Now that the Vikings are halfway through their season, I think it’s poignant to have a midseason analysis of this 4-5 football team. Up until this point, despite their win in Week 9 over the Washington Red…. ugh, football team, this season has been quite deflating on many levels for those who bleed purple. The first week high, fostered by the destruction of the formidable St. Louis Rams, quickly evaporated with news of Adrian Peterson’s situation and injuries to starting offensive players Brandon Fusco, Matt Cassel and Kyle Rudolph — just like that, four starters, gone from the lineup.
In the following weeks, the team has been on a roller coaster of epic proportions. The team has gone from victories one week to getting their asses kicked the next — they’ve been on the winning and losing end of last second fourth quarter scores. With so much turmoil though, the team has persevered under new leadership from the coaching staff, a changing of the guard at running back, and a rookie quarterback leading the offense each week. If I told you before the season started, even with those four starters active, this team would be 4-5 at the bye week, most fans wouldn’t be surprised. If I told you the team lost Peterson, Cassel, Rudolph and Fusco, most of you would guess the team would be somewhere closer to 1-8.
Despite all this inconsistency, there has been one true shining element on this 2014 Vikings team: the defense. Ranked dead last in multiple defensive categories last year, it’s quite a relief to see this defensive unit stepping up its game in a big way. Through ten weeks of the NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings are tied for third in the NFL with 30 sacks. Aside from two games this year, the Packers and Patriots, the defense has played extremely well. (Even against the Pats they only surrendered 23 points, with one touchdown coming on a blocked field goal.) Six of their nine games, the defense have held their opponents below 21 points. That gives the mostly mediocre offense a great chance to win ball games. Mike Zimmer has clearly made a huge difference on this side of the ball.
Two players in particular, Everson Griffin and Anthony Barr, have made huge impacts in each and every game this year. Fans were somewhat skeptical on both moves, the choice to sign Griffin to a big deal and draft Barr so high with their first pick in the 2014 draft, but both have proved to be worth the offseason moves. With fan-favorite Jared Allen leaving to the Chicago Bears (who has made almost zero impact on the Bear’s atrocious defense), fans were pessimistic about the defensive line’s prospects. But Griffin, offseason pickup Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, and Brian Robinson have all helped solidify the defensive line.
But to me, the defensive MVP of the Vikings so for in 2014 has been Anthony Barr. He shows true promise to play at a game-changing level in the NFL, a level where teams have to game plan for number 55. Barr makes ordinary plays with ease and extraordinary plays look routine. Obviously, most fans remember his forced fumble, the recovery and touchdown to beat Tampa Bay in overtime — but Barr has made so many more plays than that one, from sacks to passes defended to running down speedy running backs in the open field. He currently is second on the team in tackles and sacks — not a bad start to an NFL career.
Barr, in his first half of his first season, has become one of the top ten outside linebackers in the NFL (I would even make the argument for top five — yes, I’m serious). Compare his stats to other elite backers, like Von Miller, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Terrell Suggs, and Lavonte David, and he is right in the mix. Players like Miller, only really do one thing on an elite level: rush the passer. But Barr has the ability to stack up against David and Houston, two players who do more than just tally sacks (though players like Miller and Houston are game wreckers with their pass rush).
Elite defenses start with dominant players at each level, and the Vikings seem to have that mold started, with Griffin, Barr and Harrison Smith all falling in or around that classification.
The secondary has also been much improved in 2014. Despite hiccups here and there, they have always rebounded well and played good in pass and run defense. Both Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes have put their stamp on the secondary. But it’s also worth mentioning the secondary has been better due to the much improved pass rush.
The offense has been the more inconsistent side of the ball, with the loss of team leaders like Cassel and Peterson, that should be expected. So far the rushing attack has been decent, but not up the the elite level fans saw with Peterson. Although the team is still ranked tenth in the league in rushing yards per game, some of the can be attributed to Bridgewater’s mobility.
Bridgewater himself, clearly is a work in progress. The kid shows so much promise, poise and leadership despite his young age. I love what he has brought to the table so far this year — he has all the intangibles like leadership and decision-making to become the franchise quarterback fans are so desperate to watch. But to reach the level above just an average passer, he has some work to do.
Bridgewater’s passing skills need to improve, especially his accuracy with downfield passes — this aspect of quarterbacking is one that separates the good from the elite. He hits his long passes from time to time, but the game versus the Redskins proves just how much he needs to improve. Bridgwater missed the deep ball on three huge pass plays, potential scores. In the NFL, downfield passing is key, not only to help the run game, but also because scoring touchdowns on long passes is few and far in between, and a game-changing aspect of the contest. When a receiver gets behind the defense, a quarterback needs to capitalize.
I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Bridgewater — I hope he can continue to mature as a passer and a leader on the Vikings offense.
The two dim spots for the Vikings offense this year have been the offensive line and Cordarrelle Patterson. The offensive line obviously took a significant blow when Fusco went down, but there are no excuses for how poorly Matt Kalil and John Sullivan have played during stretches of the season. Remember when Teddy was sacked eight times versus the Lions? Kalil has been like a revolving saloon door at times, allowing his defensive assignments to break up plays in the backfield. The inconsistency of this unit has been a huge reason for the offensive woes in 2014.
As for Patterson, his lack of success has perhaps been the most troubling. Many fans thought this was to be his breakout season, the season where he would put his mark on the NFL as one of the game’s most dangerous playmakers. But Patterson has struggled to get free off the line of scrimmage and struggled to get himself open. One reason why he struggles is because he lacks precision route running, a trait that top quality wide receivers possess.
Getting Patterson involved in the running game seems like a good way to get him involved, but clearly the coaching staff feels like his lack of execution in the passing game is a reason to keep him off the field. Coming out of college, Patterson was regarded as a raw talent who did not have even good route running skills. In his second season, it doesn’t appear as if he has blossomed in that regard, something that has allowed defenses to shut him down and coaches to be frustrated with his game. The kick returning aspect of his game, I have no answers for that — fans still haven’t seen one highlight reel run on special teams in 2014.
With all the turmoil so far this season, it’s hard to call this season a loss, even despite the Vikings extremely dire chances of making the postseason. So far we have seen the emergence of two young stars on both sides of the ball and a team that has found a defensive identity that could lead to many great years to come. One thing is for sure playing in the current NFC North: the Vikings need a stellar defense to slow down with the mighty offenses.
This team seems to have a bright future. I hope the team continues to grow around the young studs and the rookie head coach.
Photos courtesy of: Minnesota Vikings