If you’re a defensive coordinator taking on the Vikings these days, your game plan isn’t complicated:
Take away Adrian Peterson, and make Brett Favre throw big to beat you.
It didn’t work for Cleveland or Detroit. Peterson rushed for 272 yards through Minnesota’s first two games, at a clip of 6.8 yards per carry. Favre was content to dink and dunk his way around the field to the tune of 133 yards per game.
It almost worked for San Francisco. The 49ers held Peterson to 85 yards on 19 carries in Week Three, forcing to Favre shoulder a heavier burden in Week Three than he had in the previous two weeks combined.
His pass attempts leapt from 48 to 95. His yardage spiked from 265 to 606. Frankly, he did more work than the Vikings would prefer him to do.
In the end, Minnesota got the job done, but the win was neither pretty nor probable. Sunday’s win was a thrill, but if Greg Lewis’ foot had come down a few centimeters further back, Favre would have completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws on the day, and we’d be discussing his performance in a far more critical light this week.
The Niners won’t be the last team to put Favre on the spot this season, and if the Vikings don’t smooth over a few wrinkles in the passing game, it’s going to cost them one of these days.
The biggest problem? Favre and his wide receivers still aren’t quite on the same page.
They’ve made strides since training camp, to be sure. Given that Favre is still a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in Minnesota, maybe they’re as far along as we can expect.
But through three weeks, the team’s No. 1 pass-catcher is still a backup running back. Chester Taylor leads all Vikings in both receptions (15) and targets (18). He caught seven balls against the Niners; nobody else on the team caught more than four.
We’re not knocking Taylor’s production, but we’re also hard-pressed to envision an endless stream of checkdown throws as the lynchpin of Brad Childress’ “kick-ass offense.”
Four-yard lobs behind the line of scrimmage are great for Favre’s QB rating, but they’re not going to keep defenses honest about loading up on Peterson. If the Vikings want to win a couple games through the air, they need to their receivers.
They certainly tried against San Francisco: Favre directed a total of 25 throws to Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin, and Sidney Rice. But those three came down with just 12 catches.
Berrian looked lost at times. He misfired badly on a few routes, dropped at least one first-down catch, and lost a handle on another that bounced into Shawntae Spencer’s arms for an interception.
Harvin let a few third-down passes slip away himself. And between the end of the first half and the final drive of the game, Rice didn’t catch a pass.
Meanwhile, Visanthe Shiancoe, who was supposed to benefit big-time from Favre’s fondness of the tight end, remains missing in action. Shiancoe caught two of the five balls thrown his way on Sunday, raising his reception total on the season to six.
After watching the receiving corps carve up the Browns and Lions with ease, perhaps we’ve set the bar too high. But coming through against a shaky opponent when the running game in working is one thing. Coming through against a contender when the running game stalls is something else altogether.
Truth be told, we’re more likely to see the former than the latter this week. After bottling up Matt Forte in Week One, Green Bay has coughed up 141 yards rushing to Cedric Benson and 127 to Steven Jackson. If Minnesota has to rely on the passing game to move the ball Monday night, I’ll be surprised.
But sooner or later, somebody—Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York—is going to make the Vikings throw to win. If Favre and his receivers want to hold up their end of the bargain, they’ve got some work to do.