Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just Great.

Kevin Williams and Pat Williams both tested positive for performance enhancers. They're appealing, but if they're out for four games, the Vikings' season is over. They would be the second and third Vikings in the last two years to be suspended for performance enhancing drugs.

Specifically, they tested positive for "Water Pills", otherwise known as the diuretic Bumetanide. They can be used for weight loss, or, much more likely in this case, to mask steroid use.

So yeah. That's bad. And it means that this season has just been buzzkill after buzzkill.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Da Bears Made More Big Plays

Well, it looks like I was right. The team that made the most "big plays" won the game. And unlike last year, when the Purple always seemed to be able to make one or two more, especially against Chicago, it was da Bears that made more, and it was da Bears that won the game.

When a team throws four interceptions, gives up two special teams touchdowns (now, I'm not the type that thinks Zygi should fire Childress now, because its too Al Davis-like and because he can fire him at the end of year, but Paul Ferraro? He needs to be fired and fired right now.) and a 51 yard touchdown pass to Marty Booker (yeah, I have no idea how that happened either), they aren't going to win. It doesn't matter if Adrian Peterson has a Purple Jesus type day or that Jared Allen has two sacks and a forced fumble. And it especially doesn't matter if you are so afraid of Devin Hester you let Chicago start every drive in field goal range for an entire half.

It didn't help that the lack of Madieu Williams and E.J. Henderson was exploited by Kyle Orton, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark either. The Bears attacked the middle of the field and it worked to the tune of 9 catches, 133 receiving yards and a touchdown by Olsen and Clark. And the Purple made it worse by not tackling. The thing is, they weren't missing tackles so much as not attempting them. Time after time a Bears' receiver would catch a pass in a crowd of Purple and somehow emerge unscathed. Maybe the orange served as camouflage? I don't know, but that was the worse tackling by the Vikings since 2004 and it couldn't have come at a worse time.

Offensively, this was the first time since December 9th, 2001 that the Vikings' offense put up 40 points by themselves (and their QB was Todd Bouman!), and the first time under Brad Childress that they scored 30 or more without help from their defense, special teams or 250+ yards from Adrian Peterson. They might even have been able to score more if it weren't for the four interceptions, muffed punt by Charles Gordon (remember how worried I was about the lack of a real punt returner on the roster?) and inane decision by Childress to pass the ball on 4th and 1. The Purple averaged 4.8 yards per carry against Chicago on Sunday. They have the best running back in the NFL and an above average runner as his backup. Why not put both of them in the backfield and give it to one of them? It worked in the red zone. Even if you don't want to give Peterson the ball (he does have a pretty mediocre 47% success rate and has been stuffed on multiple 3rd and shorts this year), then give Chester Taylor the ball. Don't put the game in the hands of Gus Frerotte. His job is not to win games-its to stay out of the way while Adrian Peterson, Chester Taylor and the defense wins games.

Decisions like that are why there's almost no doubt in my mind that the Vikings should fire Brad Childress at the end of the year (assuming, of course, that they miss the playoffs, a pretty safe bet at this point). The special teams issues, poor roster construction and predictable play calling all reinforce that. Given the two weeks he has to prepare for the final 9 games (in which the Vikings must go at least 6-3, if not 7-2, to have a shot at the playoffs) Childress might turn into Bill Belicheck. I doubt it though.

Coming up: 3 stars (yes, there were good games by Vikings) and later this week, a look at potential replacements for Childress.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Needing Some Big Plays

The Vikings' game against da Bears looks eerily similar to their game against the Titans. It's on the road, against a team with a very good defense, an above average offense and solid special teams (punt. the ball. out of bounds). And just like against the Titans, I'm not optimistic about the Vikings' chances, especially if injured cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman are able to play (both sat out against the Falcons).

One of the problems is that I don't think Brad Childress can come up with a game plan that will be successful against an above average defense, especially one that's as opportunistic as da Bears'. It hasn't helped that Adrian Peterson has three fumbles in his last three games and Gus Frerotte has thrown three interceptions in his four games as a starter. The good thing is that da Bears have not been able to apply consistent pressure this year, although their 5.8% adjusted sack rate isn't much different than the Lions' 5.6% ASR. They're still shutting down the run, however, and trail only the Ravens and Vikings in DVOA against the run.

Offensively, Chicago seems to have found a quarterback, but I refuse to be afraid of a passing game lead by Kyle Orton, especially behind a line as average at protecting the quarterback as da Bears and with receivers like Brandon Lloyd and whatever's left of Marty Booker. Where Orton has been successful is with short passes, particularly to his tight ends and Matt Forte. 82 of his 198 attempts have gone to either Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark or Forte. And while the Vikings are missing their best linebacker, they've still been successful at shutting down tight ends and running backs in the passing game, with a -6.8% DVOA against tight ends and a -10.2% DVOA against running backs. That success is directly attributable to Ben Leber and Chad Greenway, both of whom have been amazing in coverage this year (like, for example, when Leber was blanketing Devrey Henderson).

Chicago won't be able to run the ball either, both because they're playing the Vikings and because Forte has already started to hit the rookie wall (which will go by Jared, Kevin, Pat, Ray, Ben and Chad this week). He's averaged less than 4 yards a carry the last five weeks and da Bears haven't cracked 3.5 yards per carry as a team since Week 3.

So once again, it looks like it should be a close game, with one or two big plays determining the eventual outcome. Can Bernard Berrian or Adrian Peterson break long touchdown? Will the Vikings' punt "coverage" let Devin Hester score multiple touchdowns? Which defense will convert a turnover into a score? The Vikings have made 21 "big plays" to Chicago's 18, but da Bears have been much better at preventing the big play, only allowing 15, while the Vikings have allowed 25.

On paper, the Vikings look like they have a chance against a decent offense and a good defense. That chance, however, rests on plays that are not easy to predict and can't be expected. I'm probably just being pessimistic, but without a huge game from the defense, Adrian Peterson or Bernard Berrian (think 2 TDs, 150 yards type big game), I just don't see the Vikings winning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Killing Time: Tom Powers > Mark Craig

Tom Powers > Mark Craig:
Mark Craig thinks Vikings' fans should be happy with the Vikings' 3-3 record and tie for first place. He's wrong. Yes, the Giants and Redskins all lost games they were favored to win. But unlike the Vikings, the Redskins and Giants have impressive victories. The Redskins first five games were all against quality teams (the Saints have the worst record, at 3-3), including a win against their biggest rival on the road, a win against the NFC West leaders and another road division win. The Giants dominated in their first four games (and won the Super Bowl last year--think Vikings' fans would care if they barely beat the Lions the year after winning the Super Bowl? Yeah, me neither). If the Vikings had been 4-1 coming into the game, having beaten the Packers and Colts, the fans wouldn't have been booing. But they weren't, and, as Tom Powers points out, the fans (and the owner, I'd bet), were promised a Super Bowl contender and Brad Childress has not delivered. This team hasn't shown it has the ability to be a Super Bowl contender and I'm not even sure they've shown that they're going to contend for the division. And I'm not sure that Brad Childress has shown in his tenure that he's a good enough coach to take a team to the playoffs.

Defensive Injuries:
The Bears' secondary is hurting badly. The Viking's linebacking corps isn't beat up, but that's because the Purple have brought back Dontarrius Thomas and Napolean Harris (Yes! The Randy Moss trade continues to pay off!!) to fill in for E.J. Henderson and his injured backup, Noah Herron. Guess which team is better equipped to take advantage of their opponent's injuries? I'll give you a hint--even with Matt Forte nursing a hamstring injury, it's not the Vikings (though, if the Purple could get Sidney Rice back, that might make a difference).

Power Rankings:
Even though they won and even though they are now tied for first place, the Vikings dropped even further in the Power Rankings, with an average ranking of 21. And it's not a surprise that they fell out of the top twenty either--a team that has not won a game impressively doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt after barely pulling out a win against the only win less team left in the NFL.
  1. Cold, Hard Football (20)
  2. (22)
  3. (21)
  4. (22)
  5. Dr. Z's rankings on (20)

Insight via Statistics--Too Many Penalties

  • Despite having a team consisting of veterans, the Vikings lead the league in penalties and penalty yards. They do, however, have the ability to get big chunks of yards, with 18 passing plays over 20+ yards (the 7th highest in the NFL) and 5 rushing plays over 20+ yards (the 6th most in the league).
  • The Vikings are averaging only 5.58 yards per passing attempt, the 11th worst in the NFL. They are averaging 5.03 yards per carry. Despite having big play threat Bernard Berrian, those stats provide all the reasons you need to know about why the teams are still willing to bring 8 and 9 defenders in the box. One would think that a great offensive mind would be able to figure some way to capitalize on defense's singular focus on the running game.
  • The Vikings once again gave up more big plays on Sunday than they made. That's not a good sign, considering how much correlation there was last year between a team's big play differential and it's success.
  • Kyle Orton has been a good quarterback so far this year. Honestly, that's the part that I just don't understand--Kyle Orton? Good Quarterback? Huh? Anyway, he's thrown 8 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions, has completed 61.6% of his passes and is averaging 6.25 yards per passing attempt. If the Vikings can get to him, however, he'll crumble under the pressure--in each of the two games in which he was sacked more than two times, he threw 2 interceptions. His offensive line isn't anything to write home about either--they're 18th in adjusted sack rate, while the Vikings' defensive line is 10th.
  • Historically, 3-3 teams have made the playoffs 40% of the time. 49% of 4-3 teams have made it, while only 20.2% of 3-4 teams have made it. Football Outsiders give the Vikings a 23.1% chance of making the playoffs, less than half of the chance they give the Packers and Bears, and a decrease of 2.1%. The Vikings may have won that game, but the way they performed did not say good things about their ability to win future games.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Killing Time: Win Expectancy, the Wild Card and the Return of Dontarrius

  • Gridironmine figured out the play by play win expectancy for Sunday's game (something they've been doing for the entire season). Personally, I love win expectancy--there are very few ways to figure out the importance of a play. For example, the pass interference call changed the win expectancy 47% in the Vikings favor. Another good example--the Lions had an 85% chance of winning (their highest of the game) when they had the ball at 3rd and 1 on the Vikings' 44 with 5:33 left in the game. Without Kevin Williams stopping Justin Felton for no gain, the Purple probably lose.
  • The NFC East may not have surrendered the crown of "Best Division" with three losses this week, but the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins' losses created an opening for a team from another division to grab a wild card spot. I think it'll require the right 10-6 record (with most of the 6 losses to AFC teams), but I wouldn't be surprised to see the second wild card team come from the NFC South (or maybe, just maybe the NFC North. And there I go being unrealistically optimistic again. But the Vikings are 3-1 against the NFC...). I definitely would not be surprised if the Cowboys missed the playoffs, especially with Brad Johnson at quarterback for 4 games. It might just be me, but I don't see him matching Tony Romo's 7.94 yards per pass attempt.
  • Speaking of Brad Johnson, Kevin Seifert has a breakdown of his final year in Minnesota. Let's just say it's not a favorable breakdown for Brad Childress' coaching style.
  • Was Brad Childress' decision to kick the extra point on Sunday a good one? I'm not actually sure. On one hand, it's not a bad idea to ensure you'll only need to score once, even if the other team scores a touchdown (there was no way the Lions would go for two). On the other, the Vikings' offense was playing horrible (and needed an iffy pass interference call to get the field goal they needed). I'm pretty sure that the decision came down to Childress' confidence in the KAO, along with some concerns about a possible punt return touchdown or another big play for a touchdown putting the game out of reach. I'm not going to complain to much about the decision, mainly because I don't think it's too unreasonable to expect the Vikings' offense (or defense, via a turnover) to get in field goal range with 20 minutes remaining in the game and because I don't think the Vikings would have completed the two point conversion.
  • Dontarrius Thomas is a Viking again. He's an upgrade over Vinny Circiu at middle linebacker, but no matter what happens (there really aren't a whole lot of available options at MLB in Week 6), the loss of E.J. Henderson is a big one for the Vikings and it makes it less likely that the Vikings' defense can carry the team to the playoffs.
  • Football Outsiders on why Adrian Peterson's performance on Sunday was a lot worse than you'd think, even after factoring in the two fumbles (and, in a related post, Smarter Stats on why a rushing title doesn't mean a running back had the best season). Also, according to their statistics, Gus Frerotte's performance on Sunday was the 6th worst by a quarterback. Bernard Berrian's performance, however, was the 5th best of any wide receiver.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Three Stars: The Only Three

Ok. That headline is probably a little over the top. There were definitely more than three defensive players that performed well (thankfully, or the Vikings would have lost). Offensively, there was really only one player who was worth celebrating. You can probably guess who it is, but read on, as I unveil the Three Stars for the game.

Third Star: Jared Allen
Jared Allen earned his first weekly star on Sunday for two reasons. The first is because he scared the Lions so much on the edge that they didn't double team Kevin Williams. Forcing teams to choose between doubling Allen and doubling Williams is one of the reasons why I remain excited about his presence on the team. The other reason why he gets the Third Star? This play:

And yes, I think that Allen getting through the line unblocked and scaring Orlovsky so much he forgot where he was means that Allen should get credit, rather than Orlovsky getting blamed.

Second Star: Bernard Berrian
Any surprise here? Berrian turning a 13 yard pass into an 86 yard touchdown was the biggest play of the game. Without it, the Vikings' lose. It was his second straight game with over 100 yards receiving (he's on pace for over 1100), and he remains the Vikings' only real deep threat. And really, that run after the catch was a thing of beauty--he made three defenders miss (and, following a monster block from, I think, Aundrae Allison) and made the kind of big play the Vikings haven't seen their wide receivers make in a long time. The most impressive part? He's still nursing a knee injury. Think about what he'd be able to do if he was healthy!

First Star: Kevin Williams
Is anyone surprised that the Lions thought it was a good idea to single team Kevin Williams (Is there anything worse than that franchise's decision making)? I think he showed, quite clearly, why real teams don't do that. Well, at least I hope that his eight tackles, one of which was for a loss and one of which was for no gain and his four sacks would convince teams not to single team him (actually, wait...never mind--I hope it doesn't). His plays all came at crucial times too--in one sequence, he stopped Jerome Felton for no gain on 3rd and 1, which forced the Lions to punt. Bernard Berrian then scored on the Vikings next play. Then, when the Lions got the ball back, he stopped Rudi Johnson for a four yard loss on first down and sacked Orlovsky on 3rd down, almost single handedly ending that drive. He also sacked Orlovsky on a 3rd and 4 in Vikings' territory in the fourth quarter and then ended any chance of the Lions completing a fluke Hail Mary by bringing down Orlovsky on the final play. The man, quite simply, was a BEAST. And that's why he's the First Star this week.

The Final Straw

The Vikings are wasting a Super Bowl caliber defense because of their inability to score points. There were many signs of this before, but yesterday was the final straw--this team will never win the Super Bowl with Brad Childress' offense.

There are many people who have decided this team is the inverse of the Vikings from 2003 and 2004. They're wrong--those teams did not have anywhere near the talent on defense that this team has on offense. Look at the rosters--the 2003 and 2004 teams had, at most, two Pro Bowl caliber players. The 2004 team had Antoine Winfield and second year players Kevin Williams and E.J. Henderson, but that was about it in terms of Pro Bowl talent (and, let's be honest, E.J. Henderson didn't emerge as a Pro Bowler until well after that year). This year, the Vikings have three players coming off of Pro Bowl seasons (Adrian Peterson, Steve Hutchinson and Matt Birk) and multiple players that have Pro Bowl (or near Pro Bowl) talent, such as Bernard Berrian, Bryant McKinnie, Chester Taylor.

With that kind of talent, the offense should be better. And the fact that Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson are the quarterbacks is no excuse. The Vikings' offense has scored 8 touchdowns this year. That's fewer than the 49ers, who have J.T. O'Sullivan throwing to the 80 year old Isaac Bruce. It's fewer than the Da Bears, who have Kyle Orton's neckbeard throwing to Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker. It's fewer than the Tennessee Titans, who are basically the Vikings without Bernard Berrian. And I could go on.

Honestly, the Vikings' offense has been pathetic. The Lions' defense had given up 15 touchdowns in their first four games. They held the Vikings to one. They had only 4 sacks before the game. On Sunday, they had 5. Prior to playing the Vikings, they did not have an interception and had only caused 2 fumbles. On Sunday, they got their first interception and caused 4 fumbles. The Vikings' offense was dominated by a defense that could not stop any of the other teams it has played. They've been dominated by average defenses in Green Bay, Indianapolis and New Orleans and they've been dominated by good defenses in Carolina and Tennessee. The Vikings have not been able to score on anyone.

Which leads us to this--unless Brad Childress has some kind of magic potion that will fix the offense, this is not a playoff team. Yes, they are in first place now. But, as cliche as it sounds, you have to score points to win. And if they can't score against a defense as pathetic as the Lions, what are they going to do against the rest of their schedule? There isn't a defense as bad as the Lions left on it (well, except maybe the Lions) and the same goes for the offenses.

And so, in the end, this year's Vikings' team is going to be exactly like last year's team, only with more talent on both sides of the ball. And while that talent just might pull the team into the playoffs, it likely doesn't matter how much talent is added--the coach is never going to be good enough to win the Super Bowl. And that's what the Vikings' goal is--winning the Super Bowl. That's why I wrote that "I'm trying to decide if I'd rather have the Vikings miss the playoffs if it means they get a new coach". And that's why I'm going to treat the rest of this season like I would the rest of a season where the Vikings had already been eliminated from the playoffs. If they win, great. If not, well, at least they're going to get a new coach who might be able to turn this team into the Super Bowl contender it should be.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

First Place

Ladies and Gentlemen--your first place Minnesota Vikings!

That was ugly. U-G-L-Y. Kevin Williams is unbelievable. Bernard Berrian was a great signing. And I'm seriously trying to decide if I'd rather have the Vikings miss the playoffs if it means they get a new coach. But the Falcons win means that the Purple are tied for first with the Bears.

More on the game later today and tomorrow. Then I'm moving on, because a 12-10 win over this Lions team is pathetic, but it could be worse, because the Lions aren't the worst team in the league and because the Lions didn't win.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Going for 11 Straight Against the Lions

Make no mistake about it--this game is a must win for the Vikings if they want to make the playoffs. The Lions are, quite possibly, the worst team in the NFL this year (and the only reason that’s not a certainty is because the Rams are just as bad). Yes, they’ve fired Matt Millen (the Kevin McHale of the NFL), but there’s only so much an interim GM can do during the season to turn around a team in the trade shy NFL, something the Lions’ embarrassing 34-7 home loss to the Bears last week only served to highlight.

It doesn’t even take a knowledgeable football fan to figure out that this might be the worst Lions team ever. They have a legitimate shot at losing every game. They’ve been outscored by 81 points in their first four games (an average of 20.25 points per game), which is the second worst in the league, topped only by the Rams, who have been outscored by 104 points in their first four games (see what I mean about the Rams?). They’ve given up 147 total points, tied with the Rams for the most points allowed and have only scored 66 points. That’s the third fewest points, behind the Rams (who sadly, are not on the Vikings’ schedule this year) and the Chiefs, who tried using Tyler Thigpen, who was cut by the Vikings’ last year, at quarterback for two games. Quite simply, their offense has been horrible, although, it’s probably not a good sign for the Vikings that the Purple’s offense has scored the same number of touchdowns in five games as the Lions have scored in four.

Defensively, they’re just as bad. I mean, what else do you need to know about a defense, other than the fact that they just allowed Kyle Orton to complete 70.5% of his passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns? They’ve yet to hold a team under 31 points, are allowing 180 rushing yards per game, have only four sacks so far this year and have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67.5% of their passes. Quarterbacks have a QB Rating of 121.5 against them so far this year. Basically, they’re turning every quarterback they face into the 2004 version of Peyton Manning. And by every quarterback, I mean Matt Ryan,, Aaron Rodgers, J.T. O’Sullivan and Kyle Orton.

And yet, it seems likely that the Vikings’ offense will continue to sputter. They couldn’t run the ball against the Saints, who held the Vikings to 1.7 yards per carry, despite allowing running backs 5.22 yards per carry in their previous four games. The Vikings couldn’t move the ball through the air either, except when Gus Frerotte closed his eyes and chucked it deep to Bernard Berrian (or Aundrae Allison) and hoped Berrian would adjust and come back to the under thrown ball.

Of course, if Berrian continues to play as well as he did against the Saints, it may not matter that Frerotte and “accuracy” can’t really be used in the same sentence. Then again, he's still battling a knee injury and missed most of practice this week. There isn’t anyone in the Lions secondary that’s as good as Mike McKenzie or Terry Porter (which says a lot, actually, because neither is a Pro Bowl type). And Dwight Smith is still good for at least one blown coverage at safety a game. The Lions don’t have the same type of speed at linebacker as the Saints did either, which means they won’t be able to shut down outside runs the same way the Saints did either (though, if Childress had just, you know, made an adjustment and pounded the ball up the middle against the Saints’ small linebackers, that might not have been an issue). This week, the Purple might want to avoid running the ball to the right (more so than they normally do), because that’s where the Lions’ best player, linebacker Ernie Sims usually is, but aside from Sims, there really isn’t anyone on the Lions who requires a team to game plan for them.

Defensively, the Vikings will have to be careful of the Lions’ passing game. While their quarterback situation is up in the air (it doesn’t matter if the Lions start Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky or Drew Stanton, all three are liable to get yanked or hurt), they still feature the same quality wide receivers they’ve had the last two years (insert your favorite Matt Millen draft joke here). Calvin Johnson has started to play like the #2 overall pick (well, at least as much as he can within the Lions’ offense). Roy Williams remains a threat, although prone to dropping passes (he’s only caught 42% of the balls thrown his way) and Mike Furrey remains a capable third receiver. That’s about it for the Lions’ offensive talent though. Their offensive line has allowed four sacks a game and struggles to open up holes in the running game. While rookie Kevin Smith has shown some promise, he’s only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Rudi Johnson has been better, with a 5.3 yards per carry average, but neither is a threat to break a big play and neither is a threat against the Vikings, even though they’re missing E.J. Henderson.

No matter which way you slice it, the Lions are an awful team and one the Vikings’ should beat easily. Add in the fact that it’s a division game (which will factor into possible tiebreakers for the division crown and the wild card berths) and it’s a game that the Vikings must win to keep pace. They’ve managed to get most of the way out of the 1-3 hole they dug themselves in just one game against the Saints (with some help from the Packers and Bears), but they have to capitalize on opportunities like this one if they want to see the postseason for the first time since 2004. Odds are it’ll be an ugly game, unless Adrian Peterson goes off for 250+ yards or the Vikings’ defense creates points off of turnovers, but the Vikings should come out with a 30-17 win, and in today’s NFL, that’s all that matters.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Punting, Big Plays and the Pass Rush

  • The Vikings currently have the worst special teams unit in the NFL, ranking last in DVOA. Naturally, Brad Childress has chosen to react to this by bringing in random people to challenge Chris Kluwe for the punting job. Obviously, Kluwe had an awful game against the Saints. That being said, an equal amount of blame needs to be placed on the coverage unit. Kluwe's one of the better punters in the NFL. He didn't look like it on Monday Night, but it doesn't matter if you have Ray Guy punting for you if your entire cover unit has no lane discipline and lets themselves get blocked.
  • Unlike last year, when the Vikings were tied for fifth in "Net Big Plays" at +18 (and had the second most big plays, behind only San Diego, with 61), the Purple this year have given up more big plays than they've made and are currently tied for 22nd, with a -3 Net Big Plays. The problem isn't because they aren't making big plays, however (they're tied for 5th with 17), it's because they're giving them up at an almost alarming rate of four per game. The 20 they've given up is the second most in the NFL (behind only the 49ers) and almost half of the 43 they gave up in 16 games last year. Luckily for the Vikings, the Lions are among the worst at making big plays, and are tied with the Dolphin for last, with only 5. Detroit's net is the worst in the NFL as well, at -13.
  • Despite bringing in Jared Allen, the Vikings' pass rush remains below average, and has actually been about the same as it was last year. The Purple had an adjusted sack rate of 5.5% last year. This year, it's 5.6%. Now, that doesn't factor in the fact that the Vikings have faced two quarterbacks who are almost impossible to bring down due to their quick releases. Peyton Manning has only been sacked 2.8% of the time he's dropped back to pass in his career, and Drew Brees' sack rate is 3.9% (remember, everyone was excited about Frerotte's low career sack rate of 6.0%). Luckily, they don't have to worry about Jon Kitna's ability to get rid of the ball quickly--his sack rate with the Lions is 9.2% (assuming he's able to play despite his back injury, which happened during one of the 15 times he's been sacked this year).
  • If you're looking for a reason not to trust Football Outsiders' stats, I've got one for you--Gus Frerotte is 12th in DYAR and 11th in DVOA among quarterbacks so far. He's ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisburger and his soulmate, Kerry Collins. I have a feeling this will work itself out--as I said during the game, while Gus Frerotte has been a better quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson so far, he's by no means been a good quarterback.
  • The Vikings are the only team in the division to beat a team above .500 so far. They're also the only team to beat two teams in the top 15 in DVOA. Chicago's the only NFC North team to beat a top 5 DVOA team, however, with their win against the Eagles and both Chicago (11th) and Green Bay (18th) have a higher DVOA than the Vikings (19th).

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Power Rankings: Moving Up!

It's pretty simple--win and you move up in the power rankings. The Vikings won, so they moved up from, an average ranking of 20.8 to their current 17.8 ranking. Of course, they'd be higher, except Fox Sports inexplicably dropped them from 19 to 22 despite the Vikings' win. Yeah, I don't get that either.

  1. Cold, Hard Football (16)
  2. (22)
  3. (19)
  4. (17)
  5. Dr. Z's rankings on (15)

Killing Time: Lions Week!

It's Lions Week now! You know what that means--the Vikings get to play one of the worst teams in the NFL! Whooooooooooooo!!!!

Yes, I'm excited for the Lions to turn the ball over 5 times, let Adrian Peterson run for 150 yards and for the Vikings to get back to .500. How about you? While we're waiting for the inevitable blowout, let's see what's going on around these here internets.

  • Antoine Winfield--Defensive Player of the Week. Winfield has unquestionably been the Vikings' Defensive MVP so far this year and it's not unreasonable to believe he's the overall MVP either. That snow storm that kept Winfield here until he signed was a God send--I hope it gets a bonus at some point. Jon Kitna and Kevin Seifert agree--Winfield is one of the best cornerbacks in the league (buying his jersey was definitely one my best decisions).
  • It's all the more important that Winfield continue to play like this, now that E.J. Henderson is out for the season. Kevin Seifert has a short, but good piece on how important E.J. Henderson is to the Purple's defense. He's right--E.J. Henderson might have been the best player on the defense, which says a lot when you consider that defense includes the Williams, Antoine Winfield and Jared Allen. Ben Leber and Chad Greenway are going to have to step up, or the defense is going to run into some serious problems.
  • According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings have a 25.3% chance of making the playoffs this year, up from 24.0% before Monday night's game. History tells us that 19.4% of 2-3 teams have made the playoffs in a 17 week season, but that doesn't factor in talent, performance or the remaining schedule. History also tells us that if the Vikings beat the Lions, they'll have a 40.0% chance of making the playoffs, but if they lose to the Lions, they'll only have a 8.7% chance of making it. That last number, of course, does not factor in the likely improvement Leslie Frazier would bring as head coach.
  • Speaking of stats, Smarter Statistics argues for the use of advanced statistics in the NFL.
  • Advanced NFL Stats has the Win Probability graph from Monday night's game. Unsurprisingly, it looks like a cardiograph.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Three Stars: Back in the Hunt

(Thoughts on the First Half , Third Quarter and Fourth Quarter are below.)

A lot of good games from Vikings tonight. Tyrell Johnson had his first quality game, recovering a fumble, picking off the final pass and defending a few passes. I'm not really sure what he was doing with that lateral though. Ben Leber more than stepped up as a pass defender, blanketing Devery Henderson and making an acrobatic interception in the Red Zone. Gus Frerotte had decent stats, completing 53% of his 36 pass attempts for 222 yards and a touchdown, but he had a fumble and I just feel like that his completion percentage and yardage would have been lower if it hadn't been for some great catches by his wide receivers (including a one handed grab by Berrian on a ball thrown behind him and directly to a defender). And Childress felt that he'd rather call a halfback pass than trust Frerotte in the Red Zone in the Second Quarter after Frerotte had already gone three and out that drive (and had been bailed out by a penalty).

In the end, the Vikings' didn't really deserve to win this game. But you know what? The Colts didn't really deserve to win in Week 2 either. These things even out. And now the Purple are 2-3, tied for second in the division and control their own destiny in the division race (which is hugely important, what with the NFC East looking so good so far).

So, without further ado, the Three Stars:

Third Star: Ryan Longwell
As a general rule of thumb, I like to reward the guy who makes the game winning play (don't worry, Bernard Berrian is in here). And Longwell was able to do what Martin Gramatica could not--make the game winning field goal (true, his attempt was a lot shorter, but I bet he would have made the kick Gramatica missed). Add in a 33 yarder in the Second Quarter and a 53 yard field goal in the First Quarter, which is tied for the third longest of Longwell's career and you have a star worthy performance from one of the most underrated kickers in the NFL.

Second Star: Bernard Berrian
The Saints still stacked the box with 8 and 9 guys throughout the game. But Berrian made them pay, catching two under thrown deep balls on the Vikings' game tying drive, including the game tying touchdown. He also drew the pass interference penalty that got the Vikings into field goal range. Berrian's 110 receiving yards make him the first Viking with 100+ receiving yards in a game since Troy Williamson had 102 yards receiving against the Panthers in Week 2 of 2006 (that's right--the Vikings had 34 straight games without a receiver catching 100 yards). This is why the Vikings signed Berrian--to create a deep game even if the quarterback can't throw a catchable deep ball. And today he showed that he can do it.

First Star: Antoine Winfield
Let's see here--8 tackles, one sack, one fumble forced and recovered and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown (the first ever by a Viking in the regular season). Not a bad days work for Winfield. With so many stars on the defense, Winfield tends to get lost, but Winfield is second to none when it comes to big plays and it's no coincidence that he scored a touchdown in both of the Vikings' wins.

Fourth Quarter Thoughts: It's Better to Be Lucky...

(If you're trying to figure out what I'm referencing, these are all in roughly chronological order. Thoughts on the First Half and Third Quarter are below.)
  • Ben Leber has been great in coverage today. He's knocked down two deep passes to go along with his acrobatic interception, one in the Third Quarter and one near the beginning of the Fourth Quarter. The most impressive part was that he was covering Devery Henderson, the Saints' deep threat both times.
  • Martin Gramatica's absolutely launched the field goal that tied the game at 20. It was a 53 yarder, but it would have been good from much further back--it was still at the top of the goal posts when it crossed the bar. A tape measure field goal if you will.
  • I think I understand now what Bears' fans were talking about when they said that Bernard Berrian had too many drops--he should have caught that pass for a first down.
  • Either Chris Kluwe just massively screwed up, or Brad Childress should be fired for not telling Kluwe to punt the ball out of bounds. Inexcusable.
  • Bernard Berrian more than made up for his earlier drop--both catches he had on the drive following Bush's second punt return touchdown were catches that a lesser receiver doesn't make. Both balls were underthrown, but he was still able to adjust, come back to the ball and hang on while being covered by multiple defenders, and, on the touchdown, by Aundrae Allison. I don't know how long it's been since the Vikings' have had a receiver with 100 yards in a game, but Berrian has 110 yards already and the 69 yards he had on that drive might have saved the game for the Purple.
  • Cedric Griffin absolutely LIT UP Billy Miller. I think it was a legal hit too, despite Mike Tirico's politicking for a fine. That was Greg Blue-esque (heh). Ben Leber's coverage was pretty good on the play, but Drew Brees' pass was perfectly placed just above Leber's outstretched arms. I have to say, I've enjoyed watching a good quarterback work, even if it's come at the expense of the Vikings. We really have got to get ourselves one of those.
  • I don't know what Sean Payton was thinking when he called his final two plays before the Two Minute Warning. Rather than run the ball on 2nd Down with 2:13 left, letting the clock run down to the two minute warning (or forcing the Vikings' to burn one of their two time outs), he called a pass, which ended up incomplete. Then he did it again on third down. And that left 2:04 in the half , a 46 yard field goal attempt (which Gramatica left--whoooo) and the Vikings with two timeouts.
  • Yeah, I'd have to say that Bernard Berrian has more than made up for that dropped pass. Not a bad thought by Frerotte to chuck it deep on 3rd and 3 and not a bad throw either. That play doesn't happen last year and without it, there's almost no way the Vikings get down the field in time to get a field goal attempt.

Third Quarter Thoughts

The Saints are continuing to show that they're the better team on both sides of the ball in the third quarter, but the Vikings are still ahead, albeit barely.
(If you're trying to figure out what I'm referencing, these are all in roughly chronological order. First half thoughts are below.)

  • Brad Childress continues to call outside running plays, despite the fact that the Vikings' haven't been able to block the Saints on any of them. Nothing like continuing to call plays that lead to 4 yard losses on first down when your offense has a horrible passing ame.
  • Leslie Frazier is a very good defensive coordinator. The blitz he just called where he stacked Ben Leber and Tyrell Johnson behind Jared Allen was a thing of beauty, and it got Allen into the backfield untouched. I'm really excited for some team to hire him, so that he can continue the Vikings' tradition of coordinators becoming more successful head coaches than the guy they worked for.
  • Once again, the Vikings' punt coverage has failed them. Vinny Cuirciu missed a tackle on Reggie Bush's punt return touchdown and the outside contain didn't stay in their lanes. One big block on Erin Henderson later and Bush was gone and the Vikings 10 point lead is suddenly 3 points. That's not a good thing against a team that's dominated the Purple on both sides of the ball.
  • If Reggie Bush doesn't trip, he was going to return a second punt in a row for a touchdown. What happened to the Vikings' ability to tackle when covering punts? Husain Abudllah, Maurice Hicks,Vinny Ciuriu and Chris Kluwe all missed a tackle on that return.

First Half Thoughts

The Vikings have no right to be in this game at the half, let alone leading by ten points. And yet, they're up 20-10 and I'm having flashbacks to the game against the Giants in 2005 when the Vikings returned an interception, a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown, were leading at the half despite having negative offensive yards and held on to win 24-21. It's been that kind of crazy so far.

  • The Refs have been absolutely horrible tonight. I'm going to guess that Ed Hochilli and his crew won't be referring any playoff games. They've messed up calls on holds, fumbles, face masks. receptions and pretty much every other call they could. So far, the poor officiating has gone the Vikings' way (and likely is the reason the Purple had the opportunity to be up at the half), but still--these refs have been awful and it's detracting from the game.
  • Antoine Winfield is a beast. He's got the touchdown, he's got the sack and fumble recovery, but perhaps the most impressive play was where he ducked underneath the fullback and tackled Reggie Bush for a loss. From the normal sideline, it looked like Bush had tripped on Winfield. From the other sideline, however, it was clear--Winfield avoided the block and made an amazing play.
  • The Vikings have done a great job of getting pressure on Drew Brees. They've only sacked him once, but they've been in his face all half. The defensive line (nice to see you again Jared Allen) has gotten pressure without blitzes and Leslie Frazier has called some innovative blitzes that have worked almost perfectly.
  • I wish Brad Childress used Adrian Peterson in the passing game the same way the Saints use Reggie Bush. A game like this one would be a perfect time for it, what with the Vikings' offensive line forgetting how to run block. Some swing passes, a screen or two--when the running game isn't working, especially when it isn't working on the edges, the Vikings need to use the passing game to get Peterson the ball in space rather than just continue slamming him into the defensive line. The worst part though, is that Childress doesn't even leave Peterson in on passing plays, removing defenses' need to account for him in their play calling and reactions.
  • Gus Frerrotte might be a better quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson, but he's not a good quarterback. Some of his throws are just as inexplicably inaccurate as Tarvaris' were.

A Very Winnable Game

If, while watching the game tonight, you start to feel like you've seen this Saints team play before, don't be surprised--you have. Of course, that was four years ago, and the team you were watching was in Purple. Like the 2004 Vikings, the Saints have a top five offense based on an elite passing game, a bottom ten defense and they play in a dome.

Of course, there are some differences, but the differences are close enough for it to be a fair comparison. Like Daunte Culpepper, Drew Brees does not get sacked easily, though he avoids the rush by getting rid of the ball quickly, rather than being 6'6" 280 (that, my friends, is what I call hard hitting analysis). That doesn't mean a dominant pass rush can't make a huge difference. In games in which Brees is under constant pressure, he tends to make quick decisions that lead to turnovers. It will be up to the Vikings' front four to get in Brees' face, because the Saints are going to spread the field, with lots of quick passes and are able to exploit blitzes easily. They won't be facing more than the five linemen which means they won't have to worry about double teams--they just have to beat their man and get in Brees face. They probably won't sack him that often, but they can knock his passes down and they can knock him down. If they can't do that, Brees will pick the coverage apart.

The Vikings defense does have the luxery of not having to worry about the Saints' ability to run the ball. This won't even be a case of the Vikings' tremendous rush defense being the reason, either, as the Saints' are averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry so far this year and are 22nd in rushing DVOA, with a -5.4%. To put that in context, the Saints have gotten about as much value out of their running game as the Vikings' have gotten out of their passing game.

Of course, when you have the ultimate scat back, like the Saints do, it doesn't matter as much that they can't run the ball. As I wrote on Friday, Reggie Bush is at his most dangerous when he's catching a pass, and with the loss of E.J. Henderson for a month or so, he becomes even more dangerous. Luckily for the Purple, though, the Saints' receiving corps has been ravaged by injuries, and they are missing Jeremy Shockey, David Patton and Marques Colsten. They still have Devery Henderson to attack deep and Lance Moore, who's stepped up and replaced Colsten as Brees' number one option. Moore is 7th in DYAR so far this year and 3rd in DVOA among all wide receivers. Make no mistake--he's a very dangerous weapon and one that Drew Brees is very comfortable using.

When the Vikings' have the ball, they should be able to do quite a bit offensively. The Saints do not have a good defense and are missing nickleback Aaron Glenn and starting defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. Ellis suffered a knee injury against the 49ers last Sunday that will require surgery and the Saints are going to miss him. He had 11 tackles and one sack in the first four games and was the best run stopper on the team. Even with him, however, the Saints were unable to stop the run, and have given up almost 500 yards on the ground on less than 100 carries. Opposing running backs have gained an average of 5.2 yards per carry (which means that the Saints have basically turned every back into Adrian Peterson) and they're 28th in rush defense DVOA, last in adjusted line yards and have given up runs of 10+ yards 15% of the time. And now they don't have their best defensive tackle (and the Vikings are getting Bryant McKinnie back). That's not a good sign for the Saints.

The Saints haven't been able to stop the passing game either. They've been worse than the Purple have been (they're 18th to the Vikings' 14th in DVOA), despite doing a decent job of applying pressure. The Saints' pass rush has been about average, with a 6.8% adjusted sack rate, the 16th best in the NFL (6.9% is the NFL average). That means their secondary has been awful, which isn't too surprising considering that Mike McKenzie has started only one game, and rookie corner back Tracy Porter is the only corner back to start all four games.

The Vikings' should be able to pass on the Saints (even if Bernard Berrian is banged up again). They should be able to run the ball on the Saints. The question is, can the Vikings' defense keep the Saints' passing game from going off for 30 plus points. If the Vikings can limit the Saints to 24 points (their lowest total so far this year), then the offense should be able to match that (or Zygi should just fire Brad Childress after the game). If the Saints score 30+ points, they're going to win the game, barring Adrian Peterson going into Purple Jesus mode (the Vikings have not scored 30+ points without Adrian rushing for 200+ yards or by creating a ton of turnovers).

With the Packers and Bears remaining in sight, the Vikings can get back into the division race with a win tonight. I'm not sure they can do it against a passing game as good as the Saints. I see the Purple dropping the game 31-20 and falling to 1-4. Zygi's going to mad again tonight.

Friday, October 03, 2008

An Injury and the Implications

One of the things that the Saints do well is exploit Reggie Bush's ability to make things happen in space. Drew Brees has thrown Bush the ball forty times already this year and he's turned those passes into big plays, averaging 8.3 yards per catch and leading running backs in receiving DYAR and Effective Yards while racking up 257 yards and two touchdowns on 31 receptions.

The Vikings as a team, however, are normally well situated to shut down those passes. When a team has fast, sure tackling linebackers like Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson and are able to get pressure without blitzing (which the Vikings kind of do), it's no surprise to see that they have a -6.1% DVOA against running backs in the passing game.

As I said, normally, I wouldn't worry too much about the Vikings' linebackers ability to shut down Reggie Bush, and, quite possibly, the rest of the Saints' offense with him. But that was before E.J. Henderson was unable to practice today due to his dislocated toes. Without Henderson, the Vikings are down to one Pro Bowl caliber linebacker in Greenway. He's been very good this year (remember, he's 5th in the NFL in tackles this year), but he'll be the only one on the field that can match up with Bush, making it that much harder to ensure the Vikings get the match up with Bush that they want. With Henderson on the field, it provided the margin of error that any good defense needs in play calling. Now, it's just that much easier for the Saints to get the match up they want, which means it's that much easier Reggie Bush to break that big play the Vikings need to avoid if they want to win. And at 1-3, the last thing the Vikings want is something making it easier for their opponents to win.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Power Rankings: Still Depressed

Sorry for the lack of a post today on football. I'm still trying to get over the Twins' loss last night and thinking about the Vikings hasn't exactly cheered me up to much. Maybe a win over New Orleans will be enough to turn things around (please, please beat New Orleans so I can still dream about a playoff berth and a Giants/Steelers type run to a title). Anyway, the Vikings lost whatever ground they may have gained in Week 3 by losing to the Titans. They've now reached a new low in the Power Rankings, with an average ranking of 20.8.

  1. Cold, Hard Football (20)
  2. (19)
  3. (21)
  4. (24)
  5. Dr. Z's rankings on (20)