TWO HARBORS, Minn. Kenneth Larson leans back on a well-worn couch in a sparsely decorated basement den. Directly across from the couch, he gazes upon a top of the line 55-inch HD television that rests atop a modest entertainment center. It’s the one piece of decor that doesn’t mesh with the basic, weathered theme of the room.
“Yeah after Blair missed that kick last year I sorta needed a new one,” Larson claims, explaining the origin of the room’s latest addition. “I just knew he was gonna miss it, but that didn’t stop me from chucking the remote straight through the screen of my old TV.”
There are war wounds throughout the basement space of Larson’s quaint rambler. He gestures throughout the space recalling past frustrations that resulted in minor property damage. “Busted this light fixture back in ‘98...had to put that Spackle over there after the Nate Poole game in ‘03...broke the leg of this ol’ table after Darrin Nelson dropped that pass in ‘87.”
Larson, 63, has been watching Minnesota Vikings games in the same room in his basement for over 40 years; he has seen just about everything when it comes to his team. Still, he doesn’t quite know how to handle the Vikings’ surprising 3-0 start this season.
“I keep waitin’ for the other shoe to drop,” Larson explains. “Sure, the defense bailed us out against Tennessee. But the Titans weren’t that good anyway. And opening that new stadium—the one that I helped pay for, even though I live 3 hours away and can’t afford to get in the darn door—that and Rodgers havin’ an off night probably helped us squeak by the Pack. But Carolina? How am I supposed to explain that one away?”
Larson was certain that the Vikings would come crashing down to earth last week against the Panthers.
“I mean, gosh, we got half an offense out there against a team that went to the big game last year and hasn’t lost at home in forever. They got the MVP—boy that fella sure does dress funny, but I’m gettin’ off subject here—they go out and score 10 on the Vikes right away. It looked like ‘ah jeez here comes the same ol’ Vikes again.’ But then they come back and shut ‘em out the rest of the game! How’m I supposed to gripe about that?”
If it sounds like Larson is almost disappointed in the Vikings’ 3-0 start, it’s because he has spent nearly the entire span of his fandom being a curmudgeon. He doesn’t seem to be in his element unless the Vikings are letting him down.
“It all started when that no-good Drew Pearson shoved Nate Wright to the ground back in ‘75,” Larson recalled with the tenor of someone waxing rhapsodic about a first love. “Best Vikings team of the 70’s, hands down. Better than any of those squads that made the Super Bowls. We were at my brother’s house. The moment that happened, I got up from the couch, pointed at my old lady, and said ‘honey, pack up the car. We’re outta here.’ From that moment on I knew it was my job to let everybody know that the Vikings were always gonna let us down.”
Larson’s family has felt the brunt of his pessimism throughout the years. “Oh it’s bad,” explained Kenneth’s brother Scott in a phone interview. “I used to watch the game with Ken every week. But all he does is gripe about the team and say how everything is always gonna go wrong. I get it—the Vikes have broken our hearts a lot over the years. But to have someone watchin’ the games with you that won’t shut up about how they’re always gonna screw it up...it gets old, ya know? Nowadays I usually just watch Vikes games at home with the wife. Ken takes all that negativity too seriously.”
Kenneth remains undeterred by those who believe he takes his Vikings cynicism too far. “Am I bein’ negative, or am I bein’ realistic?” Larson exclaims. “I always think they’re gonna screw it up, and I’m always right.”
After a brief pause, Larson offers another concession to the 2016 iteration of the tema. “But that’s what got me feelin’ so weird about this year. I just can’t get that angry about it yet.”
Larson fears that he’ll run out of things to complain about if the Vikings keep winning. “I had already written the whole season off after Teddy went down. Then we pay an arm and a leg for Sammy Bradford, who won a whole bunch of nothin’ with the Rams. Then Peterson gets hurt, even though he was averaging like an inch per carry. Then Kalil! I mean the guy couldn’t block my 8-year-old granddaughter, but he was still better than C.J. Flemings or whoever the heck we had in there last year. But they keep winning! The next game is in prime time—I used to always depend on the Vikes to crap the bed under the big lights—but now they’re even winning those games too.”
It’s clear that Larson is struggling to remain steadfast in his curmudgeon ways. “I suppose I could bitch about our first rounder not playing again. But now Waynes is pickin’ off passes and you can’t help but root for the local kid Thielen. Maybe I just gotta quit tweeting all this bad stuff to the public.”
Twitter? It doesn’t seem like Larson’s demographic. “Yeah, that’s right, this old geezer knows about the Tweeter. My niece helped me set up an account so I could have proof that I knew the Vikings were gonna mess it up before anyone else. Come to think of it, Zimmer’s always saying how people don’t believe in the team—maybe he’s getting wind of what I’m saying and using it to get the guys playing better. Well maybe I’ll set my account to private. Let’s just see where Zimmer gets his precious bulletin board material then!” [Editor’s note: As of this post, Larson had 37 Twitter followers, most of which appeared to be porn spam bots. It’s also clear that he hasn’t completely grasped the concept of hashtags.]
While the ammunition for his negativity is dwindling, Larson claims he still has a couple remaining grievances at the ready. “That offensive line is still a mess. They’ll probably get Bradford killed pretty soon. And you just know that damn kicker is gonna cost us a game here. If not now, maybe in a few weeks.”
After another pause, a wry smile broke across Larson’s face, like a movie villain that just pulled off a nefarious caper.
“Or maybe in the playoffs again. Even if I’m running out of things to bitch about this season, I can allllways count on the Vikes to let us down in the playoffs.”
While that story is obviously fictitious—like I’m going all the way to Two Harbors to cover a story about a grumpy guy on my Daily Norseman salary—it is based on some truth. My real-life uncle Ken has been a Vikings curmudgeon as long as I can remember. That story about the Drew Pearson game actually happened at my parents’ old house. Ever since that game, my uncle has been an adamant naysayer of the local team.
My situation isn’t unique. Most Vikings fans have at least one or two people they know that seem to thrive on the negativity of following the team. (If you don’t know anyone like that, chances are you’re the curmudgeon.)
The decades of heartbreak Minnesota has endured are well-documented. I do not plan on reopening those old wounds in this space. Instead I am here to tell you that this year actually feels different. The trends that the Vikings started to buck last year seem to be carrying over into 2016, injuries be damned. These Minnesota Vikings might very well be Curmudgeon Killers.
Back in August—when the joints of Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Sharrif Floyd, and Matt Kalil were still intact—most Vikings fans would have been more than satisfied with a 2-1 start to the 2016 season. Instead they’re undefeated heading into their Monday night showdown with the New York Giants, despite having large portions of their depth chart scrambled since Mankato.
The Vikings defense has been the star of the show throughout the first three games. The D has put the team on its back like Greg Jennings with a broken leg in Madden. Minnesota’s defense is in the top 3 to 5 in nearly every major statistical category as well as most analytical rankings. Those stats are especially impressive considering the last two quarterbacks they faced have MVP trophies on their mantles.
How exactly is the defense doing it? They have basically the same personnel from last year with a little more depth. The 2015 defense was good, perhaps even very good. But through three games this unit has been nothing short of great.
This probably won’t surprise you, but a lot of the credit for the early leap in performance has to go to Mike Zimmer’s defensive schemes. (I’m sure George Edwards has some input here and there too; but let’s be honest, this defense is Zim’s baby.) The Vikings have a ton of players that excel at getting to the quarterback, and not just along their incredibly talented and deep defensive line. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks have proven time and again that they can exploit gaps in opposing blocking schemes to make big plays. One of Zimmer’s favorite tactics over the past couple years has been “sugaring” the A gap, which entails linebackers (usually Barr and/or Kendricks) showing blitz over the center and guards. At the snap, the linebackers can either bring pressure straight up the middle to force a quick throw or drop back to counter anything quick over the middle.
This season the Vikings have been sugaring the entire alphabet of gaps. A, B, C, W (if that was actually a thing), it doesn’t matter. On a handful of plays against the Panthers last week, Minnesota had as many as eight players on the line of scrimmage covering each possible blitzing angle. And since just about everyone lined up that close is more than capable of bringing down the quarterback, it’s tough for offenses to predict where the pressure might come from. This example from the second quarter illustrates the effectiveness of the pre-snap look. Greg Olsen is left alone with both Danielle Hunter and Captain Munnerlyn, which forces Cam Newton to rush his throw, which causes an incompletion, which led to a long field goal attempt clanging off the goalpost.
However, this strategy isn’t foolproof. If the blitz is picked up correctly it can lead to big gains over the top, like this play in the first quarter. With only three defensive players deep, Captain Munnerlyn can’t get back in time to prevent the long completion to Corey Brown.
The key to the success of this pre-snap trickery is to stay unpredictable and have different coverages out of the same looks. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote an excellent breakdown of how well the Vikings are rotating formations and coverage to keep opponents guessing.
For an even further deep dive into the Vikings’ dominance of Carolina, check out this episode of The Film Room from Brett Kollman of Battle Red Blog.
Even with the bevy of pass rushers Minnesota boasts, you don’t sack the quarterback 8 times without some solid coverage. The reintroduction of Xavier Rhodes to the lineup was extremely important, as he was the main defender for a defensive backfield that pitched a complete game shutout of Kelvin Benjamin.
Rhodes had some good help too. After what appeared to be a bad communication blunder that allowed a long pass to Ted Ginn on the first drive, Rhodes and Andrew Sendejo did a nice job of handing off coverage to each other for the rest of the game, as shown on the safety by Hunter. (I’m sure Cam was kicking himself in the film room for missing Ed Dickson in the flat though.)
Shutting down Benjamin was great, but an even tougher task lies ahead this week in the form of Odell Beckham Jr. The enigmatic Giants wide receiver is a nightmare for defensive coordinators, much like kicking nets are a nightmare for him. OBJ had 7 catches for 121 yards against Josh Norman and the Redskins last week, and that was widely considered to be a pretty decent performance of coverage by Washington. Don’t expect another bagel by the opponent’s WR1 this week; Beckham will get his. The Vikings just need to make him earn every yard, which will hopefully frustrate him into another sideline meltdown. Those meltdowns are fun.
The Vikings would be wise to not put all their focus on stopping Beckham anyway. Victor Cruz is back in the mix after playing only six games over the previous two seasons. Rookie wideout Sterling Shepard has been extremely impressive in the first three games of his career, racking up just under 80 yards per game and snagging two touchdowns. The second round pick out of Oklahoma is having the production we’d like to see from a certain first round pick out of Ole Miss. His route running from the slot along with his ability to go up and get the ball should keep Munnerlyn busy on Monday.
Eli Manning could be even busier on Monday. While it sounds like Rashad Jennings will return after missing Week 3, the loss of Shane Vereen makes a Giants backfield that wasn’t all that impressive in the first place less versatile. If Manning is forced into a lot of obvious throwing downs, it might not be pretty. We already saw what the Vikings pass rush can do to scramblers like Newton and Aaron Rodgers; they could tee off on a relative statue like Eli. New York’s offensive line is solid, but this is the best Vikings defense Manning has ever faced. And it’s not like he has done very well against the other Minnesota defenses. His 5:14 career touchdown to interception ratio against Minnesota is something only Ryan Fitzpatrick could love. In fact, Manning has five career touchdown passes against the Vikings as well as five career touchdown passes to the Vikings.
Although Eli has handed out pick sixes to the Vikings like the cool house on the block that gives away king size candy bars on Halloween, Minnesota’s offense is going to need to score a few points too. The offensive line continues to be the Achilles heel of the team, even if there was a slight improvement in pass protection against Carolina. The personnel fluctuations due to injuries continue to be a problem. Before Training Camp, one could have argued that the starting offensive line would have been Kalil/Boone/Sullivan/Harris/Loadholt. After Alex Boone went down Sunday, the Vikings trotted out Clemmings/Sirles/Berger/Fusco/Smith. Not ideal.
The stats back it up too. The Vikings are 31st in total yards and dead last in rushing yards. Last! In rushing! The Minnesota Vikings! It’s a bad sign when Jerick McKinnon has to break four tackles to gain four yards. It’s an even worse sign that McKinnon’s 14-yard run last Sunday was the longest of the season and only the second over 10 yards through the first three games.
Even with such shaky blocking, the offense did show some promise in the passing game in the second half at Carolina. I really liked the play action and designed rollouts that helped counteract the line problems and utilized Sam Bradford’s accuracy.
It was nice to see Kyle Rudolph have such a productive game in Carolina. He and Stefon Diggs have already established a nice connection with Bradford. You know who hasn’t? Charles Johnson. Many have pointed out how Johnson has been open more than his 3 catches for 20 yards might suggest, but I think it might be time to give someone else a large chunk of Johnson’s starting snaps.
And no, I’m not necessarily talking about Laquon Treadwell, who may or may not be working on getting out of Zimmer’s doghouse. Or Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s too valuable as a kick returner and punt gunner to risk injury on offense. (Kidding! Kind of.) I think Adam Thielen has earned the right to an expanded role in the offense. Thielen has on 8 more catches and 104 more yards than Johnson on 22 fewer snaps. I’ll start a #FreeThielen Twitter campaign if that’s what it takes.
No matter who’s lining up at wideout, the Vikings need to find a way to finish off drives better. They have scored only two touchdowns in seven red zone trips this season. When scoring is at a premium, the Vikings can’t keep leaving four points on the field, especially when Blair Walsh is such a big risk of leaving the other three points out there too.
Because as well as the defense is playing, some of their early trends simply aren’t sustainable. For instance, there’s no way they can continue to force turnovers on 25.7% of opponents’ drives. It’s also highly unlikely that safeties and return touchdowns will account for roughly a third of the team’s points like they have through the first three games.
Depending on who you ask, the regression back to more feasible numbers in those areas might mean the team is still just fine or in for a rude awakening. What everyone does seem to agree upon is that the Vikings pass rush is more than sustainable thanks to the incredible amount of talent and versatility of the defense accentuated by Zimmer’s schemes. As long as the defense is making the opposing quarterback’s life miserable, they’ll be in just about every game.
I let my curmudgeon flag fly the past two weeks and picked against the Vikings. In previous years, I might have used this space to talk about Minnesota’s sketchy record in prime time games or their propensity to throw up a clunker when we least expect it.
Not this time. I know the offense still has a lot of strides to make, but this defense is playing at too high of a level to doubt them. I think the Giants could make a couple big plays but not enough to counteract the havoc the defense will wreak. I have a feeling that Diggs and Rudolph could have big days against a decent but not overwhelming Giants secondary. If the Vikings follow their formula of pressuring the quarterback and limiting mistakes, I think they’ll win rather comfortably.
It’s hard out there these days for a curmudgeon. Let’s hope the Vikings keep it that way.
Vikings 27, Giants 17
(And yes, I realize that if the Vikings lose I will be forced to reverting back into Curmudgeon Mode and pick against them every week. I’ll look to Ken for motivation.)
And now for the rest of my Week 4 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BENGALS over Dolphins
One week after picking Miami as my Survivor Pool pick (and barely skating by after the Browns went full Browns), I’m picking against them in this week’s Survivor Pool. Seems poetic.
JAGUARS over Colts
With Bridgewater injured and Derek Carr dominating the “Best QB from the 2014 draft class” discussion, it’s nice to see Blake Bortles taking himself completely out of the conversation this year. That said, Jacksonville is desperate. If they can’t beat a team from their own crappy division, even if it is in London, who can they beat?
Panthers over FALCONS
An angry Carolina team looking to avenge their only loss of the 2015 regular season against the Falcons coming off a short week? Sign me up.
PATRIOTS over Bills
I have been dumb enough to pick against New England twice already this year. The Pats could start an orangutan at QB in the last week of Tom Brady’s suspension and I’d still pick them.
Lions over BEARS
Have you ever simulated 20 seasons of Madden and then checked your roster to find that all your stars are long retired and replaced by nothing but generic, below-average players? That’s exactly what the Bears are like right now.
REDSKINS over Browns
Unless they find a way to clone Terrelle Pryor ten times before kickoff, there’s no way I’m picking Cleveland to beat anybody on the road.
TEXANS over Titans
Dealing with the loss of J.J. Watt is going to be very tough for the Texans. But it isn’t as tough as the Titans having to deal with the fact that Mike Mularkey is still their head coach.
Raiders over RAVENS
It’s going to be difficult for Baltimore to adjust to the game speed of Oakland after playing seven preseason games to start the year.
JETS over Seahawks
I know, I know. How the hell can I pick Ryan Sixpicktrick to beat Seattle? Look at the Jets’ defensive front. Then look at Seattle’s offensive line. Then look at how banged up Russell Wilson is already. That’s how.
Broncos over BUCCANEERS
Congratulations, Tampa! After pissing away a very winnable game last week, you get to host the best defense in the league and an unfathomably competent Trevor Siemian! Have fun!
Cowboys over 49ERS
After shutting out the Rams in Week 1, the Niners have allowed 83 points over the past two games. The lesson, as always: never trust the results of that weird late Monday Night opening game.
CARDINALS over Rams
Either the Cardinals win this game by 20+ points or their implosion continues and they lose in ugly fashion. No in between.
CHARGERS over Saints
It’s the battle of fan bases that are clinging to the talent of past-their-prime quarterbacks while the rest of the team crumbles around them! Good times.
STEELERS over Chiefs
I think Pittsburgh will bounce back after their embarrassing loss last week. After all, they don’t have to face a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback from the football factory that is North Dakota State this time. (Go Bison!)
Last week: 6-10 (woof)
Season so far: 27-21