The Minnesota Vikings, once again, used the draft and some key free-agent signings to improve the team, but, at the same time, they lost, arguably, their best player on each side of the ball last season. Gone are cornerback Antoine Winfield and wide receiver Percy Harvin.
The Vikings found a way to gain an extra pick in the first round again this year, garnering a total of three among the first 29. Of their nine draft picks this year, seven of them ended up on the 53-man roster, with their last two selections getting signed to the practice squad.
Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the trio taken in the first round, are all expected to make significant contributions this season.
Here's a look at the Vikings' biggest strengths as they open the season on Sunday in Detroit.
Offensive Strength: Running the Ball
On offense, the Vikings are a run-first team. That's no surprise when you consider who is in their backfield. Last year, the Minnesota Vikings finished second in the NFL behind the Washington Redskins in rushing yards per game. They averaged an impressive 164.6 yards per game, and Adrian Peterson accounted for 131.1 of those yards.
It all starts up front with what KFAN's Paul Allen, the Vikings' radio play-by-play announcer, calls the "Minnesota Moving Company"—the offensive line.
According to the Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Vikings were second to Seattle in rushing offense with the third-best, run-blocking team. Looking at the PFF's individual rankings for each of the offensive linemen, it's surprising to find that only right tackle Phil Loadholt (fourth) and center John Sullivan (second) were ranked among the top 10 players at their position.
Right guard Brandon Fusco ranked 52nd, with left guard Charlie Johnson ranked 61st among guards. Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil came in 53rd among tackles. This is truly a situation where synergy is kicking in—the overall run-blocking ranking of the line is much higher than the average of their individual rankings.
The addition of first-round draft pick Kalil in 2012 at left tackle allowed Johnson to move back inside to guard, a position he started all 16 games at for Indianapolis in 2008.
Another key for the Vikings was to re-sign Loadholt to a four-year, $25 million contract in the offseason. At 343 pounds, he is the biggest player on the line. Since joining the team in 2009, he has started 63 of 64 games played.
The strength of the Vikings offense is the offensive line, and one of the advantages for this team is that these five players started all 16 games alongside each other in 2012. Only three times since 1998 have the Vikings had the same starting five on the offensive line in consecutive seasons—that could be part of the reason they have been so inconsistent over the years.
According to NFLs Future, the Vikings employ a man-power blocking scheme. Accordingly, one might surmise that the Vikings offensive line would be one of the biggest—surprisingly it's not. Using data from NFL.com for starting offensive lines in the NFC, the Vikings O-line averages 310 pounds—13th out of the 16 teams in the NFC.
So while these are big men crashing into other big men, it takes more than just bulk to be successful.
With Peterson's speed out of the backfield, along with his strength to break tackles, it's important for the offensive line to be athletic and fast as well as big.
They know not to give up on any block and to keep blocking through the entire play. The defense may restrict Peterson to a small gain on a couple of plays, but he will eventually break off a long run. Here's an example from last season in Week 10, against the Detroit Lions.
Note how the offensive linemen are all downfield as Peterson hits the line of scrimmage. Their push forward allows Peterson to find a lane. They stay on their blocks until Peterson is clear.
Even though the play was designed to go to the right, left tackle Kalil winds up making a block downfield that contains the pursuit from the other side.
As Peterson gets past the first two levels of the defense, there's Kalil escorting him down the field—well at least for a yard or two.
The play results in a 61-yard touchdown run. At the time, it put the Vikings up 31-17 in the fourth quarter and put the Lions on their heels as the Vikings eventually won, 34-24.
Last season, he had six games with at a run of 50 yards or longer.
In 2012, Peterson had the longest run of his career, 82 yards—and he did it twice.
With a very good offensive line in front of him, Peterson led the NFL with 2,097 yards, averaging 131.1 yards per game. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he also led the league with 1,369 yards after contact, proving that he has a great combination of speed and power. His 6.0 yards per carry was the highest in his career.
All of this came within 12 months of having major reconstructive knee surgery without playing a single down in the preseason.
Peterson is poised for another successful season. He has set a goal for himself of 2,500 yards in a season. It's a hefty goal, considering he would have to carry the ball 416 times if he matches his 6.0 yards-per-carry average.
That would be 26 carries per game—that's three more per game than he averaged in 2008 when he carried the ball 363 times when he led the NFL with 1,760 yards.
Of course, if anyone is capable of doing it, it is Peterson.
Defensive Strength: Putting Pressure on Opposing Quarterbacks
Since the Vikings gave up a first-round draft pick to Kansas City for Jared Allen, they have averaged almost 44 sacks per season, with Allen accounting for 15 of them. In his five years with the Vikings, Allen has 74 sacks in 80 games and owns the franchise record with his 22 sacks in 2011.
Unfortunately, sacks don't always correlate into wins. In 2011, the Vikings led the NFL with 50 sacks, but finished 3-13, tied for the most losses in franchise history.
Still, if the Vikings are going to be successful, they need to take advantage of their pass rush, the strength of the defense, which includes Allen, one of the premier defensive ends in the league.
The key has been a defensive line that can pressure from every position along the line. While Allen has led the Vikings each year in sacks since 2008, Brian Robison has provided good pressure from the left defensive end position with 16.5 sacks the last two seasons since becoming a starter.
Their main backup, Everson Griffen, finished third on the team last season behind Allen and Robison with eight sacks, and he made only one start.
From the nose tackle position, the Vikings got a total of four sacks last season, two apiece from Letroy Guion and Fred Evans.
That leaves the 3-technique tackle position—the position that Kevin Williams has held for nine of his 10 seasons with the Vikings. A six-time Pro Bowler, Williams has 56.5 sacks in his career, but 22 of them came in his first two seasons.
Williams, like Allen, Robison and Griffen, is in the last year of his contract and will be giving way to the Vikings' top draft pick, Sharrif Floyd. While the plan was for Floyd to back up Williams when the season opens, a bruised knee, suffered in the third preseason game, may keep Williams from playing in Detroit.
According to NFLs Future, the Vikings employ a pressure 4-3 base scheme with Tampa 2 zone as their primary coverage. The pressure comes mainly from the defensive line with very little blitzing. Therefore, the line needs to be able to penetrate and reduce the amount of time opposing quarterbacks have to look downfield.
The following play shows how the line works together to impose pressure from the outside, while the inside prevents any running lanes from developing.
Both Allen and Robison (purple circles) make a push from the outside while Williams, and Guion (yellow circle) plug up the middle-occupying four blockers.
With nowhere to go, Aaron Rodgers tries to escape, but Allen is able to catch him and record the sack.
The results don't always have to end with the quarterback on the ground with a D-lineman on top of him. Allen has done a great job of getting the trifecta—knocking the ball out of the hands of the quarterback, causing a fumble, getting a sack and recovering the ball.
The key for the Vikings this season will be to make the most of their strengths—give the ball to Peterson on offense and utilize Allen, Robison and company to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.