When a team reaches a championship game, in many instances the team doesn’t recognize all that transpired to propel them there. So when they come up short you’ll hear the tried and true axioms being thrown around: “Wait ’til next year.” “We’ll learn from this lesson and come back stronger.” etc…etc That is not how the sporting landscape is shaped. Other teams are developing specific player match-ups that may not have gone in their favor this year yet will do so in the following season. Some teams had injuries at critical times where your team didn’t suffer such setbacks. Draft picks and free agents are signed by your divisional brethren in an attempt to tilt the player match-ups in their favor if they don’t have those talents already on the roster. While at the same time the team that was on top tries to match what they did the season before. The teams that fall hard are those that dont’ counter opponents personnel and strategic changes and think they can beat those teams again. Especially when they disregard age at key positions. This was the plight of the 2010 Minnesota Vikings and the failures cost Coach Childress his job at mid-season. Where do they go from here?
Enter new Head Coach Leslie Frazier. Frazier should realize that he has to run the football more effectively to take pressure off of an aging defensive front. He has the horses in Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart to do it and since he is a former defensive coach, seems like a good strategic start. He brought in former teammate and 49er Head Coach Mike Singletary to aid with teaching his linebackers and to be a sounding board for gameday decisions. How do we know this? He made Singletary assistant head coach. The first thing is the Vikings need to learn who they are where under Childress they lost their way. Too often in the modern NFL, offensive co-ordinators who become head coaches want to take to the air to prove their genius to the sports writing pundits instead of doing what is best for their team. Subsequently you put your team into a series of 3 and outs or interceptions and your aging, tiring defense has to be on the field 2-3 more times in a half. Frazier needs to reverse this immediately to be successful. The first thing to watch out for.
Quarterback: Alright it’s time to move on from the Brett Favre experiment. The timing of his signing was great two years ago but the shelf life for this product ran out last year and ….wait …Who is throwing the football in Mississippi? Nope, just kidding. Favre Watch is over and the Vikings have moved on and drafted QB Christian Ponder for their future and have Tavaris Jackson who should be the starter this year if they resign him. http://www.vikingsgab.com/2011/03/02/vikings-plan-no-tender-offer-for-tavaris-jackson/ Going into his 6th season, this should be his make or break year. Last year, in a move that we didn’t support, the Vikings released Sage Rosenfels to keep Jackson as the number 2. Looking back that was actually a good move because he didn’t fit what they were trying to do last year (multiple receiver sets & throwing 40 times) to one that should benefit his talents in a more run heavy attack this year. Also the Vikings have to stand behind their young quarterback so he doesn’t feel like he’ll get yanked or too dressed down when any mistakes are made. He is going to have to be a leader on this team and its up to the coaching staff to help him get there.
Jackson has a strong arm and can move effortlessly with the football. He’s a stronger, faster version of Mark Sanchez. Use the running game and get him into the game with rhythm throws from a play action standpoint. If they continue to run that stretch play to Peterson, the first counter to that is the play action boot off that motion. This will keep the opposing defensive line from tearing up the field, hold the linebackers who will check to see if Peterson has the ball, and open up gaps 10-15 yards down field to get the ball to Shiancoe, Rice, or Harvin. Another key would be to borrow an old Hank Stram ploy that the Patriots used against Julius Peppers in Super bowl XXXVIII, and roll him out often so the rush can’t tee off on him at any time. This way if he has to take off with the football he’s in motion and can accelerate from there. Or the offside linebacker(s) that is sliding with him maintaining zone discipline open up those routes to the TE and RBs. Go with a steady passing tree early in the season from 2RB, 2WR, 1TE sets, and 3 WR, 2RB sets and this would set him up for success.
These strategies would be the best to implement because if he goes down or is replaced, its an easier passing tree for a young Christian Ponder to step in and achieve some success. Another is you’ll back teams out of blitzing your quarterbacks. This is not a dumbing down of the offense. Keep in mind, passing out of traditional sets is when Tom Brady won his 3 Super Bowl rings, same with Kurt Warner in St. Louis in ’99. Its when these teams were lined up in 4 receiver sets 40% of the time is when they lost. Ask Coach Childress, who kept missing that point last year…then tried to blame Favre…yet I digress. This is how the aforementioned Sanchez has been successful early on and the same to be said for Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan down in Atlanta. The play action pass is the best weapon in football. Defensive coaches and players know this….if Frazier holds true to form, quarterback is average for now.
Offensive Backfield: Lets think about this for a second….really give this some introspective thought. One back holds the NFL record for rushing for 296 yards in a game and has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, while rushing for 5,782 yards and 52TDs in 4 years. The other should have won the Heisman Trophy his senior season when he ran for over 1,700 yards and last year as a rookie averaged 4.0 yards per carry spelling the first guy. They have a new quarterback that will be under center too. Still thinking over here…hmmmm what should they do?
Aha!! How about running the football!! If we fused Eric Dickerson with Walter Payton you’d have Adrian Peterson. He’s a violent runner who punishes tacklers yet can break the big one with his speed. His longest run last year was an 80 yard touchdown. The best part of the last two years is with all the passing, they saved him some wear and tear. Even on a pass first team he ran 283 times for 1,298 yards and 12TDs in a supporting role while going to his 4th Pro Bowl. Like Dickerson he has a reputation for fumbling, yet last year he only fumbled once. The game needs to be geared through this talent. If the Vikings knuckle up and come off the ball he could rush for 2,000 in a season. Run out of traditional sets to have more players at or among the line of scrimmage so when he breaks it, he’s gone. It was once said that if you take a TE off the field, the defense removes a LB. Remove a FB and the defense adds a dime back. This removes 17% of body mass from the line of scrimmage so when your back breaks into the open, there are defenders off the line of scrimmage to cut him off and force fumbles coming in from multiple angles. Thats how Barry Sanders was caught from behind many times and Ernest Byner had “The Fumble” in ’87. So get the defense up near the line of scrimmage and then pop him through it.
As for Gerhart, he came into his rookie season quietly and ran tough. He is a hard nosed runner and at 234 lbs., he fell forward at the end of many of his runs in the style of a John Riggins. He ran 81 times for 322 yards and 1 TD while showing decent hands, catching 21 passes for 167 yards. The Vikings may want to have a few drives per game that are his to punish and wear down the defense so Peterson gets strategic rests and can break the long one on a tiring defense. It might be in their best interest to run some 2 halfback plays as well. This has to be the engine that powers the Vikings in 2011, and their so well suited to do so. With two thumpers in the backfield, get away from the slick ’em and just get into some sic ’em!! Run right at your opponent with these guys…Super Bowl quality at the running back spot in the Twin Cities.
Receivers: The Vikings missed Sidney Rice last year. The 11 games missed was one of the main reasons the season got away from them. In his absence, 3rd down receiver Percy Harvin picked up the slack from a first down production standpoint. Harvin caught 71 passes for 868 yards and 5 TDs and many of the 5 yard dumpoff variety. He would make that first guy miss and pick up the first down and did so 41 times last year. Especially once Rice was injured and defenses crept up on a team devoid of deep threats. He became more invaluable in the passing game or they may have lost even more games. Still more of a 3rd down back / slot receiver.
Before Vikings brass decided to shelve him for the season, Sidney Rice caught 17 for 280 yards and 2 TDs. It was his loss that doomed last season. The Vikings tried every stopgap measure including bringing back Randy Moss for a few weeks to offset his absence. Coming off his breakout 2009, he’s just entering his prime and could return to the 80 catch 1,200 yard club (83 for 1312 in ’09) with defenses moving more 8 in the box to stop Peterson.
To free him from double teams they need someone to emerge on the other side. Don’t think they have done enough for that. They drafted a big possession receiver with 7th round pick Stephen Burton. Really?? This would have Harvin and TE Visante Shiancoe’s (47rec. for 530yds) intermediate routes further crowded if he’s on the field with them. This may be where a veteran like Hank Baskett could get the nod and solidify this receiving unit. Have to stretch the field a little more. Otherwise obvious passing situations will turn into throwaways and punts. Receiver is average in Minnesota unless they get their “other” wideout downfield.
Offensive Line: Did we say something about running the football before? Geez, before we get into this, think back to last year and how many Brett Favre flashbacks sandwiched between defensive linemen come to mind? Like Green Bay early last year this team was allowing too many sacks with 36 compared to the Packer’s 38. They ranked 18th and 19th respectively yet the difference between the Vikings season coming to an abrupt halt to where their rivals went on to achieve greatness is where Viking quarterbacks were hit 87 times to the Packers 67. Those subsequent 20 hits knocked Favre into retirement, Jackson out for a few weeks and had Joe Webb thrown to the wolves in the latter part of the season. Thats terrible…you do realize that getting your quarterback hit 87 times not only ranked 24th but should get everyone fired.
Until you realize what this group could do going forward. This unit pushed other teams off the ball to the tune of 1,942 yards, a lofty 4.4 yards per carry average and 16TDs. These are NFL rankings of 10th, 8th, and 7th respectively and you wonder why we are imploring the Vikings to run the football. This was with LG Steve Hutchinson missing 5 games last year. Those numbers could go up to top five in all categories with a commitment to running the football behind these guys. Bryant McKinney (The U) is his running mate at tackle on the left side. However the Vikings did take two 6th round OL picks to help solidify the RG spot that was manned by Anthony Herrera and Ryan Cook last year. Its the same for young offensive linemen as it is for young running backs, just run right at your opponent and you don’t have to overthink. Offensive line is average because of their inability to keep the heat off their quarterback. If they keep Jackson and utilize his mobility this ranking will be much higher.
Defensive Line: For several years its been “The Williams Show” upfront with Pat and Kevin manning the defensive tackle spots. However age is catching up to 38 year old Pat Williams and soon the Vikings may need to find Kevin a new running mate. These guys eat up blockers and allow the linebackers to make tackles and Ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards to chalk up sacks with 11 and 8 respectively. The pass rush would be able to pin their ears back if they could play with a few more leads. However this line was the impetus to the NFL’s 8th best defense. Even though the defense is giving a little more ground the Vikings ranked 9th against the run and 10th against the pass.
They drafted a defensive tackle Christian Ballard, from the Iowa Hawkeyes with their 4th round selection. This should help with in keeping each Williams fresh throughout the season since they have a median age of 34 between them. At DE they are a little bit fresher and younger. The Chiefs should still be kicking themselves for letting RDE Jared Allen get away. Last year was the first time in 4 years that Allen was not an All Pro or Pro Bowl performer. His sack total of 11 is 4 shy of the 15 sacks he’d been averaging over those same 4 years. His effectiveness will increase if he’s able to play with a lead. After a second season of 8 or more sacks by Ray Edwards, this team is primed to have their bests sack totals since the ’89 Vikings of Keith Millard & Chris Doleman fame. With both DEs under 30 years of age there is a lot of life left among this front four. This defensive line is Super Bowl quality if this team plays to its strengths. If they do as they did last year this is a playoff grade at least.
Linebackers: In any 4-3 defense, its the defensive line’s job to keep blockers off of the linebackers and they did so to the tune of Chad Greenway leading the team with 144 tackles. Job well done to the Williams’ boys. Pro Bowl MLB E.J. Henderson was 2nd on the team with 100 tackles yet displayed more range producing 3 interceptions and forced 1 fumble. Going into his ninth season, Henderson is finally getting recognition for being one of the best at his position and can also supplement the front four with an occasional blitz. He had one sack last year but tallied as many as 4.5 back in 2007.
Ben Leber rounds out this linebacking corps that really doesn’t have a weakness. The one thing they could do more of is force turnovers but upon further review, this group combined to force 4 fumbles, gathered in 4 interceptions, and recording 3 fumble recoveries betwen them. This group is active and instinctive. Leber’s 45 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and an interception seem to be decent numbers until you realize that he missed all of six games. Yikes!! Greenway has really come into his own as a former 7th round selection and the Vikings hope to strike gold like that again in drafting Ross Homan in the 6th round from Ohio St. With Henderson and Leber’s ages starting to creep up on them, a developing linebacker within the team is a sound move. Linebackers are playoff quality.
Secondary: This defense is starting to age and show some wear and tear. The tear came in the form of CB Cedric Griffin’s knee during the 4th quarter of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. He was slow to recover and only appeared in 2 games during 2010 and had 7 tackles. Hopefully he can return with full range of his knee in 2012 and reclaim his starting role. He should have one to empathize with him in Head Coach Leslie Frazier. Frazier’s CB career came to an end with a knee injury running a punt return reverse in Super Bowl XX. The wear has come in the form of Pro Bowl CB Antoine Winfield who was dinged up toward the end of the year. He did record 89 tackles, 2 sacks, and nabbed 2 interceptions. However various injuries have started to mount on his 34 year old body and the Vikings may need to look at replacing him within a year. His style is physical and it would be hard for him to change that.
Asher Allen filled in at one of the cornerback spots and had a solid year. He had 53 tackles, 2 interceptions and defensed 7 passes. However he’s not the most physical cornerback and he is better suited to be a nickel back just like reserve CB Lito Sheppard. However help is on the way in the form of Brad Burton out of Utah with the Vikings 5th round pick and Mistral Raymond in the 6th. These youngsters should be able to bolster the special teams in the least yet if one proves to be a more solid player who can crash the roster like a Chad Greenway? Hmmm.
At safety the pairing of Williams and Abdullah was a solid one from a tackling standpoint with their ranking 4th and 5th on the team in tackles with 74 and 71. Great they want to tackle but 1 interception and only 2 passes defensed for your FS in Williams is a weak count no matter how you slice it. That’s playing too much predictable cover 2 and they have to take chances from time to time and force more turnovers. He was only in on 3 passing plays over the season? I almost did that from the couch. SS was a little more active with 7 passes defensed and 3 interceptions by Abdullah. Without question I would start a game against the Vikings in a double slot formation and run double posts on Madieu Williams 5 times and I bet we’d score on 3 of them. This is the Vikings weakest link and he has to respond to the ball better than that. He has a good pass rush in front of him. What is he waiting for? Secondary is above average with a mark against the free safety
Overall: This team has obvious strengths to play to and why they didn’t you can easily see how Childress was let go last year. Most offensive co-ordinators turned head coach can’t wait to be called genius by virtue of their play calling. Once Favre was in tow, the Vikings forgot to look at the rest of their personnel and see what they were built for. Jared Allen is a beast when you’re up 10 and he can rush the passer, not so when you’re down 10 and the opponent is running the ball at him. Catch our drift? Can this team get back to the playoffs in 2010? They have to have several things bounce their way including injuries to catch Green Bay or Chicago in the division. Deficiencies at quarterback could be their ultimate downfall, if they throw in rookie QB Ponder in the season will be one of growing pains and 6 wins is all they can get. With a Tavaris Jackson in there they can get that total up to 9. So this team should miss the playoffs but if they get a few lucky bounces…