ReFo: Vikings @ Texans, Week 16
The Vikings' upset sets up both themselves and the vanquished Texans for a big final week of the year. Ben Stockwell explains how they did it.
ReFo: Vikings @ Texans, Week 16
For the second time this season the supposedly middling Minnesota Vikings have risen up and taken down one of the league’s supposed elite teams. In doing so the Vikings have not only taken control of their own playoff destiny, but also plunged the Texans into a must-win game next weekend in Indianapolis as they suffer a downturn in form at exactly the wrong time of the season.
This was an encounter between two teams built around running games and, truth be told, both running games were largely ineffective, but it was the Vikings, and Adrian Peterson, who were able to spark a handful of strong gains out of seemingly nothing which helped swing the balance in the Vikings’ favor. At times in this game the Vikings looked like the Minnesota defense of old, and with his running game AWOL Houston starter Matt Schaub couldn’t spark the Texans to a victory that would have clinched homefield advantage on the same weekend that Atlanta sewed up that honor in the NFC.
There is always a twist in the tale during the playoff run in, was this the first twist that puts the Vikings into an improbable playoff bump, or was it just a detour for a Houston team that still controls its own destiny to be the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Here are some of the key performances in a game that never developed into the matchup it was expected to be.
Minnesota – Three Performances of Note
With Brian Robison missing this week’s game due to injury, Everson Griffen was left to make the first start of his three-year career — and he did not disappoint. The official stat sheet may not say much for Griffen (+6.7) being a dominant force in the game (no sacks, one tackle), but he was a constant menace in the Houston backfield and an important disruptive factor that kept the Texans’ offense from ever getting on track. On 29 pass rushes, Griffen recorded seven pressures (2 Ht, 5 Hu) and batted a pass. Meanwhile, he may have recorded only one stop in the run game, but he made that count whipping Derek Newton to his inside to corral Arian Foster for a 4-yard loss. He also ensured the Texans couldn’t build any momentum on stretches to his side, and that they never had a clean path to the outside. Combine that with his opportunistic fumble recovery and you have an impactful day from a player in his first start. As a backup in the Vikings’ very low rotation defensive line, Griffen’s opportunities from game to game are somewhat limited, so he had to make the most of his moment in the shop window against the AFC’s No. 1 team — he did just that and more.
Mixed Fortunes Up Front
This game was always going to be a test for the Vikings’ offensive line up against a defensive front led by the astonishing J.J. Watt. In spite of being one of the best units in the entire league this season, this matchup is a stern test for any line and as we now look back on the game the line walks away with mixed fortunes. The Vikings came out with a clear tactic of not allowing Watt to pick his side of the offensive lineman blocking him, instead giving him a clear path to one side and backing the offensive lineman to push him wide enough before he could defeat the block and get to the ballcarrier. This worked as well as any other tactic we have seen against Watt this year, but it couldn’t keep him consistently quiet. While Phil Loadholt (+3.0) had his fair share of success against Watt, first-year starter Brandon Fusco (-5.1) had less success and was really taken apart by Watt in the second half. Also struggling with Whitney Mercilus when he worked to the inside, this was another game to forget for Fusco in what has been a difficult second half of the season. The real bright spot for the offensive line was, once again, John Sullivan (+6.3) who consistently controlled the Texans’ nose tackle rotation from the second quarter onward.
While Griffen deserves his share of kudos for a magnificent display in place of Brian Robison at DLE, this was a complete defensive performance from the Vikings reminiscent of their displays in past seasons. The Vikings got strong performances from each level of their defense, and from bench players as well. In the heart of the defense, Kevin Williams (+3.0) and Fred Evans (+3.0) combined to control the interior of the Houston offensive line with a combined five defensive stops, including one by Williams chasing down a screen to DeVier Posey. Meanwhile in the secondary, Antoine Winfield (+4.3) was ultra-active. while Harrison Smith came up with one of his finest displays in an ever impressive rookie season. Smith did the majority of his work in the pass game but also popped up with a pivotal forced fumble from T.J. Yates on a pass rush which iced the game for the Vikings. If the Vikings are to take that final step to the promised land of the postseason the defense must replicate this display next week against a Packers team looking to secure a bye week.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Good But Not Good Enough
Houston was delivered a swift blow by the Vikings on just their second offensive snap, and, though the Texans’ run defense was solid for much of the game, it was the occasional uppercut like this that ensured the defense simply couldn’t match their counterparts in purple. The defense was flooding to the point of attack on every running play, but when Peterson found a path through or around the flood the dam was broken and the pressure released. Unlike the Vikings’ defense, the Texans’ simply couldn’t keep the opposing running game bottled up all day long. At safety, Glover Quin (+4.5) was a crucial cog in the defense this week as Christian Ponder and the Vikings’ offensive line seemed to struggle to locate him when he came up as a box safety, which saw him record five defensive stops on his 19 snaps in run defense up at the line. He wasn’t alone, however, with Antonio Smith (+6.6) atoning for his dreadful display of run defense in New England with a stunning performance. However, it wasn’t good enough, as players like Connor Barwin (-3.8) and Darryl Sharpton (-3.8) made mistakes that let the pressure off, and meant the Texans consistently had to start the hard work over again.
Consistent But No Spark for Johnson
The Texans’ problem on offense was mirrored on defense, where Andre Johnson (+1.3) impressed in the passing game but simply couldn’t come up with that one play to take the top off of the Minnesota defense. The Texans had a pair of plays that were agonizing close to going for bigger gains, but it was Johnson’s trio of 19 yarders that were Houston’s longest of the game. With seven receptions for 97 yards against a plethora of defenders, this was a strong day for the ever impressive No. 1 receiver, but with a completely stifled and shut down ground game it wasn’t enough. The lack of a second option in the Houston passing game, ever a sore subject and area of need, came back to bite the Texans once again. DeVier Posey (-1.7) was targeted five times but brought in only one catch for 6 yards, while Owen Daniels could muster only three receptions on seven targets. For a team that entered the season with so much promise of hidden gems at the receiver position, this was the game where one of those players needed to stand up and make a difference, but, as ever, the Texans were found wanting in terms of their depth in the passing game.
Watt Rolls On
This was likely to be one of Watt’s tougher games of the season, up against an offensive line that, whilE perhaps unimpressive on paper in terms of the names on the depth chart, has been one of the best in the league as a unit. However, Watt made it clear that this week would be no different than the rest of his dominant season, as he turned in another exceptional display (+5.3) that sees his eye-watering season grade climb to an astonishing +92.8, a previously unimagined grade for a player at this position. Watt registered another four pressures this week (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 2 Hu) and added a further two stops in run defense, but was held without a batted pass for the third straight week. Watt has recorded four or more pressures 10 times this season, and if he can replicate the +7.7 grade he earned last week against the Colts in Indianapolis next Sunday, he will become the first player in PFF history to earn a +100 season grade. With the Texans now in a must win situation you can expect Watt to be firing on all cylinders to ensure the Colts’ offense never gets on track.
— How much did Adrian Peterson lean on those long gains? He had a Breakaway Percentage of 70.9%, with 61 of his 86 yards coming on gains of 15 yards or more. His other 22 carries gained 15 yards.
— The six stops recorded by Glover Quin this week are as many as he had recorded in the previous six weeks of the season.
— In Robison’s absence, George Johnson was elevated to the role of reserve defensive end and saw his first snaps since the Vikings’ Week 8 defeat at home to Tampa Bay.
PFF Game Ball
Watt and Quin shone for the Texans, but it was Everson Griffen who was the shining light on a disruptive and relentless Vikings defense. That is how you make the most of your opportunities in the NFL.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.