Monday, September 15, 2014

Coming off the ledge (part two): Adrian Peterson returns

To read Pacifist Viking's take on yesterday's 30-7 ass-kicking, read this

On Sunday, I felt like we wouldn't be seeing Adrian Peterson in a Vikings uniform ever again. On Monday, that feeling turned out to be misguided. The team expects him to play against New Orleans next Sunday.

I don't too get attached to professional athletes. I'm 45 and my sports hero worshipping days are well behind me. But Peterson was a player I had invested something in. The Vikings drafted him, and he is a once-in-a-lifetime talent franchises and their fan bases only get to enjoy once in their existence - if they get to enjoy it at all. Watching him do spectacular things on the football field brought me a lot of joy during his first seven seasons.

That joy is going to be lost now, and I'm going to have a hard time cheering for the guy. Like a lot of people who are 35 years of age and older, I was spanked when I was a child - usually with a wooden spoon. I like to think I turned out alright. However, I definitely didn't experience anything like what Peterson's four-year-old son experienced, getting whipped with a branch that left welts on his body. I understand that's how some parents disciplined their children back in the day, and some still do it. That doesn't make it right. I think what Peterson did was very wrong - even if he apologized Monday for doing it.

So, if the Vikings had decided to release Peterson, I would have been fine with that. But they haven't done that, and if I'm honest with myself, if he continues to play at a high level this season, and does more spectacular things that help the Vikings be successful, I imagine I won't be too disappointed. And I certainly won't stop watching the Vikings because Peterson is still playing. 

I also think the Vikings management and owners know this about their fans. They know there are some rubes that are disgusted with Peterson and want him gone. They also know a lot of fans still support him and want him on the team.

But what they really know is finding out Peterson beat his son with a switch and then still allowing him to play for the Vikings again won't stop the vast majority of their fans from going to games at TCF Bank Stadium or watching it on TV or buying t-shirts and hats and whatnot. They know very few fans will stop supporting the team cold turkey, and that some of those that do will eventually drift back in a year or two when Peterson is no longer with the club. And they know that the fans they do lose forever because they reinstated Peterson will be replaced by a new crop in a few years who either never saw Peterson play or who are too young to care about the ethics of what is and isn't the right thing to do.

So the Vikings have made a business decision - one they think will be good for their team on the field this season (it's difficult to argue against that. I mean, did you see the Vikings offense operate against the Patriots without Peterson?) and one that won't affect it off the field this year or any year after.  

I don't think this was the right move from a moral standpoint, but most decisions in professional sports aren't made solely on moral grounds.

(Side note: Do I suspect karma is going to bite the Vikes in the ass for making this decision, and the 2014 season is going to go miserably from here on in for the team and for Peterson? Absolutely.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Coming off the Ledge

In case you didn't know what last week felt like for Ram fans, it was this. This is getting stomped at home in every facet of the game while watching a QB you don't want out there suck.

Anybody who thought Matt Cassel would be a "steady" or "reliable" starter because he's a veteran hasn't noticed anything about Cassel's career. If a player like Cassel were reliable, his career would be very different than it has been. Matt Cassel has games like this. That's why he's not a better quarterback.

Xavier Rhodes had a terrible football game--though it's odd that he got called for pass interference on a play where the official specifically cited him for not playing the ball, on a play where he clearly looked at the ball and deflected it with his hand.

Getting a field goal attempt blocked right before halftime and watching the defense return it for a touchdown, turning a potential 7 point deficit into a 17 point deficit....this, this is not a fun experience.

Why shouldn't Teddy Bridgewater start next week? Looking at the Vikes' schedule the next few weeks, it doesn't look quite as threatening as it did before the season.

I hope this team isn't mentally affected by what's going on with Adrian Peterson (I'll save most comment on this situation until Friday). I also hope the team doesn't overrate Peterson's importance to the team's success. Clearly they don't have a another real RB on the team: "just a guy" and "replacement level" define any option they put out there. But defense and passing were going to be crucial to any success this team has anyway. That doesn't really change. I'm a little worried that if the players believe their chance to compete this season is gone, then it will be. The division still looks open.

I will be very happy in 2018 if the Vikings can beat the Patriots.

It should be an interesting week. One way or another, this game will be easy to forget about.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why should we be optimistic about this Vikings-Patriots game?

I wrote this post before we learned about Adrian Peterson being charged in Texas with injuring his son. He's been deactivated for the Patriots game.

Anyway, we don't know what this means for Peterson or his 2014 season. But whatever happens and whatever punishment is handed down by the NFL and the Vikings for this, I hope it includes some mandatory parenting counseling for Peterson. I mean, who uses a tree branch to spank their child? (Well, I guess Peterson did. Shame on him.) It appears Peterson needs some lessons on how to hand out discipline to little children.

                                                         * * *

Let's look at the three Vikings-Patriots games featuring the head coach and quarterback Minnesota will face this Sunday.

2010: Patriots 28 - Vikings 18
BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs for 112 yards against a fading Williams Wall. Madieu Williams intercepts a long Tom Brady pass at a critical time - no wait! The pass actually slips through his arms and is caught by a Patriot for a big gain instead. Randy Moss catches one pass for eight yards in his return to Foxboro, then holds an unannounced, bizarre post-game press conference proclaiming Bill Belichick to be a golden god. He is released soon afterward. Fun times!

2006: Patriots 31 - Vikings 7
The Patriots don't bother running the ball because they don't have to. Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger (Yes! This actually happened! We paid Brooks Bollinger to quarterback for us.) combine to throw four interceptions. This is the game that marks the end of a promising 4-2 start and the beginning of a disappointing 6-10 finish for rookie head coach Brad Childress.

2002: Patriots 24 - Vikings 17
In the first year of the glorious Mike Tice era, the Vikes limp into Foxboro at 3-7. They fall behind 21-0 before making a game of it. They leave Foxboro 3-8. Just one of many outdoor road losses for the Tice-led Vikings.

Those games probably don't mean anything now, except Belichick - one of the NFL's greatest head coaches - is still running the Patriots, and Brady - one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks - is still running the Patriots offense. New England has several other very good players as well - Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Darrelle Revis, Rob Ninkovich. So why I am fairly optimistic the Vikings can finally beat Belichick's Patriots?

It's not because the Vikings slapped around what looks like a bad St. Louis team last week. It's not that the Patriots and Brady looked weak in a loss against Miami. No, it has to do with the guy who will be standing on the sideline opposite Belichick - Mike Zimmer, a guy spent most of this week being modest about his past work against the Patriots.

It feels like this game will be the first time in a long time the Vikings won't be going into a game against New England with a huge disadvantage in the head coaching department. There was no way Tice and Childress were going to win a war of football wits with Belichick. Zimmer, on the other hand, has a resume as a defensive coordinator that strongly suggests he can hold his own against his hoodie-wearing adversary. And since the day he was named head coach of the Vikings in January, Zimmer has looked as confident and as calm as any Vikings coach has in my memory. He knows he's very good at his job. He knows he can get the best out of the players under him. He knows he can develop game plans that can stymie opposing offenses.

He has a big challenge ahead of him. Brady and the Patriots offense will stress Zimmer's defense in ways Shaun Hill, Austin Davis and the Rams offense couldn't. Unlike Tice and Childress, however, I feel pretty good about Zimmer's ability to put the Vikings in a position to succeed against that offense. (The same feeling applies for offensive coordinator Norv Turner going against Belichick's defense.)

I don't know if that will be enough to pull off an upset against a team that's been no worse than 10-6 since 2002. But Zimmer is 5-0 as the Vikings head coach, and he's done nothing since taking over the team to make me believe this Minnesota squad won't give the Patriots, Brady and Belichick all they can handle Sunday.

After a 5-10-1 season in 2013, it's a start.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

National Friday League: Week Two

Viking-Patriot Preview
First, it might be more comforting to assume the Vikes will lose this game. They're probably going to lose this game.

Projecting this game depends on whether these teams are closer to what we thought they were before the season, or whether they're closer to what they appeared to be Week One. The Vikings are probably somewhere in between what they appeared to be a week ago and what we saw Sunday. The Patriots? Hard to say. Are the Patriots the team that allowed 5.0 yards per rush for a total of 191 rushing yards? Are the Patriots the team that allowed Tom Brady to be sacked four times? Is Tom Brady the quarterback who averaged 4.4 yards per attempt? I find that hard to believe.

For what it's worth (nothing!), the last time a Mike Zimmer defense played against the Patriots, the Patriot offense had 248 total yards and 6 points.

The game will be illuminating. It was fun watching the Vikes throttle the Rams, but how the defense plays against Tom Brady--covering Rob Gronkowski, containing all those short passes--will tell us a lot about how the Vikings will perform in the coming weeks and years.

Memories
The Vikings and Patriots played an extremely memorable game in 1994. On the road, the Vikes were playing superbly in getting a 20-0 lead in the second quarter. It seems Bill Parcells said "F it, we have no running game and we're down 20, we're throwing every play," and they did. Drew Bledsoe ended up completing 47 out of 70 passes in a 26-20 OT win, throwing a whole bunch of dink and dunk stuff to players like RB LeRoy Thompson (11 catches for 74 yards) and TE Ben Coates (10 for 74). It was one of the dumbest games I've ever seen.

It's easy to forget that in early '94 second-year Drew Bledsoe looked like the second coming of Dan Marino, especially after barely getting outdueled by Marino in Week One (473 yards and 5 TDs for Marino, 421 yards and 4 TDs for Bledsoe in a 39-35 Dolphin win) and he kept on racking up 400 yard games. He just kept rolling up huge yardage games. This was an era when it seemed like passing numbers were exploding, but were not what they are today. Consider this: as Bledsoe led the league in passing yards with 4,555 yards in 1994, only three total QBs had 4,000 yards (and two of those guys had more INTs than TDs!). In 2011, three total QBs had 5,000 yards.  In 2013, nine QBs had 4,000 yards. Those yards meant more than the same amount of yards today.

Feel Good!
Anything can happen Sunday, but for this week feel good. Look at this and feel good.

Other Interesting Games
Week 2 Schedule

Dolphins-Bills. The winner of this game is off to a 2-0 start.

Cowboys-Titans. What if Jake Locker is good? It's....you know, it's possible.

Lions-Panthers. It's worth following this Lion team early in the season.  We know they have talented players, and it's possible the new coach will get more from them than the last coach. Matthew Stafford was the best NFC North QB in Week One, for what it's worth.

Seahawks-Chargers. It will be interesting to see if and how San Diego moves the ball on the Seahawks. It will be interesting to watch any team try to move the ball on them.

Jets-Packers. The Packers should just crush the Jets. This is true.  But what if...I mean, just hang here with me a minute...what if the Jets can run the ball and control the clock against a so-so run defense? And what if Rex Ryan, defensive genius, can figure out ways to put pressure on Aaron Rodgers and kill drives?

Bears-49ers. What was revealed about the NFC North in Week One? Nothing to make assumptions about. But maybe Week Two will clarify matters a bit.

Eagles-Colts. I'd describe the way these teams played in Week One as sloppy. Perhaps they are sloppy teams.

Fantasy Box: a new kicker approach
I learned something on Sunday: I don't want my fantasy kicker tied to Joe Flacco. Sure, sometimes a shaky QB can get your fantasy kicker a bunch of field goal attempts by not finishing the drive (like the Bengal kicker on Sunday). But you're also going to have days where the QB jusssssst tanks your kicker, leaving fantasy points on the field.

Since fantasy kickers are pretty random anyway, from now on I'm simply matching my kickers to quarterbacks. I'll only draft or pick up as free agents kickers who play on the team of a good quarterback. They may have some games when they have nothing but five extra points, but they'll have fewer times when a QB error costs the team an easy field goal attempt. At the end of the season, it's all going to wash out anyway at this position, but I'll feel better tying my kicker to a quarterback.

Watch this
Instead of saying anything about the NFL's (and media's) handling of the Ray Rice situation, I will just implore you to watch this.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

With the Minnesota Vikings, things are different this year

I was going to check this out myself, but ESPN's Ben Goessling saved me the trouble by giving a breakdown of the snap counts for each Minnesota Vikings player in Sunday's 34-6 rout of the St. Louis Rams.

As bad as the Vikings defense, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the offense were in 2013, you knew playing time would be handled differently under Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner than it was under Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave. Here is what jumps out at me looking at those snap counts and comparing them to the 2013 snap counts of the players that played for Minnesota last season.

Cordarrelle Patterson: There will be no issues with Patterson standing on the sideline like we witnessed for too much of the 2013 season. Patterson was on the field for 77.5 per cent of the offensive snaps against the Rams - the most of any Vikings wide receiver. Last year under Musgrave, Patterson played just 41.8 per cent of the snaps, although he played way more than that later in the year.

Rhett Ellison: At one point during the Rams games - I think it was after Ellison made his 22-yard catch-and-run play - Fox play-by-play guy Dick Stockon said something about the Vikings coaches or players calling Ellison their offensive MVP. That is a ridiculous statement. But with John Carlson gone, Ellison did play 53.4 per cent of the offensive snaps in this game after playing just 28.2 per cent last season. He might be carving out a Jim Kleinsasser role with this team at tight end, basically serving as an extra offensive lineman, but with more pass catching upside.

Robert Blanton: Named the starting strong safety last week, Blanton was the only Vikings defender to play ever snap in the game. He did get called for one pass interference penalty, but otherwise didn't do anything heinous or spectacular. That will do for now.

Chad Greenway: In his ninth season, Greenway is still playing a lot. He logged 59 snaps - playing 88 per cent of the defensive plays in this game. In 2013 he played an insane 98.7 per cent of the defensive snaps. Greenway was pretty invisible against the Rams, which is an improvement over last season. 

Gerald Hodges: The second-year linebacker didn't play a lot - 14 of 67 defensive snaps (20.8 per cent). However, when the game got out of hand and the Rams were forced to throw on every down, Hodges was in there. I don't know if this was a case of Zimmer resting some of his starters late in the game. However, when Hodges was drafted one of his strengths was that he was a linebacker with good speed and sideline-to-sideline range. That sounds like a guy who might be able to cover opposing tight ends, slot receivers and running backs in pass coverage. When the Vikes face teams that like to throw a lot and spread you out - like New England this coming Sunday - maybe Hodges will be out there even more.

Sharrif Floyd: Kevin Williams is out of the picture, so Floyd figured to see a sizable jump in his snap count. He played 62.6 per cent of the snaps against St. Louis after playing just 39.3 per cent in his rookie year. The Rams couldn't find much running room going into the gut of the Vikes defense. I think Floyd had something to do with that.

As Goessling notes in the linked post above, Zimmer was true to his word about rotating his defensive lineman more than Frazier did. Defensive ends Brian Robison (73.1 per cent) and Everson Griffen (70.1 per cent) were spelled frequently by Tom Johnson (49.2 per cent) and Cory Wootton (43.3 per cent) at defensive end and rookie defensive tackle Shamar Stephen played 17 snaps (25 per cent of the 67 defensive plays). This is a sound strategy if there's no big drop off in play when, say, Wootton takes out Griffen during a game. The line sure looked fresh and energetic in the fourth quarter when the Rams had to pass on every down. Vikes pass rushers made life extremely uncomfortable for St. Louis backup Austin Davis.

Anthony Barr: This is a bit of a surprise. Barr played 88 per cent of the defensive snaps against St. Louis. For a guy who is supposed to have lots to learn about playing linebacker at the NFL level, the Vikings defensive coaching staff wasn't afraid to give their top draft pick a lot of playing time. I thought he held up well. On Harrison Smith's interception, it was Barr who was barreling in on Davis, forcing the Rams QB into a rushed and poorly placed throw.

Jabari Price: Here is another surprise. Price played 41.7 per cent of the defensive snaps against the Rams. When Xavier Rhodes got dinged up in the second half and left the game, it was Price who got the call, not Marcus Sherels, when the Vikes had to go with three corners. You might remember I thought Sherels would play a more significant role this season on Zimmer's defense. Price didn't do anything to stand out. However, it's interesting Zimmer trusted this 2014 seventh-round draft pick to play a lot over more experienced guys like Sherels and Shaun Prater (who didn't dress for the game.)   

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Trailing Clouds of Heaven (2)

For Darren's take, see his post here.

Box Score

To appreciate Sunday's defensive performance, you should really think about how many Viking defenders made notably disruptive, effective plays. Sharrif Floyd had a tackle for a loss. Linval Joseph had a sack. Harrison Smith had a sack and an interception. Captain Munnerlyn was all over the place. Robert Blanton made it look like the Vikings actually started two safeties. Josh Robinson had an interception. Anthony Barr made open field tackles.

Does it matter that the Rams are bad offensively? Yes, but considering where the Vikes are coming from, to go on the road and totally shut down any opponent shows something. They shut down a bad opponent, like a competent defense should. They gave up no touchdowns, and it never seemed like the Rams threatened a touchdown (did the Rams attempt a single pass into the end zone?).

Offensively, the Vikes took their shots when the opportunities came, like after the interception before the half. The Vikes will have to get more aggressive with the downfield passing. It is understandable against the Rams' pass rush to game plan a lot of pass plays allowing Matt Cassel to deliver the pass extremely quickly. In time, they'll have to trust they can block and give Cassel time to find receivers deep. Things worked today--the runs with Cordarrelle Patterson, the quick passes to Greg Jennings--but the Vikes will need to go deeper against some opponents. But there were great things. Adrian Peterson was running hard and strong despite his numbers, and if Norv Turner keeps running Cordarrelle Patterson laterally, opposing linebackers will be moving laterally too, and Peterson will be able to dice them.

The Viking punt coverage put on an excellent display on Sunday as well. There were moments when Tavon Austin seemed almost ready to break into the open field, but several Viking special teamers made spectacular open field plays to bring him down. If the Vikings can keep preventing teams from gaining field position via the punt return, that's like a defensive improvement. Teams will  have to earn it on offense.

The penalties in the first half were a concern: was this going to be a sloppily coached team? But that really settled down (and it's worth noting that Jeff Fisher's teams are chippy and handsy, and the Vikes might have played to their level at points).  It doesn't seem like Mike Zimmer is going to let his team be sloppy. It's hard to judge in a blowout, but everything seemed good from a game management standpoint, including at the end of the first half when the game was still in play (they aggressively played for the end zone after the Josh Robinson pick).

In 2007, there were low expectations for the Vikings, and they beat a bad Falcon team at home to start a surprisingly competitive season (they were 8-8, 8-6 with a chance at the playoffs). In 2012, there were low expectations for the Vikings, and they won a disturbingly close game at home against a bad Jaguar team to start a surprisingly successful season (10-6). After each home win, the Vikes weren't terribly impressive and it was easy to think they were a bad team that just beat a worse team (and barely).

There aren't super expectations for the Vikes this year, but they just went on the road and crushed a bad team by 28 points. Maybe next week they'll be exposed. But that's a week a way. For this week, every day we can just be happy. Maybe we'll be miserable for next week, but this week can be a joy. We're rooting for a 1-0 team coming off a dominant win. Feel the optimism for the Mike Zimmer era. Feel the excitement of so many good performances by individual players. It's a joy. This week, we are trailing clouds of heaven.

Trailing clouds of heaven: Vikings-Rams

Vikings 34 - Rams 6

There are few things sweeter for a football fan than watching his or her favorite team post a blowout win over an opponent. No sweating. No worries. No cursing. No soul crushing last minute comeback by the other team. Just pure contentment as the clock winds down and the game ends.

As my blog colleague Pacifist Viking has written several times, there is no skill to winning or losing close games. If a team plays enough of them, there is about a 50 per cent chance they will win or lose those games. Teams that play a lot of close games are probably going to finish somewhere in 7-9/8-8/9-7 range. Yes, the Vikings were facing a St. Louis team with no receiver, tight end or running back who strikes fear in an opponent, and they were playing the Rams backup quarterback, and in the second half, the backup's backup. So the Vikings should have won this game, and they did in resounding fashion. There's something to be said for that.

The 2014 Minnesota Vikings defense - are you not entertained? 

Six points surrendered. Five sacks. Two interceptions - one returned by Harrison Smith for an 80-yard touchdown. The Rams top runner (Zac Stacy) only had 43 yards. This is the kind of dominating performance you were hoping for when Mike Zimmer was hired as the Vikings head coach back in those cold, dark days in late January.

What stood out to me most in this game was the sure tackling of the Vikings. If there was a Rams offensive player who broke a tackle, I can't remember it. When Vikings defenders got their mitts on a Rams player, that player was taken to the turf. Teams that don't tackle well give up a lot of extra yards, a lot of extra first downs and more points than they would have if they tackled well. The 2013 Vikings defense didn't tackle well at all in 2013. They tackled very well today. I hope that's going to continue.

Everson Griffen didn't look too bad today, eh? Two sacks late in the game when the issue was already decided was a nice reward for him after he spent much of the first half getting in St. Louis starting QB Shaun Hill's face but with no sacks to show for it. Surprisingly, Tom Johnson also looks like he's going to be a valuable, disruptive member of a strong defensive line. Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards had him lining up at defensive tackle and defensive end, and he was effective at both spots.

And Josh Robinson - WTF?

Overall, a fantastic start to the season for the Vikings defense. Now all it has to do for an encore is stop Tom Brady and New England Patriots offence. No biggie.

The 2014 Minnesota Vikings offense - a work in progress

I'm expecting the Vikes offense to be a lot better this year than it has been in a while. Today, I thought it looked a lot like the offense I've been watching the past couple of years. Norv Turner obviously wasn't very interested in having Matt Cassel hold the ball very long against the Rams fine defensive line, so there was a lot of screens and short passes employed. The Vikes still relied on Peterson a lot (although I thought he didn't run out of the "I" formation as much as usual.) The unit struggled on third down, and just as we've seen for almost a decade, the offence made each completed pass look and feel like a fantastic accomplishment.

I do like the idea of lining up Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield and giving him the ball from time to time. I also like the fact Cassel and Greg Jennings seem to be building that chemistry thing between them. Still, this was a  pretty "meh" performance by the Norv Turner offence. Are better days ahead? I hope so.

What did you think of the Vikings performance?