Mike Zimmer isn’t into savoring the positives.
Sure, the Minnesota Vikings coach will acknowledge improvements and even occasionally protect a player he believes is receiving too much criticism. But, at times, it’s a big-brother relationship – you can’t beat up my brother; that job is reserved for me.
He can be hard on those he loves the most, the defensive backs, and he often stays out of the domain that he delegates – the offensive players. However, while Zimmer might major in defense, he has an interest in making sure his offense functions at least at a competitive level.
Suffice it to say the Vikings got away with one last week. As they say, we had seen that movie before: A Minnesota team with expectations rolls into an inferior opponent and stinks up the joint. They appeared to be putting on a sequel to their 2015 season opener last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in the first half. The movie had changed venues from the West Coast to the Southeast, but the plotline was the same, with the offense struggling and the defense giving up more than expected in the first 30 minutes of the thriller.
As Zimmer said about the 2015 opening act in San Francisco, we’re not sure who that team was in the first half in Nashville. Eventually, the defense saved the day with two touchdowns on turnovers and the Vikings got the win.
It wiped out an uneven kicking performance and a poor showing in the running game. With the NFL’s defending rushing champion, Adrian Peterson, in their backfield, the Vikings now rank 25th in rushing offense with only 65 yards on the ground and 31st with a 2.3-yard average per run.
Zimmer said Peterson is probably the most game-planned-for running back in the league, and the Titans stuffed him five times by stuffing the defensive “box” with eight or nine men on 16 of Peterson’s 19 rushes. Teams are going to do that with Peterson, and Zimmer acknowledged that sometimes the Vikings will just have to “man up” and be able to exert their will in those situations.
The Vikings placed an emphasis on improving their offensive line in the offseason. When it came to pass protection, it seemed to pay dividends. Teddy Bridgewater was the most pressured and one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL last year. Shaun Hill wasn’t sacked once in the opener.
But when it came to blocking in the run game, the offensive line left something to be desired. Zimmer said free-agent guard Alex Boone was “hit and miss a little bit,” but said he didn’t believe it was a product of Boone being in a new offensive system.
“I don’t think so. He had some he was good and some … I just think sometimes when you get one-on-ones, guys get beat,” Zimmer said.
Miscommunication was part it. At other times, Peterson was simply making the wrong read, too.
But if the Vikings are going to succeed with QB Sam Bradford expected to make his first start for the team – in a primetime game against division rival Green Bay, no less – running the ball effectively will have to be a mainstay of the plan.
Last year, Peterson finished with 47 stuffs – tackles for no gain or negative yardage. It was easily the most in the NFL. After one game this season, he is second in the league with five stuffs.
The leader right now? T.J. Yeldon, whom the Packers stuffed six times for no gain or a loss.
“They did a lot of run blitzing. They had the safety down a lot,” Zimmer said of the Packers’ run defense in Week 1 against Yeldon and the Jacksonville Jaguars. “The safety was blitzing a lot. They were getting a bunch of, what normal teams do.”
The good news for Vikings fans anticipating the Week 2 rivalry is that Peterson has gotten off to slow starts in each of his last three season openers.
- 2014: 21 rushes, 75 yards, 3.6-yard average
- 2015: 10-31-3.1
- 2016: 19-31-1.6
Why is that good news? In his only follow-up to bad season opener in the last three years he was back to his normal self. In 2014, the season opener was his only game as he dealt with a suspension and legal issues the rest of the season. Last year, he had an “All Day” performance in Week 2, rushing 29 times for 134 yards and 4.6-yard average (but had two fumbles). That leaves Sunday against the Packers for this year’s answer that still hangs in question.
So how long would it take defensive coordinators to adjust if Bradford can make defenses intent on stuffing Peterson pay?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know,” Zimmer said. “I think each defensive play caller is different. I think that you hit a couple and then they get a little tentative and then they start loosening things up.
“It could be one quarter. It depends on each play caller. Some guys say, ‘The hell with it, I’m going to give up the shots’ and some guys say, ‘Well, OK, they hit a couple of them but I’m going to stay with what the plan is.’ It just depends.”
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The reality is it will be on the Vikings to dictate it. If Peterson can run effectively and consistently, teams may never back away. And that’s when Bradford will have to do what he does best – throw the deep ball with efficiency.
It’s up to the Vikings over the next month to figure out their offensive rhythm and flow before their bye week. It’s there for the taking against a tough schedule, but if they figure out an effective offensive balance, the good-time vibes could be back on the table.