By Dan Durkin
(CBS) With few exceptions, NFL teams don’t make the playoffs by accident, they earn their bid.
Despite significant flaws, the 2012 Minnesota Vikings punched their playoff ticket with a tried-and-true formula: run the ball and play defense.
They’ll go back to the well again this season and come up dry.
Recent history shows that when January comes, franchise players – more specifically quarterbacks – are called upon to win games. Having a strong rushing attack never hurts, but it’s been 15 years since a team with the NFL’s rushing champion – Terrell Davis’ 2,008 yards in 1998 – won the Super Bowl.
The Vikings franchise player is the reigning MVP, running back Adrian Peterson. To put Peterson’s 2012 season in context, he single-handedly out-rushed 24 other teams.
Over his last 18 games, Peterson’s churned out 2,190 rushing yards, 41 rushes of 15+ yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, 10 100+ rushing yard games, seven 150+ rushing yard games, four 60+ yard rushing touchdowns, two 200+ rushing yard games, and a 5.9 yard per carry average. Those totals border on inhuman levels of production.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, their pedestrian passing attack can’t keep defenses honest. In fact, the Vikings barely averaged more passing yards than rushing yards per game last season.
Quarterback Christian Ponder is an intermediate passer who doesn’t force a defense to defend every zone on the field. Without the fear of being beaten over the top, defenses can comfortably bring their safeties down closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support.
Recall if you will, Ponder was drafted in the 2011 lockout year. Since there was no free agency period, teams with quarterback ills were forced to use the draft as their antidote. When you contrast the less-than-stellar returns from first-round selections like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Ponder with the success of second-round picks Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, it’s safe to say the Jaguars, Titans, and Vikings personnel departments failed them.
That’s not to say you can’t win games with Ponder leading the charge. He’s mobile, accurate on the move, and Peterson opens up play-action opportunities. However, his limitations leave the Vikings with a small margin for error.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has deployed a conservative offense because it gives the Vikings their best chance to win. The Vikings did show a new wrinkle against the Lions, throwing the ball from the Pistol. But the Vikings passing woes have been compounded by a lack of consistency at the wide receiver position.
When he was healthy enough to play, Percy Harvin was a great fit for the Vikings’ attack. He provided formation versatility, operating out of the slot, split wide, and even in the backfield. Utilizing him on shallow crossing routes accentuated his quickness, vision and open-field running skills. Harvin was traded this offseason to Seattle and replaced with veteran free-agent Greg Jennings.
Jennings’ 2012 campaign was marred by injuries and his average yards per catch has decreased each year since 2009. However, he’s still a smooth intermediate route-runner, who should fit in nicely with this offense.
After Jennings, the wide receiver group is largely unproven. Jerome Simpson is a hit-or-miss deep threat, Jarius Wright is an unknown quantity, and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson is an intriguing size-to-speed prospect, but raw, having played only one year of FBS.
Ponder’s best secondary receiving option is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who led the Vikings with 93 targets and nine touchdowns in 2012. Rudolph was an effective red zone target off of bootleg action, who uses his body well to shield defenders.
Up front, the Vikings have a solid nucleus of talent. The Vikings spent their 2012 first-round pick (4th overall) on left tackle Matt Kalil. Similar to Bears rookie guard Kyle Long, Kalil comes from NFL bloodlines. His father Frank was a Buffalo Bills draft pick and his brother Ryan plays center for the Panthers. Kalil’s rookie season was a success, particularly in pass protection.
Center John Sullivan is making his case as the best center in the league. Sullivan isn’t the most powerful player, but he’s assignment and technique sound, and possesses a violent punch. His strength is run blocking, as he rarely loses his battle once he latches on. Phil Loadholt turned in his best season as a pro in 2012. Loadholt is strong at setting the edge in the run game, but can be stiff at times against speed rushers.
With a collection of aging talent and young prospects, the Vikings defense is in a state of flux.
The Vikings scheme – a base Cover-2 – remains intact, and they’ll rely on pressure from their aging front four. Heading into the final year of his contract, right defensive end Jared Allen isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still a disruptive force off the edge. Fellow elder statesman and soon-to-be free-agent defensive tackle Kevin Williams missed Week 1 with a knee injury, but appears to be ready for this week’s game.
The Vikings injected a bit of youth when they ended the draft free-fall of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Floyd looks like an ideal three-technique replacement for Williams. In college, Floyd flashed a lot of versatility, as he was strong enough to set the edge as a five-technique, but also quick enough to shoot press the pocket from the inside.
Chad Greenway is the Vikings’ best player at the second-level. Greenway can stack and shed against the run, as well as drop into coverage in nickel. To effectively run the Tampa-2 you need a Mike-linebacker who can drop and carry the tight end up the vertical seam, and the Vikings may not have a solution on the roster currently.
The Vikings secondary is long on potential, but short on experience. Free safety Harrison Smith is the building block, showing range and good instincts to break on the ball.
At cornerback, the Vikings are green. First-round draft pick Xavier Rhodes is a long-armed athlete, adept at press-man and bail techniques, which may not be a perfect fit for their zone scheme. The Vikings are hoping speedy second-year corner Josh Robinson takes a big step and locks down the nickel spot.
With all due respect, the Vikings 10-6 record last year was a false-positive. They’re a one-dimensional offense with a defense that lacks cohesion.
Rick Spielman is looking to do things the right way by rebuilding their talent base through the draft and appears to have hit on quite a few of his picks. However, his one big miss – Christian Ponder – will leave this team with more questions than answers at season’s end.
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