Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time for the Vikings to Revert to The Musgrave

At 2-4 and looking up at three better teams in their own division, the Minnesota Vikings would have to put together a string of performances unlike anything that they have done this year to contend not only for a final wild-card spot, but also to improve on last season's dismal 5-10-1 record.  Given the issues at seemingly every position on offense and some persisting concerns on defense, this is unlikely.  That notwithstanding, the games will be played and the Vikings might as well attempt to learn what they can from each contest.

What the Vikings need at Buffalo is a semblance of a pulse on offense and continued improvement on defense.  The latter should happen, given the return of Chad Greenway, and the former has a chance--but Vikings' fans almost certainly will not like the formula.

Defensively, the Vikings have had three primary challenge this season--cohesion, inexperience and talent, probably in that order.  In the base defense, the Vikings are starting only two players at the same position that they started at last year with the team and two other players playing the same position that they started at for any other team in the league last year.  That, by itself, is sufficient to create gaffes.  Issues attributable to cohesion should eventually diminish, however, if only by definition.

The Vikings also are giving five defensive players their most meaningful minutes of their careers and asking them to hold their own without much depth.  If those players can perform up to their draft levels and contracts, the inexperience concern will gradually become a non-issue.  If they cannot, the inexperience concern will become a talent and/or coaching concern.

Then there is the issue of talent.  There are weeks when the Vikings' defense holds its own in the face of difficult odds--such as last week, when the offense was awful.  There are also weeks when the defense looks like a sieve--see the Green Bay and Atlanta games.  The most obvious difference between the strong and weak defensive performances appears to be the opposition.  When the Vikings have faced a talented passing attack, the defense has played poorly.  When the Vikings have played a team with a weak passing attack--or a team with a key player, such as Calvin Johnson, missing from that attack--the defense looks better.  The remainder of the season will tell whether the issues are ones of cohesion and inexperience or more a matter of talent.

More alarming than the performance of the team's defense at this point is the total shambles that the offense has become.  When he wasn't getting sacked last week, Teddy Bridgewater was either under siege or throwing the ball to the defense.  But for more sacks and fewer short-yardage completions and last week's version of the Vikings' offense looked every bit as bad as any non-Adrian Peterson led offense of last season.

The Vikings' problems on offense start on the offensive line.  Despite the presence of a group that has played together for long enough to figure things out, the Vikings' offensive linemen are getting beat in every conceivable way--straight up, in a four-man front, in a three-man front, and certainly against the blitz.  Only Pittsburgh and Detroit have permitted more sacks than Minnesota's front five and, with a mere three passing touchdowns on the season--only two more than Cincinnati wide-receiver Mohamed Sanu, no team has shown anywhere near the futility scoring through the air that the Vikings have shown.  Add to that a league-leading nine picks, and the passing protection and passing attack have conspired to undermine the team's below-average rushing attack.

In the running game, it says a mouthful that fullback cum running back, Matt Asiata, leads the team with a 37.7 yards-per-game average.  That's roughly seven yards fewer per game than Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson averages.

It's all a recipe for disaster and a sign that, against a respectable defense in Buffalo, the Vikings either will need fortune to smile or an epiphany on offense.  That epiphany might be a reversion to something that no Vikings' fan would wish upon even their most reviled opponent, but something that is probably necessary to get the offense moving in the right direction--a reversion to the Musgrave.

Under former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, the Vikings led the league in dump-offs, behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes, rushes up the gut, and third-down passes short of the stick.  That seemed a dramatic misuse of the best running back in the league.  However, now that the Vikings are without Peterson and, if you believe head coach Mike Zimmer, without receivers who can gain separation at the line, the Vikings must resort to some form of the Musgrave, if only to keep Bridgewater upright and breathing.

For offensive coordinator Norv Turner, today's offense must be quick-rhythm, short pass, and whatever the team can get from the running game, including having Bridgewater leave the pocket.  That's not how the Vikings wanted to operate things under Turner or with Bridgewater, but it's the best response to an awful offensive line and a marginal receiving corps that has accounted for a league-low two touchdowns and 217 yards receiving per game.

As always, the Musgrave approach is highly susceptible to defeat, but it does offer the benefit of permitting an offense to pull itself up to a level just slightly below mediocrity and--if the stars and moon properly align--an occasional blip or two above that.  In the wake of two straight offensive offensive performances, that arguably would be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Second Start and An Even Better Scenario for Teddy Bridgewater

Things could not have gone worse for Christian Ponder last week.  Nor could they have gone better for Teddy Bridgewater.  After Bridgewater led the Vikings to a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Ponder was called upon to replace his injured teammate against Green Bay.

In addition to being asked to provide Bridgewater's encore, Ponder was asked to do so on a short week.  For any quarterback, that's likely to lead to sub-standard results.  When your standard results are already sub-standard, however, that's a recipe for disaster.  And for Ponder, disaster followed.

When it mattered against Green Bay, Ponder was awful.  His passes were off target, into the wrong hands, and late to receivers.  And those were the high points.  After the game, it was evident probably even to Rick Spielman that Ponder's career in Minnesota, and possibly the NFL, was over, but for the final paperwork.

Prior to the Atlanta game, everything had set up perfectly for Bridgewater to get his first start.  After Ponder's performance against Green Bay, everything is once again setting up beautifully for Bridgewater.  Not even Mr. Spielman would have had the audacity to attempt to script this.

The expectations for Bridgewater against Detroit are tempered by numerous factors.  Bridgewater is still purportedly limited by his injury against Atlanta; the Vikings were awful in all phases against Green Bay; nobody stood out in the Green Bay game and, as a result, nobody looks to be a standout against a far tougher Detroit defense; and Detroit is the favorite, despite playing on the road.

If Bridgewater merely stands his ground, picks up some yards, and keeps the game close, most Vikings' fans will consider the game a stepping stone in Bridgewater's maturation process.  If he does anything more than that, he will be viewed as the next coming of Fran Tarkenton.

The encouraging thing for Vikings' fans in a season that might otherwise have been a disaster, is that Bridgewater not only has shown promise with a quick read and release, evasiveness and awareness in the pocket, and decent arm strength at least up to mid-range passing, but he also seems to be charmed.  For Vikings' fans accustomed to the opposite, that's a welcome change and one that they will take with no apologies.