Bill Connelly takes a look at the early-season S&P+ outliers and whether his eyeballs agree or disagree with the stats. Spoiler: Alabama is underrated. Alabama! Underrated!
29 Sep 2011
by Mike Tanier
ANDY REID: Mmmm, this loaded roast pork is really good, isn’t it Howie?
HOWIE ROSEMAN: I wouldn’t know. So, the guys from quality control finished their report on our short-yardage offense. Try not to dribble horseradish or melted provolone on it.
REID: Mmmm, it seems that handing off to Owen Schmitt is not a good idea at the goal line.
ROSEMAN: Nor is throwing to him. They recommend handing the football to an actual running back.
REID: Mmmm, a shovel pass you mean?
ROSEMAN: No, a handoff.
REID: An obvious quarterback draw that everyone in the stadium can see coming?
ROSEMAN: No, a han ... never mind. By the way, all three of our starting linebackers missed practice today. They were stuck behind cars.
REID: Stuck in traffic?
ROSEMAN: No, in the parking lot. Cars were in front of them and they could not figure out how to get around them.
REID: Mmmm, okay. Move Moise to the weak side, Jamar to the weaker side, and Casey to wherever he will do the least harm.
ROSEMAN: Well, you see, we are running out of sides. Say, there is an attractive older woman in the waiting room. She has really great nails.
REID: Mmmm, that is my one o’clock. Show here in, and give us some privacy.
ROSEMAN: Sure thing! I want all the deniability I can get when you are fir ... I mean, when you retire. Suddenly. In January.
LINDA ROSE: Hello, coach. I am Linda Rose, the first hand supermodel. I have been a hand double for everyone from Cybil Shepard to Candice Bergen, and I have appeared on Oprah!
REID: Yes, I know. I loved your Palmolive commercials.
ROSE: What on earth would an NFL team need a hand model for?
REID: Mmmm, well, let’s start with the injuries. Michael Vick has a hand contusion, or maybe a fracture. I don’t want anyone to know the real extend of the injury. I need an x-ray.
ROSE: You want to x-ray my world famous hand and pretend it is Vick’s?
REID: Mmmm, yes, and we will have one of the nitwits on the team "accidently" Tweet the x-ray image. DeSean, maybe. You will have to trim the nails, of course, oh, and ... (grabs a paperweight and smashes it into Linda’s knuckles)
ROSE: Yowwwww! What the hell was that for?
REID: There has to be some damage, or no one will believe it.
ROSE: This is crazy! There's no way they'll believe it! It’s not because I am female, but because I have gotten older. There will be tell-tale marks on the x-ray that any doctor, or even a careful observer, will be able to pick out. They will show that my hands are far too old for professional football.
REID: Mmmm. I never thought of that. I guess the only way you could pose as an x-ray double for a football player is if that player were so old, arthritic, and creaky that it would strain credibility to think someone with bones like that would actually take the field. Wait, there’s a call for you on my private line. Let me put it on speakerphone.
Jim IRSAY: Andy? Duuuude, it’s me, the Lizard King. Say, is Linda Rose with you? I need someone to be Kerry Collins’ shoulder, and I think she would be perfect. Linda, baby, a shoulder is kind of like a hand, right? Just further up!
ROSE: Sigh. I have to stop updating my location on Twitter.
The Vikings have outscored opponents 54-7 in the first halves of their three games, only to be outscored 67-6 in the second halves and overtime. As our own Doug Farrar pointed out on Monday, they became only the fifth team in NFL history to blow three straight 10-point leads.
The Vikings are the NFL equivalent of a McDLT: hot on one side, cold on the other, and encased in a disposable Styrofoam box. What is going on? How can they look so good until halftime, then look so bad for the rest of the game?
To find out, I watched the first halves of the Buccaneers and Lions games and wrote a scouting report about that Vikings team. Then I wrote a second scouting report based on the second halves of those two games. My goal was to achieve something close to objectivity. Even though I knew the Vikings were destined to blow it after halftime, the first half reports were written before I was entirely clear just who was going to blow it, and how. That way, it was easier to mark any contrasts between the first and second halves.
First Halves: The Vikings are a very solid power team. They win with their front four and excellent overall tackling on defense. On offense, they excel in their running game, misdirection, and short-passing play action game.
Jared Allen is off to a tremendous start. He pushed around both Jeff Backus of the Lions and Donald Penn of the Buccaneers, making two pretty good tackles look awful at times. Brian Robison has been extremely active on the opposite side. Kevin Williams provided a boost when he returned from suspension for the Lions game, but Everson Griffen and Letroy Guion played well inside against the Bucs.
The tackling behind the front four has been excellent. Safety Jamarca Sanford has made several plays inside the box and does a good job in wrapping up the LeGarrette Blounts of the world. Sanford’s job has been made easier by Allen and Robison, who blow things up on the offensive line. The Vikings have allowed several short completions on third-and-long, but players in the secondary are keeping the receivers in front of them and making the tackle before the sticks.
On offense, Adrian Peterson is as awesome as always. Donovan McNabb is showing his age. McNabb’s accuracy has slipped, and that was never his strong suit. The Vikings lack a consistent downfield passing attack, but Peterson’s excellence sets up a play-action and reverse game that helps them get the ball into the hands of their other top playmaker: Percy Harvin.
|Figure 1: Percy P Reversing in the First Degree|
Figure 1 shows a reverse to Harvin against the Lions that netted 39 yards. Peterson has already gashed the Lions for a 43-yard run and had a 29-yarder nullified by a penalty before the team ran this play. The Vikings come out in a three-tight end look here. They aggressively sell the stretch-run action, with all of the offensive linemen slanting hard to the right. McNabb’s play fake to Peterson is very good, and Jim Kleinsasser (40) comes across the formation to kick out on the Lions force defender.
Kleinsasser’s block helps spring Harvin (12), but the run action is what really creates a wide open hole. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (93) crashes hard down the line. The linebackers also commit fully to the run. The tight end to the reverse side (Kyle Rudolph, not marked) is supposed to log a linebacker on this play, but the linebackers bailed so thoroughly that he runs downfield in search of someone to block, settling eventually on the free safety.
Figure 2 shows another example of how Peterson springs Harvin, this time against the Bucs. Note the similarity of the stretch-run action: again, the Vikings leave the defensive end on the far side of the play-fake unblocked. Again, the defensive end crashes hard on the play, but more importantly, so does Ronde Barber (20), a veteran who should know better. Harvin runs a simple "get open route" here; his job is to find a little space, sit down, and wait for McNabb to toss him the ball. Because Barber got caught so far out of position, Harvin just loops into position about a yard past the line of scrimmage, catches a floater, and gains substantial yardage.
|Figure 2: The Perils of Falling for Play Action|
Most of the Vikings’ successful pass plays come off of play action, and while misdirection provides a counterpunch to Peterson, it is no substitute for the ability to attack vertically. The Vikings are getting away with a lot, offensively, in first halves. One of their field goal drives was extended by a somewhat ticky-tack roughing the passer penalty after a third-down stop. McNabb has also converted two third downs by scrambling. As exciting as those conversions were, McNabb is past the point of scrambling for 30 yards at a time and now gets past the marker by the skin of his teeth. Another touchdown was set up by a long punt return with a facemask penalty (by the Lions punter) tacked on. The Vikings are scoring points by running hard, getting a big play here and there, and catching the odd break on a penalty or scramble.
Theoretically, though, that level of offense should be sufficient when the defense is pitching near-shutouts. Maybe the Vikings were not going to beat the Chargers with this style of play, but it should have been enough to hold off the Buccaneers and Lions, two teams not traditionally known for their explosive offenses (though the Lions are getting there quickly).
Second Halves The Vikings have a defense that is too dependent on its front four to protect the secondary and linebackers in man coverage. Their offense is stagnant and predictable. Their special teams mixes good plays with bad, but the bad plays are more damaging for a team that desperately needs to win field position battles in the second half.
Allen and Robison are still very dangerous, getting consistent pressure, a sack here and there, and blowing up some running plays. Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford both got more comfortable in the pocket as their games progressed, however, and when they threw over the middle, often a split second before Allen’s arrival, they both often found open receivers. The completions that the Vikings stopped two yards before the sticks early in the game now consistently produce first down yardage.
E.J. Henderson, a good run defender, is too often asked to handle fast tight ends like Brandon Pettigrew and Kellen Winslow, either in man coverage or when sliding over into a zone. Cedric Griffin is often a half-step behind the receivers he is asked to cover. Chris Cook was used as a Calvin Johnson specialist and made two great plays, but the Vikings relied on him too much: Cook gave up a touchdown to Megatron on a deep pass that got the ball rolling for the Lions.
Griffin, not Cook, covered Megatron on the overtime reception that set up the game winning field goal. The Vikings had two deep safeties on the play, with Husain Abdullah on Megatron’s side of the field. Unfortunately, Abdullah flattened out to cover Tony Scheffler, who ran an out-route. Scheffler appeared to be well covered by a linebacker on the play, but Abdullah ignored Megatron and closed on Scheffler so quickly that it had to be his assignment. If so, it was a crazy assignment. I cannot think of a good reason to not have a safety in deep support against Johnson in anything but short yardage situations.
(After looking at the coaches film on line, I discovered that the defender covering Scheffler was Allen! So of course the safety had to come up in coverage. That makes this play even crazier: Not only do you single cover Megatron, but you call a blitz that takes your best pass rusher out of the equation!)
Offensively, the roughing the passer penalties and scrambles disappear in the second half. That leaves Peterson and the misdirection plays, though those reverses and rollouts also nearly vanish. A lot was made about Harvin’s absence in the second half of the Buccaneers game, but he still played a lot of snaps and was targeted a few times. In the Lions game, he picked up significant yardage on one well-designed screen, but McNabb spent too much time looking for tight ends to throw to when he was not feeding Peterson the ball in the most predictable situations.
|Figure 3: Donovan McNabb in Too Many Tight Ends|
Figure 3 shows another three-tight end formation the Vikings deployed against the Lions. Earlier in the game, they used a similar personnel package to set up a Harvin reverse. This time, they motion Visanthe Shiancoe (81) across the formation, then do something crazy. All three tight ends run routes, including Rudolph (82) and whoever #89 is. (He is Allen Reisner, another rookie tight end). McNabb takes a seven-step drop and looks downfield, possibly at Rudolph, but Cliff Avril (92) is so happy that neither of the rookie tight ends on his side stayed in to block him that he runs right around the right tackle and forces a McNabb fumble.
Two points. First, the Vikings’ other receivers, besides Harvin, are Michael Jenkins, Bernard Berrian, and Devin Aromashodu. It is a rogue’s gallery. Jenkins and McNabb connect on many sad little five-yard hitch routes; they are not pretty, though they do set up second-and-medium situations that are conducive to Peterson runs. Berrian is supposed to be the deep threat, and he and McNabb might have scared some people five years ago, but not now. Aromashodu is a talented tease who rarely takes the field. You can understand why the Vikings want to stress multi-tight end formations, and sometimes those tight ends must run pass routes. But the play in Figure 1 plays to the strengths of the personnel package: it maximizes perimeter blocking, bunches up the defense, and makes space for a playmaker. Figure 3 maximizes the weakness of the package, sending slow, inexperienced players into deep pass patterns.
Second, the McNabb fumble led to a punt from deep in Vikings territory. The Lions returned the punt 20 yards to midfield, then picked up a field goal after a short drive. There was a similar sequence in the Buccaneers game: the Vikings committed a series of penalties, Chris Kluwe delivered a second-rate punt, the Buccaneers started their drive at the Vikings’ 44-yard line, and one great run by Blount resulted in seven points. Later in the same game, a bonehead kick return by Lorenzo Booker started the Vikings on the nine-yard line. After a brief drive, a fourth-down false start moved Kluwe five yards closer to his own end zone, where he delivered a very so-so 40-yard punt. The Vikings defense collapsed on the following drive, but a longer field couldn’t have hurt.
The Whole The half-and-half phenomenon makes the Vikings appear bipolar, but they are a not-quite .500 team that plays a little above .500 in the first half and a little below .500 in the second half, with some non-predictive events like penalties skewing the results to make the effect rather severe. They are 0-3 because of three close losses to good opponents, and because they have some serious problems that must be solved before they can beat quality teams like the three that they faced.
First, the downfield passing game is a major problem that must be solved. McNabb is just not going to complete a lot of 20-yard passes anymore: he is going to throw behind receivers or at their knees. Still, there is no reason why he cannot still complete some 40-yard rainbows, especially with opponents focused on Peterson. In two full games, I think I saw just one old-fashioned McNabb bomb, and it sailed over Berrian’s head. A single big passing play in the second half of either of these games would have changed the complexion of the game, and possibly the result.
Second, the Vikings may want to consider Toby Gerhart as an option late in games. Peterson may not be wearing out (it looks more like the line slows down in the fourth quarter), but defenses definitely appear more ready for him resulting in a lot of short losses on first and second down. A fresher runner with a slightly different style could help the Vikings churn out leads. Similarly, both the fancy Harvin plays and the little ugly hitches to Jenkins inexplicably vanish sometime in the fourth quarter; the one drive that used both ended in a field goal. The Vikings must stick with what kinda-sorta works in the passing game while finding a little more variety in the running game.
Third, the defense appears to tire in the second half. They shouldn’t, because the offense chews up six hours of clock time in the first half, but by late in the game the Vikings defense really does appear gassed, which is why receivers are open for bigger gains and the pass rush is late. Better offensive production in the second half might solve this problem, but the Vikings should also rethink their defensive line rotation now that Williams is back. The other interior defenders, who looked good in the first half, were invisible later in games.
After writing all of this, I checked out the DVOA ratings. Sure enough, the Vikings’ second half collapse is easy to spot in the numbers: a 115 percent swing. What’s odd is that it is a failure with a hundred fathers. Everyone gets a little worse, even Allen and Peterson, and the effect is gradual, with the Vikings still playing adequately on both sides of the ball in the third quarter and then descending to ridiculous in the fourth quarter.
It’s a snowball, and it can be stopped, or at least slowed, with just a few adjustments. So far, the Vikings have been slow to make them.
In case you did not see the XP, I will be at the Collingswood Book Festival on Saturday at 1:00 PM, promoting The Philly Fan’s Code.
There will be a table and a chair, but the chair will not be behind the table. It will be about three yards to the left of the table, turned backward. When you come to sign a book, I will race up to the table and try to sign it before you walk away.
This is the new Wide-9 book signing technique, and I am committed to it no matter what happens.
You may also see me in the Bats blog at The New York Times in the weeks to come talking baseball. They won’t let me say "Go Phillies" there, so I will say it here.
34 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2011, 1:28pm by Spielman