From behind the great E$PN paywall, we have a couple of stories that show that the Minnesota Vikings’ claim as one of the NFL’s best teams at the midway point of the season goes deeper than their 6-2 record.
The folks from Football Outsiders have put together lists of their top ten offenses and defenses at the midway point of the 2017 NFL season, and the purple find themselves on both lists. Granted, they’re just barely on both lists. . .they’re listed at #10 in both categories. . .but they’re on there. Football Outsiders has looked at the both how the units have performed to this point and their outlook for the remainder of the season, and it seems to be largely positive for our favorite football team.
We’ll start with the offense, which Football Outsiders has as being 10% better than the average NFL offense through the first eight games of the season.
The Vikings' offense is only 15th in the league with 5.5 yards per play, but DVOA gives them a boost because they've done that against the third-toughest schedule of opposing defenses.
Injury to Sam Bradford? No problem. Case Keenum is somehow fourth in the league in passing DVOA and sixth in QBR. Injury to Dalvin Cook? No problem. Minnesota's rushing average has dropped by only a tenth of a yard per carry since Cook's injury, and their rushing DVOA has actually gone up slightly.
Keenum's performance so far is built on strength under pressure and passes on play-action. The Vikings are second in the league with 9.7 yards per play-action pass. When Keenum is under pressure, he has completed more than half his passes and averages 5.86 yards per dropback, second in the NFL.
The Football Outsiders folks are fairly complementary of Keenum in the first portion of their analysis, but in their future outlook seem to think that his current pace is unsustainable. . .though he might not have to worry about sustaining it.
Looking ahead: Given the rest of Case Keenum's career numbers, it is very unlikely that he can keep this up the rest of the season. But he probably doesn't have to, with either Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford (or both) returning soon. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't get much easier: It ranked third so far, and it ranks sixth the rest of the way.
While I understand that people are excited for the possibility of Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford coming back, I’m not sure why the idea of Keenum continuing to play solid football is dismissed as “unsustainable.” Granted, he’s not necessarily on pace to break any sort of records or anything, but he’s doing the important things for a team whose calling card is, and will continue to be, its defense. In 6.5 games, Keenum has turned the ball over three times. Given the improvement in the offensive line and Keenum’s ability to avoid the rush, I think he certainly could continue providing what he’s providing. Would I rather see Bradford or Bridgewater? Yes, I think I would, but I don’t necessarily think this team is dead in the water with Keenum back there.
Now, we’ll move on to the defense, which also ranks at #10 and is also 10% above the average NFL defense.
The Vikings have shut down opposing offenses by getting strong when it's most important. They rank only 26th in defensive DVOA on first downs, but they are the best defense in the league this year on third or fourth downs. They also rank second in goal-to-go situations. (The New Orleans Saints, shockingly, rank No. 1 there.)
The Vikings rank fourth in run defense DVOA, and they do it by stopping long runs. The Vikings only stuff opposing runners for a loss or no gain 17.6 percent of the time, 27th in the NFL. However, they rank third in second-level yards per carry (gained between 5 and 10 yards after the line of scrimmage) and No. 1 in open-field yards per carry (gained over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage).
In the secondary, the Vikings need to figure out how to divert opposing attention from cornerback Trae Waynes. Waynes has been targeted roughly 50 percent more often than Xavier Rhodes and has allowed 8.4 yards per pass, as compared to 5.4 yards per pass for Rhodes.
Certainly, Waynes has had a couple of tough goes of it this season, but he’s steadily gotten better from what I’ve seen. And let’s face it, any cornerback that plays on the opposite side of Xavier Rhodes is going to get thrown at a lot because teams just don’t throw at Rhodes anymore. But, they’re getting off the field, and the offense is giving them enough opportunities to stay fresh so that they don’t burn out like they did towards the tail end of last season. Really, with this defense, that’s about all they require of the offense.
As far as the outlook for the remainder of the season, here’s what FO has to say.
Looking ahead: There are strong indicators for the Vikings to continue playing well in the second half of the year. The schedule gets easier (from 12th to 25th), and unlike most of the teams on this list they haven't depended on a lot of turnovers (10.7 percent of drives, 18th in the league).
This defense has been dominant this season, and the offenses they’ll be seeing the rest of the way aren’t exactly setting the world on fire to this point. Yes, five of their remaining eight contests are on the road, but this team has shown that they don’t have to be scared to death of playing outside of U.S. Bank Stadium anymore. But this defense is as talented as any in the National Football League, and will only continue to get better.
So, it appears that there’s reason for optimism for fans of the Minnesota Vikings for the remainder of the 2017 season. This team has its fate firmly in its own hands, and after what happened in 2016, I have a feeling that they’re not going to allow it to slip away.