A weekly look at the Minnesota Vikings’ upcoming matchup featuring numbers that shouldn’t give the reader a headache or require an advanced mathematics degree to decipher.
Minnesota (11-5 in 2015) at Tennessee (3-13 in 2015)
The Vikings boast an 8-4 record against the Titans franchise. Minnesota won the most recent meeting, 30-7, in 2012. Despite their limited game history, the two teams did open the season with each other on one other occasion. The Vikings got the 1989 campaign off to an excellent start with a 38-7 win over the then-Houston Oilers.
Despite a 12-36 record the past three seasons, the Titans have won three straight opening- week games. The Vikings are 1-1 under Mike Zimmer in lid lifters. They overpowered the Rams, 34-6, in 2014 and played their worst game of the season in last year’s opener, a mystifying 20-3 defeat to the lowly 49ers.
The Titans have...
- turned over 41 percent of their 2015 roster
- compiled a 2-14 home record the past two years
The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson has...
- rushed for 854 yards in nine season openers (5.2 yards-per-carry)
- eclipsed 100 yards in three openers (the last coming in 2009 versus Cleveland)
Whether backup Shaun Hill or newly acquired Sam Bradford gets the start for Minnesota’s injured Teddy Bridgewater, the Football Outsiders Almanac makes a strong case that they are one in the same. Hill’s career completion percentage (62), yards-per-attempt (6.77), touchdown percentage (4.1) and interception percentage (2.3) nearly mirror Bradford’s numbers: 60-percent completion, 6.45 yards-per-attempt, 3.4 touchdown and 2.3 interception percentages.
Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Hill is a 15-year veteran who threw all of seven passes last season and doesn’t have a strong arm. Conversely, Bradford passed for a career-high 3,725 yards and established team records for completions (346) and completion percentage (65.03) as a Philadelphia Eagle in 2015.
“Sam Bradford is light years a better quarterback than Shaun Hill at this stage of their careers,” said Greg Cosell, senior producer at NFL Films, who constantly studies game tape in his role as executive producer of “NFL Matchup” on ESPN. “Bradford can make all the necessary throws, and he doesn’t turn the ball over. He will play well in the Vikings offense.”
It shouldn’t be hard for Bradford to surpass last year’s Purple passing numbers. Minnesota finished 31st in the league in passing yards (2,928) and TD passes (14). A revamped offensive line featuring Alex Boone at left guard and Andre Smith at right tackle should bolster the team’s pass protection. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings were 29th in the league last year in adjusted sack rate allowed. That pressure certainly played a role in Bridgewater’s modest statistics.
Despite the Titans’ dismal 2015 campaign, Marcus Mariota provided hope for the future, tying Peyton Manning’s rookie record with four games of three or more touchdown passes and establishing a new rookie mark with two games of four or more TDs and no interceptions. In his dozen games, Mariota threw for 2,818 yards, completed 62.2 percent of his passes, and tossed 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Interestingly, Mariota’s average pass length (9.29 yards) surpassed both Bradford (7.4) and Bridgewater (7.2), as did Mariota’s average pass length completion (7.24 yards versus Bradford’s 5.33 yards and Bridgewater’s 4.92 yards).
Mariota’s top target was Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker, whose 94 catches accounted for more than 27 percent of the team’s receptions.
The Vikings defense gained laurels last year for its play from the national NFL media, but in terms of yards, the Titans were comparable. Tennessee bested the Vikings in total yards allowed (5,475 to 5,510) and passing yards allowed (3,678 to 3,762). The teams were also close in rushing yards surrendered: 1,748 for the Vikings and 1,797 for the Titans.
The big difference between the two units? The Vikings, who return all 11 starters from a year ago, gave up just 18.9 points-a-game (fifth-best) compared to Tennessee’s 26.4 points.
Contributing to that figure, Minnesota had a plus-5 turnover ratio while the Titans were minus-14.
The Running Game
Whether the Vikings’ starter is Hill or Bradford, the team most likely will rely on the running attack, led by All-Pro Peterson, whose career 4.9 yards-per-carry average is fourth-best in NFL history. But how effective can the reigning NFL rushing champion be, considering he didn’t take a snap in the preseason? While his career numbers in season openers are impressive, Peterson has averaged just 3.4 yards-per-carry in the first game of the year for the past two seasons. Also, the last two times Peterson eclipsed 1,400 yards in a season (he accumulated 1,485 in 2015), his output the following seasons dropped 21 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
The Titans rushing attack was terrible in 2015. Leading rusher Antonio Andrews gained just 520 yards (3.6 yards per carry). However, coach Mike Mularkey has promised an “exotic smash-mouth approach” for 2016. In the preseason, it was effective. Thanks in part to a rejuvenated DeMarco Murray and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry running the ball and two new offensive linemen (center Ben Jones and eighth-overall pick Jack Conklin at right tackle), the Titans compiled 644 rushing yards on just 120 attempts (5.4 yards per carry).
Tennessee’s new emphasis on the ground game could cause problems for the Vikings. According to Greg Cosell and his researchers at NFL Films, last year when Minnesota was in its base 4-3 defense, teams ran the ball 114 times and averaged 5.9 yards per rush. Mularkey most likely will try to keep Minnesota in its base defense and try to exploit that potential weakness with his team’s “thunder and thunder” combination of Murray and Henry.
The computer analysis of fivethirtyeight.com gives the Vikings a 71 percent chance of beating the Titans.
In the NFL expert picks compiled by nflpickwatch.com, 65 percent of the panel picks the Vikings to win.