After the 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions, the Minnesota Vikings sit atop the NFC North. Holding the divisional tiebreaker over the Chicago Bears gives Minnesota a surprising lead one fourth of the way through the season.
There is no question that the Vikings are a work in progress, but what they have done is impressive. There are quiet rumblings of a postseason run, and the optimism the fanbase exhibits is far exceeds the downplayed expectations they and national pundits gave the Vikings.
Coming off of a 3-13 season, the Vikings started off with a rough two games against weak opponents, which they split. After that, sterner opponents like the top-ranked 49ers and the playoff contending Lions tested the Vikings' mettle, and they came out ahead.
It still is extraordinarily unlikely that the young team headquartered in Eden Prairie will win the Super Bowl or even the playoffs, but Vegas has been kind to them in recent weeks, moving them up from an initial 75-1 odds to win the Super Bowl to 50-1.
En route to that lofty goal, the Vikings have reasons to be proud, concerned and adaptive. Or, in the words of Clint Eastwood's most famous Western, the Vikings have to deal with the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The only person who expected such a strong start to Adrian Peterson's season was Adrian Peterson.
It's been remarkable; Peterson has been playing like a man possessed, not one recently recovering from a season-ending knee injury.
Even optimists have been surprised with his performance, and they have a right to be. The vast majority of skill players returning from knee injury have experienced significant dropoffs in their performance.
Adrian Peterson may not be putting up nearly the same statistics as he did, but he's becoming more aggressive and seems to be improving game by game.
Right now, Pro Football Focus (subscription) has graded him out as their top running back, right now a function of his high missed-tackles count (fourth most in the league), the high number of attempts he's been given (fifth most in the league) and his ability to churn out extra yards on seemingly lost plays.
Peterson has yet to break a big play , but he currently has a higher run success rate than he did last year.
"All Day" doesn't think he's fully back yet, and fans anxiously await his return. This year, he's been averaging 4.5 yards a carry in the first three quarters. Last year, it was 5.2. He'll help drive the offense.
While very few fans have any gripes about Percy Harvin, it's difficult to argue that the rest of the receiver corps has been performing up to his standard.
Some may blame Christian Ponder for the fact that he's only thrown six passes over 20 yards (only Matt Ryan and Alex Smith have done it fewer), but there seems to be a consensus that his receivers simply aren't getting open downfield.
The Vikings have been lacking a deep threat who possesses height, speed and reliability since Sidney Rice left after the 2009 season.
Ponder and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have been comfortable relying on a short passing game while Adrian Peterson mans the duties of a feature back, but Detroit has shown that effective game planning can punish a one-dimensional offense, particularly one with only one receiver.
With only one long reception by the receiving corps (26 yards, by Devin Aromashodu), the Vikings have not been effective at stretching the field and opening up defenses.
In order to sustain their style of play, they will need the recently returned Jerome Simpson to fill that hole.
Ugly doesn't mean ineffective or poor, so it's not entirely accurate to say that the offensive play-calling has been universally bad for the Vikings. On the contrary, the first three games seemed to include adaptive and efficient play design and progression, despite a few problems with situational tactics.
Against the Lions, the Vikings may have been less flexible than desirable, but they maintained the fundamental philosophies of the offense. Minnesota has been conservative and has effectively controlled the ball.
But it has not been elegant.
Minnesota has not practiced the type of offense that would warrant Grantland Rice-style prose, even with the hard-nosed running game they've practiced. And certainly Greg Cosell would balk at including Minnesota's passing offense in his breakdown on the innovation of the way quarterbacks attack through the air.
It gets the job done.
Despite the aesthetic drawbacks to Minnesota's brand of ball control, the Vikings have produced an efficient (although, its efficiency has been waning over time) offense that can move the chains and make plays at critical junctures.
Even with the ugliness of a Percy Harvin wildcat, a simple end-around on the next play can generate 20 yards and momentum for the offense.
The play-calling hasn't been exciting, but it hasn't been bad, either. It's simply ugly.
Even with similar pedigrees, astute observers can see clear differences in the way the Vikings' scheme has evolved on defense. Without changing the defensive philosophy, Williams has been able to provide a variety of coverages to confuse their opponents' offenses.
In their last four games, the Vikings have mixed up the style and coverage shells they've played, sometimes switching to man coverage on a third of defensive snaps and sometimes playing comfortably with half of their defensive plays calling for man-to-man duties.
The Vikings have strayed out of their Tampa-2 roots by showing Cover 3, Cover 2, Cover 1 and quarters looks. They've sent strongside linebackers to cover the deep seam instead of the middle linebacker, and have played nearly half of their snaps in a nickel formation.
This entire time, they've also stayed true to several important defensive tenets.
They make sure to establish zones 7-12 yards deep in order to catch receivers breaking in and out of cuts on their routes, as a way to limit yards after the catch. This has been extremely effective—Antoine Winfield has allowed the most yards after the catch (per Pro Football Focus) of any Minnesota defensive back, but he only places 39th out of all cornerbacks in the National Football League.
Behind him is Chris Cook, at 70th.
Even rookie safety Harrison Smith, who has played all but two downs for Minnesota so far, ranks 40th out of all safeties in yards after the catch allowed.
In man coverage, they stay on top of receivers, and for intermediate routes, the safeties make sure to bracket primary reads.
Their last three opponents had averaged 27 points a game when playing other teams, but could not rack up more than 20 to the Minnesota defense. Overall, they have made sure that no team has scored more than 23 points on them. That mark exceeds the average amount of points allowed by 0.7 points and puts Minnesota at seventh overall in points allowed.
Further, their last three opponents were held to their fewest yards per play when up against the Vikings, and they rank third overall in this metric—just ahead of the Texans, at fourth, and behind the Seahawks and 49ers.
The defensive scheme is a big part of this success.
It's easy to look at Kyle Rudolph's 2-touchdown, 5-catch performance against the 49ers and argue that he's been an unmitigated success, but his run blocking has been horrendous.
More than that, his prowess at catching the ball still has yet to be seen. Circus catch in the end zone aside, Rudolph has had two drops in 21 targets, a fairly high amount for a tight end.
Not only that, his route running and separation have made him difficult to target, making him a significantly less efficient tight end than most people had hoped for. With major improvements to speed made in the offseason, fans may have been hoping for more.
Given that 20 tight ends have received more yardage per passing route run—a utility metric once again deployed by the folks at Pro Football Focus—than Kyle Rudolph, his touted value as a Gronkowski-style threat has yet to materialize.
Not only that, but Rudolph has quite a bit less yardage than fans may realize, with only 146 overall. That puts him at 17th among tight ends, which would make his contributions as a receiver average at best.
What's more disappointing is how often Rudolph has killed a running play with his blocking, having been responsible for a number of tackles in each of the last four games.
Not every near-breakout run by Adrian Peterson has been by Rudolph, but it's close enough that he needs to pay attention to his blocking. Peterson would have at least one more touchdown to his name because of this.
There is a good chance that Rudolph may be the worst run blocking tight end in the league that still starts. The amount of "phantom" yardage lost by his blocking is significant, almost enough to rival his positive contributions as a pass catcher.
As for John Carlson, there isn't much to say. Out of every tight end who has run a pass route, Carlson is dead last in yards per route run, with -0.03. The only offensive player with more cap space than him is Adrian Peterson. Something is very wrong here.
He hasn't been a terrible blocker, but neither has he been a paragon of pass protection. Even if he needed time to adjust to the offense after his injury, it's been four weeks and he hasn't appeared yet.
The signing of Geoff Schwartz and the fourth pick overall in the draft, Matt Kalil, should have provided a clear improvement to the offensive line.
Minnesota Vikings fans have been optimistic that the line is performing much better as a unit than last year, and Christian Ponder certainly looks like he has more time than he did in 2011.
It's true that the offensive line is better than last year, but it just so happens that 2011 is a poor baseline by which to measure offensive line success.
John Sullivan and Matt Kalil have both lived up to their billing, and have combined to only give up one sack. Charlie Johnson hasn't been bad as a pass protector either, and while he doesn't hold onto his blocks as long as many might like, he hasn't made any crucial mistakes.
On the other hand, both Phil Loadholt and Brandon Fusco have been exposed as pass protectors. The right side of the line has given up two sacks, two hits and 14 quarterback hurries. Fusco only availed himself as a pass protector in one game, while Loadholt did the same (in a different game).
Otherwise, they've served as liabilities instead of assets. It's difficult to get offensive rhythm going without pass protection, and having an unreliable line will restrict the Vikings' evolution as an offense over the course of the season.
As run blockers, however, the story is different. John Sullivan has maintained his top play, and should challenge for a Pro Bowl spot with how he's been doing. With him in that regard, is Fusco, who has been paving the road for Peterson in a big way.
Brandon's ability to shoot out and take on defenders at the point of attack is surprising, although his game against the San Francisco 49ers is sure to draw concern. He has otherwise been stellar as a run blocker and seems to provide lanes that crack open the important run game for the Minnesota Vikings.
On the other hand, both of the tackles seem to need more work as road graders, as they either can't seem to maintain their blocks for long enough (Kalil) or engage in the right technique (Loadholt). Either way, runs off tackle are significantly more difficult without either bookend performing his job.
There aren't many complaints about Charlie Johnson in the run game, but he hasn't been stellar, either. More interesting is Jerome Felton, who is clearly the best skill player when it comes to run blocking.
The tight ends' deficiencies as run blockers has already been detailed, but it would be a disservice to gloss over Felton's abilities.
Jerome only had trouble twice with a defender as far as I can tell, and both times it was Patrick Willis, one of the league's best downhill players. His first game as a Viking was his best one, but that's not to say he hasn't been critical in providing yardage for the Vikings on the ground in other games.
Overall, the blocking is spotty and inconsistent. There aren't always clear running lanes and the pass protection is still suspect in many ways. Most of the blocking provided by Vikings players is either quite good or quite bad. There isn't a middle ground, and that sort of ambiguity spells "ugly" to most observers.