The Minnesota Vikings enter the third week of the 2012 season in a much different spot than a year earlier.
A commitment to a rebuilding philosophy has tempered expectations and the young team is expected to make mistakes as they continue to develop.
This growing team will face perhaps its sternest test of the season against what many consider the top team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers. This potential mismatch isn't the biggest lock in Week 3, according to Vegas, but San Francisco is the most favored team on the road—making it perhaps the most unbalanced game in terms of raw skill and talent the NFL has to offer.
That doesn't mean that the Vikings will settle for moral victories, however, and there's a fair amount of game planning that can be done to maximize the likelihood of winning.
The frame organize the game plan by is to make sure the odds don't play out—implement a high-variance strategy that takes away from the skill of the players on the field and emphasizes opportunity more than consistency.
If both teams play consistently, the Vikings are sure to lose.
Against teams of similar strength and skill, it made sense for the Vikings to make playcalling as comfortable as possible for a young quarterback without much in the way of help in skill positions. The running back combination of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart—one of the best backfields in the NFL—makes it even easier for the Vikings to encourage safe play.
The 49ers are not that team for the Vikings.
This doesn't mean the Vikings should encourage Christian Ponder to throw deep, especially if nothing is there, as was apparently the case against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2. It means the Vikings should commit to finding ways to reduce the odds that skill wins out.
In this case, high-risk, high-reward does not necessarily mean risky individual plays, like gadgets or deep bombs. It means making the difference in skill less and less important. Against a heavily favored squad, the best opportunity to win games is making sure there are as few scoring opportunities as possible.
This may not seem risky, and is certainly not aggressive, but gives more of an opportunity for randomness to insert itself into the outcome. Statisticians would say that one is "reducing iterations" by doing this, and encouraging a boom/bust strategy.
As a simple analogy, imagine flipping a coin. If one flips a coin one thousand times, it's almost certain that the split between heads and tails will be 50/50. However, if one flips a coin twice, there is no guarantee at all that one can expect a 50/50 split.
In fact, it is equally likely that the coin will not be evenly split between heads and tails. 50 percent of the time, the coin will either land on heads twice or tails twice. The more data you have, the more likely it will be to follow the expected trends. This is the law of large numbers.
The same is true for football and possessions. The more often the underdog allows the favorite to prove that they're the superior team, the more likely it is that the favorite will win.
This bears out in simulations, and works out in practice as well.
It's commonly accepted that a favorite should minimize risk in order to win, which implies that underdogs should maximize risk. In this case, risk means riskier strategies, not riskier individual plays.
The Viking should embrace that risk by giving themselves (and therefore the 49ers) fewer opportunities to get points on the board. That means, counterintuitively, they should play risky by playing conservatively.
The Vikings Defense
At this point in the season, San Francisco hasn't played an extraordinarily strong defense (although it may find itself doing so against its NFC West opponents down the road), which might explain why they have more points per drive than all but two teams in the league (Atlanta and San Diego) with 3.00. They are also second in yards per drive with 40.42.
This offense has done a good job limiting turnovers and moving the chains with shorter passes and a strong running game.
San Francisco has run the ball almost half the time, which ranks them tenth overall in run/pass ratio. Coupled with the safe passes and quarterback Alex Smith's zero interceptions, and it's safe to say that the 49ers have a ball-control offense.
The high success rate of their individual plays should cause serious concern for the Vikings, but the plodding style of the offense is good insofar as it reduces overall possessions.
Like Christian Ponder, Smith hasn't thrown very many deep passes (only two over 20 yards) and prefers the high-percentage plays that keep his offense on the field. Unlike Ponder, however, Smith has a proven deep threat on the field in Vernon Davis and could threaten to score with Randy Moss streaking deep as well.
Michael Crabtree could pose problems deep as well, and had more targets from 20 yards out than Vernon Davis last year.
The Vikings defense will need to force the 49ers to continue taking safer routes and options by closing off the deeper passes. Coupled with that, the Vikings should focus on limiting yards after the catch more than usual.
As the field compresses, the Vikings will need to make sure that they limit the 49ers to field goals instead of touchdowns, and getting the offense off the field will become more important than running the clock.
There are several ways to do this that fit with the way the Vikings defense has been playing in the past several games.
The Vikings should continue to mix up coverages with fewer Cover 2 and Tampa 2 looks than last year, because Vernon Davis is perfectly built to attack it. He runs a Y-Shake up the seam (a stutter step route up the middle) better than anyone in the league and does his best to exploit the hole in coverage between deep zones.
His speed will also allow him to embarrass linebackers in coverage, and neither zone nor man coverage will be particularly useful if any of Minnesota's linebacker corps is asked to prevent Vernon Davis from making a big play.
Instead, a strong safety should be assigned to Davis throughout the game, with occasional "green dog" responsibilities—rushing the passer if Davis doesn't run a route.
The safety can be either Harrison Smith or Mistral Raymond, and they should keep switching it up to help disguise their coverage pre-snap. They should also be ready to pick him up from across the field, too, if need be. That means the safety responsible for Davis might be lined up on the opposite hash as him on some plays.
There aren't a lot of deep routes or threats the 49ers are willing to deploy, so single-high coverage on most snaps is all that's necessary except in specific situations, like third and long, or near the end of a half.
When the Vikings are in man coverage, they should be careful not to find themselves underneath too often, either, because the 49ers are adept at leveraging the height advantage of their receivers to make a big play. Davis is 6'3" and Moss is 6'4" and both have the speed and height to abuse defensive backs who play a trailing/inside hip technique (focusing on the hip closest to the quarterback and trailing behind the receiver).
Unlike in most situations, running underneath a route will not help in producing turnovers because of the height advantage of the receiving corps and the skill Alex Smith displays in placing the ball.
That's not to say that the Vikings should avoid producing turnovers. Eschewing fast-paced gameplay for a low possession game does not mean that interceptions or three-and-outs are bad—that would be a short-sighted conclusion that would forget to take into account that turnovers reduce a drive to producing zero points.
Instead, the Vikings should play over the top of the San Francisco receivers to limit big gains and yards after the catch, while allowing other defenders to jump routes when it becomes clear that the quarterback isn't throwing to their assigned man.
Chad Greenway's near interception in the first game against the Jaguars is the perfect example of this; he peeled off of Marcedes Lewis to deflect a pass intended for Cecil Shorts and could have come away with the pick. Meanwhile, Chris Cook stayed in coverage over top in his zone.
There are a couple of keys here to sustain shorter gains in passes and limit players like Crabtree and Davis.
he first is that the defensive backs need to play disciplined, only going for interceptions if they have help behind them, the ball is in the end zone or when the pick is too easy to ignore.
The second key is maintaining hip flexibility and only moving the shoulders with the receiver when they are sure the receiver has committed to their break. They need to play with their hips open towards the quarterback on the outside of the receiver until it is clear what the play design is.
The final key is something that is difficult to teach, which is reading the quarterback.
One of the advantages to playing over the receiver is having an angle to read the eyes of the opposing passer and reacting to it. So, while it is hard to clog running lanes from outside the passing lane, the Vikings may be able to do more to disrupt the passing game if they play off the receiver than underneath him.
It's not useful, however, if players don't help out teammates by converging on the ball before it gets there. Without good reads on the quarterback, the 49ers will take advantage of the soft coverage and chew up yards consistently.
Still, if the Niners eat up time on the clock, the Vikings shouldn't be too miffed. This is particularly true if the 49ers commit to the run as much as they have in the past. Frank Gore is an excellent running back, and the running backs behind him—Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James—are explosive enough that the Vikings should be worried.
Letroy Guion is a soft target for the running game, especially for a strong interior that includes a surprisingly good Johnathan Goodwin, a breakout Alex Boone and an always-solid Mike Iupati. As a result, Guion—who is playing about as well as most would expect—will need to be covered by Jasper Brinkley when he's on the field and the outside linebackers (Greenway and Erin Henderson) in nickel packages.
The outside linebackers have done a tremendous job in the run game so far, and both rank in the top 10 of Pro Football Focus' run ratings (with Henderson as the second best 4-3 outside linebacker against the run overall).
They will have to continue, although their running assignments may be a bit more difficult, given San Francisco's tendency to stretch the field horizontally, even on running plays.
As a result, the weak-side defensive end should swap duties with the strong-side defensive end when the offense has only one running back in the backfield and focus more on rushing the passer while the strong-side end plays contain.
This likely won't happen, but it is a way to reduce the likelihood of devastating runs to the outside. If the strong-side end commits to being a pure pass rusher, then Greenway's job as a strong-side linebacker will be a little more difficult and he should be content to play a little more to the outside.
The defensive tackle on the strong side, invariably Kevin Williams, has been fantastic against the run so far, so it shouldn't be too much of an issue.
In terms of pass rushing, the Vikings don't need to be too complicated. Left tackle Joe Staley has historically showed an inability to beat speed rushers off the edge, so Jared Allen should take advantage of his quick first step and good acceleration.
Right tackle Anthony Davis is a relatively better pass rusher, and will give Robison some trouble in the passing game, but he is the weak spot in the running game.
The best wrinkle to add would include Everson Griffen on subpackages to twist or stunt with Allen to better take advantage of Staley's edge rushing weakness. An effective pass rush will be more important here than in other games, because it will provide the best opportunity to generate turnovers by changing the flight of the ball and hurrying Alex Smith's decisions.
They just need to be sure not to sell out against the pass, because the Vikings will do best if they limit the number of possessions and keep the plays small.
The Vikings Offense
A ball-control offense that limits possessions is the best offense to have when one is an underdog. Not only will it keep games close, it will tire out defenses and keep the opposition's offense off the field. Even if San Francisco is better known for their defense, it is always better to have one own's offense out.
Luckily, the Vikings are perfectly built for that sort of game.
Unfortunately, the 49ers are designed to answer exactly that kind of offense.
While the Vikings' running backs may be better than the 49ers', the run blocking might prove to be the most important determinant in gauging running success. San Francisco has better run blocking linemen than the Vikings, although it is admittedly a close matchup.
A bigger problem is that San Francisco's run-blocking linemen have the opportunity to grade the road against a soft Vikings interior, while the Vikings don't have quite the same chance.
The 49ers have mostly played in a nickel package that sets up like a 2-4-5, with two down linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs, but it looks like a 4-2-5, because the outside linebackers will invariably rush, leaving Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman as the sole patrolling linebackers taking care of running backs.
On most teams, this would be perfect for setting up the run. Against the 49ers, it isn't.
They've allowed 3.2 yards per carry on average in the nickel package. Part of this may be because Willis and Bowman are in strong contention to be the best linebacker tandem in history, but another part is that there is strong talent throughout the roster.
Several commentators have remarked that the 49ers are very likely the best tackling team in the NFL, although they have missed more tackles this year than they would care to admit. Top to bottom, they can expect their players to make plays anywhere on the field, which makes them dangerous.
Regardless, there are ways to attack their defense on the ground while still maintaining a relatively high rate of success. Traditionally, offenses that hope to control the clock and avoid the feast-or-famine nature of runs to the outside will run between the tackles to eke out a more consistent, if less exciting, gain of about four yards.
The Vikings should run outside as often as possible.
That's not to say they should stop running inside altogether; that would make it far too easy for the defense to adjust.
Whenever Adrian Peterson has the chance, the Vikings should run at nickel cornerbacks Chris Culliver or Perrish Cox, either of whom could be considered the poorest tackler on the team. Tarrell Brown wraps up well, but neither he nor the very talented Carlos Rogers should do well in one on one matches with Peterson, even if he is injured.
More importantly, taking the alleys by storm will obviate the influence of perhaps the best defensive player in the game right now, Justin Smith, while also forcing Bowman and Willis out. Once Peterson makes it to the second level, strong safety Donte Whitner should pose no problem, even if Dashon Goldson might.
Even Gerhart, who is not known for effectively running outside, will want to take a few chances bouncing out.
Critical to this effort should be offseason free agent acquisition Jerome Felton, who is making a case for being the best blocking fullback in the country right now. If he can tie up either Willis or Bowman, then the running backs have a much easier job grinding it out for a good gain.
Still, the Vikings will want to pass the ball, even if they should focus on running it more often than normal. Percy Harvin still remains the only consistent target for the Vikings, but Christian Ponder should avoid passing to him more than 10 times a game if possible.
While Harvin has forced more missed tackles (seven) than any receiver in the league, he'll have a much harder time doing so against the 49ers. That doesn't mean the Vikings should stop throwing bubble screens and passes at the line of scrimmage to him, but it does mean they should do it significantly less.
Christian Ponder's biggest knock is that he relies far too much on his receivers to do the work and create yards, and that will certainly be put to the test on Sunday. The 49ers tend to either play in zone coverage or with outside man coverage, which encourages quarterbacks to take the shorter throws.
Slants, digs and crosses will be less effective than normal, given the ability of Patrick Willis to effectively cover, so the high-percentage passes that normally allow the Vikings to stretch out drives will not be as useful.
Ponder should take these passes if the defense gives them to him, but it is more important in this situation to find ways to create space for his receivers, which will be best done through play action passes and a few deep routes. The entire 49ers secondary will be adept at covering these deep routes, but it will move people away from the primary targets on defense.
This will be particularly important given that tight end Kyle Rudolph is not at where he needs to be yet to be an effective match against Willis or Bowman in coverage. Routes by Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton won't command double coverage or too much respect, but it will still pull defenders away from where the action will be: in the middle.
This would be a good time for tight end John Carlson to show up. He has run mostly shallow routes and will generally be open on the backside of plays, but still hasn't been consistent enough to warrant attention from Ponder.
There's not much that the Vikings can do to prevent Harvin from being doubled on most plays, except running to the opposite side (through checks by Ponder at the line), so Harvin will simply have to outperform his coverage. He won't get the high yards after catch totals he's used to, but if the Vikings can reliably get seven yards or so on passing plays, they'll be in a good spot.
The outside man coverage and deeper zone coverage will give Ponder some latitude in ball placement, but not much in terms of ball velocity. The 49ers defense has extraordinary closing speed, so protecting the ball will rely much more on getting zip from the release than making sure that the ball leads the receiver well.
Christian Ponder will have to be careful for Dashon Goldson, however.
He has been given freedom on a number of plays to roam the field à la Troy Palomalu or Ed Reed. Goldson is not an elite safety, but he's very good. If Ponder does not account for where Goldson is or could be, the Vikings will have a very long day ahead of them. Simply reading the defense will not be enough, no matter how simple the 49ers generally play.
The young Vikings quarterback may have resolved some of the concerns that surrounded his passing under pressure, but he still flees too often when pressure isn't there. Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are both good pass rushers, and Ponder's awareness will dictate his ability to play well more than any inconsistency with the offensive line.
Matt Kalil will have trouble with Aldon Smith, but matches up well in terms of his footwork and technique. The 49ers do not often engage in deception with their defense, and their defensive line play comports well with that—they do not often engage in stunts or twists. Given that schematic issues are Kalil's only real weakness, he can hold up the pressure well enough to protect Ponder.
On the other hand, Charlie Johnson, who has been both brilliant and a pariah in the past several weeks of regular season and preseason play, will have a much more difficult time with Justin Smith, even if John Sullivan helps. Because Ponder still drifts in the pocket, this could become a real weakness and remains a top priority heading into the game.
Gerhart, Peterson, Felton, Carlson and Rudolph will all have to spend time as pass protectors in order to stave off a powerful pass rush. If they can block rusher and reduce turnover opportunity, the Vikings can settled for intermediate gains. This gives the offense a formula that should allow them to compete with the 49ers at home in front of a hopeful crowd.
By controlling the ball, decreasing possessions and playing a safe game, the Vikings will paradoxically introduce more uncertainty—not less—into a matchup that nearly everyone has written off. If the Vikings get lucky on one or two drives, a strategy that limits scoring opportunities will give them the edge they need.