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Vikings’ Season To-Do List

Coming up with a to-do list for the Vikings this season could be a very simple exercise:

We could just leave it at that, but that isn’t really insightful or worthy of discussion, so I thought I’d look at some key factors often found in playoff teams, where the Vikings rated on those factors last season, and in 2017- their last really good season, along with how well situated they are to achieve success in each of these factors.

Offensive Drive Success

Last season, the Vikings’ offense was one of the most efficient offenses in the league by many metrics, including yards per play (4th), total yards (4th), yards per rush (4th), yards per pass attempt (6th), Red Zone TD % (6th), and total points scored (11th). Additionally, yards and points per drive were also pretty good, ranking 7th and 10th, respectively.

And yet, when you look at the percentage of Vikings’ drives that ended in a score, either TD or FG, that percentage (39.8%) ranked only 18th in the league overall. It wasn’t because they couldn’t convert in the red zone- they scored a TD 71.6% of the time they made it to the red zone- 6th best in the league- which speaks to their points per drive efficiency. The reason they did not fare better in terms of percentage of scoring drives comes down to two words: Special Teams.

Special Teams Setbacks

For starters, the Vikings kicker Dan Bailey missed 7 of 22 field goal attempts last year, which equates to a 68% success rate - worst in the league. He also missed 6 extra points, which didn’t help either. Had he been closer to average, he would’ve made 4 more field goals, and therefore had 4 more scoring drives, which would move them up the rankings about 4 spots, to roughly 42% from 39.8%.

Secondly, the Vikings also had the worst average starting field position of any team in the league last year. Starting field position makes a big difference in the likelihood of that drive scoring. Starting at your own 30 vs. your own 20 makes a small, and yet significant difference. I’ve read where the distance in yards from your own goal line represents the percentage chance a team has of scoring from that starting position (i.e. starting at your own 40 gives you a 40% chance of scoring, whereas starting at the opponent’s 40 gives you a 60% chance of scoring). While those aren’t correct percentages, (roughly 40% of NFL drives result in a score, with an average starting position near the 25 yard line), the concept is correct. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that a team has a much better chance of scoring when they start on their own 40 yard line vs. their own 20.

Starting field position is often a product of the kick and punt return units on special teams, and also turnovers generated on defense. The Vikings weren’t terrible in generating turnovers last season (10th), but the special teams return units did the offense no favors.

2020 Was a Unique Year for Offenses

The Vikings’ offense actually had a higher drive scoring rate in 2020 (39.8%) than they did in 2017 (38.9%), even though their ranking was only 18th, compared to 8th in 2017. The reason was that offenses across the league were better last season, in large part due to the absence of fans and the resulting lack of noise to disrupt them on the road. Not having an off/pre-season may have also been a factor. The 2017 team was aided by having a better starting field position (9th), and a higher field goal made percentage (84.2%)- both significantly better than last season. Last season the Vikings were also much better converting TDs in the red zone than in 2017 (71.2% vs. 57.9%), although the 2017 team had a lot more FG attempts (38) compared to only 22 last season, in addition to making a higher percentage of them. The Vikings defense also generated more turnovers last year, believe it or not, than they did in 2017- when they had the top defense in the league.

But the general efficiency of the offense last year- which improved over 2019, which was also better than 2017- despite the setbacks suffered at the hands of the special teams units, bodes well for this season. This year all the key skill position players return, with the exception of tight end, and there is scheme continuity as well. Kyle Rudolph wasn’t nearly as big a factor for the Vikings offense last season- he had only 1 TD and 334 yards receiving, but the loss of Irv Smith Jr., who had 5 TDs last season and looked poised for more production this year, is a setback. To what degree Tyler Conklin and Chris Herndon can make up for the losses of Rudolph and Smith Jr., remains to be seen, as well as if a Dede Westbrook or other player can help pick up the slack as well.

Special Teams a Point of Emphasis

The Vikings made the decision to overhaul their special teams this off-season, starting by letting Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf go. Dan Bailey was released last year in favor of Greg Joseph, and they’ve since replaced Britton Colquit as punter/holder, drafted new returners, and also acquired veteran WR and PR Dede Westbrook, who’ll return punts. Westbrook has nearly a 10 yard punt return average over the last several years, which is nearly as good as Marcus Sherels’ career average, so hopefully that will result in better field position this year for the Vikings’ offense. It’s too soon to know if Ihmir Smith-Marsette will prove to be a major improvement as kick returner, and Kene Nwangwu may get some opportunities too, but certainly there is a lot of room for improvement over last year- the bar isn’t a high one.

Moreover, the Vikings paid more attention to special teams ability in deciding who made the back end of their roster. New Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken has simplified the play-calling and assignments on special teams, which players have praised for allowing them to play faster and not have to think as much while they do their assignments. That could lead to better blocking in front of the returners, and hopefully better results too.

Defense and Complimentary Football

The other aspect of last season that was not particularly helpful for the offense was the poor performance of the defense. Not only did they give up scoring drives a league worst 50% of the time, creating a hole for the offense to dig out of, they were also 28th in the league in yards and points per drive allowed. The yards per drive allowed also effects field position for the offense, to the extent they’re able to force a non-scoring drive. Special teams didn’t help the defense either, as opponents had the best starting field position in the league, and the combination of poor defense and special teams put the offense in an even worse situation to begin their drives. I’ll discuss the defense further down.

Overall

The Vikings offense starts in a good place this year, having been a top ten offense in each of the previous two seasons, and returning nearly all the key skill-position players. The prospect of a slightly improved offensive line could help too, even if losing Irv Smith Jr. is a setback. It’s important to note that Dakota Dozier, no longer on the active roster, in addition to his poor play was also responsible for the most penalties of any player on offense, which often can be drive killers. Irv Smith Jr.’s replacement, Tyler Conklin, wasn’t a part of the pass offense last year until week 10, with Rudolph and Smith Jr. ahead of him on the depth chart, but later in the season when he did get more involved, he had similar metrics as Smith Jr. and Rudolph. Perhaps with a bigger role this year, he can flourish into a more productive offensive weapon for the Vikings.

The one other area to mention is 3rd down conversion rate. Last year they ranked 16th at 40.9%, down from 2017 when their 43.5% rate was ranked 3rd overall. The key here may be improving the distance to convert 3rd downs by avoiding mistakes. Penalties and sacks in particular. Last season the Vikings offense had 25 penalties, and allowed 39 sacks. That’s a total of 64 mistakes that can often be drive killers, and I suspect last year they often were. Avoiding some of those mistakes, will undoubtedly lead to more 3rd down conversions, and in turn more scoring drives.

But having better special teams units, and a better defense, will make the offense’s job that much easier too, by providing better starting field position, better position on the scoreboard, and by converting more field goals and extra points. There is reason for optimism for both the special teams return units and especially the defense, but whether kicker Greg Joseph can perform better than his immediate predecessors remains to be seen.

Defense

It’s surprising that as bad as the Vikings defense was last year, they weren’t bad in every metric. For example, they still ranked 10th in 3rd down conversions allowed, and 11th in red zone TD conversions allowed. The problem was often opposing offenses didn’t always need a third down to gain a new set of downs, and of the 49 touchdowns the Vikings’ defense allowed last year, 14 of them were from outside the 20-yard red zone. That’s a lot of big plays allowed. In terms of yards allowed per play, the Vikings defense allowed 6.1 yards per play on average last season- which explains why 3rd downs weren’t always needed- a yard and a half per play more than the 2017 defense.

Overall, the Vikings allowed their opponent to score on 50% of their drives, 2nd worst in the league, and ranked 28th in both yards and points per drive allowed.

In 2017, when the Vikings had the #1 defense in the league, the defense allowed only 23 touchdowns all season- less than half of the 2020 total- and only 7 of those were from outside the red zone. And two of those were in garbage time with the game well in hand.

And so the biggest item on the defensive to-do list for the Vikings this season: cut-down on the big plays allowed.

The second biggest item is also pretty broad- cut down on the average yards per play allowed, particularly on early downs, to force more 3rd and unfavorable situations that can get them off the field. Both average rush and pass yards allowed were near the bottom of the league last year, as was the defense allowing 6.1 yards per play.

The key to giving up big plays often comes down to having a better pass rush, as most big plays are through the air. And apart from long runs after short catches, QBs need time to throw the deeper routes that result in big plays. The Vikings had one of the worst pressure rates, and sacks, in the league last season, so improving that is the first priority to cutting down on big plays.

What the Vikings are Doing to Improve Their Defense This Season

Obviously the Vikings defense fell off a cliff last season, dropping to the bottom of the league after being a top ten unit since Mike Zimmer came to town. Injuries played a major role in that, but the Vikings have done more than simply get their injured players back this season in an effort to bounce back.

In addition to getting players like Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Eric Kendricks, and eventually Anthony Barr back from injury or opt-out, the Vikings have also completed a major overhaul on defense.

Gone are the starting defensive linemen for much of last season: Ifeadi Odenigbo, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa, and Jalyn Holmes. In are their much better replacements: Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, and Sheldon Richardson. Beyond these proven starters, the Vikings are also seeing improved performance from DJ Wonnum, and especially Armon Watts at nose tackle, giving the Vikings top caliber starters at both DT spots, and also solid backups to work in rotation. Getting Danielle Hunter back gives the Vikings a top pass rusher, with both Pierce and Tomlinson being able to push the pocket too. It remains to be seen what the Vikings can expect from the other DE spot, but re-signing Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly, to go along with DJ Wonnum, gives the Vikings some good options and rotational pieces there.

The overhaul wasn’t just the D-line either. The secondary was also overhauled with the additions of Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, MacKensie Alexander, and Xavier Woods. What was a group of young or rookie corners last year, is now a solid group of experienced vets, with the promising young guys as backups. And from all accounts, Xavier Woods is proving to be a solid replacement for Anthony Harris at safety next to Harrison Smith.

Peterson has lost ten pounds in an effort to gain back some of his quickness lost with age, and may also be helped in his new situation with the Vikings. Breeland was excellent last year in defending the deeper routes - best in the league- but struggled more on the shorter routes. One concern for both of them last year was the penalties- both were near the tops in penalty yards last season. That isn’t typical for Peterson, but Breeland has been up there in penalty yards two years in a row. But they also combined for 6 turnovers (5 INTs + 1 FF) and 17 PBUs last season, and bring a wealth of experience to the back end that should help out significantly over the rookies of a year ago.

But even that is not all Mike Zimmer has done to improve his defense this year. He brought in new defensive back coaches, his former assistant in Cincinnati Paul Guenther, and together with co-Defensive Coordinators Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer, went through a scheme overhaul during the off-season as well. Patterson said it was the first time they had done so since working in Dallas together nearly 20 years ago, going through everything scheme-wise with a fine tooth comb, and as Mike Zimmer said, installed some new wrinkles in their defensive scheme, some big, and some small. We haven’t seen what those changes are in pre-season, other than DJ Wonnum occasionally playing an outside linebacker role.

But the intent with the scheme overhaul, which has been on Zimmer’s mind the last couple years since he parted ways with George Edwards, was to modernize the scheme to better counter the trends in offensive schemes and reduce the weekly adjustments necessary to counter each opponent. At a minimum, the changes should make it easier for coaches and players to prepare each week, and simplify the scheme allowing the players to play and react more by not having to think as much on the run.

Patrick Peterson, in a press conference this week, described the scheme as “not necessarily simple, but will allow us to line-up and play fast and not have to do too much thinking.” He went on to say that while the whole defense didn’t play together in preseason, Zimmer did a lot to get them ready in practice by simulating game situations throughout training camp, helping them to build chemistry and communication, and get ready for the regular season.

I’ve written earlier this year about the possibility of the Vikings going with a Cover-7 coverage scheme, given the addition of Karl Scott as DB coach and Paul Guenther, both of whom have run that scheme, along with the possibility of some different alignments up-front.

But as the off-season has progressed, I wonder now if the blueprint for the alignment with the front seven may be what Todd Bowles is doing in Tampa Bay. Bowles basically uses a variety of alignments and blitz packages with the entire front 6-7 to generate pressure in different ways to keep the QB and OL guessing when it comes to setting their protections and wondering where the pressure may come from. And certainly the personnel are suddenly remarkably similar. Michael Pierce = Vita Vea. Dalvin Tomlinson = Ndamukong Suh. Danielle Hunter = Shaquil Barrett. DJ Wonnum et. al. = Jason Pierre-Paul. Eric Kendricks = Devin White. Tampa was a top ten defense last season, and #1 against the run, which also beat the Packers twice last season, the first time allowing only 10 points.

The concept behind Bowles scheme in Tampa would seem to gel quite a bit with the disguise and fake blitz scheme Zimmer has used in the past, doing different things off the same look, faking or blitzing from the A-gaps, etc., only Bowles’ scheme is more varied, so it’s more difficult for the OL to figure it out pre-snap, and to set effective counters. Bowles also blitzes more, and maybe this year Zimmer will too. In the past, for all his A-gap blitz looks and other pressure looks, Zimmer didn’t blitz more than league average.

We’ll have to wait and see what Zimmer has in store on that score, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of what Tampa and Todd Bowles has been doing in the Vikings’ defense beginning on Sunday.

Overall

The Vikings failings on defense last season were numerous, yet stemming in large part from a rash of injuries/opt-out among key starters. Zimmer wasn’t content with simply getting his starters back from injury to fix the problems, however, so the Vikings were very active in the free agent market this off-season to bolster their ranks and improve several positions. Additionally Zimmer, who’s earned his reputation as a defensive mastermind by being innovative and ahead of the scheme-curve, decided he needed to update his scheme- something he’d been contemplating for a couple years- to be more competitive.

Bottom Line

The main items on the Vikings to-do list involve primarily the defense and special teams, with the hope that continuity of scheme and personnel on offense will produce another top ten or better season. The off-season was focused mostly on over-hauling the defense and special teams, something that’s continued through pre-season and training camp. On paper the Vikings look to have as talented a roster overall as any team in the league, but what remains is to execute on the strategy they’ve put forward this off-season.

Will get the first taste of how well things are coming together starting at noon tomorrow.