Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Even the Vikings Aren't Perfect

Before I go into some of the negative aspects of last Friday's let me a take a moment to welcome Robert Ferguson to the Vikings. I wrote about his potential earlier, and while he's not quite a "good" receiver, that doesn't mean he won't be able to contribute. Hopefully, he'll also be able to impart some veteran wisdom to all the young'ins the Vikings have at the position.

Now, back to Friday. First off, the Vikings need to address their kick off units. Alex Reyes is awful at kicking off. His inability to kick it past the fifteen yard line played a large role in the Jets' great field position, but the coverage team should share the blame as well. It seemed like the Jets' kick returner was breaking into the second and third levels of the coverage almost every time. Not good. And the Vikings' kick (and punt) return games looked about as mediocre as last year's.

Now, this might seem tremendously important, but it is. Field position has a huge impact on a teams' ability to score and it's ability to prevent the other team from scoring. This is especially true when you consider the way the Vikings' offense and defense work. Every fewer yard the Vikings' offense has to go to score makes it that much more likely they'll actually get into scoring position. It works the same with the Tampa-2 defense the Vikings employ. Every additional yard the opposing offense has to go makes it more likely that they'll screw up their drive somehow, something the Tampa-2 is designed to lengthen anyway. This concept has been part of the conventional wisdom for awhile, and the Football Outsiders have done some work with it as well (Scroll Down to "Field Position is Fluid"). Add in the fact that the Vikings are clearly trying to emphasize the importance of field position by their style of play and it's not a good sign that they spent most of last year losing the field position battle and will likely continue to do so this year.

The other concern that arose from Friday's game was the Jets' focus on attacking Cedric Griffin. Obviously, his half hearted "attempt" at tackling Justin McCareins was inexcusable, but it was the Jets' obvious desire to throw to his side of the field (and by obvious, I mean even the announcers noticed) that worries me. Eric Mangini is a pretty good coach and if the Jets were throwing left every time, you can be sure there was a reason for it. I'm not worried about Griffin's abilities however. He earned that starting position last year by playing well. The Pro Football Prospectus had him as the 14th most successful defensive back in coverage, breaking up 58% of passes thrown his way. While he was only thrown at 61 times, that success rate was better than Antoine Winfield's, who successful defended 56% of the 91 plays in his coverage area (oh, and don't worry too much about Darren Sharper--he was the 4th best defensive back in coverage last year, successfully defending 69% of the plays targeting his coverage).

So why were the Jets so focused on throwing at Cedric Griffin? The Star Tribune postulated that it was partly due to a respect for Antoine Winfield's abilities and partly due to the Jets' success last year against Griffin last year. To be honest, I don't really buy the first rational. Make no mistake--I think Winfield is a tremendous cornerback (I even have his jersey). A lot of that is due to his ability to stop the run (PFP had him as the best corner in the NFL at stopping the run by a long shot). He's good at coverage, but he's not Deion Sanders. And something about the second reason bothers me. Griffin is a good corner, possibly as good as Antoine Winfield in coverage. And it's not like any of the other teams the Vikings played after the Jets really went out of their way to target Griffin.

So is the benefit in targeting him so great that it outweighs the benefits of throwing to all parts of the field? I wouldn't think so. But the last time a good coach decided to focus on one part of the Vikings' defense, the Patriots waltzed out of the Metrodome with an easy win and in the process created the blueprint for success against the Vikings' defense.

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