The Minnesota Vikings: A Silent Super Bowl Contender

Before the Atlanta Falcons made their unlikely advance to the Super Bowl, the Minnesota Vikings were the most impressive team in the NFL. It was Week 6. The Vikings were 5-0. No other team was still unbeaten at that point of the year. The Vikings should have used their bye week to consolidate what had been working and address the few things that hadn’t been working. They didn’t.

It was during that bye week when the Vikings season collapsed.

The cracks had begun to show prior to that point. Both of the team’s starting offensive tackles were on IR. Adrian Peterson went to short-term IR. The Vikings have very little control over the health of their players. They did control how they ran their offense though. Norv Turner specifically in this instance.

Sam Bradford was acquired so late during the preseason that he couldn’t play Week 1. He started from Week 2 onwards, but the Vikings ran a different playbook to the one they had during the previous season. Bradford spent most of his time in shotgun and the offense made great use of read-pass option plays so the ball could come out quickly. The deeper drops and vertical routes that Turner had prioritized with Teddy Bridgewater were gone.

Turner would resign abruptly after Week 8. The Vikings were 5-2 and in first place at the time. It’s unclear the exact reason for Turner’s departure but it was clear that he used the bye week to go back to the offense he preferred to run rather than the offense that had worked to that point of the season.

After Turner’s departure the hits kept coming for the Vikings. Harrison Smith and Stefon Diggs, key players on either side of the ball, both played through significant injuries. Anthony Barr, previously an explosive big-play linebacker, was called out by his head coach for not performing to expectations. Not only did the offensive line lose its starting tackles, it lost backup tackles and backup interior linemen as the season wore on. By midseason they had used more than 11 combinations on the line.

T.J. Clemmings was the only guy who could stay healthy and he couldn’t block anyone. Clemmings played 913 snaps last year after entering the offseason prior as the third-string right tackle. Compare that to the Atlanta Falcons who had all five linemen start every regular season game and play at least 1,000 snaps.

The Vikings’ injury epidemic was so bad that even Mike Zimmer was forced to have eye surgery. Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating injury in the preseason had been an omen ahead of a season where almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.

12 months later and things are looking up.

Bridgewater is back on the field, even if only in a limited capacity. The Vikings didn’t have an extraordinary offseason where they grabbed big-name players but they did have an effective offseason that addressed their biggest issues. Neither Riley Reiff or Mike Remmers are quality offensive tackles but both have proven to be durable players who can at least be below-average starters. That translates to “both can be significant upgrades over T.J. Clemmings.”

Competence from the tackle positions would have a huge impact on how the Vikings offense could function. Last year the line handicapped the whole unit, anchoring the receiving corps by not affording them any time to develop their routes downfield. That led to more conservative play calling and a quarterback forced to rush the ball out or be sacked. These conditions existed every week.

Even against a defense noted for its lack of pass-rushing quality, the Dallas Cowboys, in Week 13.

Stefon Diggs was used to deliver a heavy hit to Demarcus Lawrence on the first dropback of that game. Instead of running a route downfield, the Vikings used their best receiver to help hide Clemmings. It worked. Before the second dropback, Clemmings had a false start penalty. Then the above gif happened. It went on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and onand on for four quarters.

That game was a microcosm of the Vikings’ whole season.

Clemmings and company were so incompetent that the designs of plays were regularly ruined. Situational football was extremely difficult to manage. When the offense needed routes to go further than three yards downfield, Bradford would have to deliver the ball against an arriving hit while having to throw his receivers open in a crowded spot of the field. It was something he did admirably. So much so that he led the league in accuracy percentage for the second season in a row.

Accuracy percentage is warped because it can’t account for the depth of each throw but while Bradford led the league in short throws, 62.13 percent of his passes travelled fewer than five yards downfield, he was very accurate to most levels.

Getting Clemmings out of the lineup won’t turn the Vikings line into a good unit or even an average one. It should give Bradford the time and space he needs to consistently create opportunities for his receivers further downfield. Bradford doesn’t move well within the confines of the pocket but he’s comfortable delivering the ball against hits with his lightning quick release.

The Vikings don’t need a great offense. They just need an offense good enough to complement a great defense.

Adam Thielen is the best deep threat receiver Bradford has ever played with. Stefon Diggs is probably the best receiver he’s ever played with. If Diggs isn’t, then Thielen is. Either way, for the first time in his career Bradford has found a starting receiver tandem who are not only reliable but explosive and versatile. If the offensive line can hold up, the quarterback and receiver connections should be enough to make the Vikings a legitimate Super Bowl contender on the back of a presumably dominant defense.

It’s not a coincidence that Bradford’s best game of the season last year came when his line was at its healthiest. The only time he played behind both of his starting offensive tackles was in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers. He finished that game with an 88.89 accuracy percentage and a season-high 9.19 average depth of target.

On many of those plays, the difference between a big play and a sack was a millisecond of pass protection.

After addressing the offensive line in free agency the Vikings spent their top pick in the 2017 draft on running back Dalvin Cook. Cook was a somewhat polarizing prospect. He had great tape in college and was hugely productive but there was talk of character issues and poor athletic testing saw him fall into the second round. The Vikings are hoping that a healthy offensive line and Cook’s addition will upgrade one of the worst running games in the NFL.

The Vikings running game ranked 31st in DVOA last year.

Taking Cook and throwing him into the allotted running back spot on the field isn’t going to work. It’s not like Ezekiel Elliott who could just be added to the Cowboys depth chart without altering anything around him. Cook has a diverse skill set. He should be able to run from shotgun formations and when his quarterback is under center. He will be a better zone runner than power runner. The reason the Vikings can’t just drop him in is because they need to fix their whole running game to improve.

With Adrian Peterson on the roster the Vikings forced power runs, runs with the quarterback under center and multiple tight ends or a fullback on the field to act as blockers. Even with Peterson out for much of last year they still ranked 16th in shotgun/pistol usage according to Football Outsiders. Cook (and Bradford) won’t thrive in that offense. They need to spread the field with Thielen, Diggs and Treadwell/Floyd to take advantage of Cook’s ability in space while also giving Bradford more opportunities to get rid of the ball quickly.

Blocking defenders becomes less of a priority when you’re stretching them out with spread formations in the running game and giving them less time to get to the quarterback in the passing game.

This commitment to outmuscling everyone was most egregious in short-yardage situations. When the offense needed one yard on third or fourth down last year, they ran the ball 35 times and threw it 14 times. Their success rate running the ball was 65.7 percent, one of the worst in the league, and their success rate passing the ball was 78.6 percent, one of the best in the league. The Vikings would constantly bring every defender as close as possible to the ball before running into a wall up the middle. It was illogical.

If the offense stays healthy a lot of its issues will be corrected. If the defense stays healthy, it should be dominant.

Danielle Hunter is only 22 years old. He has more sacks than any other player in NFL history by that age except for Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs and Jason Pierre-Paul. He’s started one game. Hunter only played 57.8 percent of the snaps last season behind Brian Robison. He’s not a specialist pass rusher. He’s a well-rounded player who plays with discipline against the run and can dominate offensive tackles with his speed around the edge or his power to go right through them.

Hunter is expected to start in 2017.

Making he and Everson Griffen the bookends of the defensive line will put two roadblocks on the edges against the run and allow the Vikings to generate a consistent pass rush from their base defense. Where things get more interesting is in nickel packages. Anthony Barr didn’t spend much (any?) time rushing off the edge last year. He spent more time threatening A-Gaps before dropping into coverage like a true linebacker. He lined up on the edge at times during training camp.

Barr, Griffen, Hunter and Robison could create one of the most dangerous personnel packages in the league. The Vikings have also created some depth on the defensive line this year with smart signings. Rookie Jaleel Johnson should probably be the favorite to contribute to the regular defensive tackle rotation but Will Sutton was an intriguing pickup from the Chicago Bears. Sutton was a penetrating defensive tackle in college who never really fit what the Bears wanted him to do. Zimmer has a history of developing young defensive linemen so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Sutton turns into something more valuable.

The struggles of Barr were matched by the struggles of Harrison Smith as last season wore on. Barr didn’t show off the explosiveness he has in seasons past, Zimmer called him out for his play and has since praised him for his play returning after the offseason. Barr looked hurt but there was never any report to suggest that he was. Smith definitely was hurt. He is one of the lesser-discussed safeties in the league but his versatility to impact games all over the field makes him hugely valuable. Smith and Barr at 100 percent explosiveness for 16 games will completely alter the identity of this defense.

Add in Eric Kendricks as he rounds out the rest of his development and the Vikings have three middle-of-the-field pieces who can be used in a variety of ways. The coaching staff doesn’t have to worry about hiding someone in coverage or only giving specific guys specific assignments. Everyone can move around the field and be used in whatever way they need to be used to match up to whatever offense they are facing that week.

There isn’t an offense in the NFL that will pose a problem this unit isn’t capable of solving. It had a down year last year and still finished in the top 10 of DVOA and the top 10 of passing DVOA. That includes the massive drop-off over the second half of the season when Smith was hurt.

A window is about to open for this defense where a top-three estimate would be considered conservative. The younger players now have experience and have been developed. The older players are not yet at a point where their age becomes a negative. That balance, the talent and the coaching suggest that this should be the next great defense in the NFL.

Should that come true, the Vikings have just enough pieces on offense to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

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