Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
09 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Perhaps the greatest difference between the NFL’s haves and have-nots is that the haves don’t need to go all-in to make a run at the Super Bowl. When you go all-in, you take your eye off the future. The longer you keep your eye off the future, the messier your inevitable rebuilding project. This usually isn’t a problem for the haves. In this century, you haven’t heard about teams like the Steelers or the Patriots making a grand push for a title. Those teams draft too well. Their coaching staffs are too good. Their quarterbacks are stars. Those teams make annual Super Bowl runs.
For a sweet five months back in 2009 (and January 2010), the Minnesota Vikings got to hang out with the haves. They won 12 games during the regular season, came within arm’s length of the Super Bowl and soaked up the national spotlight. But they had to put all their chips on the table to achieve this. (You may recall a certain 39-year-old, $12 million quarterback leaving Mississippi in a helicopter.) The "have" experience of 2009 prompted the Vikings to go all-in in 2010. That season, of course, turned out to be a disaster.
No need to chide the Vikings for this. It was the right decision to go all-in in 2009 and 2010. When they saw their window of opportunity open, they knew it would soon be closing. Any other team in that situation would have taken the chance. Just because Minnesota’s attempt failed doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been taken.
The consequence, of course, is that by taking the leap, the Vikings kept their eye off the future for two years. And so, their first year of rebuilding was extra painful: the embarrassing Donovan McNabb experiment; the porous pass defense; the 3-13 record ... you know how it went.
What’s important now is for the Vikings to keep their eyes on the future. The man in charge of this is Rick Spielman, who was promoted from vice president of personnel to general manager at the beginning of this off-season. Spielman has 100 percent control of executive football decisions for the first time since he joined the Vikings in 2006. Coach Leslie Frazier has plenty of influence on the roster and, obviously, the strategies. But fortunately for Spielman, Frazier doesn’t wield as big a stick as Brad Childress did. Because of the Vikings’ miserable season in 2011 -– and because the owner Zygi Wilf and the state of Minnesota finally came to an agreement on a new stadium –- Spielman is under a little less pressure to make this club a winner right away. That means he’s in a position to build a system that can make this club a have. But he has to get things right from the start.
Spielman must understand that the most important member of the organization is quarterback Christian Ponder. The second-most important member might be Craig Johnson, Ponder’s position coach. Adrian Peterson is still the Vikings’ best player, but it has become clear as glass that you can’t obtain meaningful success in today’s NFL by running the ball. If you could, Adrian Peterson’s team would be a have. As much as the football purists might hate this notion, there’s a myriad evidence supporting it. Of the last 12 teams to reach the Super Bowl, only two ranked in the top 10 in rushing. Three Super Bowl teams ranked dead last. Dead last! Not only are the good running teams not making Super Bowls, but the awful running teams are. What’s more, none of the last 12 Super Bowl teams relied on one superstar workhorse back; they all had committees.
This isn’t to say that running is irrelevant. Or that the Vikings should become a spread-’em out passing team in 2012. That’s what the Vikings should aspire to –- building the system around the quarterback whom they drafted 12th over all. But if they tried to play that way now, that young quarterback would spend most of his second season on the turf or desperately throwing into tight coverage. That’s not the way to develop what you hope will one day be your franchise player.
The Vikings currently don’t have the resources to construct a complex passing attack. Their best outside wide receiver, newcomer Jerome Simpson, is a quick, playmaking, darter. He's also the owner of some very buttery hands and keeper of a few bad habits. Simpson is at least an upgrade over Michael Jenkins, who can block but not separate. The other starting receiver, Percy Harvin, is really more of a really, really good multidimensional gadget player. He creates outstanding mismatches but, unlike a Calvin or an Andre Johnson, he can’t do so by simply lining up outside. Harvin has to be manipulated by the scheme. It’s up to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to design different ways to put Harvin in motion, in the slot, outside and in the backfield. The more creatively Harvin is used, the more bang he gives for the buck.
Simpson, Jenkins and Harvin are Minnesota’s only experienced wide receivers. Technically, Devin Aromashodu is also experienced, but he’s too sluggish a runner to matter. To replenish the position, Spielman drafted two Arkansas receivers in the fourth round: Jarius Wright (118th overall) and Greg Childs (134th overall). Wright is a polished 5-10, 176-pound quick-twitch type; Childs is a 6-3, 217-pound straight-line possession type. Wright has a clear shot at early playing time, given that Emmanuel Arceneaux was undrafted last year and Stephen Burton was just a seventh-round pick. Childs would be right there with Wright had he not blown out both of his knees at practice late last week.
Musgrave is an old school play-caller who believes in fullbacks and blocking tight ends. Much of his passing attack will be predicated on run concepts like play-action, bootlegs and rollouts. For now, this is a suitable system for Ponder because it allows him to use his quickness as a scrambler and make throws on the move. Ponder has the arm strength and toughness to evolve into a firm pocket passer, but again, firm pocket passing only works if your wide receivers can get open.
When a passing game derives from run concepts, the quarterback’s reads are often simplified. Rollouts and boot action generally split the field in half; on play-action, because the quarterback turns his back to the defense, it’s almost always a two-option read. This will make life easier on the 24-year-old Ponder. Should he, however, show a precocious Cam Newton-like feel for pro quarterbacking, Musgrave would have the resources to build a two-tight end passing system similar to what the Panthers built for Newton last year. The system wouldn’t be as crisp as Carolina’s just because it still requires a bona fide No. 1 receiver to function perfectly (and Jerome Simpson is no Steve Smith), but at least tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson are capable of playing the roles of Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
In fact, Rudolph and Carlson might be better than Carolina’s 2011 tight ends. Rudolph is a lithe 258-pounder with incredibly soft hands. Carlson caught over 50 balls in each of his first two seasons in Seattle. He slowed down in 2010, though, and missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury. He’ll never be a matchup nightmare, but in an ancillary role he has the frame and tools to consistently beat linebackers and B-grade cover safeties.
The Vikings probably wouldn’t have signed Carlson if they didn’t plan on developing some sort of two-tight-end passing attack. Carlson is not a fervid enough blocker to boost the ground game off the bench. He is, however, capable of occasionally splitting out into a receiver position. There are two ways the Vikings could be compelled to morph into a two-tight end offense: Ponder overachieving early on, or the less enticing way, Adrian Peterson being limited coming off his January knee operation.
Peterson perfectly illustrates another reason teams don’t win by relying on a workhorse back: because you can’t rely on them. It’s amazing that Peterson didn’t suffer some sort of serious injury before his fifth season, given how often he got hurt at Oklahoma and how violent his running style has always been. If he’s healthy, he can still be the best back in the NFL. If he’s not healthy, the Vikings will have to rely on third-year pro Toby Gerhart, who is serviceable between the numbers but nowhere near dynamic enough to consistently create his own yardage.
That’s what has been so impressive about Peterson: not only has he rushed for 6,752 yards over the past five years, but he’s done so behind a poor offensive line. The hope is that he won’t have to keep overcoming iffy blocking now that the Vikings have a highly-drafted left tackle. Matt Kalil is expected to anchor the line for the next 10 years (because anytime an offensive lineman is drafted in the first round, that lineman, by law, has to be referred to as a "next 10 years" player). Kalil’s arrival kicks the slow-footed Charlie Johnson inside to left guard, where he’ll replace the departed (and declining) Steve Hutchinson.
The Vikings really like center John Sullivan. Like just about all centers, Sullivan struggles a bit with power in close quarters, but he has good initial quickness and understands the game. At right guard, untested second-year pro Brandon Fusco will get a chance to push free-agent pickup Geoff Schwartz, who missed all of last season with a hip injury. At right tackle, monstrous-sized Phil Loadholt is still the starter, though he’s been nothing special since coming into the league as a second-rounder in 2009.
Even with Kalil, this still isn’t a great offensive line. But it will receive plenty of run-blocking help from extra tight ends, as well as motioning H-backs like Mickey Shuler and Jerome Felton, or the fourth-round rookie fullback Rhett Ellison.
Let’s start with the secondary, because the rest of this defense won’t matter if the back four can’t improve. The Vikings were atrocious against the pass last season, at one point yielding a passer rating of 128 during a particularly poor stretch from Weeks 6-14. A lot of that was due to injuries and to overwhelmed backups being thrust into the lineup (like the now-retired Asher Allen). Still, it’s uncommon to see a Cover 2 defense be done in by poor secondary play; it’s a zone scheme that naturally lifts much of the burden off defensive backs.
It’s most sensible to look forward with Minnesota’s secondary, as looking backward only seems cruel, and there could be four new starting defensive backs on opening day. New starters were needed at safety in the worst of ways. Spielman hopes he found two in his Notre Dame draft picks Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton. Smith was taken in the first round. He’s been talked up as a downhill thumper, though the Vikings will most likely use him initially at free safety, where he’ll have to rely more on his space-oriented instincts. In the fifth round, Spielman tabbed Blanton, who lacks great measurables (he’s only 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and he runs a plus-4.6 forty) but is fundamentally sound. Blatnon should easily beat out mistake-prone Jamarca Sanford and compete with last year’s sixth-round pick, Mistral Raymond, for playing time.
At cornerback, Chris Cook is back after a tumultuous 2011 in which off-field legal problems earned him a paid leave of absence for the season’s final two-and-a-half months. Cook is certainly a character risk, but he at least has something the Vikings didn’t have at this position last year: talent.
In Minnesota’s perfect world, Cook performs his zone duties well on the right side, and a competition between free-agent pickups Chris Carr and Zack Bowman produces a hungry, overachieving veteran to hold things down on the left side. That would allow aging veteran Antoine Winfield –- who has always played a physical brand of football -– to focus solely on playing the slot, which would help limit his snaps just a bit. It would also allow the speedy-but-green third-round rookie, Josh Robinson, to learn the ropes from a comfortable backup position.
The odds of this perfect world coming to fruition? About the same odds as the Timberwolves winning the Western Conference. Carr and Bowman have severe limitations (Carr struggles with positioning and timing on an island; Bowman struggles with hip swivel). And it’s not as if Cook is a sure thing; not only did he miss 10 games in 2011, but injuries also cost him 10 games as a rookie in 2010.
A saving grace for Frazier’s defense is that it features a front four capable of pressuring the quarterback on its own. That’s vital in a Cover-2. Jared Allen and Brian Robison are great bookends outside. Then again, Jared Allen and Anyone Else would be great bookends. Allen is coming off a season with 22 sacks, four forced fumbles, four recovered fumbles and 28 tackles for a loss (including assists). That’s a solid three-year stretch for most guys. Allen may have been even more dominant than his numbers: not only did he consistently turn the corner on passing downs, but he also ruined angles and created congestion as a run-defender.
Supremely athletic backup end Everson Griffen is moving to linebacker, though if Minnesota wants, he’d still be capable of putting his hand in the dirt on some third-and-long situations. Griffen’s position change opens the door for energetic ex-Saints backup Jeff Charleston. The only other backup end with any sort of pedigree is last year’s seventh-round pick, D’Aundre Reed, though he won’t see much playing time, as Robison and Allen played about 90 percent of the snaps last season.
Inside, Kevin Williams remains an All-Pro one-gap attacker who commands double teams by default. It’s up to Fred Evans and Letroy Guion to profit from those double teams. Neither has stood out as a rotational player the past few years. On passing downs, the Vikings will bring in last year’s fourth-round pick, Christian Ballard. More of a defensive end by trade, Ballard was viewed as a versatile talent coming out of Iowa, though some questioned how raw he was. He was active for all 16 games as a rookie (including two starts) but recorded just 13 tackles and zero sacks.
Besides the Williams Wall at defensive tackle, one reason the Vikings’ run defense has always ranked near the top of the league is because linebackers Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson were very comfortable making stops in nickel. The Vikings didn’t give up chunk yardage on draws or surprise third-down sweeps the way a lot of defenses do. (It helped having a sure-tackling corner like Antoine Winfield in the slot as well.)
Greenway is back, entering the second year of the long-awaited $41 million, five-year contract he got last September. He’s a tremendous tracker in the flats. He’ll be without his sidekick, though, as Spielman chose not to re-sign the 32-year-old, creeky-kneed Henderson this past offseason. Spielman did re-sign Henderson’s younger brother, Erin Henderson, but Erin is more of a Roger Clinton than a Jeb Bush (which is why he got only a one-year deal).
Henderson is set to start on the weak side, with fourth-year pro Jasper Brinkley taking over the middle duties. But the question is, who will handle the nickel linebacker duties alongside Greenway? Pass coverage is critical for linebackers in Frazier’s scheme. Whoever replaces E.J. Henderson will probably bring better quickness and agility to the table (would the Vikings consider using Everson Griffen here? He actually covered well in zone blitzes last season...) but he won’t be nearly as savvy. A saving grace for Minnesota is that, even facing the Lions and the Packers twice each, their schedule doesn’t pit them against a whole lot of three-receiver base offenses. Still, in today’s game, every defense has to count on its linebackers to cover at critical junctures.
With the team getting younger in so many spots, Spielman decided to part ways with kicker Ryan Longwell and draft Blair Walsh in the sixth round. The eighth-year veteran Chris Kluwe is a great tweeter but just an average punter. In the return game, Percy Harvin is a constant threat to go the distance. The Vikings prefer to limit his wear and tear, though, which is why Marcus Sherels and Bryan Walters will get cracks at returning punts.
A last-place finish in the division is all but inevitable. A successful season would entail developing the offense into more of a passing system and improving on defense in the secondary. Start from there and build on that.
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