Sunday, June 12, 2016

Improving the Vikings' Offense in 2016

Image Courtesy of Sporting News

Where must the Vikings improve on offense in 2016? Daniel House says it starts with one player. Find out who it is as he breaks down five necessary areas of improvement for the Vikings' offense. 

Updated: June 12th, 2016 10:11am

By: Daniel House

It's no secret the Vikings must improve their offense if they want to take the next step in the NFL. They have built one of the top defensive units in the league, but can't finish with one of the worst offensive units in terms of total offense. An improved offensive line, added weapons, and several philosophy changes will be needed if the team wants to make a deep playoff run in 2016. In 2015, the Vikings were near the bottom of every passing category, but their running game, combined with their defensive success kept them in football games. In order to take the next step, the Vikings must improve in five key aspects of their offense and it starts with growth and overall strides from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Consistency from Teddy
Many readers have asked me what the main key will be for the Vikings to have a successful 2016 campaign. Some point to the offensive line, others suggest the importance of finding a balance on offense. Those are all notable areas that require improvement, but the growth of Teddy Bridgewater is by far the most important. The Vikings' passing game really struggled in 2015 and Bridgewater threw just 14 touchdowns. Offensive line performance and a lack of weapons at wide receiver were both aspects of the offense that didn't help Bridgewater reach his maximum potential. However, he needs to establish more consistent mechanics. Bridgewater is known for an elbow drop that causes his balls to sail high. He needs to 'reach zero' and come over the top as he steps towards the target. The pocket collapsed consistently last year, which didn't allow Bridgewater to consistently deliver passes with proper mechanics. He was falling towards the ground and releasing side-armed passes while landing on the ground. Bridgewater has spent time working to improve his deep ball and that starts with being more consistent when it comes to mechanics. He had moments where he would exhibit an excellent throwing motion, but too often he delivered balls that sailed high above the receiver. Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with his accuracy on all of his other throws. He particularly had no problems completing throws in the intermediate range.

In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater had the top accuracy percentage among quarterbacks last season (79.3%). Not to mention, he had a 155.4 passer rating in the last 2:00 of games, per Pro Football Reference. What's more, Bridgewater can have more confidence in his wide receivers. Adding Laquon Treadwell gives Teddy a receiver that can consistently win 50/50 battles. With Teddy Bridgewater's excellent accuracy, Treadwell will have plenty of opportunities to make tough plays after the catch (which is his speciality). I highlighted this in my breakdown of Laquon Treadwell and his fit in the Minnesota offense. Bridgewater can trust his wide receivers and offensive line, which will go a long way towards allowing him to focus on his mechanics and overall prowess as a quarterback. Finally, I don't think people are noting how much moving inside to U.S. Bank Stadium could help the Vikings' passing game either. There won't be any cold or wind to contest with in the passing game. I firmly believe if Teddy Bridgewater can throw 25 touchdowns this season, the offense will become more balanced, leading to an improvement through the air. Teddy has continually shown flashes and with more pieces around him, it will be a huge year for him to show growth. The defense will keep the Vikings in games, but their offense has to make a big leap if they want to take the next step as a team.

Closing in the Red Zone
The Vikings were putrid in the red zone last season. They had problems finishing drives and settled for too many field goals. They scored touchdowns in the red zone a sixth-worst 47.7% of the time. When the team reached the opposing 20-yard line, play calling had the tendency to favor running the ball frequently in early downs. This led the passing game to struggle in third-and-long situations. Teddy Bridgewater lacked weapons in the red zone and adding Laquon Treadwell can improve this. Charles Johnson was injured last season and a (apparently) much improved Cordarrelle Patterson can be of help as well. It's also worth keeping an eye on new draft pick David Morgan and tight end Kyle Rudolph in the red zone. Teddy needs to have more confidence in his wide receivers and the play calling needs to incorporate a better mix of run/pass. Teddy Bridgewater completed just 41.18% of his passes (21-for-51) inside the red zone. He needs to be placed in better situations that aren't forcing him to make plays in third-and-long. That starts by finding a better strategy for play calling in earlier downs. Finishing drives and improving their situational work will need to be areas of emphasis as the Vikings work to improve during training camp and the preseason.

Finding the offensive balance
The Vikings were a run heavy team during the 2015 season, which sometimes overwhelmed their offensive strategy. In third-and-long situations, the play-calling would favor draw plays. The Vikings relied on the legs of Adrian Peterson to win them some football games last season. Peterson rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns on 327 carries. Offensively, the coaches really favored more plays under center than in the shotgun. Teddy Bridgewater has consistently performed better out of the shotgun, but due to Adrian Peterson's limited success within that formation, the team was forced to run the ball with the quarterback under center. The Vikings had the fewest passing attempts (454), but ran the ball a fourth-most 474 times. Some of this is attributed to the emphasis on the running game, but part of it has to do with the poor protection, limited weapons in the passing game, and inconsistent play by Teddy Bridgewater. All of those areas were addressed in the offseason and the coaches have to find a happy medium in this aspect of the game.

Adrian in the Shotgun or more Jerick?
As I noted earlier, the Vikings must improve their offensive balance and that starts by using more shotgun looks. It's worth noting how it can be difficult when your starting running back can't be successful out of the 'gun. Adrian Peterson had an NFL-worst 32% success rate on shotgun runs in 2015, according to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders. Jerick McKinnon is extremely talented out of the shotgun and his quick cuts/superior speed allow him to make plays. I think the offense will have a better balance of Jerick McKinnon and Adrian Peterson this year. That will especially be the case if Peterson proves he cannot handle duties out of the shotgun again. McKinnon might be the future for the Vikings at running back and it is time to find a nice blend of Peterson and Jerick in the gameplan.

Here's my equation:
More Jerick = more shotgun for Teddy = great balance/offensive attack.

Teddy needs to throw more out of the shotgun and an emphasis must be placed on the quick passing game. Less looks under center might help Teddy Bridgewater and the passing game become more consistent and dynamic.

Offensive Line Play
The Vikings have spent plenty of money and energy trying to address the offensive line. Throughout the offseason, I've been stressing the position coaching change and key personnel moves the team made this offseason. They have created more competition as they work towards an improvement up front. The offensive line unit allowed the sixth-most sacks in 2015 (45), including the 10th-most total quarterback hits (96). The Vikings traded for Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles during the 2015 season, drafted Willie Beavers in the fourth round, and signed Andre Smith and Alex Boone to bolster the offensive line. Not to mention, Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan will be returning from season-ending injuries. T.J. Clemmings is shifting to left tackle and will continue to develop as a player. Mike Harris was extremely effective at right guard in 2015 and Joe Berger was rated as one of the top centers last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Those are just a few of the 15 competent options the Vikings have among their offensive line unit. More importantly, Tony Sparano will bring a new coaching style and culture to the position group, which was a much-needed change. The coaches realized they lost too many games up front and decided to pool 28% of their cap space (a league-high) to the offensive line. It's an investment that could be the difference for a Vikings offense that needs to take the next step in 2016. I highlight these changes in more detail via this post.

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