For the second time in as many years, the Vikings are dealing with the ultimate injury broadside in all of professional sports: losing their starting QB. No position is more important, and typically the drop-off in performance between starter and backup is steep, unless your starter sucked to begin with.
Entering the regular season, the Vikings were about as deep at QB as anytime I can remember. Beyond Bradford as starter, Case Keenum was the primary backup, who looked good in extensive time in pre-season. Keenum looked like an improvement over Shaun Hill as well- younger, stronger arm, better mobility- and yet also with a fair amount of NFL starting experience.
And beyond Keenum, the Vikings picked up a highly coveted 3rd-string developmental QB in Kyle Sloter, who had some very promising tape in his pre-season games with Denver.
All this alongside Teddy Bridgewater, one-time QBOTF, who’s return has been in question, but could possibly be as soon as sometime later this season- perhaps November. Nobody really knows.
All tolled, that’s about as deep as a QB depth chart as you’re likely to have- ever.
But the reality is, as long as Bradford can’t start, Keenum is the starter. Sloter may have looked good in pre-season, but not necessarily better than Keenum, who has more NFL experience under his belt, and more time working with the scheme and players. And the reality with Bridgewater is, even if he’s able to play around mid-season, it’s still gonna take him some time to get him prepared and up-to-speed to play an NFL game- which he wouldn’t have done for basically two years.
So that still leaves Keenum as the only realistic backup option, barring an injury to him.
Ok, so Keenum it is. The question remains: can the Vikings win with him at QB? And by that, can he win enough games in Bradford’s absence to get the Vikings to the post-season?
Winning with Keenum
Last week’s game at Pittsburgh provided a look at the Vikings’ offense with Keenum at the helm- and it was not a pretty one. But it was instructive in several ways.
First, just as when Bradford was at the helm, penalties are drive killers. Getting into third-and-long in the NFL is not a recipe for success, particularly with a backup QB in the game. Keenum was able to convert at least one third-and-22, but the reality is Keenum doesn’t have the skillset to convert 3rd-and-long as readily as Bradford. That leaves it up to the rest of the offense to minimize penalties- something the Vikings offense can’t afford with Keenum behind center.
Secondly, and at least as important as the first point, is that play-calling cannot be predictable. Yes, there is a backup QB in the game, and yes he doesn’t have the ability to deliver the ball like Bradford, but that doesn’t mean going conservative with play-calling. That is a recipe for failure, as the Steelers game made abundantly clear.
The best way to have success passing with Keenum is to pass on down-and-distances when the play is harder to predict. Like 1st-and-10. Or 2nd-and-6. These are situations when play-action is most effective, and when exotic blitzes are less likely to be called. Establishing the fact that Keenum can pass effectively will go a long way toward keeping a defense honest. Mixing up the play-calls will keep them off-balance. And that is the best situation for success- both in giving Keenum the best chance at success passing the ball, the offensive line in pass protection, and also to achieve success running the ball with Dalvin Cook. We had a glimpse of that last week too, in the second-half, when Shurmur abandoned the more predictable play-calling sequences.
But without a bold approach to play-calling, the offense will be predictable, and everybody’s assignment more difficult- not just Keenum’s but the offensive line, and other skills positions too.
Third, the Vikings have to install and practice counter-blitz plays, whether screens, hot-reads, roll-outs, audibles or what have you. Opposing defenses are still gonna challenge Keenum and the newly-constructed offensive line with pressure every which way they can. Having success against that blitz pressure is the best way to get rid of it. Allowing a backup QB to audible out of a play is not something most offensive coordinators would feel comfortable allowing. But if Keenum can handle it, he should have that ability. Keenum has had a couple years experience starting in the NFL, and that should give him at least some skill in reading defenses. He’s also had the entire off-season to learn the Vikings offensive scheme and playbook. Having a couple of stand-by ‘beater plays’ whether a blitz-beater, or Cover-1/2/3/4 beater, practiced and usable any given week, makes some sense.
Fourth, keep Keenum’s options open. I noticed on several passing plays last week, the Vikings were basically going with a max-protect play- keeping both running back and tight-end in to block- which I’m sure they felt was necessary, but also gave him only 2-3 downfield receiver options. Having that check-down option, particularly against a blitz, can be very effective - and turn a zero play into at least a modest gain- or possibly a big one with a missed tackle or two. But beyond that, it forces a defense to defend the whole field, which spreads them out and makes YAC more likely- something Pat Shurmur’s offense is built for. And occasionally that also leads to open receivers down the field too- and the chunk plays an offense needs to be at it’s best.
Lastly, the Vikings can’t be afraid to pick up the pace. A slow, plodding pace on offense gives a defense all the time it needs to change personnel and get more creative in play-calling if they want. Picking up the pace can get a defense on its back foot and limit the changes and play-calling that may be more effective against a relatively inexperienced or struggling quarterback. The situational drills the Vikings spent a lot of time practicing this pre-season involved two-minute and other situations when fast-pace was crucial. Keenum was involved in that. Going no-huddle at times during a game is another way to keep the defense off-balance, and help to mitigate weaknesses of a backup QB - assuming he’s skilled enough to execute a no-huddle pace at times- and I believe Keenum is.
What Keenum Can’t Do
Case Keenum is a backup for a reason. He’s not as skilled as Bradford in his accuracy, poise in the pocket, or in his ability to recognize defenses, anticipate coverages and windows, and deliver the ball quickly into a tight window. Against the Steelers, Keenum was often a little late delivering the ball, and that led to incompletions. His accuracy was also not as good. The Vikings were fortunate that Keenum did not make any turnovers, and that is something he’ll need to continue to do for the Vikings to have success with him at QB.
Over time, Keenum may improve in his ability to recognize and anticipate throwing windows- something that may come with continued reps in real games- but other issues are not likely to go away- that’s why he’s a backup.
But at the end of the day, the Vikings can win with Keenum if they are successful in three basic areas- each involving added risks or difficulty- and everybody stepping up.
- Minimize penalties and negative plays. This involves the rest of the offense stepping-up to reduce the pressure on Keenum.
- Not going conservative in play-calling. Being predictable/conservative in calling plays is a recipe for failure. Opposing defenses will smell that blood in the water quickly and be all the more aggressive in attacking it.
- Give Keenum the options he needs to succeed- receivers and audibles included.
- Use pace to level the playing field. It’s another tool that adds a degree of difficulty in execution, but used on occasion in can bring advantages- or help mitigate disadvantages.
Oh, and lastly, the defense and special teams need to play well. Once again minimizing penalties and big-plays on defense- while also looking for ways to make them both on defense and special teams- is another way to help mitigate the loss at quarterback.
There was some criticism of the aggressiveness in running back kicks and the fake-punt last week, and while the execution was not good with the kick returns (McKinnon was instructed to take it out at 5-7 yards deep, not 9) and ultimately that aggressiveness did not pay dividends, it is something that needs to be part of the plan when trailing and struggling on offense. Focusing on turnovers on defense as well- although often times the best way to create turnovers on defense is not looking to jump a route- which can just as easily backfire- but to simply play solid, stifling defense which forces a QB into bad choices on occasion. Terence Newman had an opportunity for an interception later in the game last week, only to have it go right between his hands. Making the most of those opportunities on defense is another way to make the offense’s job just a little easier.