The Vikings have hit the bye week and are four games through the 2013 campaign, which is a critical period for this team. Daniel House grades each position group and highlights areas which need improvement.
Vikings fans yearned for a dominate start to the 2013 season, but after a three week stretch which resulted in miscues, schematic lapses, and losses, supporters were left scratching their heads. The team entered week four reeling after a 31-27 loss to the Cleveland Browns, which sent shock waves through the Vikings locker room. More importantly, the team was preparing to pack their bags and head to London, England for a week four contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers. How would the Vikings handle the travel, the acclimation to the time change, and could they salvage the season? Those were all questions vibrating through the heads of the players, coaches, and fans. The team announced in the middle of the week quarterback Christian Ponder would miss the game with a fractured rib. This opened the door for backup gunslinger Matt Cassel to prove he was worthy to be considered as the Vikings starter. Cassel took command of the team, the Vikings finally played well in all the key facets of the game, and more importantly, the defense stood strong as they faced a late push from the Steelers offense. We are now a quarter of the way through this season and face a bye week to get healthy and fix areas which need improvement. How did each position group fare through the first four weeks? In this post, I highlight each position group and grade the performance of the team.
Given the instability surrounding this position through the first four weeks of the season, Vikings fans are uncomfortable about the prospects at the quarterback position. Christian Ponder hasn't blown any of his critics away to start the 2013 season. He was expected to produce in his third season in the league, but he has failed to show he has the skills necessary to be more than a game manager in this league. Ponder has completed 59 of 100 passes for 691 yards and just two touchdowns in three weeks of play. Matt Cassel matched Ponder's passing touchdown total in just one game. Nonetheless, Christian still found his way into the end zone twice through his legs this year. This is something Cassel cannot provide, but Ponder has failed to win ball games at the start of the season, which is ultimately the most important part of the game.
Furthermore, Ponder hasn't been able to alleviate pressure in the box and has had moments where teams piled eight man fronts at a 36% clip. In contrast, Matt Cassel faced an eight man front just 7.7% of the time today. In this sequence, he converted on 7 of 10 passes for 77 yards. With Cassel at quarterback, the Vikings busted on big plays of 60 and 70 yards from Peterson and Jennings, respectively. Cassel alleviated eight man fronts, which in turn provided Adrian Peterson with huge lanes to run. I'm not ready to say Matt Cassel is the answer for this team after narrowly defeating a poor Steelers team, but it seems as if he can merely manage a game slightly better than Christian Ponder.
Running Backs- (Grade: A-)
Adrian Peterson is always graded with an 'A', but given the minimal production from other players within the position group, they are graded slightly lower. Peterson is quietly ahead of his rushing production from last season and has rushed for 421 yards and 5 TD's this year. To put this in perspective, through 4 games in 2012, Peterson rushed for just 332 yards and 2 TD's. Please remember that he is slightly ahead of pace despite the absence of Jerome Felton during the first three weeks of the season. Felton hasn't had much time to become acclimated to game action, so I expect Peterson's production to elevate even more over the remaining slate of games this season. Finally, the other group of running backs has failed to see any action this season and Toby Gerhart is poised to be traded if the team can receive adequate compensation before the trade deadline. Matt Asiata is a third running back and isn't expected to see an elevated role in the Vikings offensive plans.
Wide Receivers- (Grade: A)
The Vikings made a huge investment to improve their passing attack by adding Greg Jennings in free agency this offseason. Matt Cassel entered the game in week four and provided Jennings with opportunities to run routes and accumulate yards after the catch. Jennings and wide receiver Jerome Simpson are becoming a dynamic duo and account for 44% of the total receptions, 63% of the total yardage, and have recorded 25 of the Vikings 27 first down conversions. In fact, Simpson leads the league with 3 yards per route run. The next closest player in the category is Julio Jones (2.86). Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson has made an impact on special teams and was named the NFC Special Teams player of the month for September. He hasn't witnessed many opportunities to catch the ball and his highest amount of snaps (19) came in a week three matchup with the Browns. To put his into context, Patterson has witnessed 44 offensive snaps, compared to the Vikings’ other receivers – Greg Jennings (203), Jerome Simpson (163) and Jarius Wright (120). If the Vikings are going to win football games, the hope is Patterson can become more involved through the air and in special packages, which feature his athletic ability. Given the Vikings instability at quarterback, the wide receivers are playing very well and if the situation can become resolved, this group could take another huge stride.
Tight Ends- (Grade: C)
Kyle Rudolph has been virtually nonexistent through the Vikings first four weeks of the 2013 campaign. He has nearly been invisible and was targeted just two times when Matt Cassel entered at quarterback last week. Ponder made Rudolph a priority as a pass catcher, but Cassel seems to rely more upon his wide receivers to move the ball through the air. Below is a listing of Rudolph's production over his three years in the league.
2011: 26 catches for 249 yards and 3 touchdowns
2012: 53 catches for 493 yards and 9 touchdowns
2013: 12 catches for 112 yards and 1 touchdowns
*Targeted just 20 times in 2013*
As you can see, this season, he has recorded a measly 12 catches and has been targeted just 20 times. This is completely unacceptable from a player like Rudolph who is an absolute mammoth of a matchup for opposing defenses. Coach Frazier mentioned on several occasions the importance of integrating Rudolph into the offense this season, but he has become virtually invisible. If the Vikings are going to win football games, Rudolph needs to become a part of this offense in red zone situations, which is where he flourished last season.
Finally, John Carlson was signed entering 2012 with the hope he could provide a deadly combination with Kyle Rudolph. Last season he was plagued by injuries and this year has been targeted just 7 times, while averaging just 1 reception per game over his last three contests. The Vikings stressed integration of the tight end during practices in Mankato, but it hasn't been a major focus this season. It really makes you wonder what they show from a schematic standpoint during training camp practices.
Offensive Line- (Grade: C)
The Vikings offensive line started very slow this season and struggled in early stages of the season, especially during week three versus the Browns. They allowed Ponder to be sacked 6 times, which led to the Vikings struggles during that contest. The Vikings offensive line is ranked 20th in sacks allowed with 11, and have awarded 17 quarterback hits this season. Last week, Matt Cassel was sacked just once and Adrian Peterson saw continuous lanes to run the ball as he scored twice. If Cassel sees more time, it becomes even more paramount for the Vikings offensive line to block well, given he lacks the mobility Christian Ponder can provide. The Steelers front seven is awful and has failed to create a turnover this season, so I'm not ready to say the Vikings protection issues are fixed. Once we see consistency from this group as we did in 2012, I will feel more comfortable about the prospects of this team.
Defensive Line- (Grade: B)
The Vikings defensive line has recorded just 10 sacks this season, but Jared Allen emerged last week by recording 2.5 sacks against a Steelers offensive line that is in absolute shambles. This group needs to apply pressure, especially when the Vikings secondary is reeling like they are. Everson Griffen was my breakthrough player this season, but he has failed to adequately rush the passer well this season. He did come up clutch in the final seconds of the game last week, recording a strip sack, which provided the Vikings a win, just as the defense was ready to crack in the final two minutes. From an interior standpoint, the Vikings have played well and improved when Kevin Williams returned from his one week absence. Sharrif Floyd has saw limited action this year, but has displayed his speed and ability to deflect passes in traffic. The maturity from Floyd is what needs to grow, but the great part is he is working alongside one of the greatest defensive tackles in Vikings history. Finally, Fred Evans is a quiet beneficiary of the Vikings defensive line grouping. He has an amazing ability to bull rush and cause deflections at the line of scrimmage. He alone has caused several turnovers for the Vikings defense this year. This group needs to show more consistency and if they can adequately rush the passer each week, it greatly increases the odds of the team winning.
Linebackers- (Grade: C)
This grouping has been so disappointing during many moments of the Vikings first four games, but over the past two contests, they have emerged and improved. Chad Greenway has recorded two interceptions this season, but has struggled in pursuit and coverage during portions of the season. He finally resembled normal form last week and recorded ten tackles and an interception, which is a combination he has never accomplished in his career. The real instability has been in the middle of the defense, as Erin Henderson has struggled in coverage this year. He has recorded 2 interceptions, but has been trailing behind running backs who pass catch out of the backfield. Furthermore, Marvin Mitchell is the starter on the outside, but has recorded just 4 tackles in 4 starts, which is completely unacceptable. This group is a huge liability and if they face a running back which resembles Reggie Bush this season, it will be a long day. This group is terrible in coverage, which provides an area of caution as the team enters the next quarter of the season.
Cornerbacks- (Grade: D)
This group is young and we all anticipated the growing pains that would come along with no veteran leadership. Cornerback Josh Robinson allowed 12 catches on 14 targets and 91.9% of his targets have been completed this year (34 of 37) for 377 yards. He is filling the void of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield who was one of the best slot cornerbacks to ever play the game. In fact, Winfield is working out in Houston and is reportedly mulling a return to the league. In my opinion, the Vikings should execute every option possible to tempt Winfield into returning to this team. Xavier Rhodes is young, but has enough athleticism and ball skills to play very well, Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson are hurt, and Marcus Sherels has improved, but isn't a long term option for this team. Winfield wouldn't be a long term option, but he could provide an upgrade to a position group that is in shambles. The Vikings cornerbacks have allowed a second worst 324 yards per game to quarterbacks this season and an awful 123 points per game. If Winfield would return, is there any negative to him returning to a scheme he is familiar with? I don't think so and at this point, if he can play as well as he did last year, he can patch many holes in the Vikings defensive flow.
Safeties- (Grade: B)
Harrison Smith is a stud and no doubt is one of the best safeties in this league. He has already recorded two interceptions this season and has made himself a fearless hitter in the middle of the defense. The Vikings back end has markedly improved and has provided this defense with a lift. Jamarca Sanford missed the game in London with an injury, but Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond filled in very well on a rotational basis. This group is one of the stable areas on the Vikings defense, but at moments they struggle to handle tight ends. Jamarca Sanford was tied to a post on several occasions in week three versus Jordan Cameron, who scorched the Vikings secondary. This group has struggled to handle athletic tight ends which is a big concern, especially in the NFL, where tight ends are becoming a premium in offensive schemes.
Special Teams- (Grade C-)
The kick coverage team allowed Devin Hester to discombobulate the Vikings as he recorded the Bears all-time kick return yardage record in week two. Later in week three, the group allowed the Browns to convert on a fake punt and field goal, which is 100% unacceptable. It provided Cleveland with opportunities that they shouldn't have been awarded. All facets of the game must be executed and special teams has left something to be desired. Jeff Locke has played terribly and has provided teams the opportunity to enhance their field position. This can't continue if the Vikings expect to win games, especially against high powered offenses who execute very well.
Overall the next five games for the Vikings are against opponents who are .500 or under, which means this could be the perfect time for this team to make a run. Three of those five games are at home, meaning the Vikings need to execute and improve in all the areas I discussed, if they want to make a run in 2013.