Leading up to this Sunday’s matchup with the Bucs, Sam Bradford was ruled out, leaving Case Keenum to start his second straight game. I did a write-up entitled, “Can the Vikings Win with Case Keenum?” The verdict among most DN commenters was a decided no, accompanied by the usual refrain of the Vikings being cursed, calls for Spielman’s scalp, and the season is over.
But at one point early in the 3rd quarter, Keenum had a perfect 158.3 passer rating, with the Vikings in control 31-10. Keenum finished with 369 yards passing, 3 TDs, and a 142.1 passer rating en route to a 34-17 Vikings victory that was never really in doubt.
Keys to Victory
Perhaps the biggest key to victory was simply letting Keenum play. By that I mean not going conservative with the play-calling, and also allowing Keenum to audible, which he did a couple times successfully, mixing plays and occasionally pace, well. As Mike Zimmer said after the game, it helped having a week of practice for Keenum rather than only a day or so taking reps with the first team late in the week prior to the Steelers game. It also helped that Keenum stepped up into the pocket against the Bucs, rather than moving back out of it against the Steelers, leading to incompletions and more pressure. I’m sure that was one correction emphasized with Keenum in practice this week, and it paid dividends. Overall, Keenum was the highest graded player for the Vikings by PFF, with an 89.0.
But I give credit to Pat Shurmur as well, who called a good game, and was determined to take shots down the field against the weak Buccaneers secondary, which opened up the defense to other plays as well, as they had to honor Keenum’s ability to go deep.
Also, the offensive line continued to do well in pass protection. Very well. They allowed no sacks, and gave Keenum the time he needed to make his throws. And even when Keenum faced some pressure, he went 9-11 for 114 yards and a 109.8 passer rating according to PFF.
Another key to victory for the Vikings offense, it has to be said, were the injuries to the Buccaneers starters on defense. Going into the game, the Bucs were without Kwon Alexander, Brent Grimes, and Chris Baker. Gerald McCoy injured his ankle during the game, missing some snaps, but also probably wasn’t as effective when he did play. And later in the game, the Bucs also lost LB Lavonte David to a high-ankle sprain. Being down so many starters was hard to overcome, especially against an offense dialing up the right plan of attack, which is what Pat Shurmur and the Vikings did.
As it was, the Vikings dominated time of possession, having the ball nearly 38 minutes to the Buccaneers 22 minutes, and running 19 more plays than the Bucs in the process of racking up nearly 500 yards of total offense- and 34 points- the most the offense has scored on its own since late in 2015 against the Giants. All that with their second-string QB at the helm.
Defensively, the Vikings did well, as has been their MO of late, in taking away the top weapons of an opponents offense, in this case WR Mike Evans, while also stopping the run. That forced the Bucs to rely on more on DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, who had good games, but it was too little, too late for the Bucs to make much of a dent in the lead the Vikings had at halftime. The Buccaneers suffered playing from behind the entire game, forcing Bucs QB Jameis Winston into a heavy pass attack, which also led to three interceptions and a couple sacks. It wasn’t until well into the second half before the Bucs were able to convert a third down, going 1/6 for the game.
What Didn’t Go as Well
There was some spotty performance at times from the Vikings secondary. Tramaine Brock had a rough first outing as a Viking, and what Andrew Sendejo lacked at times in coverage, he made up for with some big hits- forcing an interception, as well as making one thrown right to him courtesy of Mr. Winston. Similarly, Trae Waynes allowed a couple completions, but also had a pick of his own- and generally a pretty good game.
Offensively, really the only major area of weakness that I could see was run blocking. Dalvin Cook still had nearly 100 yards rushing (97 to be exact) but on 27 attempts, averaging just 3.59 yards/attempt. Cook was often stopped for little gain as holes didn’t open inside, before he broke a couple runs later in the game to improve his average. Nick Easton and Pat Elflein are the weak links in run blocking, while the right side tandem of Joe Berger and Mike Remmers rate much better in that respect.
Some Trends Worth Noting Over the First Three Games
So far the Vikings have managed two dominant performances at home, and one clunker on the road, in their first three games- two of which starting their backup QB. Over this 3-game stretch to begin the season, a few trends are emerging:
1. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are the top WR duo in the NFL. Both have just under 300 receiving yards over 3 games- more than Julio Jones- and rank #3 and #2 respectively in the league.
2. The offensive line is doing very well in pass protection. Riley Reiff, Joe Berger and Mike Remmers all have overall PFF grades over 80 (good), with roughly equally good ratings in pass protection and run blocking. Nick Easton, while he has struggled in run blocking, has a 72.1 (average) grade in pass protection. Only Pat Elflein has struggled so far overall according to PFF, earning 37 grades (poor) in both pass protection and run blocking. But so far, both newly acquired tackles Reiff and Remmers are outperforming the average expectations set for them coming into the season.
3. Dalvin Cook is the 2nd leading rusher in the league behind Kareem Hunt, and #3 in all-purpose yards by a non-QB in the league, behind Hunt and Todd Gurley.
4. The Vikings have the two highest rated QBs in the NFC North. Sam Bradford is still the highest rated QB in the league based on his week 1 performance, while Case Keenum has crept into the top 10 at #9 after his performance against Tampa Bay. Apart from the poor first-half against the Steelers with Keenum not having much prep time, the Vikings have a pretty solid passing attack in place, which isn’t just about the QB. The offensive line has done well in protection, and the talent at the other skill positions is the best since the Randy Moss/Cris Carter/Robert Smith combo around the turn of the century.
5. Overall, the Vikings passing game is ranked #3 in the NFL in passing yards/game, and #5 in average passer rating per game. The Vikings are tied for 4th best in sacks allowed, having given up only 3 sacks in as many games. And they are doing it by going deep- not dink and dunk. They are 2nd in the league in passing plays over 40 yards (4), and 4th in passing plays over 20 yards (15). They are also one of five teams that have not had a pass intercepted, 5th best in completion percentage (69.9%), and 5th in average yards/attempt at 8.6. The Vikings offense is 2nd in the league in yards/game (400.3), and 11th in points/game (24).
6. The Vikings defense, despite facing some generally well-regarded offenses in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, still ranks 12th over 3 games in points per game allowed, but only 20th in yards per game allowed.
7. In terms of PFF ratings, the Vikings have a number of top 10 performers at their position after three games. They include QBs Sam Bradford (#1) and Case Keenum (#5), RB Dalvin Cook (#3) and FB CJ Ham (#2), WRs Adam Thielen (#2) and Stefon Diggs (#7), S Harrison Smith (#2), and DI Linval Joseph (#10). DE Everson Griffen is ranked #11, and G Joe Berger is ranked #12. Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers are ranked #15 and #17 respectively.
8. In terms of most improved player, after 3 games that award may go to DT Shamar Stephen. He has gone from career poor PFF ratings of 50 or less, to a much more respectable above average rating of 75.1. Anthony Barr has also rebounded strong so far, getting back to a 78.1 grade so far after languishing in the 30s last year. MacKenzie Alexander is also showing improvement, with a 73.8 overall PFF rating so far.
9. In key offensive metrics, the Vikings are averaging a 48.28% conversion rate on 3rd down- tied for 7th best in the league, and a notable improvement over the 38% they averaged last season. In red-zone TD conversions, the Vikings are averaging 57.14%, tied for 13th, and again a notable improvement over the 46% they averaged last year.
10. In key defensive metrics, the Vikings have allowed just 29.17% of 3rd downs to be converted - another notable improvement so far over last season’s average of 38.83%. And in terms of red-zone TD conversion percentage, the Vikings are allowing just 33.33% of red-zone trips to end in TDs- again a big improvement over the 54.55% allowed last season. These rank #6 and #7 in the league, respectively.
11. The TE group has been a disappointment so far. Not much production, and all three TEs are graded poor by PFF in run blocking. Kyle Rudolph has graded poor in pass protection as well.
Apart from that last point, these are all promising trends in general. Overall, I think the Vikings offense has benefited from facing weaker defenses these first few games, while the defense has had the tougher assignment against tougher offenses every game. Again, apart from the first half at Pittsburgh, the team has done pretty well overall, especially considering Sam Bradford has been out the last two games.
Things don’t get easier for the Vikings, as the surprisingly strong Lions come to town next week for an NFC North showdown for at least a share of the top spot in the division. And Sam Bradford’s status still up in the air.