How Vikings can snap losing streak against Cardinals
After starting the season 5-0, the Minnesota Vikings have lost four straight games, and now sit second in the NFC North, having seen their offensive coordinator resign and a series of injuries leave them struggling to get anything done on offense.
This week they face the Arizona Cardinals, a team currently a game worse off, at .500 overall; regardless, the Vegas odds see this as an even-money pick, despite the game taking place in Minneapolis.
Arizona has one of the league’s better defenses, and the Vikings have struggled against even weak defensive units, but how has the departure of Norv Turner affected this offense, and does Minnesota have any hope of putting points on the board against the Cardinals?
The big criticism of the Vikings’ offense under Turner, dating back long before this season, was that it was outdated in today’s NFL. While the rest of the league is spreading defenses out horizontally and putting more and more receivers into passing patterns, getting the ball out quickly from the QB’s hands and limiting the stress on the offensive line, the Vikings seemed to be doing the opposite.
Minnesota was regularly at the top of the seven-step drop lists, and even though that had improved this season with Sam Bradford at QB, it was still a trait of the offense. Last season, only the Baltimore Ravens had a higher average QB drop depth than the Vikings running Turner’s offense. Early in the year, it was exactly the same story, but as things began to unravel, the offense began to adjust. Over the season, with Turner as coordinator, they were eighth in average drop depth.
That strategy can work if you are going to attack downfield with the football, sacrificing some efficiency for bigger gains. Two of the teams ahead of Minnesota on that list—Carolina and Pittsburgh—have an average depth of target of 10.1 yards downfield, among the highest in the league. Bradford’s average depth of target this season with Turner as the coordinator, however, was 7.5 yards, 30th in the NFL.
The Vikings have never been as aggressive with the football, for several reasons all working together. Neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Bradford are that type of quarterback—they aren’t assertive downfield passers. The deep ball doesn’t play to the strengths of either QB, whose biggest asset is accuracy.
The Vikings’ offensive line has been one of the poorer units in football over the past couple of seasons, particularly at the tackle spots, which makes deep passing a real challenge. Offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings, in particular, just can’t hold up for long enough to pass deep without the QB being moved from his spot in the pocket, and before going down with an injury, Matt Kalil wasn’t much better.
Lastly, the Vikings haven’t had the receivers that can consistently win in their patterns to demand the targets. Stefon Diggs is good, but still developing, and outside of him, there has been nobody winning enough to ensure the ball comes his way regularly. Even once Diggs did emerge, it was easy enough for defenses to limit his damage, especially on the outside, where he is a smaller receiver not capable of the physical feats necessary to erase the accuracy issues deep passing can create.
Turner’s offense may succeed in today’s NFL—it’s a contrarian scheme in a league that is becoming ever more spread-oriented—but it functions if the right pieces are in place. That was never the case in Minnesota, though, and changes needed to be made for this group of players to have success.
Since Turner’s departure, there have been significant changes to the offense. The average time per pass attempt has dropped significantly, from 2.37 to 2.15 seconds. That might not sound like much, but it’s the difference between eighth-fastest in the league to the fastest by a clear 10th of a second.
Bradford’s average depth of target—already among the lowest in the league—has fallen even further, from 7.5 to 5.5 after Turner’s exit. That would be the lowest figure PFF has seen over a season in the last 10 seasons, beating even the pathologically-conservative Alex Smith’s lowest average.
That’s resulted in Bradford’s completion percentage and production taking a bit of a corresponding jump in the past two weeks. He completed 31 passes in each of the two games since Turner has resigned, up from a high of 26 under Turner and an average of 21 over his previous six games. His completion percentage was 77.5 percent in each game, again representing a season high.
In terms of yardage, the game against Washington was the first time Bradford had topped 300 passing yards this season, and only his third game with multiple passing touchdowns, but all ills were not banished.
The Vikings still can’t run the ball. Against Washington, they had 21 carries, gaining a total of 49 yards, 39 of which came after contact, and 11 of which came from a wide receiver. The week before against Detroit, 25 carries yielded just 78 yards, with 45 coming after contact.
The Cardinals roll into town with a defense far better than either the Lions or Redskins, and the ability to cause major problems for both the pass and run game.
DT Calais Campbell can rush the passer and stuff the run, while the OLB pairing of Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have combined for 74 total QB pressures on the season. Both players currently rank inside the top 15 among all edge rushers in terms of PFF grade this season, and the Vikings will likely start T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles at the tackle positions, a pair that together own an average PFF grade of 41.3 this season.
If the Vikings are going to have any chance of moving the ball this week, it will come through the short, underneath passing game, and the most crucial matchup will be Stefon Diggs against the Cardinals’ defense. Arizona has covered the slot in a couple of ways over the past season or two. Tyrann Mathieu has been their primary slot defender, but they will also track receivers to the slot with No. 1 corner Patrick Peterson in a way some teams don’t even when they are shadowing a receiver with their top cover guy—think Richard Sherman or Josh Norman. Mathieu missed last week with an injury, and has been working his way back to full form all season after his ACL injury last year; that said, the Cardinals seem to like the chances of Peterson better in covering Diggs, even in the slot.
Last week, Diggs caught 13 passes for 164 yards, and has gained 2.1 yards for every route run from the slot this season. With Patrick Peterson dominating on the outside, the Vikings will likely test out early whether he will follow Diggs to the slot or not, and if so, test his ability to deal with Diggs’ quickness in space, when he has a two-way go off the line. Peterson is a much bigger player than Diggs, but he has been undone by quickness in the past (see the video below), making this a matchup the Vikings shouldn’t necessarily shy from.
How good is Tyler Lockett?
This is Patrick Peterson clinging on for dear life to avoid getting beat deep. Overthrown pic.twitter.com/8w2B1ug8YE
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 3, 2016
Whether Peterson or Mathieu is covering Diggs this week, it remains the team’s best chance of moving the ball, and potentially opens up Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson to favorable matchups on the outside against the weaker cornerbacks the Cardinals have. Either way, Sam Bradford needs his receivers to win this week, or Minnesota will match its five-win streak with a five-loss one.