There was a time earlier this year when any win would have been completely satisfying for the Minnesota Vikings, but now with a six-game winning streak and more wins needed to make the playoffs, the players and coaches are being critical of themselves.
With the NFL's 25th-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense, there is much to improve upon if the playoff hopes are to become playoff reality. While the defense is ranked one slot lower than the offense, the Vikings defense hasn't surrendered more than 21 points and has created 22 turnovers since the winning streak began.
The offensive players, meanwhile, while doing enough to win, realize they need more production. Quarterback Brad Johnson hasn't lost a game this year as a starter, but there is room for improvement.
"Each and every week we're going to get more and more out of our offense," running back Michael Bennett said. "Offensively, I know we have what it takes to go out and get the job done. It's just a matter of staying focused and trying to execute the plays that are called in the huddle. We just need to be consistent. Whatever coach is calling in, we need to make sure the protection is doing their job, as running backs we need to make sure we're protecting and getting into our right routes. I think if we can protect our quarterback well enough, Brad can sit back there and pick everybody apart."
Johnson's 90.9 passer rating is ninth in the NFL, but the Vikings are particularly concerned with scoring points off turnovers. The defense created six turnovers, but the offense only turned those into 10 points.
"The one thing that troubled me after the game was not turning more of those turnovers into touchdowns," head coach Mike Tice said. "You've got to take those turnovers and turn some of those into touchdowns because when you play good teams, and again not to take anything away from St. Louis, but when you play the Pittsburghs and the etc., etc., you've got to score touchdowns. That's probably the thing at the end of the game that had me the most troubled was that we didn't turn some of those beautiful turnovers into more touchdowns. We'll work on that."
Tice wasn't the only one disappointed.
"Field goals are nice, but in this league you need touchdowns," said tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who leads the team with 57 receptions but has yet to catch a touchdown this season. "(Tice is) right, as an offense we have to step up and make plays. Defensively, they're playing so well over there that they're keeping us in games that we need, and they're giving us short fields and they're scoring off interceptions and turnovers. But as an offense there is going to come a time when we're going to have to step up, and I think this week is the week because of Pittsburgh and the problems they pose as a team."
The perception is that the Vikings didn't score enough points when given a short field following a turnover Sunday against St. Louis, but a look at the statistics shows that only two of the Vikings' five interceptions resulted in the offense receiving the ball in St. Louis territory, once on the 28-yard line when they settled for a field goal and once on the 21-yard line when they got a touchdown. A 61-yard kickoff return by Koren Robinson also gave Minnesota the ball on the St. Louis 21-yard line, and Johnson and Company scored a touchdown there as well.
Three possessions that began in St. Louis territory resulted in 17 of the Vikings' 27 points. Two of Minnesota's other three interceptions were downed in the end zone for touchbacks, creating an 80-yard field for the offense.
Still, no one on offense seems pleased with their ability to score on a short field.
"It's very frustrating, and that's something we need to get remedied. If you're going to win in this league and then be in the playoff hunt, you have to take advantage of the short field," guard Adam Goldberg said. "Our defense and special teams has been doing a great job since we started the streak of putting us in the short field, putting us in advantageous situations. We have to capitalize on those, and we have to capitalize on more of those than we have been. And if we do, I think we'll be a tough team to beat.
"We're going to have to do a little self-scouting. On the 80-yard drives, what are we doing differently? Part of it is there's great parity in this league. Defenses are going to make stops."
At look at the red zone statistics also shows that perception isn't meeting reality.
In the past three games, the Vikings have been terrific in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on eight of their nine trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The other time netted a field goal.
Before that, however, times weren't so good. Against Green Bay on Nov. 21, they were 1-for-3 scoring touchdowns inside the red zone. The week before, against the New York Giants, they were 0-for-1. And it wasn't much better than that previously – Detroit 3-for-5, Carolina 2-for-4, Green Bay 1-for-3, Chicago 0-for-3, Atlanta 1-for-2, New Orleans 1-for-5, Cincinatti 1-for-2 and Tampa Bay 0-for-2.
For the season, the Vikings have scored touchdowns on 46.2 percent of their red zone trips, ranking 20th in the league. Their next opponent, Pittsburgh, is ranked fifth while scoring touchdowns on 60.5 of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
Maybe the concern is with the Vikings offense overall. Against a bad St. Louis defense, the Vikings generated only 259 yards of offense.
So what's broken?
"I don't know. I run what's called. As far as players, we need to try and get the ball in our playmakers' hands and once we get the ball in our playmakers' hands, we've got to make plays," Wiggins said. "We've got to stay aggressive, stay hungry and want to make plays. Everybody has got to have that attitude of, ‘Hey, give me the ball, I want to make plays.'"
Facing three good defenses on their trek to making the playoffs, the playmakers will have to show up on offense to continue playing in the postseason.
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