It’s halftime. Season halftime that is. And with the Vikings just finishing their bye-week, there’s some time to look back on what worked, and what didn’t, in the first half, do a little self-scouting, and perhaps make some adjustments before the Vikings take the field for the all-important second half of the regular season.
Let’s start with a run-down of Vikings team stats, ranking first, followed by the statistic in parentheses. In general, the defense has improved from the start of the season, while the offense has fallen back in overall rankings in many key stats.
Yards per Game Allowed: 4th (282.1)
Points per Game Allowed: 3rd (16.9)
3rd Down Conversions Allowed: 2nd (27.72%)
Red Zone TD Percentage Allowed: tied 3rd (40%)
Rushing Yards Allowed per Game: 3rd (81.4)
Passing Yards Allowed per Game: 7th (200.8)
Avg. Passer Rating Allowed: 8th (81.2)
Sack Rate: 8th (7.92%)
Yards per Play Allowed: 2nd (4.6)
Overall, the Vikings defense is clearly a top 5 unit overall, if not top 3, and fairly consistently so against both run and pass, and in key situational play. Since the beginning of the season, we’ve seen improvement in some of the weak links last year, particularly Anthony Barr, but also Trae Waynes, albeit against some less than stellar offenses. The slot cornerback position, which was a question mark at the beginning of the season, has solidified very nicely with Terence Newman taking most of the reps, and MacKenzie Alexander showing he can play well there too - perhaps surprisingly from his performances in pre-season and early in the season.
But the focus this past off-season on improving the run defense, getting more TFLs in run defense, and in key situational play- 3rd downs and red zone defense- has paid dividends on the field this year. The main concern going forward is injuries. Last season the defense suffered some key injuries for some games in the latter half of the year which had an impact on more than a few games in November and December. Currently everyone is healthy on defense and rested now with the bye week- hopefully that will continue.
Yards per Game: 11th (358.5)
Points per Game: 13th (22.4)
3rd Down Conversions: 6th (42.73%)
Red Zone TD Percentage: 25th (46.43%)
Avg. Red Zone Scoring Attempts per Game: 5th (3.5)
Rushing yards per Game: 9th (120.0)
Passing yards per Game: 14th (238.5)
Average Passer Rating: 12th (94.0)
Sack Rate Allowed: 2nd (3.48%)
Yards per Play: tied 14th (5.5)
Looking at the these key offensive stats, the glaring stand-out is red-zone conversion percentage. The Vikings offense does a good job moving the ball between the 20s- but struggle to get TDs. All the other stats suggest an offense somewhere in the top 10-15 overall. But the failure to improve in the red zone- a point of emphasis in the off-season- brings the offense close to league average in the most important offensive stat: points per game. Getting that red zone conversion rate up to the 10-15 ranking- where the rest of the Vikings offensive stats are for the most part- would add another 2-4 points to the Vikings average per game, and make it that much tougher for opponents to win, having to score 25 points rather than about 22, on average to get the victory. Being more effective in the red zone would also prevent the very anemic point production games, and improve game dynamics- making it easier for the Vikings defense to wreck havoc.
Hopefully OC Pat Shurmur can dial up some good calls in the red zone to improve production. But red zone improvement is more dependent on better play execution. Too often the Vikings have had miscues inside the red zone that have impacted their effectiveness. Having a full complement of play-makers on offense healthy - Diggs in particular- may help too. This is also an area where Case Keenum can improve. Firing a bullet into a tight window, along with a nice touch on corner routes and back shoulder fades, would help get the job done.
TURNOVERS AND SPECIAL TEAMS
As dominant as the Vikings defense has been in the first half of the season, one area they have struggled has been generating takeaways. Averaging only 1.2 takeaways per game, the Vikings defense ranks 20th. Getting up to top 5 in that category- similar to other Vikings defensive rankings- would give the Vikings one more turnover per game - another stat that greatly increases the likelihood of victory. Even more, scoring by the Vikings defense greatly increases the likelihood of a Vikings victory. So far, the Vikings are one of only 7 teams without a non-offensive touchdown.
That includes special teams touchdowns too. And while the Vikings special teams units have been good overall in coverage, returns have been down from last year. Losing Cordarrelle Patterson certainly has something to do with that, but also return blocking hasn’t been as good either. At this point it doesn’t look like that will change much, as no returner for the Vikings has gotten much traction. But perhaps the Vikings and special teams coach Mike Priefer can get something going to at least get past the 25 on kick returns (and avoid worse than 25-yard line field position), while maybe getting a punt return for a touchdown here or there.
Last year at this point, the Vikings defense and special teams had been scoring at an “unsustainable” rate, leading a couple analysts to predict the Vikings would fall as the season wore on. This year, the Vikings haven’t had any help scoring from their defense or special teams return units, which may also be unsustainable, at least to the extent you would not expect the Vikings to go scoreless all season on defense and special teams combined.
Look for more help from these units in the second half. It may not be much, but it could also be key in close games.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) Stats
Turning now to individual player and position group performance stats, the Vikings have a number of top players- on both sides of the ball - when it comes to PFF grades. Some are skeptical of PFF grades, and they have some limitations, but as an objective measure of a player’s performance that includes every down- and not just selective plays or stats - it is a good measure for evaluating overall performance for most positions. Let’s break down how the Vikings were graded through the first 8 games of the season.
Grades of 90 and above are considered elite, 85-89.9 = very good, 80-84.9 = good, 70-79.9 = average or above, 60-69.9 = below average, and below 60 = poor. I also included the overall position ranking in the league in parentheses, followed by total number of snaps played.
Everson Griffen: 89.4 (9th) 443.
Linval Joseph: 90.0 (6th) 314.
Tom Johnson: 73.8 (71st) 340.
Danielle Hunter: 83.6 (18th) 400.
Brian Robison: 50.7 (92nd) 324.
Shamar Stephen: 76.4 (60th) 200.
Both Griffen and Joseph are playing at basically an elite level through 8 games, Griffen being one of the top sack leaders, and Joseph a top run stopper. Hunter has also played very well, although his sack total is down so far. But he continues to generate pressure, and is also very good against the run. Both Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen are having good seasons so far, compared to how they’ve performed in previous years- particularly Stephen - who’s never had an overall season grade above 50.3 since entering the league. Stephen backs up both Joseph and Tom Johnson. One could make the case for more playing time for Jaleel Johnson, who’s only played a handful of downs, given how Robison has played.
Anthony Barr: 86.2 (6th) 466.
Eric Kendricks: 64.3 (45th) 508.
Ben Gedeon: 71.9 (NR) 119.
Emmanuel Lamur: 76.5 (NR) 49.
It has been a pleasure, and a relief, to see Anthony Barr return to his 2015 form. He has played very well in all phases, but particularly in coverage- where he struggled mightily last year. You may wonder why Kendricks is graded so low, and that is due to missed tackles primarily in run defense- where his grade is only 38.5. In coverage, he continues to do very well, grading out at 80.5. You can see from the snap count for Ben Gedeon how seldom the Vikings use their base defense.
Xavier Rhodes: 83.1 (16th) 471.
Trae Waynes: 74.9 (57th) 463.
Terence Newman: 80.9 (34th) 291.
MacKensie Alexander: 71.8 (69th) 173.
Perhaps most important in this group is that there is no major weak link. Waynes get tested, and targeted, the most, but continues to improve. He has given up big plays and penalties, but those have become fewer as the season has progressed. Waynes is also excellent in run defense. Xavier Rhodes’ grade suffers some because it does not include a ‘degree of difficulty’ factor, as he is often called upon to shadow the opponent’s best receiver. He has done an excellent job shutting down those receivers during the first half of the season. Newman has quietly played very well yet again, and is also helping to bring along 2nd year man Alexander, who has improved significantly from pre-season.
Harrison Smith: 93.7 (1st) 510.
Andrew Sendejo: 70.6 (58th) 386.
Anthony Harris: 74.5 (NR) 124.
Harrison Smith is the highest graded safety in the league through 8 games, putting him on pace for an All-Pro season. He may have the nickname ‘hit-man’, but Andrew Sendejo has perhaps the better claim to that title so far this season, having laid out a couple guys pretty well - and paying the price in fines and a one-game suspension. It’s nice to see Anthony Harris step-up in the two games he replaced Sendejo - actually grading out higher than the 30-year old veteran.
If you look at all the Vikings starters, including those with the most snaps, the starting roster includes 3 elite, or near elite players, and a total of 7 starters graded 80 or above. And excepting Kendricks’ run defense grade, nobody is graded below average. This is a defense that, if it remains healthy, may begin to see more rewards in terms of turnovers and big plays than its seen so far this season.
Pat Elflein: 41.4 (32nd) 558.
Joe Berger: 73.8 (24th) 556.
Riley Reiff: 74.2 (28th) 539.
Mike Remmers: 79.0 (13th) 479.
Nick Easton: 41.2 (56th) 318.
Jeremiah Sirles: 50.8 (NR) 128.
Danny Isidora: 29.0 (NR) 114.
Rashod Hill: 62.7 (NR) 98.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at these numbers, but the Vikings offensive line has allowed the 2nd lowest sack rate in the league during the first-half of the season. Other factors influence sacks- QB mobility/pocket awareness and how quick he gets the ball out - but not giving up those big negative plays is a big win for this offensive line. Particularly when you have a QB that can do well under pressure- and the Vikings have 3 of them - maybe 4 if you count Sloter. Anyway, credit goes mostly to the play of the Vikings’ two newly acquired tackles - Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. I believe they’ve only given up one sack between them so far. Who would’ve thought Mike Remmers would be the highest graded tackle on the Vikings offensive line? Or the best starting pass protector? But he has been. The weak spot has been center and left guard, but even there Nick Easton has at least been average (72.8) in pass protection. Yielding some pressure there with a mobile QB isn’t the end of the world, so long as he can escape the pocket with help from the tackles. It’s the run blocking at those two positions, however, that has suffered. Often times stuffed runs come from defenders in the interior, getting the best of the young linemen the Vikings have there. Still, they’ve faced some pretty good defensive fronts so far, and kept battling, so perhaps there is reason to expect improvement in the second half. But even as is, it’s good enough to get the job done.
Case Keenum: 77.6 (17th) 463.
Sam Bradford: 68.9 (NR) 89.
Looking over the first half of the season at QB, Sam Bradford had one great game (Saints) and one bad half (Bears). Case Keenum’s play hasn’t been so clear. He had one great game (Bucs), and another very good half (Bears). He had a bad game against the Steelers- his first start with little prep time- but also some lackluster performances against the Lions, Packers and Ravens. Even in the first half against the Browns he wasn’t really good either. And yet he’s 4-2 as a starter, and was key in the victory over the Bears as well. And apart from the Steelers game, you can’t really pin a loss on him. The Lions game had 3 fumbles in the 2nd half, and a missed field goal, that weren’t his fault. He hasn’t been stellar, but he’s been good enough. Still, to play in that home game in February, he’ll have to play a little better- or at least someone at QB will need to play a little better. For Keenum, he could benefit from seeing more of the field. I think sometimes, or even often times, he gets too focused on Thielen- who gets 28% of all targets, and half the targets to wide receivers - and he misses other guys that are open. Obviously there is a trust factor there- Thielen seldom lets him down- but there is an opportunity cost at times.
Adam Thielen: 83.6 (tied 7th) 528.
Stefon Diggs: 83.6 (tied 7th) 333.
Laquon Treadwell: 47.6 (92nd) 313.
Jarius Wright: 73.1 (NR) 133.
Michael Floyd: 48.5 (NR) 76.
The Thielen/Diggs duo has been at least somewhat of a surprise, at least perhaps the degree of their success so far this year. They have combined for over 1,000 yards receiving in the first half of the season, and with Diggs missing two of those games. Jarius Wright continues to do what he does- play pretty well in limited reps. Laquon Treadwell has been involved a bit, and had a couple nice catches, but with only 142 yards receiving on 21 targets and 12 receptions in 313 snaps- that’s damning with faint praise. In Treadwell’s defense I think he is a better player than his stats show, but I suspect he finds it difficult to get throws his way when Thielen and Diggs are on the field. Diggs has been targeted twice as often in roughly the same number of snaps. It would be nice if Treadwell were more involved, but it needs to be earned. The interception at the beginning of the Ravens game was an attempt that didn’t work out- he needs to make that catch or at least not let it be intercepted whatever the case. But hopefully they haven’t given up on him either. Michael Floyd has missed more time after his suspension due to injury, and has only 5 targets.
Kyle Rudolph: 75.3 (13th) 525.
David Morgan: 65.1 (27) 154.
Blake Bell: 47.8 (NR) 66.
Through about 4 games, all the tight ends looked poor. It’s been only over the past few games that Rudolph has improved, both as a blocker and getting more targets as a receiver as well. Rudolph is a career 70s TE according to his PFF grades since entering the league, and I find that disappointing after this many years. Still, he makes the catches to move the chains, along with an occasional TD, so he fulfills expectations for receiving as a tight-end, even if he doesn’t really do much more. But where he falls short is in his blocking. Both as a run and pass blocker, Rudolph continues to struggle in his 7th year in the league. David Morgan, who is the blocking TE, doesn’t do much better. I never really understood the whole deal of releasing Bucky Hodges in favor of Blake Bell. Hodges did well blocking in pre-season, and has a ton more receiving ability, and yet the Vikings signed Bell, who doesn’t do either very well. Still, it’s at least encouraging that Rudolph is doing better in recent weeks. Hopefully that will continue in the second half.
Jerick McKinnon: 81.2 (10th) 237.
Dalvin Cook: 82.0 (9th) 169.
Latavius Murray: 50.2 (53rd) 153.
CJ Ham: 49.8 (NR) 85.
Looking at the grades, it’s easy to say that McKinnon has replaced Dalvin Cook pretty well. But I’m not sure that’s true. My sense with Cook was that he was just getting going went he went down with an ACL, and that’s still a tough loss as I bet he would’ve been the OROY winner had he remained healthy. Still, McKinnon has done well in his stead. He’s not the runner Cook is, but he has done very well as a receiver, and in pass protection- which is new for him this year. McKinnon has picked up blitzing linebackers several times and in at least a few cases those were key blocks that led to big plays. But his strength so far this season has been as a receiver. His 28 receptions so far is behind only Thielen and Rudolph. Murray had one good game so far, but overall has been something of a disappointment. I don’t really see the burst from him, or the power from a 230 lbs back, that you’d like to see. Even as a pass blocker he has been a little underwhelming so far. Hopefully that will improve, but I don’t see him eclipsing McKinnon in playing time or production. Overall McKinnon seems to be improving, and becoming more comfortable with the offense, as the year goes on. Hopefully that will continue too.
The Vikings offense has sputtered on many occasions during the first half of the season, particularly against the Steelers and Lions. But overall, now that Keenum is more established, when the Vikings take care of the ball, they can move it well enough to score. They can move the chains, and get the occasional big play. But where improvement is needed most is in the red zone. If the Vikings offense can turn one more field goal into a touchdown instead, it will make a big difference in their prospects going forward. They can get to the red zone as well as just about any offense (5th in the league in red zone opportunities per game), but near the bottom in getting touchdowns on those attempts (25th). They have all the tools to be more productive in the red zone. But I think Keenum and the offense could benefit from a little more nuanced play design, spreading the ball around a little more, and running more up-tempo in the red zone. Hopefully Pat Shurmur will take the bye-week to install some new plays and practice more up-tempo, in an effort to add new wrinkles and more production for the offense in the second half.
Looking at the Vikings tendencies, defensively Mike Zimmer has never relied on exotic blitz packages or different looks. In fact, just the opposite. His defense is centered around doing different things out of the same look, which gives opposing QBs little to work with pre-snap. Most often the Vikings defense will show a cover-2 shell pre-snap, and half the time that’s what it remains. The other half a safety will move down, leaving a single-high safety. The corners usually have man coverage, but vary between press and off-coverage, and can also drop back into zone coverage as well - but all from the same look pre-snap.
Given that, it’s difficult for opposing offenses to get much in terms of tendencies with a particular look or when or whether they play zone or man in a given situation. Some situations in terms of down and distance and/or field position may be more obvious, but at the end of the day opposing offenses will look more at match-ups and post-snap reads. Given the strengths of the Vikings secondary, expect more targets on Trae Waynes, and Andrew Sendejo, as weak links in coverage. The Vikings are particularly tough on 3rd down, so keeping out of 3rd and long may be a focus that leads to more conservative play-calling at times on first and second down. Generally run defense is weaker on the Vikings defensive right side than left, depending on the formation, so that may be an area some teams may test, but sealing off Linval Joseph has proven rather problematic so far this season.
Bottom line, Zimmer’s defense is difficult to cheat by looking at tendencies, as they are hard to identify- particularly pre-snap - which often takes away audibles and leaves more for the QB to identify at the line and post-snap.
Offensively, there may be more tendencies for opposing defenses to identify. Top of that list is the focus on Adam Thielen as a go-to receiver. It’s no secret Thielen will be targeted often by Keenum, so I would expect teams to have a plan in place to limit Thielen’s production, and force Keenum to look elsewhere, where he is less comfortable. A healthy Diggs could overcome that, as could a more involved and productive Treadwell, but I would expect Thielen to get more attention from opposing defenses top corners than may have been the case so far this year, particularly as Thielen plays a lot in the slot, which makes putting a top outside corner on him more problematic. Having a safety focus on him over the top may be a way for defenses to take him away, but leaving opportunity for other receivers.
In the run game, I suspect defenses may look to shore up defending the off-tackle runs, as the interior runs have not been as productive, in part due to less effective run blocking inside. It will be interesting to see how often opposing defenses blitz at this point. So far, Keenum has held up well against pressure and blitzes, and the Vikings have done a pretty good job picking them up. Additionally, the Vikings have had some success on screens, leading to some big plays. It may be that defenses refrain a bit more on blitzes and look more to stifle the Vikings passing game with coverage. Of course that will depend on the particular defense and how good their secondary is, but unlike last year, blitzes have not been as effective against the Vikings offense this year. We’ll see. It may be also that defenses look to contain Keenum in the pocket, as he’s done well generally making plays outside the pocket. Overall, however, if the key play-makers on offense remain healthy- Diggs, Thielen and McKinnon in particular- I think it will be hard for opposing defenses to focus too much on any one particular element of the Vikings offense, as long as the Vikings are able to spread the ball around effectively.
THE RETURN OF TEDDY BRIDGEWATER
All signs point to Bridgewater being activated this week, and becoming backup to Keenum. That makes sense if he’s healthy and ready and able to play, particularly if Bradford is not- which continues to be the case. On the other hand, I think it is difficult to start Bridgewater if Keenum is playing reasonably well. And by that I mean not losing games due to his performance. Reports that Bridgewater is stronger and healthy are encouraging, but he still hasn’t played in almost two years. Expecting to come in where he left off, and be an immediate improvement over Keenum is probably not realistic. It would be nice if the Vikings had a good lead late in a game to have Bridgewater get some playing time, and see how he does. But it’s hard to see him becoming a noticeable improvement at this point, given his lack of playing time. Of course if Keenum is hurt that’s a different story, and hopefully he can come in and play well, but unless Keenum proves to be less than adequate, I’m not sure how soon Bridgewater will be starting, if at all. Time will tell.
Before the season began, I went on record with a bold 12-4 prediction for the Vikings this season. At 6-2 at the halfway point, they’re on track for 12-4, so I’ll stick with my prediction. Obviously losing Bradford after one game was not anticipated, nor losing Cook, who I saw as being a key play-maker, but neither was the Packers losing Aaron Rodgers. I would be happier if the Vikings were 7-1 at this point, rather than 6-2, but 12-4 is still doable. The key test is the five games over the next month. This stretch will tell a lot about how far this Vikings team can go. My hope is that they can go 3-2 over these five games, or better, and finish up with 3 wins against struggling teams- Cincinnati, Green Bay and Chicago. But each of the next five games present a challenge. Washington has proven a tough match for the Vikings in the past, and the Rams are looking very good on both sides of the ball. Detroit on Thanksgiving won’t be easy, and both the Falcons and Panthers on the road present big challenges. None of those games are out of reach, and I expect all of them to be close. But the Vikings will have to find a way to win in the second half, and show they have just as much ability to finish against a playoff team as against the Browns. They will need to step up in terms of turnovers and in the red zone to get it done, but all the tools and talent are there.
How will the Vikings finish the regular season?
This poll is closed
13-3 or better
9-7 or worse