Where Must the Minnesota Vikings Improve Most in Week 2?
Minnesota was handed a convincing defeat in the season opener, mostly thanks to failures on third down, an inability to throw against stacked boxes, poor tackling after the catch and losing along each line of scrimmage.
(Turnovers obviously played a large factor, too, but even the most casual of fans could tell you that a team with four turnovers might struggle to win a football game.)
Without improvements in the other four areas Sunday, the Vikings could very well find themselves behind the eight ball in terms of playoff chances. Only 22 of 212 teams starting 0-2 since 1990 have made the postseason, including zero since 2008.
No game in Week 2 is a must-win, and Minnesota won't eliminate itself from the postseason with a loss, but the Vikings would certainly be fighting long odds with a loss against the Bears Sunday.
Below are the areas where Minnesota must improve to rebound against Chicago in Week 2.
The Vikings lost in Detroit for a number of reasons, but a lack of production on third down must rank high on the list.
Minnesota finished the afternoon just 2-of-10 on the all-important down. On five different occasions, the Vikings ran just three offensive plays and punted. These failures led directly to Detroit dominating time of possession (36:19 to 23:41) and running 24 more plays, despite the same number of drives (14).
Blame for the struggles can be found in more than one place.
The natural start is with quarterback Christian Ponder, who completed four of seven passes for just 26 yards and two sacks on third down.
The Vikings confidently put all 10 third downs in Ponder's hands, but the results were poor and scattered. Only twice over seven attempts did Ponder move the chains with a completed pass, despite having three opportunities with less than five yards left to gain. He scrambled for two yards on his first conversion attempt (needed 11) and took sacks on the two others.
NFL quarterbacks simply have to be better converting on third down to win games.
However, don't discount the effect Adrian Peterson's early-down struggles against stacked boxes had on the eventual third-down outcomes.
On four different drives, Peterson put the offense in a hole with negative rushes on first or second down. The Vikings were then left with four third-and-long plays, which remains one of the lowest percentage situations for offenses. Minnesota went 0-of-4.
In terms of beating the Bears in Chicago Sunday, third down will almost certainly play a role. Remember, the Vikings went just 6-of-16 and were dominated in time of possession during a 28-10 loss at Soldier Field last season.
Passing Against Stacked Boxes
How NFL defenses want to combat the Vikings offense is certainly no secret. Teams will continue to stack the box with defenders to contain Peterson, especially on early downs, and force Ponder to do the heavy lifting in the passing game.
The Lions followed that exact formula last Sunday, as defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham routinely asked safety Glover Quin to play near the line of scrimmage as the eighth defender.
For one carry against the Lions, Peterson was a stacked-front beater. His first touch went for 78 majestic yards against an eight-man look from Detroit. But from that point on, the run-centric Lions kept Peterson in check (15 yards on his next 17 carries), and Ponder was unable to take advantage of favorable coverages.
According to ESPN's Ben Goessling, Ponder saw eight-man boxes on 21 percent of his dropbacks against the Lions. That figure led the NFL and was five times the league average in Week 1, but Ponder completed only three of six passes and tossed two of his three interceptions in those situations.
Below are just a few examples of defensive fronts Ponder saw before passing opportunities:
Ponder can bet that the Bears will employ a similar defensive strategy on Sunday. Peterson ran for over 100 yards in each meeting with Chicago in 2012, but the Bears can certainly withstand a total around 100 if Ponder is unable to capitalize when Chicago goes to stacked fronts.
The best quarterbacks in the game consistently force teams out of seven- and eight-man fronts because it is simply too difficult to cover good passing offenses with that many players near the line of scrimmage. Sunday in Detroit proved Ponder is far from that status.
Teams will continually crowd the line of scrimmage against the Vikings until Ponder proves capable of making those decisions hurt in the passing game. At some point, Ponder will need to develop the confidence in his right arm to attack the one-on-one coverages. Minnesota needs that process to begin Sunday.
The Vikings defense remains predicated on getting pressure on the quarterback with the front four. Last Sunday, the Lions countered that philosophy by utilizing quick throws and getting the football into the hands of playmakers.
Underneath routes were especially effective, and the Lions made a living off well-designed screen plays in big situations. Matthew Stafford rarely attacked down the field; instead, he relied on his receivers to make players after the catch.
Those receivers delivered.
According to Stats, Inc., the Lions were second in the NFL in yards after the catch in Week 1. Detroit's 250 trailed only the 270 from the Denver Broncos. Leading the charge was running back Reggie Bush, who had 106 yards after the catch (most came on a 77-yard touchdown in the second half).
Source: Stats, Inc.
While play design was a big factor in those numbers, Minnesota's inability to swarm to the football was another. Throwing the football underneath can lose effectiveness in a hurry against a sure-tackling defense, but the Vikings were far from that Sunday.
The Bears will certainly incorporate aspects of what Detroit was able to accomplish into their own game plan for Week 2. In fact, delivering the football quickly appeared to be a sticking point for Jay Cutler under new head coach Marc Trestman in Chicago's opening win against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Minnesota has to be better at getting defenders to the football and keeping five-yard routes to five-yard gains. Too many times in Detroit, the Vikings allowed short passes to rupture into chain-moving plays.
Better at the Point of Attack
To be fair, the Vikings won't face many defensive fronts as good as the Lions in 2013. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley will be a handful for most offensive lines, and defensive ends Jason Jones, Willie Young and Ezekiel Ansah each played well at the point Sunday.
Which improvement is most important for the Vikings to beat the Bears Sunday?
However, the Bears are certainly no slouch along the defensive line. Henry Melton and Stephen Paea make a strong interior combination, and Julius Peppers, Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton can each make life difficult on the edge.
It will be imperative for the Vikings to be better along the offensive line in Week 2. While eight-man boxes were partly to blame for Peterson's ineffectiveness, so was Minnesota's inability to create a push along the line of scrimmage.
We've already discussed at length how important keeping Ponder clean in the pocket is, too. He was under pressure on half of his dropbacks (17 of 34) against the Lions, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
On defense, the Vikings were pushed around too frequently by an otherwise soft offensive line from Detroit. Not having Kevin Williams inside was certainly a factor, and the potential of having him back for Sunday will be a natural improvement.
Often times, winning games on the road will come down to controlling the action up front. That's especially true against the Bears, who are slowly gaining confidence in a rebuilt offensive line. The pressure in Cutler's face Sunday has to be better than what Stafford saw in Week 1.
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