With a 2-4 record and the possibility of staying in contention for the NFC North slipping further away, it might be time to stop just considering and make some changes. Here are a few changes that could be pondered, some more realistic than others.
After giving up eight sacks on Sunday and 22 on the season, something has to change in the pass protection. The 22 sacks surrendered for the season are the second-most in the league, behind the 27 given up by the Jacksonville Jaguars. When asked if he was considering changes on the offensive line, Zimmer said: “I’m not opposed to it.”
The question, of course, is where those change might be enacted. Although Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson continue to struggle, especially in pass protection, do the Vikings have a viable option to replace either of them? Their depth was already thin at guard after losing perhaps their best player on the line, Brandon Fusco, to a season-ending pectoral injury.
“I feel like we have the ability and the talent to become better than what we have. That’s what I feel,” Zimmer said. “Whether it’s viable options or the guys we have in there, we have the ability to do it. Are we getting it done? No. The guys overall are not bad football players. They’re just not playing real good right now.”
Rookie guard David Yankey wasn’t ready a couple weeks ago, Zimmer said then, and Mike Harris has hardly had a chance at tackle. Perhaps Austin Wentworth would be a consideration at guard. The best bet here is for Zimmer to stress better play there instead of making immediate changes. Eventually, however, changes will be needed if the play continues like it has.
Jerome Felton was once a Pro Bowl fullback for a Hall of Fame running back. Those days of 2012 seem so long ago with Adrian Peterson out indefinitely while tending to legal issues.
While Norv Turner’s offense has been effective using a fullback in the past, Felton was on the field for just five plays on Sunday. Felton said it was more like four because he doesn’t count the “Victory” formation when the Vikings kneeled on the ball at the end of the first half.
“I let the film speak for itself. I feel like I’m playing at a high level, but whatever the coach wants to do that’s what I’m going to do. I’m a team player. When my number is called I just try to do my job,” Felton said.
While Felton’s biggest contribution is often thought to be as a lead blocker, here is an interesting stat: Nobody on the Vikings has a bigger impact on the passing game than Felton – the Vikings average 10.50 yards per pass when Felton is in the game and 5.27 when he isn’t.
MORE JARIUS, LESS JENNINGS
This is a change that isn’t likely to happen, but Wright simply offers more versatility than Jennings. Who had the Vikings’ biggest play on Sunday? That would be Wright, whose 21-yard gain on a reverse was their most explosive play.
To be fair, Jennings did have a 16-yard pass play that stood as the third-longest play. Jennings has been targeted 34 times and caught 20 of those (a catch percentage of 58.8) with 61 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. Wright has been thrown at 29 times and caught 18 of them (a catch percentage of 62.1) but has 161 yards after the catch.
Jennings has a $7 million cap number and there are plenty of three-receiver sets to go around for both Jennings and Wright to be on the field. But if you look at production when given the opportunity, Wright has the edge.
THE EMERGING NEW GUY INSIDE
It didn’t take a look at Pro Football Focus’ rankings of defensive tackles to see that Tom Johnson has been a valuable addition to the Vikings’ defensive line, but it didn’t hurt, either. Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn got the big free-agent dollars, but Johnson is providing the pressure the Vikings need. He is PFF’s 11th-ranked defensive tackle, but a simple look at the Vikings’ own stats would show his impact, too.
Johnson has three sacks in 148 defensive snaps. Sharrif Floyd has 1.5 sacks in 232 snaps. No, sacks aren’t the be-all, end-all of the pass-rushing equation, but Johnson been consistently applying pressure on passing downs and has earned more of role there.
No, Josh Robinson wants nothing to do with playing nickel back. He tried it last year, against his wishes, and didn’t fare well. Robinson wants to stay outside and he should. Except it’s looking increasingly like he should be there in the base defense with Captain Munnerlyn just coming in for the nickel situations, which usually are employed more than half the time anyway. Munnerlyn is more experienced and more adept at blitzing, but Robison has shown marked improvement in his pass-coverage ability, as has Xavier Rhodes. Taking the finer points of coaching, Robinson and Rhodes could actually be the present and future of the Vikings’ cornerback situation, as much as that might have shocked us last year.
The stats, according to Pro Football Focus, back up what we see on film. Robinson has allowed only 11 receptions in the 24 times his receiver has been targeted, and he has allowed only 10.5 yards per completion, intercepted two passes, and quarterbacks have only a 53.5 rating when targeting his man in coverage. That ranks eighth among cornerbacks that have played at least 25 percent of the snaps.
Munnerlyn, meanwhile, has allowed 16 receptions on 22 targets and 11.8 yards per reception, and quarterbacks have an astounding 137.9 rating when targeting his man in coverage. That’s second-worst among cornerbacks playing at least 25 percent of the snaps.
Coaches will never make lineup changes based solely on stats, nor should they, but when the stats appear to match what the film shows, well, if Zimmer wants to hold players accountable and threaten playing time based on discipline, he will have some decisions to make.