Any Given Sunday

The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by Rivers McCown

Every year, someone draws the short straw and has to write the meanest chapter in our book. The one that buries a feckless franchise. The one that takes a look at all the goodwill and hope a team has generated in their fan base and just spits right in its face. Such has been my experience with Buffalo Bills fans this season. #BillsMafia has already let me know, among other things, that I am a loser, that stats are for losers, that my wife is fat, and so on. I've cleaned up the language a bit to keep it suitable for publication.

For two weeks, I heard very little from them. They all appeared to retire.

So it was with some chagrin that I noticed I would get to praise what Buffalo did last week as the early scores came in. They became the first NFL team to ever be an underdog of 15 or more points and win by 15 or more points. It was, to be frank, sort of a shocking turnaround for a team that looked completely putrid over the first two weeks of the season. It was also a wee bit of a fluke, a conclusion that I'm sure you have already jumped to, seeing as we're on a stats website.

The Vikings put four fumbles on the ground, losing two. Josh Allen put three fumbles on the ground, losing none. Combine that with a Minnesota interception, and we've got a turnover margin of -3. That even undersells a bit just how damaging the turnovers were. Buffalo scored 10 points in the first quarter on drives in which they gained a total of 29 yards. At halftime, the Vikings were down 27-0. The Bills offense we've all known and loved over the past two games came back strong in the second half, where they managed 35 yards on five possessions. By then, though, the damage had already been done.

Allen looked a bit more polished than I expected him to be in the early going of his NFL career. He still made some boneheaded plays in this one, but when the easy stuff looks easy for a quarterback with this kind of raw talent, that's a great sign. There were a lot of easy yards to pick up. His longest pass play was a busted coverage on Chris Ivory out of the backfield. His touchdown to Charles Clay was a zone window that was open for 10 yards. Minnesota's most daring defender was actually Kelvin Benjamin, who dropped a pair of nice balls that hit him right in the chest. Of the actual deep throws that Allen attempted, he had the same result twice, but radically different processes to get to that result.

In the second quarter, this bomb to Robert Foster was underthrown and was quite interceptable.

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In the third, this ball to Foster was actually pretty on the money, Foster just didn't complete the catch.

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Allen spent more of the game tormenting people with his legs. I'm sure you've seen him jumping entirely over Anthony Barr by now. He did some read-option running. His scrambling was an issue for which the Vikings coaching didn't seem adequately prepared. No one has ever knocked Allen's athleticism, though I'm sure Bills fans hoping to move on from Tyrod Taylor wanted to see a bit less running in their quarterback value.

The Bills defense had an outstanding game. Tre'Davious White blanketed Stefon Diggs outside of one dropped touchdown. White, per Sports Info Solutions, has allowed just 3.2 yards per pass so far this season. The Bills allowed Adam Thielen to run wild, but kept the rest of the Vikings' non-factors from contributing much in the passing game.

But the bigger takeaway is trying to forecast Allen's growth and where he was at in this game. I still think there's a lot of learning to do, but it was a nice step forward from his first start, and a big step in terms of becoming a Carson Wentz-esque player who overcomes the statistical odds to become a great quarterback. The supporting cast is, charitably, still a huge problem. I've learned not to forecast great things when quarterbacks can't even hit a deep ball. So I'm going to stick with cautious pessimism for the time being, but I'm at least open to the idea that Allen could prove us wrong.

Where the Game Swung

There uh, wasn't much swing in this game. It turns out, 17-0 in the first quarter is a pretty big lead. Here's where EdjSports noted the biggest early-game swings:

1) End of 1st; Q – 1st & 6 – 71.5% (+11.6%) -- Josh Allen pass short right to Chris Ivory to MIN 6 for 55 yards

2) 1st 5:09; TD - 52.6% (+10.4%) -- Jason Croom Pass From Josh Allen for 26 yards

3) 1st 5:57; 1st & 10 – 42.6% (10%) -- Kirk Cousins sacked at MIN 19 for -8 yards (J.Hughes). FUMBLES (J.Hughes) [J.Hughes], RECOVERED by BUF-M.Milano at MIN 25.

4) 2nd 12:14; TD - 79.2% (+9.2%) -- Josh Allen 1 Yard Rush

The game was never seriously in doubt for the Bills after the first quarter. The Ivory catch was particularly huge because it came after a sack that made it second-and-17 at the Buffalo 39. That's a situation that ends in a punt often.

By the VOA

BUF -30.8% -22.5% 17.0% 8.8%
MIN -51.7% -3.6% -1.3% -49.4%

Aaron sez: "Buffalo averaged 1.84 yards on first down in this game, not counting two aborted snaps. They didn't have a first-down gain over 6 yards. This game was an offensive black hole."

Minnesota's defense was not given credit for those aborted snaps. If these numbers look gross to you, just remember that how the Vikings actually played was just as ugly.

The Ever Present Concern That is Minnesota's Offensive Line Pops Up Again

Ever since the Vikings watched Teddy Bridgewater's career get strangled behind an abysmal offensive line in 2015, they've spent a lot of money and draft capital trying to fix the situation. Bridgewater was pressured more often than any NFL quarterback in 2015, and the Vikings finished 30th in adjusted sack rate. Alex Boone got a four-year, $26 million deal in 2016; he lasted one year. Andre Smith was brought in to help at right tackle. The 2016 Vikings had the opposite problem in that they couldn't run -- they finished 30th in adjusted line yards and middle of the pack in adjusted sack rate.

So then, Rick Spielman got serious. He brought on Riley Reiff (Detroit) and Mike Remmers (Carolina) in free agency and drafted Ohio State center Pat Elflein in the third round. Reiff got a five-year, $58.8 million deal with $26.3 million in guarantees. Remmers, who didn't even seem to be that important to the Panthers, found himself with a five-year, $30.0 million deal with $10.5 million in guarantees. Those moves stuck.

The Vikings finished in the bottom four in pressure rate allowed in 2017, but also had to cover a lot for Case Keenum's pocket adjustments. The adjusted sack rate was 4.4 percent, sixth-best in the NFL. And while the running game wasn't dominant, it was at least credible. These changes, along with Pat Shurmur's quicker offense, made a real difference.

But with Elflein missing time early this season, the Vikings have found themselves struggling again in 2018. Elflein was only able to return on a limited basis in this game, playing 22 of the 66 offensive snaps. Brett Jones, a career backup until 2017's injuries on the Giants line, played the other 44. Second-round pick Brian O'Neill split time with Rashod Hill at right tackle. Remmers kicked in at guard next to Tom Compton, a career swing lineman who is getting his first real chance to start at 29.

And yet, it was Reiff who struggled the most in this game, getting run over and around all day by Bills rushers.

The second sack/fumble came when Reiff and Latavius Murray tried to cover the edge. On the broadcast, Tony Romo would say that Reiff was bumped off by Murray:

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Late in the third quarter, second-and-7, Jerry Hughes again blows right past Reiff.

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Through three games, Sports Info Solutions has Hughes with the third-most hurries in the NFL, behind only Demarcus Lawrence and Geno Atkins.

Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback, but he's also pretty fumble prone. He had 13 in 2017, nine in each of 2015 and 2016. Obviously that came to roost again yesterday, when Minnesota was forced into true pass-first mode.

The offensive line is something that has been looming on the horizon of Minnesota's offense for the last four years, threatening to tip it over to the side. While the fault of this game wasn't completely on their hands, they form a pretty combustible combination with Cousins' penchant for turning the ball over in the pocket.

Elflein's return will help. But right now there's not much on this offensive line with which Vikings fans should feel completely comfortable. Even the most-highly paid player was chewed up and spit out on Sunday.


7 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2018, 10:02am

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by Will Allen // Sep 25, 2018 - 3:21pm

The Vikings also lost Nick Easton in July to a neck injury. He was a productive starting guard for them last year. Spielman has invested in free agency on the o-line, but not really any substantially consistent draft capital. In the past decade where Spielman had large control of the draft board, he has only drafted 4 offensive linemen in the first 3 rounds. It's my one criticism of him.

More bad news for the Vikings today in that Everson Griffin appears to be having a full blown mental health crisis and will be away indefinitely. My amateur shrink diagnosis is that it sounds like classic bipolar disorder. This really makes me sad beyond the football trivia, in that Griffen had been such a great story, about a man who overcame personal demons which held him back when he was younger, and went on to great success, and exhibited significant leadership ability. Having Tony Sparano die of a heart attack was also a huge blow on many levels.

This year is starting to eerily look like 2016 or 2014, in terms of injury and weird stuff. Guess Zimmer is going to have to earn his pay again.

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3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by justanothersteve // Sep 26, 2018 - 2:45pm

I know I've made a few comments about the gawdawful state of the Vikings OL, much based on your own commentary. But I had no idea how badly it had gotten until this article. This sounds full-blown Seattle. It's bad when you have a +30 former Giants backup as a starter.

In issues far more serious than football, I really hope the experts figure out what happened to Griffen. The man is an incredible talent and seems to be a genuinely good person who is obviously dealing with a legitimate health crisis. I hope they can get him stabilized and he can get his life back together. Even better if he can continue to play, but the most important thing is getting his health right.

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2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by Mike B. In Va // Sep 25, 2018 - 5:17pm

Well, prove me wrong, then. I applaud it, and will gladly salt this crow and choke it down.

This actually mirrors my impression of the game. Wide receivers that don't suck would do wonders for Allen, but he did enough, the defense played much more in line with what was expected, and the Vikings continued to self-immolate in the second half. The ultra-conservative second half play calling from Daboll bugged me, but not terribly so. That was the least-threatening 300 yard QB game in recent memory.

For what it's worth, I didn't love the Allen pick but he really is doing better than expected and all 22 breakdowns are showing him seeing things he didn't see the prior week. (The TD to Croom was a good example, since the busted coverage was actually part of the read and he'd blown a similar play last week)

The Bills still aren't going to be good, but they're not historically abysmal, either - too much defensive talent, even if CB2 is a giant hole of suck.

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4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by Mountain Time ---- formerly Ninjalectual // Sep 26, 2018 - 5:16pm

How is he suddenly way more effective in the NFL than he ever was in college?

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6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by mathesond // Sep 27, 2018 - 10:02am

Better coaching? (i know, I know, this is the Bills - but they gotta have better coaches than Wyoming, right?)

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7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by mathesond // Sep 27, 2018 - 10:02am

Better coaching? (i know, I know, this is the Bills - but they gotta have better coaches than Wyoming, right?)

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5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Vikings

by morganja // Sep 26, 2018 - 8:55pm

One positive for the Vikings is that Matt Kalil is still a Panther.

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