5 Valuable Things the Minnesota Vikings Can Still Learn in Their Remaining Games
It's true that they've kept their playoff chances alive, but what might be more valuable than the glimmering hope of a postseason run are the lessons they'll learn in their remaining three games, as they gear up to take on the St. Louis Rams, the Houston Texans and their divisional rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
The Vikings are by no means a complete team, and they have a long way to go in order to be considered perennial contenders within the division. While they've gained valuable insight over the course of the season on a number of issues, they still have much knowledge to glean against a diverse array of opponents.
Here are the five questions that need to be answered as they finish up their unlikely run at the postseason.
Can NFL Teams Consistently Win with a Run-First Offense?
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The Vikings are attempting to change the commonly-held belief about how to win games in the NFL; they've gone "all-in" on prioritizing the running game at the expense of passing prowess.
It's well known that the NFL is a "passing league," and there is a strong belief that one has to pass the ball consistently to win. For the past few years, that's proven to be true.
Some of the most dominant teams in the league have sacrificed the run in order in favor of passing. The New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots, the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers have all racked up wins while neglecting the run game.
Indeed, after adjusting for garbage time, passing efficiency has recently been much more powerful in providing teams with victories than the ability to be successful in any other facet of the game.
Given that the evolution of passing in the NFL is hardly linear—passing explosions in the 1940s were followed by a deadened game in the 1950s, which was then followed by another increase in the effectiveness of passing in the 1960s (aided in part by the rise of the American Football League), and then there was a concurrent decrease in the 1970s.
Football fans well know the implementation of passer-friendly rules in the late 1970s that accelerated the passing game into the 1980s, setting the stage for the NFL's best quarterback draft class in 1983—featuring Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway—to revolutionize football.
But with the potential rise of the running quarterback in Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and even potentially Colin Kaepernick—as well as the introduction of NFL offenses that are more run-friendly like the pistol, packaged run-pass plays and simple zone reads—the resurgence of the run game could well be in the offing.
The Vikings are looking to get in on this act and win with the best running back in football, and perhaps one of the best running back in NFL history. If the Vikings can match the high-powered offense of Green Bay and deal with one of the most balanced teams in the league in Houston, then they have a chance at proving that a run-first offense can once again win in the NFL.
Can the Vikings Pass Without Percy Harvin?
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Without Percy Harvin, the Vikings' passing game might be shot.
It's no question that Harvin is the best receiver on the team, and the Vikings should do worse without him. But ardent followers of the Vikings know that they wouldn't simply do worse without him—they would stagnate.
The dynamic playmaker is responsible for 773 yards from scrimmage in eight games, averaging 96.6 yards per game. The next best receiver on the roster, Michael Jenkins, has averaged 27 yards from scrimmage per game. After that, Devin Aromashodu follows suit at 16.5 yards from scrimmage per game.
The difference is stark, and the Vikings offense was, in many ways, dependent on Harvin's explosive capability. Even with the impressive game against Detroit, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder averages 6.8 yards per attempt with Harvin on the field and only 4.6 yards per attempt without him.
For Ponder, the challenge is to produce yards through the air without the NFL's most dynamic wide receiver.
Against a strong defense in Houston and a very good set of cornerbacks in St. Louis, the Vikings passing machine will certainly be tested. With Harvin officially out of the gameplan for the rest of the season, the Vikings will finally spend an entire week knowing for sure that they won't have one of their best weapons in the lineup.
Armed with that knowledge while designing the offensive schemes, the Vikings will have to be creative in making sure their playbook contains sets that allow receivers to be effective without Harvin.
If Ponder can produce after the Vikings have created a plan without Harvin on the field, then they might be able to keep up with some of the more high-powered offenses in the league.
After all, even if the Vikings intend to rely on the running game, they will still need to threaten to pass in order to win and keep defenses honest in the long-run.
Will the Vikings Continue Their Success Against Repeat Opponents?
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The Vikings are 3-0 against opponents that they've already played during this regular season or the preseason, and they have two more of these opponents coming up in their schedule.
With upset wins over San Francisco and Chicago, as well as a much more dominant performance against Detroit that didn't rely on relatively random events (special teams scores), the Vikings improved over their first games against these opponents in a big way when they met again.
They'll have to do this once more, as they'll enter Houston as underdogs and will close the season hosting a much-favored Packers team.
There's a very good chance that this record against repeat opponents is random, but consistent over-performance in these games can be telling.
In these games, the Vikings took advantage of their own tendencies by working against them—ruining their opponents' game planning.
In the first game against the Lions, the Vikings were willing to engage in man coverage, matchup zones, and creative blitzes to let confusion reign on the field while they attempted to shut down Calvin Johnson. In the second meeting, the Vikings eschewed that strategy in order to contain the offense as a whole, switching to their normal bend-but-don't-break style of over-the-top zone coverage to prevent the big play.
Against San Francisco, the Vikings deployed some man-blocking schemes—which didn't get fully unleashed until the Tennessee game in Week 5—to obviate the inside zone running looks that they gave the 49ers in the preseason. They spent more time engaging in run blitzes and confounding their traditional defensive looks, which is not something that they spent time doing in the preseason.
And when playing the Bears at home, the Vikings moved in the opposite direction of what they did against the Lions, playing their normal coverages in the first matchup and playing looser zones (where landmarks are less important) with matchup concepts and outside man coverage in the second game. The Bears functionally played a different defense, and it showed.
If the Vikings can continue to exploit the familiarity that comes with repeat opponents—and do it more effectively than their opponents have—then they'll give themselves a significant advantage that most don't often consider.
It will be more difficult for these two opponents—as the preseason game against the Texans was perhaps the most meaningless game of the 20 game set—as the Packers will limit their opponents' defensive looks with their high-octane passing offense. But they can be defeated.
The Vikings will learn if they are truly matchup mavens or were simply lucky in their upcoming repeat games.
Can the Vikings Handle Balanced Teams?
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The Vikings have rarely faced balanced teams this season, so these next few games will provide a more thorough test of the teams' own strengths and weaknesses.
With the exception of San Francisco, Seattle and Green Bay, the Vikings have only played teams that have had a large disparity in their defensive and offensive capabilities. It may seem odd to include San Francisco on that list, but along with their well-known defense, they rank second in yards per play on offense, just behind the Redskins.
Otherwise, they've either played singularly strong defenses with weak offenses, like the Arizona Cardinals or the Chicago Bears, or they have played the inverse, like the Washington Redskins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, they'll be playing three teams whose offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency rankings are, at most, within three spots of each other in predictive efficiency measures.
Not only that, but the offenses that they'll be defending against are surprisingly balanced as well. Green Bay's running game has been relatively anemic, but it has experienced a resurgence in the past three games, going back to the draw plays that they so successfully executed in previous seasons. Not only that, but their offensive pass efficiency and run success rate are within four ranks of each other.
Houston's dominance in both of these aspects is well known also, and their running game matches up well with their passing game to an almost identical degree.
St. Louis hasn't had quite the same success passing the ball as they have had running it, but they are a different team without Danny Amendola, who may return after having gone through limited practice this last week. The addition of Amendola to the offense will likely put their pass efficiency numbers close to their effective running game—buttressed by a trio of Steven Jackson, Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead—to somewhere near the middle of the league.
So while the Vikings will be wrestling with how to attack a team equally good on offense as they are on defense, they'll have to consider the fact that they can't rely on taking only one dimension of an offense away—something they've only had to do against the Redskins and the Seahawks, both of which were bad losses.
Can the Vikings Handle All Types of Teams?
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While each of the teams the Vikings must face in the next three weeks all exemplify basic balance, they each do it in vastly different ways.
On offense, the Texans fuel their powerhouse by pounding the rock with Arian Foster and using their devastating zone runs to set up their passes to Andre Johnson and various tight ends. Foster leads the league in rushing attempts with 283, and Andre Johnson ranks seventh in the league in receiving yards. For the Texans, their relatively balanced offense goes through Foster and extends elsewhere, meaning that the Vikings will have to find a way to stop the run without selling out.
Conversely, the Packers will use the pass to create opportunities in the running game, relying on draws to get most of their yardage on the ground. The Packers went away from this tool in the middle of the season, but they have returned to it with great effect, particularly in the last few games. The draw play takes advantage of the looks and personnel packages that Green Bay is often confronted with and usually gashes defenses up the middle for good gains. If the Vikings find a way to limit passing opportunities in a base package or resist the tendency to blitz, they will have found one of the many necessary keys to the game.
But against the Rams, the offense is set up independent of its counterparts. The myriad of running backs that they employ will provide a constantly-changing pace for defenses to deal with, and the passing game will fluctuate based on need more than anything else. The Rams, like the other two teams, aren't afraid to gun it, given that they have attempted the seventh most passes in the air exceeding 20 yards or more. But the receivers they have are well suited for shorter passes in the slot, like Austin Pettis and Danny Amendola. They will attempt to find a way to beat the Vikings without having to pay too much attention to their talent constraints because they are somewhat effective at any number of strategies.
On defense, Houston once again presents a unique, specific situation—they have an extraordinary front seven with the best interior rusher in the league and will provide pressure often in their 3-4 one gap system. The pass pressure provided by their pass rushers will help generate turnovers by forcing the quarterback into bad decisions.
With that, they are tackling machines as well, displaying solid fundamentals and taking away runs to the middle. Their linebackers can excel in coverage, so they also have the ability to take passes away from the middle passing lanes.
On a different note, the Rams do a good job containing runs to the outside and preventing passes from making it to the sidelines. They are more vulnerable to getting gashed when being run at from sideline to sideline. On the second level, their linebackers do a poor job completing tackles—even the ever-popular James Laurinaitis—and they don't flow to the ball. Both defensive ends get pushed out of the run game extremely easily, so getting to the outside isn't much of a problem for quick runners.
The Rams provide a much different egg to crack on defense than the Texans in this respect, once again showing complementary strengths and weaknesses.
In Green Bay, however, the defenses are arranged differently. Their ability to contain the pass is much better than before, not allowing as many yards per attempt as the average team, and matching the Vikings in many respects.
They remain distinct from both the Rams and the Texans, however, with their defensive attitude. The Packers are much more keen to take the ball away, baiting quarterbacks and relying on safety help to shore up their ball-hawking ways. With Charles Woodson likely returning for the Week 17 matchup, this shouldn't be too much of a problem for them.
They don't exceed the Texans in interceptions, but they do play a different style of defense designed to produce a greater reward—using inside leverage to place defensive backs between the quarterback and the receiver.
As a run defense, the Packers are not as well off as the other two teams, but they do have a number of individual players at the second and third level who are generally pretty good at getting to the ball. While many members of the Packers line can be taken advantage of in the run game, the Vikings will need to make sure that their second-level blocks are up to snuff if they want to repeat Adrian Peterson's impressive 210-yard performance.
With three completely different types of teams, the Vikings will have to change gears quickly at the end of the season and plan their offense and defense with greater flexibility than they needed to during the rest of the season, where the Vikings faced a lot of outside man coverage, vanilla zone schemes and one-dimensional offenses.