Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
06 Nov 2007
by Ned Macey
The NFL is supposed to be a difficult league. Some of the world's best athletes put their skills on display each and every Sunday afternoon.
Adrian Peterson is apparently unfazed by this level of competition. Only eight games into his career, Peterson set the single-game rushing record with 296 yards against a playoff-caliber Chargers team. At a certain point, the superlatives lose meaning because nobody can exaggerate his impact through the first eight games of his rookie season.
The fact that the Chargers played Washington Generals to Peterson and the Vikings' Harlem Globetrotters is embarrassing for a team that only last season had the best record in football. The weak defense that was exposed by Peterson remains a serious concern. The sputtering offense, however, was the result of a terrible on-field matchup. The run-first Chargers encountered a team perfectly designed to stop them. The Vikings rush defense over the past season and a half is nearly as impressive as Peterson has been in his debut.
Peterson deservedly gets the lead in all stories currently told on the Vikings, including this one. We will get to the analysis of his exceptional performance, but the Vikings run defense deserves top billing in an article for a change. The Pat Williams-led crew is performing at a level rarely seen.
The Vikings' run defense DVOA this season is -32.2%, first in the league. Last season, they were almost exactly the same at -33.6%. (Remember, a negative DVOA means the defense is better, so negative is good here.)
DVOA can sometimes be hard to understand, so let's put those numbers in context. DVOA has been calculated back to 1996. Only three defenses during that period have had a better run defense DVOA in a season than the 2006 or 2007 Vikings. The only team to achieve even back-to-back -20% or better run defense DVOAs are the Chargers themselves, who actually did it from 1998-2001. Great run defense generally undermined by terrible quarterback play and shaky pass defense? At least Chargers fans were familiar with what they saw on the other side of the field Sunday.
Even the great LaDainian Tomlinson was no match for the Vikings interior. He totaled only 40 yards on 16 carries. His one touchdown came on his third attempt from the one-yard line, and he barely got in on that try.
The reason the Vikings defense as a whole has not been dominant is because they have been decidedly mediocre defending the pass. Their linebackers and safeties both struggle in coverage, and their zone defense can be picked apart. The situation is exacerbated by their struggles to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Sunday, the Vikings broke form against the Chargers and blitzed them over and over and over. The Chargers were without their starting center, Nick Hardwick. The Vikings responded by sending middle linebacker E.J. Henderson across the line of scrimmage repeatedly. In our eternal quest to compare players, Henderson was sometimes compared to Derrick Brooks last season when Henderson played weakside linebacker in a base Cover-2 scheme, the same position Brooks plays in Tampa Bay.
On Sunday, Henderson looked distinctly like another recent Pro Bowl linebacker: Jeremiah Trotter. People picture Trotter in his recent past when he had lost a step, but the Trotter who starred for the Eagles early this decade was fast, aggressive, and packed a wallop. He always excelled attacking the line of scrimmage, happy to take down the ball carrier or continue to the quarterback.
The similar role may not be too surprising because the Vikings current defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, was a defensive assistant for those stout Eagles defenses. Frazier's natural inclination is to blitz, a tendency he has fought perhaps due to head coach Brad Childress' apparent fondness for the Tampa-2.
The results of this scheme were disastrous for the Chargers. Quarterback Philip Rivers rarely faces an opposing defense that has not committed extra people to the run. The Vikings, thanks to their stout run defense, only occasionally brought a safety near the line of scrimmage. The secondary, therefore, was free to play its safeties in coverage.
The inefficiency in the running game forced the Chargers to the air, but Rivers was repeatedly hurried and harassed by blitzing linebackers. The pressure almost always came up the middle and prevented Rivers from stepping into his passes. When flushed out of the pocket, Rivers was inaccurate. The blitzing Vikings frequently doubled Antonio Gates, taking away Rivers' primary option. The great tight end caught only one pass on the day.
The solution last season for Rivers would have been to work underneath routes with his starting receivers, Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell. That proved impossible this season, as neither has suited up for the Chargers. Parker, in particular, was an outstanding intermediate option. More than 70 percent of his receptions gained first downs last season.
McCardell was clearly on the downside, and the Chargers' sensible plan was to replace him with emerging deep threat Vincent Jackson. Unfortunately, Parker suffered a toe injury and will miss the season. The Chargers struggled to find a second receiver before acquiring Chris Chambers, who unfortunately replicates Jackson's strengths. On Sunday -- with Gates taken away and constant pressure coming up the middle -- Rivers was rushing his deep throws and unable to connect to either receiver who beat man-to-man coverage on several occasions.
The results were a desultory performance that saw Rivers only complete 19 out of 42 passes. For the season, Rivers has clearly regressed from his impressive debut in 2006. Growing pains as a second-year starter are not unique, and Rivers simply needs to relax in the pocket. The easy plays that came against nine-man fronts last season are no longer there, and his inconsistent accuracy down the field is holding him back.
The pressure on Rivers will only build if the defense remains the sieve that it was in the second half. They reasonably contained Peterson in the first half, holding him to 43 yards on 13 carries. The convenient explanation is that the Chargers lost defensive end Luis Castillo to an injury early in the third quarter. The problem is that the Chargers have been a terrible second-half defense all season. For the season to date, they rank 21st in defensive DVOA in the third quarter and 29th in the fourth quarter. They are an above-average defense in the first half.
Explanations for this phenomenon are unclear at this point. The defense certainly appeared slow in the later stages of Sunday's contest. The Chargers have a rather large defense, so potentially the front seven is tired by the end of the game. They certainly could not keep up with Peterson or Chester Taylor, who gashed them repeatedly as the game progressed.
The emergence of Peterson is truly an amazing story. The Vikings have no threat of a passing game, so defenses can concentrate all their force on defending Peterson. The offensive line has talent but is inconsistent and particularly weak on the right side. Taylor, a solid NFL running back, is not having nearly the success Peterson has had despite running behind the same line.
Peterson is embarrassing the league at this point with a ridiculous 6.6 yards per carry. His only blemish is three fumbles. Most impressively, Peterson, as a running back, has brought a big-play capability to a team otherwise lacking. In half a season, he already has six plays of 40 or more yards and 12 over 20 yards. Taylor had only two plays over 40 yards and six over 20 yards in 15 games last season. The great Tomlinson only had eight plays over 40 yards and 16 over 20 in his MVP season a year ago. Peterson may challenge Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1,808 rushing yards, and he will challenge it with far fewer carries.
The big-play threat makes the Vikings offense competent. Teams will begin to put nine men in the box to stop the run and dare the Vikings to win in the passing game. It's far from certain that the Vikings are able to perform such a feat. Brooks Bollinger appears to be the default quarterback after injury and ineffectiveness shelved Tarvaris Jackson and Kelly Holcomb. The run defense should keep Minnesota in a number of games and give them opportunities to win nearly every game on their schedule. To date, four of their five losses have been by a touchdown or less.
The Vikings have likely dug too big a hole in a division where the Packers are 7-1 and the Lions are 6-2. They close with four games against teams with winning records, including road games at the Packers and Giants in two of the next three weeks. The Vikings will fall short of the playoffs, but they will remain an interesting team to follow, because at times they will dominate against and with the run.
For San Diego, the good news is that their offense was particularly poorly suited for the Vikings. The only team with a comparable ability to stop the run is Baltimore, which fortunately has no offensive weapon resembling Peterson. The offense will not be as dominant as a season ago, but the team is down its starting receivers from last year and has seen an overall decline in offensive line play. Their offense will likely perform not too far behind what they did in 2004 and 2005.
Even in its diminished capacity, the offense is good enough to get many teams into the playoffs. The problem is that the Chargers defense is not getting the job done. They have allowed 30 points in all four of their losses. That unit needs to start putting full games together against quality competition if the Chargers expect to make a playoff run. Given their lackluster performance against a one-dimensional offense, the defense is clearly still searching for answers. If San Diego continues to sputter, the once-proud AFC West will be sending a very mediocre Kansas City squad to the playoffs as their representative.
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.
65 comments, Last at 07 Nov 2007, 5:41pm by raffy