The Minnesota Vikings and first-time head coach Mike Zimmer travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams in the opening game of their 2014 season. Minnesota has two wins and four losses in their last six openers.
With the integration of a new defensive system under Zimmer and a new offensive system under Norv Turner, the game plans will certainly differ from last season. These five tasks will be important keys in how the Vikings design and execute their plan.
If these are accomplished, a 1-0 start will be the reward.
Win the Turnover Battle
For Minnesota, a drastic improvement over last season is needed in terms of turnovers. The Vikings finished 28th in the league in turnover margin per game at minus-0.8. St. Louis on the other hand finished eighth at plus-0.5. The Rams hope this history carries over into the 2014 opener.
How predictive were turnovers for Minnesota last season? In their five wins, the Vikings were minus-one in total turnover margin for an average of minus-0.2 per game. The total turnover margin was minus-12 in their ten losses for an average of minus-1.2 per game.
Offensively, taking care of the ball must be the foremost objective for the Vikings. Minnesota’s defense is still a work in progress with a number of young faces still trying to absorb a brand new scheme. Wasting offensive opportunities for points or putting their defense in a short field is a quick way for the Minnesota offense to ensure the team falls behind—and doing so early would hinder Minnesota's ability to achieve the next goal.
Pound the Rock
This next key follows the same line of thinking. Feeding the ball to Adrian Peterson early and often is not rocket science. St. Louis was one of the better rush defenses in the league last year, allowing only 3.7 yards per rush. Who wins the battle at the line of scrimmage is massively important as Minnesota tries to fight fire with fire.
As the Rams integrate a new defensive scheme, there should be holes for Adrian Peterson to exploit. Lapses from St. Louis linebackers and safeties in run support could quickly turn into touchdowns.
This Rams-Vikings game represents a very poorly-timed "must-win" game. I expect holes in the run defense while LBs acclimate to GW [defensive coordinator Greg Williams] scheme.— RamsHerd (@RamsHerd) September 3, 2014
What’s also working in the Vikings’ favor is Adrian Peterson’s history of fast starts in opening games. Here’s how his seven Week 1 performances stand up against his career averages.
|Adrian Peterson Per Game Averages|
|Rush Att||Rush Yds||YPC||Total TD|
The jump in yards per carry and touchdowns stands out. A fresh Peterson has paid dividends in the past and should once more against in St. Louis. Hopefully offensive coordinator Turner and company recognize this and give Peterson more than 20 carries. That hasn’t happened in an opener since 2009, and as a result, Peterson hasn’t topped 100 yards in an opener either since 2009.
In Peterson’s last visit to the Edward Jones Dome, the results were explosive. Minnesota’s offense as a whole should be planning to feature him again this time around.
Get the Ball to Playmakers
Between Adrian Peterson, Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings have a lot of playmaking talent. Turner and the Vikings offensive coaches know it. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is also fully aware.
Jeff Fisher: "Norv is probably walking around with a smile on his face with the players he is working with.''— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) September 3, 2014
Finding ways to get the ball in the hands of the best players is important for the Minnesota passing game. It’s also quite obvious, or at least it should be. These players can break a game open at any moment when they have their hands on the football.
That seemed to be a secret among the Minnesota coaching staff a year ago, however. This is how the targets broke out among the Vikings’ top receivers in 2013.
|2013 Targets Per Game|
|Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
The number of balls thrown the way of Jerome Simpson and John Carlson was unacceptable a season ago. Neither will factor into the St. Louis game, because Carlson was cut in March and Simpson is serving a three-game suspension.
Who picks up the targets they leave behind? Hopefully Patterson and Peterson.
While the number targets a receiver gets is often a result of defensive game plans and whether or not a receiver is getting open, some effort must be made to manufacture touches for the most explosive players. That means involving Peterson and Patterson in the passing game much more in 2014 and in St. Louis in Week 1.
Involving running backs in the passing game has never been a problem for Norv Turner. He's also shown a few play designs that could get Patterson open in space so that the second-year receiver can showcase his impressive run-after-catch ability.
Plays like this are a great way for the Vikings to scheme touches for Patterson. Against man coverage, Kyle Rudolph is able to create congestion in the middle of the field, making it difficult for any cornerback trailing Patterson. Against zone coverage, the two deep routes on the near side can occupy coverage long enough for Patterson to cross the field and make the catch.
Turner featured Patterson crossing the field multiple times in the preseason. Expect that and the increase in Patterson’s touches to continue. Turner finding better ways to involve his best players has to be an expectation for the passing game.
Bring Consistent Heat
The Vikings can’t and surely won’t let new starting Rams quarterback Shaun Hill go untested, so expect Zimmer and his defensive coaches to dial up some pressure. Hill and this offensive line have few live reps working together so recognizing blitzes and organizing protections might be a big challenge for the St. Louis offense.
The turnover among the Rams interior offensive line is also a key point. They have new starters at both guard positions. Rodger Saffold is slated to start at left guard, a position he didn’t play last season. They also plugged a hole at right guard with free agent Davin Joseph. The unfamiliarity up front could be their undoing if Minnesota is aggressive in their pressure packages.
Mike Zimmer isn’t the most blitz-happy defensive coach in the league, but expect him to utilize it more in St. Louis and certainly more than Minnesota used it under Leslie Frazier and his defensive coordinator Alan Williams. When the blitz is on, Zimmer’s defenses get a lot of bang for their buck through smart scheming.
Pre-snap alignments like this will wreak havoc on Hill and the St. Louis offensive line, because Hill must be prepared to do a variety of things with the football as soon as he gets a true look at the blitz.
On this exact play, Zimmer overloads one side of the formation but brings only five rushers. However, the clever scheme gets a back isolated on a defender, and the offensive line can’t slide their protection because there’s now a threat in every gap. Creating these mismatches will speed up Hill’s mental clock exponentially.
The Vikings will show alignments like this often, bringing anywhere from four to seven rushers. Mixing the calls will confuse an offense without a lot of continuity in its ranks.
With as much talent as Minnesota has in its front four and sub-packages, pressure should already be consistent. Utilizing complicated blitzes can further disrupt a 34-year-old quarterback with a shaky offensive line.
The final key to the game plan involves the secondary working in coordination with the rush.
Compete for the Football
One thing that plagued the Vikings secondary in 2013 was a tendency to be in proper position but not locate and make plays on the football. That must change in St. Louis.
Especially in blitz-heavy schemes, cornerbacks are often left to their own devices in man coverage. With the height advantage the Rams have at receiver in Kenny Britt and Brian Quick, Hill may have ready-made option to beat the pressure.
Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson have to be physical with St. Louis receivers and utilize great positioning in coverage to make up for any physical disadvantage they have.
This is an example the type of situations the Vikings' cornerbacks likely will face against the Rams. The results have to be different.
For the Vikings to put together a complete game defensively, the secondary will have to complement the pass-rush by making plays on the football. Shaun Hill is a smart enough quarterback to recognize where his best bets are. It's up to the Minnesota defensive backs to hold up their end of the bargain.
If at the close of Sunday's showdown, all of these keys are marked as checks in the Vikings' favor, they will be 1-0 and will get their season off on the right foot.