Breaking Down Josh Freeman's Vikings Debut and Where He Must Improve
There are aspects of Josh Freeman's disastrous debut with the Minnesota Vikings that can be excused away by his situation and others that can't, but no doubt remains that Minnesota's new quarterback has to improve significantly in several different areas.
Facing the New York Giants just 14 days after signing with the Vikings, Freeman completed 20-of-53 attempts for 190 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception. He became just the second quarterback ever to attempt more than 50 passes and still throw for under 200 yards and no touchdowns, joining Dave Brown's 1995 clunker as one of the highest-volume, lowest-production passing games in NFL history.
There's really no way to spin Freeman's debut any other way: Unprepared and thrown to the wolves, he looked and played like a quarterback who should have been wearing a ball cap on the sidelines.
For all the pocket presence and toughness he showed, Freeman was wildly inaccurate to every level, his mechanics and delivery were rushed and inconsistent and his kindergarten understanding of the Vikings offense left him without any solutions at the line of scrimmage.
It was, all together, a calamity of quarterbacking.
Making matters worse, Freeman suffered a concussion in the game and may not start in Week 8, per the Vikings' official Twitter account. Any chance to remove the taste from Monday night's performance might have to wait another week.
Sifting through the rubble from his debut doesn't offer much in terms of positives, but Freeman and the Vikings can at least fall back on the obvious: The 25-year-old quarterback shouldn't have been playing, and he'll only improve as his knowledge base and comfort in the offense ameliorates.
Below, we will look back through Freeman's first game in Minnesota for positives, negatives and the areas where he needs to improve.
Pocket Presence, Movement, Toughness
Any performance that sees a quarterback deliver 33 incompletions and zero offensive points is likely lacking on positives. Freeman's was certainly no different.
But if there's any aspect of his play that was encouraging Monday night, it was Freeman's ability to move in the pocket, avoid pressure and get the football out of his hands.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Freeman took 10 quarterback hits and was hurried 17 times against the Giants. He was under pressure on nearly half of his drop backs, and by the time New York had established a two-score lead, Freeman was picking himself off the turf after nearly attempt.
Yet Freeman took just one sack, and he continually stood tall in the pocket despite an onslaught of in-his-face pressure. A lesser quarterback might have folded in a similar situation.
The pressure came early and rarely subsided.
On the Vikings' very first possession, the Giants brought interior pressure on third down. Below, we see the screen shot of Freeman stepping away from the A-gap blitz, which was picked up well by Adrian Peterson. He then bought enough time by stepping up in the pocket to find Jerome Simpson for a first down.
Given how porous the Vikings offensive line has been this season—they've fallen 11 spots in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency from last year—it's certainly conceivable that Freeman's ability to handle pressure will come in handy over the next 10 games.
Accuracy to Every Level
Freeman's accuracy as a negative should go without saying. He completed only 20 of 53 attempts, and his completion percentage of 37.7 was the lowest by a quarterback with at least 25 attempts in a game this season.
Accuracy is somewhat of a broad-stroke term, but it applies to just about everything Freeman attempted to accomplish Monday night.
Per PFF (subscription required), he was no where close on passes over 20 yards (0-of-8), only slightly better on attempts 10 to 19 yards downfield (4-of-11) and even below average on passes under 10 yards (12-of-24 from zero to 10 yards, 4-of-5 behind the line of scrimmage).
Some of the accuracy issues were due to pressure and a limited playbook that afforded the Vikings offense limited opportunities to attack with creative route trees and schemes. But Freeman is far from blameless here.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Freeman's 16 overthrows Monday night were the most in their eight years of tracking the statistic:
Josh Freeman: 16 overthrown incompletions; most by any QB in a game in the 8 years for which we have data on overthrows— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 22, 2013
On numerous occasions, Freeman had open receivers and flat-out missed them. Below are three different examples of a receiver running open against the Giants secondary and Freeman not providing an accurate or catchable pass.
Like any quarterback, Freeman needs to connect when his receivers create separation. He rarely accomplished that against the Giants. Timing and experience with the receivers will help, but this is a problem that needs to be fixed by Freeman's arm first.
Mechanics and Delivery
So much of delivering a football accurately is tied to having the right mechanics on a consistent basis. Facing intense pressure and attempting to jump-start an offense that was dead in the water, Freeman suffered in providing a consistent delivery Monday night.
Passes are typically overthrown because of a poor delivery point, and there were several times when Freeman didn't set his feet or get his shoulders squared to a receiver—mostly because of pressure—before a throw.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said as much after the game, per Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“One of the reasons the ball sailed at times, his footwork wasn’t ideal, his shoulders weren’t square all the time,” Frazier said. “So it was more technical stuff."
Frazier also said that the Vikings noticed some of Freeman's mechanical problems and were attempting to get those fixed during last week's practices. That process will now continue.
Freeman's delivery troubles go back to his days at Tampa Bay. In his preseason breakdown, Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated notes that Freeman has an "estimable backlog of mechanical issues that will prevent him from becoming a consistently great quarterback until he solves them."
An NFC scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel something similar.
"Freeman is inconsistent, not accurate and doesn't have any poise," the scout said. "The guy is not a good quarterback. Same guy he was in college."
Understanding Protection Checks, Audibles
One mostly unseen factor in Freeman's performance Monday night was his inability to check protections or make changes at the line of scrimmage. Again, this goes back to Freeman having only a limited amount of timing digesting the Vikings offense.
As times goes on, Minnesota will need him to clean up both areas.
While the offensive line is frequently given blame for pressure on the quarterback, it's also on the signal caller to read pressure schemes pre-snap and then provide the right protection call. Freeman's basic knowledge in the offense gave him little opportunity to do so against the Giants, who blitzed on 21 of 54 dropbacks.
Changing plays at the line of scrimmage should also come with more time in the offense.
In order to get him ready to play so early, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave likely gave Freeman a limited playcall sheet with very few run-pass option plays. Given just four days working with the first team offense didn't provide much time for installing audibles or checks, either.
In his defense, Freeman was put into a no-win situation against the Giants Monday night. A team lacking confidence in Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel turned to the naturally talented, big-armed option. But Freeman wasn't ready mentally to put together a NFL-quality performance, and it showed in an embarrassing night featuring 33 incompletions and zero offensive points.
Per Frazier, Freeman suffered a concussion during the contest and may now miss Minnesota's Week 8 matchup with the Green Bay Packers. Eventually, Freeman will be back as the team's starting quarterback, and that's when the improvements need to start showing.
Any evaluation of Freeman in Minnesota requires more starts and—above all—more time. Putting a disastrous debut behind him will be the beginning of his improvement process as the Vikings' starter.
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