It was about this time last year that Childress and his coaching staff met to discuss and analyze the previous season. During his early offseason studies, Childress identified several areas he felt needed improvement for the Vikings to become a better football team in 2008. While we don't have the team's official numbers on all categories, we do know that they made improvements in several of the areas of emphasis.
Penalties – In 2006, the Vikings were the most penalized team in the league, committing 123 for 903 yards, an average of 56 yards per game. With an offense that struggled to begin with – especially in the passing game – forcing them into third-and-long situations didn't help matters. Compared to the playoff teams of 2006, the Vikings had almost two more penalties per game.
This may have been the area of most dramatic improvement for the Vikings. They had only 86 penalties for 662 yards in 2007, an average of 5.4 penalties per game, which was better than the playoff teams of 2006. It was also 15 yards per game better than the 2006 Vikings. They ended up 13th in the league in that category in 2007.
Sacks – In 2006, the Vikings defense had 30 sacks, ranking near the bottom of the league in that category while fill-in starter Darrion Scott led the team with 5.5 and their most explosive pass rusher, Erasmus James, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game.
In 2007, the defensive end position continued to be one with personnel in flux. This time, Scott suffered a season-ending foot injury in the fourth game of the season, and after James finally worked his way back into the starting lineup for one game, he had another season-ending knee injury in the 12th game of the season. To add to the personnel problems, defensive end Ray Edwards, who was leading the team with five sacks at the time, was suspended for the final four games at the same time that James was lost to injury.
So how did the Vikings do with sacks in 2007? They actually improved by eight. Edwards was joined by linebacker Ben Leber and defensive end Kenechi Udeze for the team lead with five sacks. According to Childress, one in seven sacks created a turnover in 2006 and one in 27 sacks resulted in a quarterback leaving the game. The Vikings' eight more sacks may have helped account for seven more forced fumbles in 2007.
But getting pressure will be emphasis for improvement again this offseason, as it is a major component in pass defense.
"I think it's a plus defensively that we had eight more sacks. Our big point of emphasis obviously offensively and defensively will be throwing the football and defending the throwing. I think as particularly where it relates to situational football…our guys can be smarter situationally, whether it's third down, whether it's red zone, whether it's third-and-short, whether it's goal-line passes," Childress said at his season-ending press conference.
Giveaways – In 2006, Vikings quarterbacks threw 20 interceptions and the team had 31 fumbles, losing 12 of them. The quarterbacks improved in 2007, throwing 14 interceptions, but the team lost more fumbles (despite putting it on the ground fewer times). Last year's fumble total was 27, four fewer than in 2006, but the Vikings lost 16 of them, four more than in 2006.
According to Childress, a team with no turnovers will win 80 percent of the time. For much of the 2007 season, the Vikings were well ahead of their opponents in turnover ratio and ranked in the top in the league, but when the defense didn't get as many turnovers in the final games of the season, the team ended up only plus-one in the takeaway/giveaway category.
"I think as you look at the last three games as I pull those apart, 10 turnovers and one takeaway kind of paints the whole picture for you, and the one takeaway was (Darren Sharper's) game-ender there vs. Chicago," Childress said.
Third-down efficiency – In 2006, the Vikings struggled to convert third downs, turning only 33 percent of them into first downs for the 28th ranking in the league. They improved in 2007, but only incrementally, with a 34.5 efficiency.
There is a reason Childress talked about improving the pass defense in the 2007 offseason, as the Vikings lost ground in defending on third down. In 2006, they kept opponents to a 34 percent conversion rate on third downs. In 2007, that increased to 40.2 percent.
Explosive gains – The Vikings' passing game actually had far fewer gains of 20 yards or more than it did in 2006. Two years ago, the Vikings came up with 44 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and in 2007 they had just 26. According to Childress, the team ranked 25th in explosive passing plays in 2007.
But the run game helped balance that out. In 2006, the Vikings had 13 rushes of 15 yards or more. In 2007, the Vikings had 38 rushes of 15 yards or more.
Childress said that overall the team was first in the league in explosive rushing plays.
Quarterback mobility/runs for first downs – One of the reasons Childress wanted to make Tarvaris Jackson his starter in 2007 was because of his improved mobility over Brad Johnson. According to Childress' numbers from 2006, one first-down run by a quarterback improved the probability of scoring by 22 percent. And mobile quarterbacks – classified as those with 14 or more first-down rushes on the season – threw 2.19 fewer interceptions.
Jackson played in 12 games in 2007, rushing for 260 yards on 54 carries, a 4.8-yard average. In 2006, Johnson played in 15 games and rushed for 82 yards on 29 carries, a 2.8-yard average.
The win total in 2007 increased by two, but it would appear that Childress' main points of emphasis during the offseason were met with improvement in 2007. And he seems convinced that the players are committed to furthering that effort in 2008.
"I just think the positives with this team coming back and the experience that they gained that all of them will continue to improve because, as we talked about in our team meeting … they are all interested in getting individually as good as they can and collectively as good as they can," Childress said. "I think we'll see that as we go through this offseason. Certainly none of us have a crystal ball, but those men that I talked to … in that room are interested in getting better, and that's obviously huge for us."