Digesting the Vikings

Happy Friday, friends.  It’s time to Digest the Minnesota Vikings, who despite their 2-9 record have a bit of power behind their punches, and can knock you out if you don’t come correct.  They’re lining up to have a very high draft pick in 2012, and I think that they can have a pretty quick turnaround in 2012 assuming they pick wisely, and their young QB improves.  For now, though, let’s take a look at them in their current state.

Generally, I’d say that the Vikings profile kind of similarly to the Broncos in some important ways.  To wit:

a.  Both teams start young QBs who can look good one play and bad the next.

b.  Both teams struggle to protect the passer in the straight-up dropback passing game, but both can get the running game blocked a lot of the time.

c.  Both teams can rush the passer creditably from both edges, although the Vikings’ second-best guy (Brian Robison) is not really close to the Broncos’ (Elvis Dumervil) level.

d.  Both teams have a good set of DTs who stuff the run well, and both teams’ LB corps are better against the run than in coverage.

The primary advantage that the Vikings have is that they have two dynamic playmakers on offense (Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin), and the Broncos’ primary advantage is that they cover outside receivers well, and that their special teams play is excellent.  It should be very interesting to watch.  To the video…

Game Watched:  Week 12 at Atlanta

Vikings Defense

a.  The Vikings are schematically very interesting on defense, because Leslie Frazier has a really diverse background.  He played for Buddy Ryan (46), and coached under Jim Johnson (blitz-man-heavy 4-3), Marvin Lewis (large-player even-front Cover-2), and Tony Dungy (small-player Cover-2).  Frazier has seen a ton of different approaches, and it shows.

What I see when I watch Minnesota is a good deal of Cover-2, and a little bit of zone-blitzing and man-blitzing.  The Vikings really can keep you guessing in a gameplanning sense, and that works to their favor.  (In a presnap read sense, it's pretty easy to see what they're in, though.)  If I had to compare what they do to any other team, it would probably be the Bengals.  Here is the snap data for the defense.  As you see, the Vikings will play nickel at times and remove a LB when they do:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
DL 69 Jared Allen 734 95%
DL 96 Brian Robison 677 88%
DL 93 Kevin Williams 557 72%
DL 98 Letroy Guion 332 43%
DL 90 Fred Evans 225 29%
DL 97 Everson Griffen 192 25%
DL 92 Remi Ayodele 183 24%
DL 99 Christian Ballard 181 23%
DL 91 Adrian Awasom 17 2%
LB 52 Chad Greenway 766 99%
LB 56 E.J. Henderson 575 74%
LB 50 Erin Henderson 450 58%
LB 55 Kenny Onatolu 62 8%
LB 51 Larry Dean 6 1%
DB 23 Cedric Griffin 770 100%
DB 39 Husain Abdullah 588 76%
DB 33 Jamarca Sanford 553 72%
DB 21 Asher Allen 408 53%
DB 26 Antoine Winfield 339 44%
DB 25 Tyrell Johnson 335 43%
DB 31 Chris Cook 263 34%
DB 35 Marcus Sherels 134 17%
DB 22 Benny Sapp 86 11%
DB 41 Mistral Raymond 69 9%
    Average DL 4.01  
    Average LB 2.40  
    Average DB 4.59  
    Total Defensive Snaps 773  

b.  Minnesota has a very good defensive line group, and that’s a major reason that I say that they could turn their program around quickly.  Jared Allen is really difficult, obviously, at Right DE; he’s improved a lot as a run player the last few years, and he’s always been a beast as a pass rusher, with 13.5 sacks this season.  Robison primarily plays LE, and has 5.5 sacks this season.  Everson Griffen backs up both spots and has four sacks himself.  A total of 23 sacks from three DEs isn’t too shabby.  Allen and Robison play a huge number of snaps for defensive linemen, as you saw before, and that bears watching. 

Inside, Kevin Williams is still a very good player, even with Pat Williams gone.  He remains a major force against the run, even if at age 31 he’s not sacking the QB as much as he used to.  The NT position is manned by a committee of players including Remi Ayodele, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans.  Rookie Christian Ballard is used at both DE and DT at times, but isn’t off to a particularly great start to his career from what I’ve seen.

c.  The linebacker group is all run-defense and little coverage.  WLB Erin Henderson has emerged as the best player of the group this season, and he really fills well against the run.  His brother E.J. is the Mike LB, and what he lacks in lateral range, he makes up for with downhill striking power.  He’s like a little less quick Joe Mays.  The Sam is Chad Greenway, and he’s also very stout in the run game.  This is a big group for a 4-3, with each player weighing more than 240 pounds, and they play with power.

d.  The pass rush is mostly from the front four, but the Vikings send a linebacker or DB about 20% of the time.  Here is the data that shows where it’s coming from, and who’s dropping into coverage:

Pos # Name Rush Coverage % Rush % Coverage
DL 69 Jared Allen 422 17 96.1% 3.9%
DL 96 Brian Robison 393 13 96.8% 3.2%
DL 93 Kevin Williams 327 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 98 Letroy Guion 205 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 90 Fred Evans 111 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 97 Everson Griffen 123 15 89.1% 10.9%
DL 92 Remi Ayodele 85 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 99 Christian Ballard 111 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 91 Adrian Awasom 8 2 80.0% 20.0%
LB 52 Chad Greenway 69 387 15.1% 84.9%
LB 56 E.J. Henderson 73 237 23.5% 76.5%
LB 50 Erin Henderson 38 204 15.7% 84.3%
LB 55 Kenny Onatolu 6 13 31.6% 68.4%
DB 23 Cedric Griffin 3 452 0.7% 99.3%
DB 39 Husain Abdullah 9 355 2.5% 97.5%
DB 33 Jamarca Sanford 7 315 2.2% 97.8%
DB 21 Asher Allen 1 251 0.4% 99.6%
DB 26 Antoine Winfield 9 205 4.2% 95.8%
DB 25 Tyrell Johnson 1 187 0.5% 99.5%
DB 31 Chris Cook 0 183 0.0% 100.0%
DB 35 Marcus Sherels 2 96 2.0% 98.0%
DB 22 Benny Sapp 0 51 0.0% 100.0%
DB 41 Mistral Raymond 1 39 2.5% 97.5%
    Average DL 3.91 0.10 97.4% 2.6%
    Average LB 0.41 1.84 18.1% 81.9%
    Average DB 0.07 4.67 1.5% 98.5%
    Total 4.39 6.61    
    Pass Plays 457      

e.  The Vikings secondary is their defensive weakness, especially after CB Antoine Winfield was lost for the season, and CB Chris Cook decided to try to strangle his girlfriend and instead got suspended.  Those two are Minnesota’s best players outside, and neither will be available Sunday.  Instead, the starters will be the toasty and penalty-prone Cedric Griffin and the atrocious Asher Allen, who PFF has as the fifth-worst CB in the NFL (ahead of Patrick Peterson and Ronde Barber) this season.  I haven’t seen a huge amount of Vikings tape, but every time I do see them, Allen seems to be getting burned. 

The backup CBs are Marcus Sherels, Benny Sapp (cut by Miami early in the season), and rookie Brandon Burton, who hasn’t played a defensive snap yet.  The Vikings are really vulnerable outside, after probably having no expectation of it being an issue this year.

f.  The Vikings’ top two safeties - Tyrell Johnson and Husain Abdullah - are both on IR, and they were complete JAGs to begin with.  The replacements are real, real rough.  Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond are currently starting, and are backed up by Eric Frampton.  No word on whether Frampton feels like I do.

g.  In an overall sense, the Vikings seem to match up well with the Broncos offense. They’re tough against the run, which is what the Broncos do well.  They’re lousy in coverage, and the Broncos throw less well.  If I played for the Vikings, I’d feel pretty good about that.

Vikings Offense

a.  The Vikings offense is coordinated by old friend (and Grand Junction’s own) Bill Musgrave, who doesn’t impress me very much as a coordinator, and never has.  The Vikings take stupid risks on offense, but don’t take the smart ones.  They over-rely on average players and underutilize excellent ones.  They seem to take the Nick Canepa approach to pass protection, which I’d paraphrase as, ignore the fact that you can’t do it effectively, and let your QB get hit, because he might still complete a throw or something.  The whole thing makes you shake your head.   Here’s the participation data for the Minnesota skill players:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
WR 84 Michael Jenkins 541 78%
WR 12 Percy Harvin 378 54%
WR 19 Devin Aromashodu 365 53%
WR 87 Bernard Berrian 222 32%
WR 85 Greg Camarillo 80 12%
WR 10 Stephen Burton 1 0%
WR 14 Joe Webb 6 1%
TE 81 Visanthe Shiancoe 548 79%
TE 82 Kyle Rudolph 274 39%
TE 89 Allen Reisner 15 2%
RB 28 Adrian Peterson 459 66%
RB 40 Jim Kleinsasser 298 43%
RB 32 Toby Gerhart 167 24%
RB 44 Ryan D'Imperio 90 13%
RB 27 Lorenzo Booker 31 6%
    Average WR 2.29  
    Average TE 1.20  
    Average RB 1.50  
    Offensive Snaps 695  

This is not a heavy sub-package team, and in fact, they profile just like the Dolphins, Chargers, and Raiders in that they tend to play with one RB, two WR, one TE, and one other player who could be any of the three.  Unlike the other teams, though, whether it’s FB Jim Kleinsasser, TE Kyle Rudolph, or WR Greg Camarillo as the fifth guy, there’s no significant run-or-pass indicator based on the personnel, so I credit them for that.

b,  The Vikings start rookie Christian Ponder at QB.  I’m not a fan, and I never have been, going back to his days at Florida State.  There’s just something really cockamamie about the guy, where the potential never fully gets there, and I laughed when Minnesota overdrafted him this season.  If he couldn’t be better than he was at Florida State, with the talent around him that he had and the coaching that he received, that makes him really suspect to me.  Congratulations on quarterbacking the last two years of the worst three-year span (23-16 from 2007-2009) of FSU football since 1974-1976, dude.  Hey, at least you went 10-4 in the weak-sister ACC as a senior!

Anyway, Seminole hate aside, Ponder has good tools but isn’t a very good player right now.  He’s a young QB, so I definitely am on the lookout for signs of improvement, but for now he’s not somebody an NFL team can win much with.  The Vikings aren’t doing him any favors, either, because as well as they can run the ball with Peterson, they should be doing it a lot more to give Ponder some easy situations.  Instead, they’re dropping back to throw 31 times per game, and Ponder is getting sacked on 9.6% of his dropbacks.  Here’s a look at his game log from PFR, so you can see how inconsistent his performance has been.

                    Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Passing Rushing Rushing Rushing Rushing
Rk Year G# Date Age Tm   Opp Result GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A Att Yds Y/A TD
1 2011 6 10/16/2011 23-233 MIN @ CHI L 10-39   9 17 52.90% 99 0 0 70.5 5.82 5.82 1 8 8 0
2 2011 7 10/23/2011 23-240 MIN   GNB L 27-33 * 13 32 40.60% 219 2 2 59.2 6.84 5.28 4 31 7.75 0
3 2011 8 10/30/2011 23-247 MIN @ CAR W 24-21 * 18 28 64.30% 236 1 0 102.7 8.43 9.14 4 4 1 0
4 2011 9 11/14/2011 23-262 MIN @ GNB L 7-45 * 16 34 47.10% 190 0 1 52.3 5.59 4.26 2 17 8.5 0
5 2011 10 11/20/2011 23-268 MIN   OAK L 21-27 * 19 33 57.60% 211 2 3 59 6.39 3.52 5 71 14.2 0
6 2011 11 11/27/2011 23-275 MIN @ ATL L 14-24 * 17 25 68.00% 186 1 0 103.1 7.44 8.24 2 9 4.5 0
      6 Games             92 169 54.40% 1141 6 6 72.6 6.75 5.86 18 140 7.78 0

Ponder can throw a pretty good ball, but a lot of times, he seems to get confused and throws the ball to the other team.  He’s a decent threat to run, especially if you want to play a lot of man, like the Broncos do.  Somebody needs to be watching him, because the Raiders almost lost to Minnesota, in part by letting Ponder make a lot of rushing yards.

c.  The primary RB is Adrian Peterson, and I’m sure everybody has heard of him.  I don’t think he’s likely to play on Sunday, because a high ankle sprain is a serious injury, and the rumor is that the Vikings expect to hold him out, and bring him back next week.  We’ll see at gametime, though.  If he plays, he’s a major threat, but he has a history of fumbling, even as he’s cleaned that up the last season and a half.  Defenders should still go for the ball with Peterson when he’s stood up.  The backup is THWG Toby Gerhart, who isn’t a quality NFL RB.  He’s way too slow to the hole, and there are guys on the street who could do a better job than him.  Lorenzo Booker is the third RB, and Jim Kleinsasser and Ryan D'Imperio are the FBs.  Kleinsasser is a pretty good blocker, especially as a supplemental pass protector.

d.  Percy Harvin gets his own bullet point, because he’s a completely unique player.   He’s nominally a WR, but his skill set is equally applicable to playing RB effectively.  Harvin is listed at 5-11 and 184 pounds, but he runs with the strength of a player who weighs 215.  In college, he ran the ball about as much as he caught it, and he was a key reason that Florida was so difficult to stop.  In the NFL, Harvin has 182 catches and 66 carries, and the 66 carries have yielded 7.2 yards per rush.  Defenses must account for Harvin on every play, because he can really hurt you.  The Vikings should be using him more, and more effectively, and for this week, I’m glad they’re too dumb to see that.

e.  The other WRs are really nondescript.  Musgrave favorite Michael Jenkins went on IR a couple days ago, so Devin “The Dude” Aromashodu is the new starter.  The primary third receiver is Camarillo, and he’s pretty meh, and the #4 guy, who won’t probably play unless somebody gets hurt is Stephen Burton.

f.  Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph are both moderately threatening as receivers from the TE position.  This will be a good experience for the Broncos, to have to defend two capable receivers in 12 personnel, because it’s like playing the JV to warm up for the varsity of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in a couple weeks.  Rudolph has higher capability as a receiver than he’s shown yet in the NFL, so the Broncos should be wary of him.  If I were Musgrave, getting Rudolph on a LB would be a high priority.  If I were Musgrave, a lot of things the Vikings do would make more sense than they do, though.

g.  The offensive line is decent in the run game, and not nearly good enough in the passing game.  LT Charlie Johnson was a bad starter in Indianapolis, whose shortcomings were often masked by Peyton Manning.  Ponder isn’t masking anything, although his ability to escape pressure at times saved Johnson’s bacon a couple times against Atlanta.  The RT Phil Loadholt is the prototype for the RT who is being pushed into obsolescence.  He can’t slide his feet and stay in front of anybody who has any quickness.

The inside guys, LG Steve Hutchinson, C John Sullivan, and RG Anthony Herrera, are better, especially Hutchinson and Sullivan.  The Vikings do have a solid backup in Joe Berger, who, interestingly, PFF has as a +7.3 in 352 snaps, vs. Herrera’s -4.5 in 432 snaps.  I obviously haven’t seen all of that football, so I don’t have an opinion, but I found it to be worth mentioning.

The Vikings supplement their protection pretty frequently, averaging 5.7 blockers, and usually check-releasing other guys on top of that.  About 77% of the time, the extra blocker is a RB.  Here’s the data:

Pos # Name Pattern Protection Snaps % of Total
WR 84 Michael Jenkins 330 1 331 83%
WR 12 Percy Harvin 238 1 239 60%
WR 19 Devin Aromashodu 208 0 208 52%
WR 87 Bernard Berrian 143 0 143 36%
WR 85 Greg Camarillo 52 1 53 13%
WR 10 Stephen Burton 0 0 0 0%
WR 14 Joe Webb 6 0 6 1%
TE 81 Visanthe Shiancoe 258 41 299 75%
TE 82 Kyle Rudolph 127 20 147 37%
TE 89 Allen Reisner 10 0 10 3%
RB 28 Adrian Peterson 156 80 236 59%
RB 40 Jim Kleinsasser 60 76 136 34%
RB 32 Toby Gerhart 67 42 109 27%
RB 44 Ryan D'Imperio 31 10 41 10%
RB 27 Lorenzo Booker 21 5 26 5%
    Average WR 2.46 0.01 2.47  
    Average TE 0.99 0.15 1.15  
    Average RB 0.84 0.54 1.38  
    Total 4.30 0.70 5.00  
    Pass Plays     397  

Beating the Vikings Defense

a.  While the Vikings are pretty good against the run (3.7 YPC), especially on the edges, they’re not the Ravens.  The Falcons had some success at times in running straight ahead against the Vikings, and not giving the Minnesota LBs time to flow to the ball.  The Broncos are a much better running team than Atlanta, and I expect that they’ll be run-heavy on Sunday.

The full menu of running plays should be employed, and I expect that the Broncos may want to get back to a heavier use of the zone read this week, because Minnesota is more about size than speed.  Forcing them to leave some of those big bodies on the backside is a good thing to do.

b.  If ever there was a good candidate for Tebow to light up in the passing game, Minnesota is it.  They’re very susceptible to play-action, and they cover the deep ball very poorly.  Matt Ryan missed three wide open deep balls last Sunday, and I think that that will be there for Tebow all day Sunday.  If the Broncos will let Tebow throw it enough, this could be the day he breaks his career high from last year’s Texans win (308 yards).

c.  Eric Decker is a Minnesota kid, and I’m sure he’ll want to dominate in his return home.  The Vikings don’t have anybody who can handle him, so especially when they go man-to-man, Tebow will want to be focused on finding Decker.

d.  It would be great if the Broncos would get off to a fast start.  I was listening to John Fox's weekly Tuesday spot (it's always between 6 and 7 PM) with Tim Ryan and Pat Kirwan on Sirius XM NFL radio a few days ago, and Fox said that the disadvantage of running the unconventional offense that they're running is that they have no film on how the defense they're playing will try to stop it.  For that reason, they have to take a look in-game over a series or two and then adjust to it.  That makes sense, and it helps explain a slow start here and there. 

The Broncos can go back to the Minnesota-Carolina game though, and see how the Vikings played the zone read action against Cam Newton.  I thought of this Friday morning, and therefore didn't have time to look at that game, but I'm thinking the answer is "not that well."  Newton had six carries for 53 yards, and overall, the Panthers had 27 carries for 140 yards, for an average of 5.2 yards per carry.

e.  The Broncos will need to minimize their offensive penalties, because if they do, I think that they’ll be able to be successful against the Vikings defense.  Let’s have this be the first of Tebow’s starts where he and J.D. Walton don’t take a delay of game penalty, or have to burn a timeout to avoid one.  I think that’s the thing that drives Doug the craziest of all when we have our game chats that turn into CTF, and it’d be cool if the Broncos gave him a break on that this week.  There’s no need against the Vikings anyway, because it’s not like they’re doing much to disguise their defensive intentions.

Stopping the Vikings Offense

a.  If Adrian Peterson plays, there’s a modicum of difficulty in handling their running game.  If not, all you really have to do is be aware of when Percy Harvin lines up in the backfield, because that’s a dangerous situation.  Gerhart gives me no reason to worry.

b.  The Broncos should identify Harvin’s location on every play and have a plan for dealing with him.  The personnel matching needs to have a CB on the field for him, and even when he’s in the backfield, Chris Harris (or some other CB) needs to be responsible for him man-to-man.

c.  Getting after Ponder is the key.  The Vikings let him drop back too much, given his inconsistency and the suckitude of their edge protection.  The Broncos have a much better pass rush than Atlanta showed last week, and they still disrupted Ponder pretty well.  This week, assuming Von Miller plays, which I do, I think the Broncos could get seven or eight sacks.

d.  The Broncos will need to be aware of Ponder’s athleticism, because he got away from pressure a number of times against the Falcons and completed broken-play throws on the move.  Again, the Broncos get there quicker, but it’s a key thing to watch for.  Ponder did walk into a couple of sacks last Sunday while trying to escape, so maintaining rush lanes is very important.  I know Marcus Thomas or Brodrick Bunkley or Robert Ayers would like to pick up a cheap sack or two on a step-up.

e.  I like run-blitzing stuff that looks like an inside handoff.  The Falcons got a massive sack of Ponder on that kind of play, where it was play-action. Gerhart doesn’t scare anybody with his speed, so even if you miss him, somebody else can get him after a minimal gain.  The return is high, and the risk is low, with run-blitzing the Vikings.

That’s all the time I have for today, friends.  As Doug has been saying, good teams eventually have to blow out bad teams.  I don’t think that the Broncos are structurally a “good team” yet, but they’ve been taking some steps toward being one.  This could be the week that they blow out a bad team; the Falcons were close to doing so, but they let Minnesota hang around, and Harvin came really close to beating them with a couple of big plays.  Let’s hope that the Broncos learned from that lesson, come ready to do some business, and jump up early and never look back.  I’m confidently taking the Broncos, after being rewarded for unconfidently taking them against the Jets and Chargers.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

Follow me on Twitter  While you’re at it, Like our Facebook page

Ted's AnalysisGame Previews