Going into the weekend, I thought Sam Bradford would start, despite his knee issue. Short week, still early in season, take it easy in practice, MRI negative, Zimmer expected him to play- cortisone shot before the game and he’d be good to go. But no.
Just what is going on there is irritating and perhaps will lead to more missed time for Bradford if he needs to have his knee cleaned out. Be that as it may, Bradford being a late scratch made a tough road game more difficult with Case Keenum suddenly starting at QB.
The defense was able to step up early and get a quick out for Big Ben and company, and a lot of players played well the whole game. But offensively, Pat Shurmur went with the ‘starting a backup QB who we don’t trust to throw the ball’ play calling sequence, which was quickly sniffed out by the Steelers, with predictable results: run for little or no gain on early downs, forcing difficult 3rd and long conversions with heavy pressure, and poor situations for Case Keenum and the offensive line to be successful. Sadly, Pat Shurmur doomed the offense with that predictable play-calling for most of the first half, leading to a total of 3 points. A few penalties on offense didn’t help either.
Meanwhile, on defense, the very good play from the very good players the Vikings have on defense was undercut by the poor play from a couple weak links whose playing time needs to come under serious review going forward.
The first of these weak links is Brian Robison, whose employment was extended in a Minnesota nice deal that Robison has done nothing to validate. He sucks. Period. He’s the highest paid backup on the team, basically took the whole pre-season off nursing some injury or other he said, then has done absolutely nothing as a pass rusher or run stopper. And then the 11-year veteran commits one of the stupidest penalties imaginable- being drawn offsides on an obvious attempt to draw him offsides on 4th down. Time to pull the plug on Robison. Sorry. The feel-good story of him finishing out his deal out of the good graces of Rick Spielman and the Vikings front office doesn’t feel good anymore because he has done nothing to justify his roster spot or $5m in guaranteed salary. He stopped pulling his weight as soon as the ink was dry on his re-worked contract. Anyway, Robison’s offsides negated what would have been another quick out for the Vikings defense, and instead led ultimately to the Steelers first touchdown. He continued to be a liability against the run, and was outmatched against the pass.
The second weak link who plagued an otherwise strong performance of the Vikings defense was Trae Waynes. He has not shown the improvement expected over last year, and now in his third year, rather than gaining mastery of the position, he looks more like he’s lost a step. This is a guy who ran a 4.3 40", and yet gets burned all the time on deep routes. This far into his career, there’s no excuses. Either you’ve figured things out by now or you haven’t. Or won’t more likely. At this point, the Vikings need to adjust coverage schemes to account for Waynes’ extensive shortcomings. Even MacKenzie Alexander played better. Messrs Zimmer and Spielman need to have a frank conversation with Waynes: start playing like a first-round pick or your career is over after your rookie deal. We won’t pick up your option, and in the meantime your playing time will be reduced in favor of Tramaine Brock and others who play better than you. Waynes needed a PI penalty to make up for one burn, gave up another deep ball another time, and was burned at least one other time that I noticed, but luckily Roethlisberger did not.
Andrew Sendejo also did not play well at all. Apparently he seems to think his job as safety is to lead the chase as receivers run by him, rather than, you know, get involved in coverage. In his 8th season, you’d expect a little more instinct or at least recognition to get off the dime in center field and provide help over the top on a post or deep slant route, but instead he just stood there and watched Martavius Bryant run past him for a touchdown. Sendejo was equally bad blitzing- and really he’s so bad I don’t know why they even bother anymore. He seems to regard blitzing as a blocking assignment, as he never fails to find someone to run into, and then holds his block very well. I don’t see the point of him anymore as a starter. Kearse is as good in run support, and at least has more upside in coverage and as a pass rusher.
But outside of these three duds, there were good performances all around. Griffen. Rhodes. Barr. Joseph. Alexander- yes Alexander. Smith. It was very frustrating to see those performances squandered by poor showings from a few who don’t deserve the snaps they’re getting.
Offensively, obviously the Vikings were hurt by having Keenum at QB instead of Bradford. But that disadvantage could have been mitigated had the rest of the offensive unit stepped up- starting with Pat Shurmur. As I mentioned earlier, Shurmur’s play-calling in the first half was a recipe for failure, and fail it did, digging a deeper hole for the offense in the second half, and giving the struggling Steelers offense more opportunities to get something going.
But penalties effectively killed at least two drives, a drop by Cook killed another one. Had it been Bradford starting, these mistakes could have been overcome, or if the play-calling early had not played into the Steelers preferred defensive gameplan, the offense could have been much more effective. But such was not the case.
Keenum himself was not terrible, but again, the predictable play-calling, and penalties, allowed the Steelers to pressure Keenum in favorable situations which were difficult for both the offensive line and Keenum to handle well. It’s much more difficult to block well when the defense knows the play call, and is able to blitz without getting exposed with an effective counter-play. Similarly, it’s difficult for a QB like Keenum, being thrust into starting at the last minute, to throw as well as he did in pre-season when he was under so much pressure, forcing him to move off his spot and make some poor throws. He was slow to pull the trigger on a couple throws, perhaps not surprisingly under the circumstances, but that hurt too. But these are common issues when forced to start a backup QB. Not having Bradford’s ability to audible at the line was a significant loss too. But the poor, predictable play-calling made everything much more difficult for players to execute, played into the Steelers preferred gameplan, and allowed them to cover-up the weaknesses in their secondary.
The only success on offense came in the second half when Shurmur made some adjustments and began passing on early downs, rather than the predictable run, keeping the Steelers defense honest, and leading to manageable 3rd downs and easier, more effective shots downfield. Which, in turn, helped open some running lanes for Dalvin Cook.
But it was too little, too late as the defense began to wear down, giving up field goals or field position, increasing the load on Keenum’s back.
It was a frustrating game to watch, as the mistakes and poor play-calling led to a predictable defeat in what was a winnable game for the Vikings, even with Case Keenum at QB. The Vikings kept the Steelers big play-makers- Bell and Brown- in check the whole game, and when the play-calling improved, the offensive line gave Keenum enough time to make some throws and drive the field. But with only one half of decent play-calling and expensive mistakes on defense (and special teams) leading to TDs and FGs for an otherwise neutered Steelers offense, it wasn’t nearly enough.
There are lessons the Vikings coaching staff need to digest from this performance, and its not just that Bradford needs to be healthy. Play-calling can’t be dumbed down because a backup is at QB. It’s a recipe for failure that makes it harder for everyone to execute the offensive effectively. And when guys aren’t getting it done on the field, they need to be sitting on the bench. Adjusting downward the playing time for Robison, Waynes and Sendejo makes immediate sense and sends a message of meritocracy that will resonate with guys getting it done, those waiting for their chance, and hopefully -most importantly- to those few not carrying their weight and bringing down the team.
Taking the lessons of this game to heart and acting on them will make the Vikings a better football team no matter who starts at QB. And that’s the best thing you can do with a loss like this one.