After a close, but thrilling victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the following through on the invigorating victory is going full bore in taking advantage of the strengths that allowed quarterback Christian Ponder to drive down the field with receiver Percy Harvin and running back Adrian Peterson, while also preventing the weaknesses that gave the Jaguars the leeway to pull in as close as they did.
For now, know that the Vikings showed serious promise in several different aspects of their game, but they are not out of the woods yet.
There are a number of things the Vikings will want to emphasize and focus on as they approach their game in Indianapolis.
Offensive Game Plan
The Vikings only ran a two tight end set on 15 of their 59 offensive snaps against the Jaguars—not very many times given their intense focus on installing such an offense in the preseason. For the most part, they ran sets with one running back and one tight end, but did make sure to find ways to ensure creativity.
The game plan the Vikings used will not be nearly as effective with a week's worth of film, particularly because the Vikings don't have a lot of intelligence on the 3-4 system new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will be running.
Harvin was a key player in that offense, and Ponder's two-minute drill at the end of the half (and the first sparks of life for the Vikings) involved four pass plays. Three of them were screens to Harvin. The other was a one-step drop from the shotgun to Jenkins.
Each of these passes (and most of the offense that afternoon) relied on taking advantage of a defense that provided easy passes underneath and behind the line of scrimmage. Against a defense comfortable with man-to-man coverage, this game plan won't work.
The strength of the game plan against the Jaguars involved receivers running precise routes (a strength of Harvin, Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu) without using traditional landmarks like the hashes or numbers, which made it much easier for receivers to sit in the holes of zone coverage, something that is far less effective against man coverage.
Instead, the Vikings will need to demand more of Ponder in fitting the ball into tight windows and run routes designed to attack man coverage, including inside slants, out routes and high-low crosses.
Integrating John Carlson with the offense more will provide additional flexibility as the Vikings gradually introduce more two tight end sets. Both Carlson and Rudolph will need to improve their run blocking to really take advantage of the mismatches and deception provided by having both tight ends on the field.
In the run game, the Vikings don't need to worry about targeting a particular side, but they should take full advantage of Jerome Felton's fantastic lead blocking. While Peterson has expressed in the past that he prefers not to follow a fullback, it's clear from the last few years that he does better with a fullback leading the way.
Adrian Peterson is back, and they should act like it. There isn't a defense in the league that can consistently stop him, and they have one of the league's best backups in Toby Gerhart to lighten the load and keep Peterson fresh.
The Vikings had nearly a 50/50 run-pass balance against the Jaguars, and that is usually a problem for teams—most successful teams will pass more often than that. But, the Vikings have a strong running game and can rely on an efficient running back corps to get them yards while Ponder acclimates to his second year in the NFL.
Other teams that have virtually identical run-pass balances are the top ranked Houston and San Francisco teams, which also rely on a strong defense. Their ability to penetrate opposing lines and grab extra yards as a result of effective running backs and good line blocking allows them to set the pace of the game.
The Colts' run defense is about average in the league, and the Vikings can challenge them. Most important, however, is to use the running game to set up the pass. The Vikings will need to engage in more play-action passes to get receivers open deep. Ponder didn't complete a pass more than 29 yards against Jacksonville and should ameliorate that up against Antoine Bethea, Vontae Davis and Robert Mathis.
Defensive Game Plan
Against the Chicago Bears, Andrew Luck dropped back to pass on 53 plays. As a percentage of plays, this was more than anyone in the league—76 percent of all plays were called as passes. The Colts offense will run through Luck, even if they intend to increase the running load on Donald Brown and Vick Ballard.
Against a Tampa-2 defense, Luck couldn't help his receivers generate yards after the catch. This had to do both with decision-making on Luck's part and ball placement. This is despite the fact that Luck has one of the better receivers at generating those yards, Reggie Wayne.
It is an exceedingly difficult skill to be able to throw the ball in a way that avoids defenders and also generally leads receivers, and Luck has demonstrated ability and focus in the first aspect of ball placement. The throws have been away from defenders but often too far ahead of receivers to allow a smooth transition, often leading to diving catches.
This means the Vikings need to be comfortable with their zone schemes and continue with their philosophy of allowing shorter underneath passes while limiting yards after the catch. Defenders must be more willing to dive underneath routes than they are comfortable in order to force Luck to throw even higher to get over the passing lane.
Both the Vikings' safeties have excellent closing speed, so at least one safety should remain up top at all times, and preferably two, given the weakness of the run game in Indianapolis.
Because the Vikings have good run-stopping linebackers at all three linebacker positions, they should be free to let Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley handle the run responsibilities while they focus more on preventing the pass.
The Vikings should also be comfortable with their relatively few blitzes, because a coverage scheme will help more than a pressure scheme. Luck is still working on all aspects of the actual throw, but he has done a decent job under pressure. The Vikings should generate enough pressure as is to not have to worry about the tradeoff of additional pressure vs. coverage.
The Vikings have a few matchup advantages that they will want to exploit in the game, and those might hold the keys to victory.
It looks more and more like Dwight Freeney won't be available to play against the Vikings, which will give a surprisingly strong offensive line even more relief. If Ponder has time to allow plays to develop he can take advantage of everything he sees on the field.
Given the extremely poor defensive-end play that the Colts have, running up the middle is no problem, and they would do better to run right at wherever inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman is lining up, simply because he is a little worse than Kavell Conner at stopping the run.
In passing, however, they should scheme to match up Kyle Rudolph against Conner whenever possible. Conner has been lining up as the strongside inside linebacker, so it should be no problem for Rudolph to target Conner's coverage zones (as Rudolph's placement on the line will determine the strong side).
Conner is not great in coverage and will need additional help if Rudolph becomes too much for Conner. That should open up the rest of the game.
Percy Harvin matches up well with everyone on the Colts' defense. While Justin King was surprisingly good in coverage in the last game, Harvin shouldn't worry if he ends up with King covering him, as they are in different classes.
On defense, the Vikings should strive to keep Reggie Wayne contained whenever possible, as he is the biggest receiving threat. Wayne was targeted more last week than any other receiver in the league, with a whopping 18 looks.
Wayne doesn't derive his advantage from speed or agility, but with technique and veteran savvy. Winfield would match up well with him and use his experience to counter Wayne's strength. More than that, the Vikings should be willing to bracket Wayne whenever possible with a safety up top, preferably Raymond because of his faster closing speed.
Winfield won't complicate the passing lane as much as Cook will because of the massive height differential, but he will more than make up for it in coverage capability. Discipline is needed to cover Wayne, and Winfield is best suited for that.
Other than the important matchups, any plan to beat the Colts will ultimately fall on a few key players.
Jared Allen is critical to the Vikings scheme, because they don't use blitzes to create pressure. Allen's performance against the Jaguars was embarrassing. Not because Eugene Monroe is a bad player or anything; but rather because Allen should be able to generate consistent pressure against anyone in the league (indeed, he is paid at a level that demands that production).
One game doesn't make him a disappointing player, but he should bounce back. Giving Luck time to let the play develop is poisonous, and Allen is the best option to giving offenses a short fuse. Rookie quarterbacks aren't used to the speed of the game, and the best way to take advantage of that is pressure.
Naturally, Andrew Luck is critical, too. The first of his three interceptions was not his fault—it should have been a free play, what with the Bears defenders offsides at the snap. You throw it deep on free plays, because you theoretically get that interception back if it happens. Because of the heavy emphasis on the pass, the Colts will live and die by Luck.
Expect the Colts to scale back the pass-heavy play calling, but it would be naive to assume that they don't intend to keep on passing. Luck will very occasionally stare down his receiver, and the defense will want to make sure it makes the most of those mistakes.
Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson will produce the large majority of Vikings yardage and are key players to watch. It seems unlikely that the Colts have an answer for either of them, but the defensive scheme is unfamiliar and still hasn't been unveiled in a big way.
The Colts run a 3-4 one-gap defense, designed to improve pass rushing while maintaining adaptability. It demands a lot of the inside linebackers, and so making their lives difficult may be a priority. Harvin and Peterson can both do that with runs up the middle as well as short passing routes. Both of them should attack Jerry Hughes as often as possible as well.
The final key to this game, of course, is Christian Ponder. He wasn't asked to do too much in terms of complicated reads or difficult decision making against the Jaguars, so going up against a defense without too much film and one that intends to deceive will represent much more of a challenge.
He might be able to take advantage of another round of surprisingly good play calling by Musgrave, but it is ultimately on him; this game will be more difficult for him.