one of the best defenses in the NFL.

But even the defense has been showing some weakness since the bye week. The once undeniable pass rush has exactly one sack over the past two games. Opponents are neutralizing the rush with the kind of plays we have been begging the Vikings offense to run all season—misdirection, quick slants, and screens. The two big plays from Jordan Howard didn’t actually upset me too much. The 69-yard run was just a missed tackle by Harrison Smith and a bad angle by Jayron Kearse. The 34-yard pass was simply a clever bit of improvisation by Jay Cutler. You can live with those kind of plays.

What was most alarming to me on Monday was the level of effort at times. The Howard touchdown was waaaayy too easy for the Bears. Trae Waynes had a chance to rush out and set the edge, but instead casually waltzed toward the outside before getting swallowed up by two blockers as Howard casually waltzed into the end zone. Perhaps his assignment was to look for a cutback, but it was pretty obvious where the play was going right after the snap.

The last drive of the game for the Bears was particularly tough to watch. Chicago got the ball back with 5:37 left in the game and didn’t relinquish possession until there were 15 seconds left. Sure, the game was basically over and the defense was probably exhausted after the offense’s parade of three and outs. But Anthony Barr casually jogging after Zach Miller like this definitely isn’t what we’re used to seeing from this defense.

Perhaps teams have figured out that keeping the Vikings in their base defense is their best bet. Here’s a breakdown of the average snap counts of nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn and third linebacker Chad Greenway in the Vikings’ five wins:

Munnerlyn: 51.6
Greenway: 15.0

And here’s a breakdown of their snaps in the two losses:

Munnerlyn: 30.5
Greenway: 29.0

Of course when teams have the lead they’re more likely to use bigger run packages, but it’s not like the Vikings jumped out to huge leads in all five of their wins either. Greenway still had snap counts of 4 and 2 during the 5-0 start. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the defensive performance has slipped with the increased amount of snaps in the base 4-3 defense. Teams are beginning to change the way they attack the Vikings defense. Mike Zimmer needs to make some adjustments on his side of the ball as well before he accidentally tears another retina.

The defense will definitely need to be on point against Matthew Stafford, who is having the best year of his career through the first eight games of his eighth season. Stafford is as accurate as he’s ever been, his interception rate is lower than it has ever been, and as a result his quarterback rating is as high as it’s ever been. His adjusted net yards per attempt is at 7.26, easily the best mark of his career. What might surprise you is that Stafford’s average pass attempt this year travels less distance in the air than it ever has.

But that’s exactly why Stafford is enjoying such a good season. The greatest name in professional sports, Jim Bob Cooter, has implemented an offense with shorter dropbacks and quicker, higher percentage passes. The departure of Calvin Johnson may have actually helped Stafford’s development. He no longer has the safety valve of winging it up for grabs and hoping Megatron comes down with it. Instead, he’s quickly reading through his progressions and simply finding the open man. Stafford and the Lions offense are now content with carving you up with short and intermediate passes instead of going for the kill with the home run ball.

(Hmm...shorter passes and quick progressions. This sounds exactly like what we’ve been pining for all season! I guess you could say the all the Vikings want is a little Cooter of their own.)

(Also, I’m sorry about that joke, but I couldn’t go an entire article about the Lions without making at least one.)

But it isn’t all dink and dunk for Detroit these days. The Lions can still dial up a nice looking deep ball from time to time.

It’s impossible to key in on one threat against the Lions because Stafford has so many weapons at his disposal. Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Anquan Boldin are a formidable receiving trio that all offer different strengths. The return of tight end Eric Ebron and running back Theo Riddick from injury (the team’s two leading receivers last week) only add to the arsenal.

Even with all the weapons and success in the passing game, the Lions offense isn’t perfect. They are 27th in rushing yards per game and their offensive line is only two spots above Minnesota’s in adjusted line yards. One thing you definitely don’t want to be against a Mike Zimmer defense is one-dimensional. We have already covered how keeping the Vikings defense in their base package is probably better, but Detroit uses three wide receivers on the vast majority of their offensive plays. So the Lions spreading things out might actually be advantageous for Minnesota.

Hopefully the biggest advantage for the Vikings on Sunday will be Detroit’s defense. The Lions rank dead last in defensive DVOA and have the second worst collective grade from Pro Football Focus. They have been particularly bad against tight ends and slot receivers this season. The Vikings need to feed Kyle Rudolph and Stefon Diggs early and often to set the tone on Sunday. If they don’t, the Lions still have the pass rush to make Bradford’s life miserable.

I know the Vikings haven’t given us anything to rave about since their last home game, but I’m going to hold out hope for at least their next home game. I think the combination of a home game against a weak defense with a new plan of attack from Shurmur is just what this team needs.

Besides, the Cubs just won the World Series four months after the Cavaliers won the NBA title. Surely the era of long-tortured sports franchises finally breaking through is upon us! OK so all the championship talk is still a little far fetched at the moment, but the Vikings should at least be able to break back into the win column, right?!

Because if they can’t win this one, Norv Turner might have been a lot smarter than we all thought.

Prediction

Vikings 27, Lions 20


And now for the rest of my Week 9 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Falcons over BUCCANEERS

So we go from one of the greatest baseball games of all time to a mediocre AFC South matchup featuring particularly hideous Color Rush uniforms. And we wonder why NFL ratings are slipping this year.

Cowboys over BROWNS

How amazing would it be to see Tony Romo come in for 4th quarter cleanup duty?

CHIEFS over Jaguars

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now out of even the second chance pools after choosing the Vikings last week. Gus Bradley’s seat should be officially sizzling after getting trounced by Nick Foles.

DOLPHINS over Jets

What it would look like if the Washington Generals were a football team and had an intra-squad scrimmage.

Eagles over GIANTS

Look, I love Carson Wentz, but he’s going to have to throw a pass longer than five yards sooner or later. Philly is relying on their defense too much.

Steelers over RAVENS

Because OF COURSE there are reports that Ben Roethlisberger is “looking good in practice” three weeks before he was scheduled to return from his latest injury.

Panthers over RAMS

Sure, Cam. Football isn’t fun anymore because of all those hits you’re suddenly taking this year. Not because you’re 2-5 instead of 15-1.

49ERS over Saints

Just wait. You’re going to be watching the Red Zone Channel on Sunday, wondering why the Saints are still down 13-10 late in the third quarter against an awful 49ers team and Drew Brees is stinking it up for your fantasy team. San Francisco could still blow it in the end, but I just get the weird feeling that we’re in for one of those ugly Saints road losses.

(Please don’t @ me when this wild prediction is proven horribly wrong.)

PACKERS over Colts

Oh boy, here comes the cavalcade of “AARON RODGERS IS BACK!!1!1!!” pieces after Green Bay shreds one of the worst defenses in the league at home. Please, Vikings, win on Sunday so we can remain one game ahead.

CHARGERS over Titans

San Diego’s next four opponents after this very winnable game: Dolphins, Texans, Buccaneers, Panthers. Could all four AFC West teams compete for playoff spots this year?

Broncos over RAIDERS

Let’s see Derek Carr put up numbers against a good defense before we start getting too crazy with that MVP talk, OK?

SEAHAWKS over Bills

ESPN is running promos for this game with the theme song from House of Cards, a show based in Washington D.C. Unless they’re trying to subtweet the Seahawks by actually calling them a house of cards, this is a very perplexing song choice. It’s like playing a Bob Seger song for a game between the Packers and Jags.

Last week: 8-4-1
Season so far: 71-46-2