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Guest columnist John Kinsley breaks down the tape of every deep pass in the NFL in 2017 and comes away with a shocking conclusion: even without Andrew Luck, the Colts had the best long-ball quarterback in the league.

05 Jan 2016

Any Given Sunday: Vikings Over Packers

by Sterling Xie

The sportsbooks may have had the Minnesota Vikings as underdogs on Sunday night, but other than Lambeau Field, it's hard to imagine what advantages the Green Bay Packers really had. Call it two ships passing in the night, the aging champ succumbing to the young challenger, or whatever artistic conceit you prefer. Though the Packers were one spot ahead of the Vikings in the season-long DVOA rankings headed into Week 17, Minnesota (ninth in weighted DVOA, 14.4%) has clearly been playing better than Green Bay (18th, minus-2.1%) for quite some time.

Of course, this ruins the narrative a bit for the newly crowned NFC North kings. If you'll recall, Minnesota was mired near the bottom of the DVOA rankings for much of the season in part because they were piling up unimpressive wins against subpar teams. The "prove it" narrative is often frustrating because it creates moving targets and disproportionately spills the blame on certain players (see Romo, Tony), but it seems somewhat legitimate in this case. Under Mike Zimmer and Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings have just three wins against eventual playoff teams.

One of those was last Sunday. The other two were against the 2014 Panthers and 2015 Chiefs, who promptly combined to win their next 28 regular-season games (!) immediately following those losses. Apparently TCF Bank Stadium is where Lil' Bow Wow passes off his magic sneakers to staggering franchises. It's not Minnesota's fault that they caught the Panthers and Chiefs at just the right time. And yet, these are the closest claims the Vikings have to beating a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the past two years. Green Bay is the only win Minnesota has the past two years against a team that both entered the game and finished the season as a top-10 team.

Nothing about Minnesota's 20-13 win against the Packers was out of character. The Vikings ran the ball on nearly 60 percent of their offensive plays, only requiring Bridgewater to pass 19 times, seven of which came on third down. Each of the past two weeks on Sunday Night Football, Cris Collinsworth suggested that Bridgewater has become increasingly conservative in his decision-making at the behest of Zimmer. It's pretty evident that Bridgewater's leash has tightened this season. Minnesota has attempted only 86 deep passes, 29th in the league, and with good reason, because its 36.0% DVOA on such throws ranks 27th. While it is unfair to cherry-pick one play and hold it against Bridgewater, his first throw of the game probably did not inspire much confidence in this regard.

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The Vikings might just go as far as their front seven takes them. That unit nullified Green Bay's 11-minute edge in time of possession by teeing off on Aaron Rodgers, garnering five sacks and two takeaways. Minnesota can theoretically follow a similar defensive blueprint against the Seattle Seahawks. Like the St. Louis Rams, Seattle's kryptonite, the Vikings have the horses to dominate the line of scrimmage and harass Russell Wilson if they can stop the run, as they did against Green Bay. In Week 13, Wilson and Thomas Rawls ran roughshod over a Vikings defense that played all or most of that game without Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith, all of whom should be around for the rematch. Marshawn Lynch should be there as well, representing a total wild card for the NFC's second wild card.

Minnesota is playing with house money, having already accelerated its timetable by dethroning the Packers. The win at Lambeau might currently be the signature moment of the Bridgewater-Zimmer era, but beating the four-time defending DVOA champs would be a far more impressive feat.

An Offense by Any Other Name

Given Green Bay's organizational stability, it's fair to assume the Vikings have looked up to the Packers' model. But on Sunday night, it seemed as though the Packers were the ones who wanted to be more like the Vikings.

Because offenses usually script play calls at the beginning of games, we can get an idea of what a team is most comfortable with by looking at their first couple of drives. And on its first two drives, Green Bay's offense looked a lot like that of the team wearing purple. The Packers had a full house backfield on its first two plays, and used a fullback on all but one of its nine offensive plays on the opening-drive field goal. Then, Green Bay went with two tight ends on the line on each of their first five plays on the next drive, before turning to their first three-receiver set of the game on third-and-long. Apart from one deep shot he took when Minnesota jumped offsides, Rodgers was almost exclusively limited to screens and quick play-action passes.

Sound familiar? It's no secret the Packers have sought to use more power personnel with Mike McCarthy calling the plays over the past month. John Kuhn and Andrew Quarless (who came off IR) have seen spikes in playing time at the expense of Davante Adams. But the Packers have only posted a positive DVOA once in McCarthy's four games -- in Week 14, when Green Bay had its best offensive DVOA (18.1%) since Week 6 in a 28-7 win over the lifeless Cowboys.

That game was easily Eddie Lacy's best of the year (24 carries for 124 yards, both season highs), and McCarthy clearly wanted Lacy more involved after two anonymous weeks. Lacy had seven carries on the opening driveā€¦ and then six the rest of the game. Those carries generated a reasonable 28 yards, and five of those runs were successful plays. Lacy's last six carries only went for 6 yards, but given his early success, it's a little surprising the Packers weren't more vigilant in sticking with him. James Starks played the entire second possession, and when the Vikings had opened up a 17-point lead late in the third quarter, Green Bay reverted to exclusively 11 personnel, using Starks or Kuhn as the offset back and keeping Lacy glued to the bench.

At this point, it's apparent that a pass-centric Packers offense is doomed, in spite of the Packers' late-game rally. Apart from the Cowboys contest, Rodgers hasn't posted a positive passing DVOA mark since McCarthy took over the play calling. This game didn't teach us anything new about Green Bay's offense. The late-game "rally" really consisted of three deep shots to James Jones which totaled 94 yards. Two of those passes were signature Rodgers improvs where he broke the pocket and appeared to come off of his first read.

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The Packers are not hopeless in the wild card round, though it would have been stunning to imagine Washington as a postseason favorite over Green Bay two months ago. Even more unthinkable is the reality that the Packers might wish to be more like the Vikings, at least for 2015.

By the VOA

Green Bay entered this game 10th overall in DVOA and managed to stay put for their sixth top-10 finish in the past seven seasons. Actually, by both unadjusted and adjusted totals, the Packers outperformed the Vikings despite losing.

MIN -20.5% -18.7% 4.0% 2.1%
GB -12.6% -25.5% 2.1% 15.0%
MIN -24.5% -21.1% 4.0% 0.6%
GB -15.9% -24.6% 2.1% 10.8%

Each defense posted its third-best single-game DVOA figure of the season. We discussed how Minnesota may need to lean on its defense against Seattle, but the same holds true for Green Bay against Washington. Apart from their dud against the Cardinals last week, the Packers have posted a negative DVOA every week since Week 12. There's lots of understandable hand-wringing over Clay Matthews' diminished production and a concussion that has caused top corner Sam Shields to miss the past three games, but the results have still been largely there.

The Keep Lookin' at Wins Stat of the Week

The Packers may have held steady in the overall DVOA rankings, but Green Bay dropped to 19th in weighted DVOA. The Packers are the only team with a negative weighted DVOA (minus-3.9%) to reach the postseason this year, but this is far from a rare occasion. In fact, teams with negative weighted DVOAs has reached the playoffs in all but four years (2007, 2003, 2001, 1999) since 1989. Green Bay is now the 43rd team in that group, which represents about 13 percent of all playoff teams in that span.

As you might suspect, this year's Green Bay squad is also far from the worst of that lot. That dubious honor belongs to the 2010 Seahawks, the oft-referenced 7-9 squad that nevertheless changed Marshawn Lynch's Q rating forever. That Seattle team had a wretched minus-31.0% DVOA at the end of the regular season, which ranked 30th that year. Six years earlier, their division rivals in St. Louis also ranked 30th in weighted DVOA (minus-29.3%), yet clawed their way to 8-8 as part of a historically terrible NFC playoff field. There, of course, they would beat the Seahawks, their third win over Seattle that year. I would imagine Seahawks fans are glad the current rendition of the Rams can't ever seem to get over the 7-9 hump.

The Packers are actually just the 14th of these 43 teams to make the playoffs with a negative weighted DVOA but a positive DVOA for the entire season. Nine of the previous 13 teams were one-and-done. The 1991 Broncos, 2012 Texans, and 2013 Colts each went 1-1. The 1993 Bills, who ranked 12th in DVOA but 19th in weighted DVOA, are the only one of these teams to make it to the Super Bowl, in part because they were the AFC's No. 1 seed and got two home games.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 05 Jan 2016

11 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2016, 10:48am by PatsFan


by andrew :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:38pm

Bridgewater's first deep pass to McKinnon was very troubling... everything went right, the play design worked perfectly to free up McKinnon who broke clear and could have scored with even an underthrown ball, the line gave Bridgewater all the time he needed to see McKinnon and make the throw unharassed... and he flat out missed. Bridgewater seems to have fine accuracy within a certain range, but beyond that he just doesn't seem to have any touch on his passes. Teams can basically scheme to only guard the first 20-25 yards of real estate. Once could almost argue the reason McKinnon was able to get so open was that the Packers might even have schemed not believing Bridgewater could beat them deep... and that was perfectly validated.

Having Mike Wallace on this team is pretty much a waste. I would almost suggest running a halfback or wr option if any of the backs had a decent arm (McKinnon was a college qb, wasn't he?) if you want to go long. That's probably hyperbole (He's no Joe Webb after all), but still...

I would be curious what is the most air yards on a completed Bridgewater pass, this year or for last... I recall him having one decent length pass vs Miami late last year.

by ZDNeal :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:39pm

At Zimm's press conference yesterday he said Teddy hits that McKinnon pass in practice consistently. I wonder if he's just to amped for games and needs to learn to settle down.

by andrew :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:54pm

In their indoor practice facility? Could that be a factor?

That aside I thought TB had a reputation for being calm and cool...

by hoegher :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:58pm

Honestly, it might just be that he's overly conservative in game situations. It's not like he's erratic on the deep passes, they're nearly always thrown long. Seems like he's trying to error on the side of an incompletion (left-handed passes aside).

by jmaron :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 7:36pm

Bridgewater has missed deep balls like the one to McKinnon pretty much all year exactly the same way...2-4 yards to far. I think the longest deep pass he completed this year was to Diggs against Det - and he overthrew that by 2 yards or so but Diggs made an unreal catch.

Last year he had that problem for much of the year but late in the season he hit some long ones to Johnson and Thielen. His misses on deep balls last year were almost always the same as this year 2-4 yards to far.

It seems to be his biggest weakness.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:55pm

I think it was Bridgewater's worst game of the year, by a decent margin. He could play great against the Seahawks, and the Vikings still might get thumped, but they'll get shut out if he plays at the same level as he did Sunday night.

Unlike the Vikings, the Redskins can block, and while they aren't good on defense, you may not have to be to keep Rodgers & Crew coralled these days. I'll be surprised if the Packers win.

by herewegobrownie... :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 12:09am

Even given the Packers' struggles and it being @ WAS I am a bit surprised the Skins are favored.

Figured that the public team effect/confirmation bias would mean GB would still be favored.

by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:55pm

I think it was Bridgewater's worst game of the year, by a decent margin. He could play great against the Seahawks, and the Vikings still might get thumped, but they'll get shut out if he plays at the same level as he did Sunday night.

Unlike the Vikings, the Redskins can block, and while they aren't good on defense, you may not have to be to keep Rodgers & Crew coralled these days. I'll be surprised if the Packers win.

by techvet :: Tue, 01/05/2016 - 9:29pm

Packer defense only gave up 10 points and they still lost because special teams gave up the first 3 points and the offense gave up the last 7 points. The Packers will need Sam Shields to cover DeSean Jackson and someone else (Micah Hyde?) to cover Jordan Reed, but most of all, they need the offense to pull their head out of the nether-regions.

It is amazing how inept this offense became once teams figured out that could drop a safety down without having to worry about Jordy Nelson. DaDropte Adams isn't helping at all.

by Guest789 :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 9:43am

Packers are toast and have been for weeks. I'm just waiting out the season at this point - it's been by far the worst to watch in the Rodgers era. They need to draft a WR or TE with SPEED early in the draft, and Ted needs to sit down Rodgers and McCarthy and lock them in a room until they work out whatever weird drama they have going on.

Rodgers is 32 now, and while he's not about to retire or anything, you can only waste so many years. I'm not among those calling for McCarthy's head yet, as I do believe that you could do far worse for a head coach, but if next season looks like this one, it might be time for a fresh face on the GB sideline.

by PatsFan :: Wed, 01/06/2016 - 10:48am

Huh. The Bridgewater pass in that first GIF reminds me of pretty much every Brady deep pass for years.