25 Dec 2007
by Ned Macey
The math was simple. When the Vikings kicked off their prime time contest against the Redskins, a victory would secure a playoff berth. The streaking Vikings had dominated the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense against a series of opponents. Unfortunately, their pass offense struggled, and their poor pass defense made Todd Collins look like Sonny Jurgensen.
The fall guy for the Vikings will likely be Tarvaris Jackson. The second-year quarterback was always the big question mark for the Vikings, as he had no successful track record. His play this year has been, at best, erratic, but the strong run offense and stout defense provided him an 8-2 record. Jackson had, unquestionably, been playing better as the season progressed, but a poor effort on Sunday shows the giant steps he still needs to take.
A week ago, Jackson starting spraying interceptions. After that performance, the Vikings appeared hesitant to trust their quarterback. This lack of trust led to his costing them the game. The Vikings ran on four of their first five first downs. The one pass gained the Vikings only first down of the first quarter. The four runs totaled three yards.
Every Vikings' opponent will first focus on stopping the run. The Redskins stacked the box with eight and sometimes nine defenders. Adrian Peterson is a special runner, but at some point, sheer numerical superiority can overwhelm him. In his last seven games, Peterson has averaged 4.1 yards per carry or less five times.
The change in Peterson happened immediately after his record-setting performance against the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers stubbornly played a conventional defense and were gouged. Teams since that game have played Peterson extremely tough. Through Week 10, he had a DVOA of 23.1%, averaged 6.4 yards per carry, and had a Success Rate of 50%. Since Week 10, he has a DVOA of 3.3%, has averaged 3.8 yards per carry, and has a Success Rate of 32%.
The problem has not been the Minnesota line, as Chester Taylor's numbers are unchanged since Week 10. Peterson has had an injury that cost him some time, but the slippage came before the injury, making the more natural explanation the intense attention paid to him by opposing defenses.
The Vikings simply have to take advantage of defenses devoting such extraordinary resources to stopping their top weapon. Jackson is not a great quarterback, but the Vikings can still win with him. He has a strong, if occasionally inaccurate, arm and is an effective scrambler. (Jackson leads all quarterbacks in rushing value this season.) He played well in the second half on Sunday. Unfortunately, his mistakes had put the Vikings in too big a hole. To win with Jackson, Minnesota needs to build early leads and pound the ball on the ground.
To get those early leads, Jackson needs to protect the football, but the Vikings also cannot continue to struggle in pass defense. The Vikings cannot get consistent pressure on the quarterback with their front four. If they have to bring extra people to blitz, that leaves the defensive backs in man-to-man coverage, where they are at best average. This problem was exacerbated with the injury to cornerback Antoine Winfield.
The Vikings appeared content to leave their cornerbacks in single coverage on the outside. They clearly had little respect for Collins. The lack of deep help forced the Vikings to give too much cushion, and simple outs and comeback routes were open throughout the first half.
Even worse, the Vikings gave up two big first-half pass plays for touchdowns. Minnesota had the best red zone defense in the league, but they allowed the sometimes punchless Redskins to make two big plays in the passing game. The first was a problem with the zone defense where Chris Cooley was able to get behind middle linebacker E.J. Henderson with no safety over the top. Henderson is one of the league's best middle linebackers within five yards of the line of scrimmage, but he can be exposed down the field.
Despite the soft coverage, Collins' performance was impressive. Collins is the personification of the career backup, and people had to be surprised he was still in the league when he took over for an injured Jason Campbell. The veteran is hardly overwhelming from a physical standpoint, but he has held up admirably to this point.
Collins has two primary strengths. First, he is careful with the ball and limits his interceptions. Second, he gets rid of the ball quickly to avoid sacks. Collins has zero interceptions through three starts. He has been sacked only four times despite playing two teams with fierce pass rushes, Giants and Bears. Collins has been sacked only once every 20 dropbacks.
Collins' efficient play is crucial for the somewhat conservative game plan longed for by Gibbs. He is first and foremost a proponent of the ground game. He prefers to pound the ball with Clinton Portis, even if he is having only limited success. This offense is not a quick strike affair, and turnovers allow the opposition to pile up large leads that would be difficult to overcome. In future weeks, the opposition is more likely to respect Collins in the passing game, and time will tell if he can continue to deliver.
One promising development was Washington's deployment of Portis in the passing game. If opposing defenses are gearing up to stop Portis on the ground, it only makes sense to find him in the passing game. Portis already has a career high in receptions, but he has been an even bigger weapon in non-windstorm conditions with Collins at quarterback.
Even if Collins implodes sometime in the next two weeks, the Redskins' three-game winning streak is certainly an inspiring story. The tragic loss of Sean Taylor could have derailed the team and without a doubt had a major negative impact on the field where he was arguably their best defender.
The truth is that the Redskins have continued to stay the course with a bonus win in a high-wind affair against the Giants. Washington beat the teams they should, lost to the teams that are better than them, and split with other .500 teams. They are 3-2 against teams with seven or eight wins. They are 1-5 against teams with more than eight wins and 4-0 against teams with fewer than seven wins. (DVOA considers the ten-win Giants a team that should be roughly .500, making this distinction even stronger.) By simply taking care of the teams they should beat, they control their own destiny for the playoffs.
This pattern would suggest a loss next week in their important match-up with the Cowboys. The good news is that Dallas has clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and may rest a number of starters. Star receiver Terrell Owens is certainly out, and Tony Romo's thumb injury could make the Cowboys cautious. If the Cowboys play a second-tier line-up, the Redskins should take care of them in their methodical manner and return to the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.
Minnesota blew their chance to control their own destiny and now need help to make this year's playoffs. Even if they fall short, this season should be viewed as a success. The team is young in the skill positions and likely to improve on offense, and outside of Pat Williams, most of their defensive players are still in their prime. The Vikings have a good chance to win the NFC North if Jackson continues to develop. Unfortunately, their quarterback was not quite mature enough to deliver them to the playoffs this year.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
39 comments, Last at 29 Dec 2007, 8:28pm by Pat