Thursday, December 29, 2016

Vikings vs. Packers: A Closer Look


The Vikings again struggled on defense during their 38-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Daniel House analyzes the game and tells you what went wrong. 

Updated: December 23rd, 2016 10:00am

By: Daniel House

On Christmas Eve, the Vikings managed to struggle again on the defensive side of the ball. Their offense continued to be up-and-down and they made too many mistakes to compete with an NFC North foe on the road. Many of these issues were due to penalties, coverage break downs, and issues up front. The Vikings didn't play team football and allowed the Packers to dictate the tempo in the 38-25 loss. It is hard to describe how much the defense has fallen off the rails over the last two weeks, but it appears scheme trouble, injuries, and stamina might be starting to catch up with them. The defense was the backbone of the team for so long and it is hard to imagine it hasn't impacted their ability to play well down the stretch.

Nonetheless, the Vikings really struggled in coverage during many portions of their loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve. There has been much talk about the defensive backs apparently freelancing away from the scheme in this game, but it is worth going back to the film and charting the coverage. During the first series of the game (five plays) Xavier Rhodes was not shadowing Jordy Nelson. Terence Newman covered Nelson a few times and the secondary made adjustments on the next drive. The bigger issue throughout this game were some of the moments where the Vikings were playing free release coverage on Nelson. This is just one example, and as you will see, Harrison Smith bites on the other route and is a step late to get back in position. Smith had a rough game against the Packers and it is hard to imagine the Grade 3 ankle sprain he was playing through wasn't impacting his overall performance. The real issue is that fact Minnesota was playing free release on Nelson throughout portions of this game. It allowed him to easily get open until adjustments were made.

In another coverage break down, Xavier Rhodes fell for the outside fake and Harrison Smith over-ran the play in the backend. It left Andrew Sendejo on an island to make the tackle in the deep quadrant of the field.

There was plenty of confusion in the secondary and it was like the defensive backs weren't exactly sure what their role was supposed to be. The Packers' wide receivers did a nice job of taking advantage and Aaron Rodgers was able to extend plays in find his playmakers with extensive cushion on the cornerbacks. I'm not sure the entire theory of freelancing really played such a major role in the coverage problems, but it was clear to see some confusion among the defensive backs throughout this game. It felt like much of the confusion improved after halftime. The Vikings started to send more pressure and stunts, which put less strain on the secondary. However, the team made far too many mistakes in the back end to be successful. In addition, the way they decided to cover Nelson with free release on numerous occasions didn't make much sense.

Danielle Hunter has been a quiet contributor this season and it's because he has polished his pass rushing skills this year. In this game, the Packers tried to block Danielle Hunter with tight end Jared Cook and it was a big mistake. Hunter has so much power and speed to pair with his improved fundamentals. He has been bullying defensive lineman all year and the fact he was matched up with a tight end is baffling.

As a whole, the defense allowed the Packers to dictate the tempo and Aaron Rodgers was dynamite in this game. He had time to throw in the first half and extended plays with his legs. Not to mention, the coverage break downs allowed him to find his receivers up the field as he kept plays alive. The Vikings couldn't get pressure on Rodgers until later in the game and it really put them in a deep hole on the road.

More importantly, the offense struggled to sustain drives early in the game. Nonetheless, they found some life by connecting with wide receiver Adam Thielen through the air. Thielen was superb in this game. His route-running has taken another step and his light footwork allowed him to get open on defensive backs. He made several tip-toe grabs on the sideline, including the one below. Quarterback Sam Bradford made a great throw on the run and Thielen displayed fantastic body control and ball skills to high-point the pass and drag his toes up the sideline.

Thielen had 202 receiving yards in this game and he was one of the lone bright spots on offense. He has become the top receiver on the team in terms of yardage and I would argue he is the most reliable weapon the Vikings have though the air. It's hard to believe a rookie tryout a few years turned into a productive NFL player. However, it's a tribute to his work ethic and attention to detail. One of the keys to being a successful wide receiver in the NFL is through a willingness to improve your craft and Thielen has done this every year since entering the league.

The offense still struggled to sustain drives and many of their problems continue to be rooted in the offensive line. Two critical mistakes shifted the momentum of this game. One came when center Nick Easton was unable to snap the ball and it was recovered near the 50-yard-line by the Packers. Minnesota had some offensive momentum and were only down eight points. However, Green Bay took advantage of the field position to add points. The second mistake came with the Vikings again near the 50-yard-line. Right tackle T.J. Clemmings was caught leaning forward and was unable to set his anchor, take an angle on Clay Matthews, and deliver a punch. Instead, he was beaten off the edge and Bradford was strip sacked. Clemmings has very inconsistent technique and has been a liability all season.

There were certain moments in this game where the offensive line performed well, but again, three or four plays made the difference. This team had such a small margin for error this year and these mistakes cost them many games. Nonetheless, this was probably the best game we have seen all year from the offensive line in running blocking. The running game averaged 4.9 yards per carry and they were picking up yardage without needing to create complete yardage on their own. This run was for six yards by Jerick McKinnon. As you will see, center Nick Easton (#62) does a good job of pulling and getting to the second level. Tackle Jeremiah Sirles (#78) seals off the edge and McKinnon burst through the hole. The Vikings' inability to run the ball was a huge problem this year, but this game was slightly different. In fact, they finally found a few shots deep up the field because the play-action actually worked.

Finally, it's worth sending some praise towards quarterback Sam Bradford for his performance this year. He might not be throwing passes with significant target depth, but he is leading the league in completion percentage and has thrown just four interceptions this year. He performed very well in this game and hit Adam Thielen on a variety of routes across the field. Thielen ran a beautiful fade up the sideline and Bradford dropped this tear-drop over the top of the cornerback.

Later in the game, Bradford found Stefon Diggs for a touchdown on a corner route and the ball was perfectly placed for Diggs to make a play. Somehow, Bradford has survived an offensive line that allowed 37 sacks this year. It was the most sacks Bradford has taken in his career and somehow he is still standing despite his past injury problems. He hasn't been perfect and might be limited to the play-calling, but there aren't many moments this year where it felt like Sam Bradford lost this team a game. He played well with all of the circumstances he faced and deserves to be recognized.

The Vikings made too many coverage mistakes, didn't pressure Rodgers, and allowed the Packers to dictate the game tempo. It forced the Vikings to play from behind and that's not a good situation for this team. They performed better on offense in the first half, but the defense didn't show signs of life until the third quarter. This team plays with such a small margin for error and because of the mistakes they made at inopportune times, they couldn't keep with a Green Bay offense that is currently on fire.

There's one more game left on Sunday against the Bears and it is time to start playing younger players to see if they can make a contribution next year. This has been a crazy year and it's not worth risking injury to players who will be integral cogs to the roster in the future.

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