Four weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings were riding high at 5-0. Things seemed bad when they lost Teddy Bridgewater in training camp, but the aggressive move to trade a first-round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford worked. The defense was gobbling up opponents and the offense, including Bradford, was doing just enough to win games.
“Just enough” does win games. It wins games often. However, there’s a slim margin for a “just enough” offense to work. Injuries and just the right amount of poor execution, and the “just enough” to win offense becomes “just not enough,” and the wins become losses.
The last three games have not been kind to the Vikings. They have three ugly losses: 21-10 to the Eagles, 20-10 to the Bears, and 22-16 to the Lions in overtime last week. Sunday’s loss wasn’t entirely on the offense. The defense allowed the Lions to tie the game with a 58-yard field goal, and then allowed a long overtime touchdown drive.
That being said, the Vikings defense is outstanding — first in scoring, third in yards per game, and 17 forced turnovers. The Vikings have a +12 turnover margin, good for second in the NFL. Their average drive starts at their own 31.7-yard line, while opponents start at their own 24.7, both good for second in the league. Those figures are directly correlated to a suffocating defense and superb special teams, and a team that should be trending upward.
But offensively, the Vikings have been a mess.
The offense is 32nd, dead last, in yards per game and yards per rush. It is 31st in first downs earned and 25th in points. Injuries have played a big factor. The offensive line is missing both offensive tackles and has missed its starting guards at various points. The Vikings are down a Hall of Fame running back, and that has put a lot of pressure on Bradford and his wide receiver group. Surprisingly, Bradford’s stat line is the best of his career through seven games. — highest completion percentage, lowest percentage of throws that have ended in an interception, highest yards per attempt and completion, best quarterback rating, and so on. But the man can only do so much.
I would classify Bradford as a game manager quarterback. I’ve argued for a while that “game manager” shouldn’t be a derogatory term. Game managers are asked to execute the offense in front of them, and if they do that and their teams win, then that makes them excellent quarterbacks.
That being said, what “game manager” means to me is a guy who has a limited skill set. We all have limits. I’m not the most athletic of linemen. I gained an advantage by knowing what the defense was doing so I could be a step ahead. Bradford isn’t very mobile in the pocket and he doesn’t have a cannon of an arm. He is not a quarterback who can take over the offense when the running game is struggling and the pocket isn’t clean. This is where the Vikings are at. They throw short and hope someone can make a play. The routes aren’t very complex and no one is getting open.
All of these issues come to the forefront on third downs.
In those three losses, they faced a ton of third downs and executed poorly — 9 of 19 against the Eagles, 2 of 13 against the Bears, 6 of 14 against the Lions. It cost them dearly.
Like I’ve written in previous articles, confidence is extremely important for a team. When you continually make mistakes on key third downs, it tears away at the confidence of the unit. As a young player, I was on a 2-14 team. We rotated quarterbacks like crazy. We were 32nd in every single passing stat. Every third-and-long, we’d call a pass protection that gave the offensive tackles zero help (82/83 backs flat, I was playing OT at the time). Me and the left tackle would look at each other before we’d break the huddle and basically roll our eyes knowing we’d get no help and couldn’t trust the quarterback to get rid of the ball or step up. That’s not a good feeling.
Back to the Vikings. During the last three weeks, there were plenty of examples of poor execution on third downs. Let’s start in Philly against the Eagles.
Here’s the first third down of the game. On the road, the crowd is loud. Getting early first downs takes the crowd a notch lower. It’s third-and-9 here after what was a quick three-and-out bailed out by a roughing the kicker penalty. The Vikings run an 8-yard route on third-and-9. It’s blocked well, the TE is open, but that’s not sound execution.
The Vikings get a big interception and start their next drive inside the Eagles’ 20-yard line. For a struggling offense, this is an amazing opportunity. Just find a way, any way, to get a touchdown. Well, the Vikings get close. It’s third-and-goal from the 7. The Eagles are in some sort of trap/robber man coverage. The receivers need to get open. They don’t. The right tackle gets beat and the ball is picked off. No one is open here so I don’t know where Bradford was intending to throw it, but they get into the red zone and come away with nothing.
These plays are deflating for the entire team. The defense came up with a huge early turnover on the road and the offense got nothing from it.
The following week against the lowly Bears, the Vikings’ offensive struggles continued. They were 2 for 13 on third down conversions and allowed five sacks. Two of those sacks came in scoring situations on third down. The first, it’s third-and-2 from the 2-yard line. Five receivers out, no one is open — sack! It’s either a poor play design, poor execution, or both. Vikings have to settle for three points.
Here they are, driving into Bears territory. Complete this third down, and the Vikings are in field goal range. Important part of the game. But no one is open — sack!
Moving on to last week with a game the Vikings should have won. In the first game without Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, the offense showed no creativity. Bradford was a check-down machine all game, even on third down. Multiple times he threw short of the sticks with guys open for a conversion. The Vikings threw screens on third downs. The running game provided no help. When you can’t run the ball against a two-high safety look, you have zero chance of hitting big plays. Here the Vikings try a play-action boot, but, again, no one is open. Against two-high, this should be a run play. The Vikings gave themselves no chance
The Vikings have been devastated by injuries on the offensive line. Combine that with a quarterback who needs help to be effective, poor receiver play, and bad execution in critical situations, and you get an offense that scored 36 total points in three weeks and went 0-3.
The Vikings have plenty of time to figure out some solutions to these issues. Give the offensive tackles some help, move the pocket, and find creative mismatches in the run game, and they still have a chance to finish the season strong