Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Some Atlanta Falcons stats to munch on for Vikings fans during Thanksgiving Day

I plan to post a Vikings-Falcons preview before the end of the work week because I don't think Pacifist Viking is going to get to it with this being American Thanksgiving and all. (But doesn't that mean you Americans have a couple of days off and don't have anything better to do than blog?)

Today, I'm going to post a few relevant numbers about the 2015 Atlanta Falcons just so you get an idea what the Viking are up against. Here we go.

This is the average yards per carry runners have had against the Atlanta Falcons defense this season. That's the best total in the NFL, and through 10 games Atlanta has yet to allow a running back to rush for 100 yards against them. Ex-Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle came the closest with 87 yards on 14 carries in their third game of the season. We know the Vikings offense leans heavily on Adrian Peterson, so this stat is fucking terrible to see.

On the flip side, the Falcons defense has only sacked opposing quarterbacks 12 times this year. That's tied for worst in the league with the New York Giants. This could be the game Teddy Bridgewater gets more than one full Mississippi to attempt a pass before he's running for his life.

The combined record of the six teams Atlanta has beaten. See, it's not just the Vikings who have been fattening up on patsies in 2015.

That is where Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones ranks in the NFL in catches (89) and receiving yards (1,189). Yeah, he's pretty good.

The number of rushing and receiving touchdowns Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has scored, which ties him with Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert for most in the NFL. Yeah, Freeman's pretty good, too.

Freeman's yardage from scrimmage this season, which is second-most in the NFL. Who's ahead of him, you ask? Why it's teammate Julio Jones. This is probably a good time to mention Freeman didn't practice Wednesday as he goes through the league's concussion protocol. He may not play Sunday. If that's the case, it's a big blow to Atlanta and it would be a huge break for the Vikings.

Monday, November 23, 2015

How long can the Vikings go on with the Mike Wallace charade?

On October 4th, in a 23-20 loss to Denver, wide receiver Mike Wallace had his best game as a Viking, catching eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.

That gave Wallace 20 catches for 233 yards after four games - not outstanding numbers, but solid enough. And with Wallace still getting used to a new team, city, quarterback and offensive coordinator, I was optimistic those numbers would get better as the season moved along.

But they haven't. In the six games since that loss, Wallace has caught eight passes for 68 yards - or Antonio Brown's stat line after a good quarter of football. In two of his last four games, Wallace hasn't caught a pass at all. Yet despite this poor production - combined with several dropped passes and perhaps some lazy efforts in running routes and blocking - Wallace was still on the field for 52 of the Vikings 64 offensive snaps in the loss to Green Bay. Only Stefon Diggs played more among the team's wide receivers.

I don't know what's wrong with Wallace. I'm not an NFL scout or personnel guy. But the production over the last six games speaks for itself. And what that production says is that Wallace needs to be replaced as a starter.

Jarius Wright isn't a guy I think is cut out to start opposite Stefon Diggs. But Charles Johnson might be. He's much bigger than Wallace and could provide the Vikings passing game with a physical presence in the red zone. Even Adam Thielen deserves to take some snaps away from Wallace. You know Thielen will give it his all on every play, and the one time this year he got a lot of playing time (on Oct. 4th against Denver) he caught six passes for 70 yards against one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Wallace was supposed to be the deep threat the Vikings needed to take its passing game to a level of competence not seen since the 2009 season. But it looks like Minnesota got in on Wallace way too late. He hasn't averaged more than 13 yards per catch since 2011. That was also the last time he had a 1,000 yard season.

I don't think I'm the only Vikings fan wondering how much longer will the Vikings keep on playing Wallace based on how he performed four seasons ago rather than how he's performing now.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Coming Off The Ledge: Packers 30 - Vikings 13

Vikings - Packers box score

Well, I really thought this week the Vikings were going to do it - beat Green Bay for the first time in almost three years.

Nope. Not this time. And the reasons for the loss are pretty simple.

1. The Vikings defense couldn't consistently stop Packers bowling ball Eddie Lacy (22 carries for 100 yards) - who has been mostly terrible and a non-factor this year.

2. The Vikings offensive line was embarrassed by the Packers front seven. There were few holes for Adrian Peterson to run through and Teddy Bridgewater operated within a quickly collapsing pocket about 99.9 per cent of the evening. The Packers didn't even really blitz all that much. They often rushed four, but were able to either blow by T.J. Clemmings, Matt Kalil, Mike Harris, Brandon Fusco and Joe Berger with speed or overpower them with force on bull rushes. It's hard to move the ball consistently when that's happening, and for the most part the Vikes didn't on a day when their defense couldn't save them.

3. The Vikings overall played dumb, sloppy football. The eight penalties for 110 yards is something we haven't seen from this team all year. Terence Newman doesn't get his head turned around on a deep pass while covering the immortal Jeff Janis and draws a 50-yard pass interference flag on third-and-forever that keeps a Packers drive alive. Linval Joseph shoves Aaron Rodgers to the ground well after he's thrown the ball (OK, it was a light shove and I don't think it warranted a flag), giving the Packers another shot at a touchdown, which they convert. And how about that Cordarrelle Patterson head butt after a nice kickoff return that drew a 15-yard penalty? Again, it was a pretty minor "head butt", but why even put yourself in that situation? In retrospect, seeing Peterson jawing with Green Bay's defenders and almost getting into some shoving matches in the first half was bad sign for the Vikings. Peterson and the rest of his team didn't look in control. They were too emotional and the game seemed too big for them. Not good.

So what does this loss mean for the Vikings as we head into the last six games of the season?

I'll take the glass-is-half-full approach tonight. It's a tough schedule ahead - even the Bears game at home will be difficult - but this team has been pretty good about forgetting what's happened to them the previous game, win or lose, all season. They are a better team than the club they will be playing next week on the road (Atlanta). If the Vikings revert to the team we've seen most of the season, disciplined, not taking many penalties, playing strong special teams and defense so the offense doesn't have to score a bunch of points, they should be alright.

At 7-3, this team is still in good shape and we still have six weeks of relevant football to watch. That should be enough to keep you off the ledge this week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

National Friday League: Week 11

Viking-Packer Preview
2015 Vikings (22nd in scoring, 2nd in points allowed)
2015 Packers (11th in scoring, 11th in points allowed)

If the Packers were the same team, but with "Generic Team A" jerseys, I'd feel good about this game. Yes, the Vikes are facing the best QB they've faced (or probably will face) this season. But Generic Team A's skill position players and offensive line don't seem up to the task of moving the ball against this Viking defense. And their defense isn't something to fret about either.

But this isn't Generic Team A. The Vikings' record against the team they play Sunday is 1-9-1 since 2010. We've seen things, man. It's hard not to be terrified about what Rodgers can do. It's hard not to expect the Packers to come on.

I literally had a dream about playoff matchups last night. It was, of course, as dreams go: the Packers were losing to the Panthers (they were playing on some sort of shipping dock), then they were losing to the Vikings but coming back, the Bengals were making moves in the AFC ("that's a team the Vikes can beat in the Super Bowl!)...then I woke up before any of the games ended. I don't remember playoff dreams since 2009. So I guess my unconscious is starting to believe.

This is such a crucial game: the Packers already have an NFC North loss (the Vikes don't, and that includes two road wins), and a win would put the Vikings two games in front of the Packer with at least a head-to-head split guaranteed. It's possible (!) that the Vikes won't need to win the Week 17 game at Lambeau to win the division (!), but could be playing instead for a first round bye (!). On the other hand, a loss puts the Vikings and Packers with the same record, and the Packers would be favored to win their Week 17 game if they haven't sealed the division by then. If the Wild Card race becomes mildly competitive, the Vikes could be in trouble.

It will also be a revealing game, for both teams. If the Packers' skid continues, it's telling. And if the Vikings extend their winning streak to six games, and get a win against a team that will still be over .500 after the game is over, that is telling, too.

Well, have a good weekend, suckers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Vikings need to stop Aaron Rodgers. But are they up to the task?

The stats are ugly.

In 14 career starts against the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has done the following:

- Completed 308 of the 434 passes he has thrown, or 71 per cent,

- Amassed 3,747 passing yards

- Tossed 32 touchdown passes and been intercepted just four times

- Oh, and the Packers are 10-4 in those starts - including 9-1 since 2010.

Listen, I'm not telling any diehard Vikings fan anything they don't already know. Rodgers has killed the Vikings during his career. And if the Vikings are going to continue this unexpected roll they are currently on, the team will have to do something this Sunday it's rarely done - turn Rodgers into an average QB.

However, this might doable for the first time in a long time. As you may have heard, the Packers offense is off a little bit during its three-game losing streak. Losing Jordy Nelson for the season has finally caught up to Rodgers and the Packers. It's forced other receivers such as Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and James Jones to play more prominent roles in the passing game, and they haven't been up to the task.

What has also made the Packers offense so tough the past couple of seasons is Eddie Lacy. He gave Green Bay a consistent running threat that defenses had to account for beyond Rodgers firing the football all over the place. But Lacy's sucked in 2015 - a combination of being injured and being (possibly) out of shape. Football Outsiders Cian Fahey dissects the Packers various offensive ailments in this post. You'll be grinning ear-to-ear after you read it.

So, Rodgers isn't getting much help from his supporting cast lately, which should make the Vikings job of turning him into a mere mortal a bit easier. But what also gives Minnesota a better shot at taking down Rodgers, and the Packers, for the first time since Dec. 30, 2012 is the defense Mike Zimmer has fashioned in his second year as head coach.

Not only is the Packers offense weaker than it was in 2014, the Vikings defense is stronger than it was in 2014. And remember in the second Packers-Vikings matchup last season in Minnesota, Zimmer's defense did a pretty solid job defending a Green Bay offense that had Nelson, Rodgers and an ultra-effective Lacy. Rodgers threw for just 209 yards and the big plays weren't there. The Packers had to grind out a 24-21 victory

This year's Vikings defense has Linval Joseph is providing the kind of interior disruption that we haven't seen since the Williams Wall''s heyday. The Vikings top three corners - Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn - who has been terrific in the slot corner role - with maybe a little bit of Trae Waynes thrown in, matches up very well with the Packers wideouts. And if Eric Kendricks is healthy enough to play effectively, he and Anthony Barr give the Vikings defense two linebackers who tackle well, blitz well and can cover a lot of ground in pass coverage. I haven't even mentioned Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith.

The Vikings defense has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball this year. That talent is playing well and playing smartly. If this unit can't keep Rodgers under control, at home, on Sunday, I don't know when it ever will.

Other links   

-  Maybe the Vikings haven't beaten anybody good yet, but neither have most of the other teams in the NFL with winning records. Take that, naysayers!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 30, Raiders 14 (Part 2)

For Darren's take on the game, see here.

It's rare for a good NFL team to rely so heavily on a running back as the Minnesota Vikings do. Singularly rare, perhaps: even the Seattle Seahawks weren't as reliant on Marshawn Lynch in 2013 and 2014 as the Vikings are on Adrian Peterson. It reminds me a lot of the 2012 Vikings, except this team is way better.

For one thing, the 2015 Viking defense is capable of carrying a team. Nine games, and still they haven't given up a third touchdown in a game. This is a defense that, if the offense and special teams give them just enough support, can be the best unit on a playoff team.

But also the 2015 Viking offense of Norv Turner/Teddy Bridgewater at least makes an attempt to run an real NFL passing game more than the 2012 Bill Musgrave/Christian Ponder version. Right now Bridgewater's most visible skill is the ability to avoid a pass rusher and throw the ball away--alas, given the offensive line's performance, this is perhaps his most important skill. But while accounting for the poor pass protection, Turner is still relying on Bridgewater to be able to call real NFL passing plays. It's rarely there (side note: on that screen and run, Mike Wallace showed a speed burst nobody else on the Viking offense has. Maybe that's a play to come back to?), and they may be more conservative than a lot of teams would be, but they call a variety of plays and Bridgewater has the intelligence and poise to run a variety of plays (it's his accuracy that's been shaky).

But the Vikings still lean on Peterson to move the ball at all. The passing game is supplemental, built with the expectation that it will be Peterson's runs that lead to first downs. It's been mostly frustrating but also fascinating watching the Vikings in the Peterson era--with the exception of the Brett Favre years, the Vikings have been trying to win with 20th century offenses in a 21st century league. This is an old school of the old school team, a team that can regularly win games big while their QB throws for under 200 yards. I still don't think that's a consistent long-term strategy and that Bridgewater's development is crucial--the Mike Zimmer Vikings are going to win with defense, and they're going to need an offense with just enough punch to compete in every game. But it has worked to make the playoffs in a few seasons ('08 and '12).

What might lead to something more than a one-and-done playoff trip in '15 is that defense. They just tackle guys in the open field. In the last two weeks they gave up no second-half TDs (and just three second half points). They shut down the opponent's best skill player. They pressure the passer and smother the run. That defense, and pretty reliable special teams, could be the difference.

And so too could Bridgewater. One of the amazing things is watching him improvise behind crummy pass blocking. I don't think running is his forte, but this season he's had some crucial and impressive running plays that have helped the Vikings win games. He's been able to take off and run, and he's been able to scramble and find an outlet receiver short. That kind of ability--he keeps his head, moves quick to avoid the rush, and shows athleticism and intelligence to try and make a play--can help the team win playoff games. He makes plays.

There's still a big part of being a damaged Viking fan that makes what's happening right now hard to believe. It's gotta be a mirage, right? A scheduling fluke? But then you see a defense that is strong up and down. You see a head coach and a coaching staff consistently doing smart things. You see a Hall of Fame running back doing things other running backs just don't do. And you see the Vikes at 7-2 and sort of have to actually have hope.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Trailing Clouds of Heaven: Vikings 30 - Raiders 14

Vikings - Raiders box score

For several seasons, Vikings fans have looked wistfully at other franchises (like New England and Pittsburgh, for example) that were well-coached and wondered what that would look like.

In year two under head coach Mike Zimmer, we're starting to find out.

Well-coached teams teams tackle well. Their special teams make big plays and play punt and kickoff coverage extremely well. They don't turn the ball over. And they don't beat themselves by taking dumb penalties.

In Sunday's win, all of this was on display. If an Oakland player got the ball and a Vikes defender was within an arm's length of him, that Oakland player wasn't going far. Cordarrelle Patterson - at least for one play - returned to relevance with a 93-yard kickof return for a touchdown seconds after the Raiders had grabbed a 14-13 lead late in the first half. Minnesota had zero turnovers and committed just three penalties (Oakland had eight).

And outside of the season opener against the 49ers, this is what the Vikings have done all year. Credit the Vikings young, talented roster. But also credit a coaching staff that Zimmer hand-picked and is leading.

Well-coached teams also adjust to what their opponent is doing and try to find something that works. Back in the Leslie Frazier days, it seemed like Frazier rarely did any adjusting until it was too late. But under Zimmer - another defensive-minded coach - we've seen the Vikings defense consistently make adjustments when things seem to be going south and then completely shut down opposing offenses. We saw it against Detroit on the road a few weeks ago. We saw it at home against the Rams last week. And we saw it again today against the Raiders. Oakland had just gone up 14-13 with less than two minutes left in the half. Raiders QB Derek Carr had victimized the Vikings on some blitzes to get that lead. It looked like the game might start turning the Raiders way. But then Patterson took the kickoff to the house and Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards seemed to blitz a little less (I'm actually not sure what adjustments they did) and largely shut Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree down.

We all recognize - I think - that this Vikings squad isn't a dynamic offensive team and that still worries us. But how good does it feel to know this Vikings team has Mike Zimmer on the sideline calling the shots on the defensive side of the ball?

SKOL, baby!

Also ... 

- I didn't think a whole lot about the signing of Terence Newman during the offseason. I knew he had a long history with Zimmer, had been a solid NFL corner and was considered a coach on the field. But I didn't expect Newman would be an impact player at 37 years of age. Today, Newman played as well as I've seen a Vikings corner play in some time. As usual, his tackling was superb. But he also had five passes defensed and those two interceptions (he nearly had a third). That ball hawking, playmaking ability has been missing all year from the Vikings cornerbacks. Newman provided it against Oakland.

- I think I've noticed a bit of a shift in how opposing defenses are attacking the Vikings offense. Early in the year, the focus was on firing run blitz after run blitz at the Vikings to shut down Adrian Peterson and make Teddy Bridgewater beat them. Since the Chicago game, it seems like defenses are choosing to devote less resources to stopping Peterson and focusing more on the Vikes passing game. That didn't work for the Raiders today. Peterson consistently churned out positive runs, keeping the Vikings offense on schedule and out of bad down and distance situations. Let's see how Green Bay plays it next week.

- Like last week, it was another crisp start for Bridgewater. Then he, and the passing game, largely went away until Minnesota's second-last drive of the game, when it seemed like Bridgewater and the play calling got very conservative and Norv Turner wasn't interested in taking any chances with an early 10-0 lead. Turner is not asking Bridgewater to fling the ball all over the place like Oakland is asking Carr. But it does seem that when Bridgewater is asked to throw or has to, he loosens up and does a very good job of it. I know this current formula is working for the Vikings, but I'd like to see the ball put in Bridgewater's hands a bit more over the final seven games.