Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
Zimmer downplayed the issues against the Bengals in his Monday press conference and still thinks his team has a chance to be really good
The Vikings opened the season with a lot of mistakes that resulted in a disappointing loss to a Bengals team the Vikings coulda, shoulda beat on Sunday- comfortably really- but didn’t. It was the first real view we’ve had into where this Vikings team stands relative to a range of expectations for the season, and by not getting a win they fell short of those expectations. The rash of penalties, predominately on offense, was unexpected and defensively they fell short in some key areas too. So now what? Should we be lowering expectations after that performance? Or is it one of those games that good teams have every year when they simply don’t play well, but proves to be more of an outlier than the norm for the season?
At his Monday press conference, Zimmer seemed to downplay some of the issues that hurt the Vikings against the Bengals, while not excusing them, and really seemed to say that it was a matter of cleaning up technique issues when talking about Bashaud Breeland or the offensive line when it came to holding penalties. He placed the blame on himself for some defensive calls he made that put players in a bad position on some plays, and ended on an optimistic note saying that:
“I think we still have a chance to have a really good team. I know we didn’t show it really in all three phases the other day, but there’s a lot of things I see that are pretty darn good … I think we can be good, but we’ve got to go out and show it.”
So is Zimmer just blowing smoke here? Or whistling past the graveyard?
Let’s take a closer look.
Analyzing the Problems
In judging the severity of a problem in logical fashion, it’s important to consider a few key parameters:
How long standing is the problem?
How easy is the fix?
How long will it take?
Longstanding problems can often be more difficult to fix, and can take longer too. On the other hand, short term problems may have quicker and easier fixes.
False Start Penalties
The Vikings haven’t had history of multiple false start penalties, either in preseason or last season. They pick one up here and there, but not five in one game. It’s not uncommon in the first game of the season, to have more of these type of penalties. Nerves, adrenaline, being in front of big crowds again, whatever the reason, it’s a concentration issue. Three of the false start penalties happened on the first drive on Sunday, and then it calmed down. In the second half, there were none.
Prognosis: quick, easy fix. In fact the problem may have already been fixed. This looks like a first game of the season issue, or even first half or first quarter of the first game issue. Fixing it requires no more than a few words from a coach, if that, to get it right. They took C.J. Ham off the field after he had two of these, presumably to find out if there was some other problem. There wasn’t. They practiced with crowd noise the whole week as well, so players should be used to that issue. Could be a minor point of emphasis this week in practice, but unlikely to be an ongoing problem.
The Vikings in general are not a heavily penalized team- they’re usually below average in both penalties and penalty yards. Last year they were among the 7 least penalized teams in the league on both stats. However, the Vikings were near the top in holding penalties last year. The league average last season was 15 holding penalties per team, and the Vikings had 19. Ten of those were committed by players no longer on the team or active roster. Only Kansas City, Buffalo, and San Francisco had a higher rate of holding penalties per game than the Vikings last season. The Vikings averaged 1.19 per game last season, so having five in one game is very unusual.
In his press conference on Monday, Mike Zimmer talked about the issue as largely a footwork issue, which may not make immediate sense, but often times if an offensive lineman doesn’t have proper footwork, he gets a little out of position. And if he gets a little out of position, he’s forced to reach a bit more to block his guy. And if he has to reach more to block his guy, his hand placement gets out of position and he can get called for holding. Of course offensive linemen hold guys every play- it’s a goal in fact, really. But there is legal and illegal holding. Holding a player inside the shoulders is generally legal, while holding them outside the shoulders is not. An offensive lineman can have his hands latched on outside the shoulders, but if he pulls or twists a guy that way, he can get called for holding.
Making footwork and hand placement a point of emphasis this week in practice may help cut down the number of holding penalties, which in turn may reduce the number passing plays where holding is more likely to be called. That may cut down, but not eliminate, holding penalties. The Vikings’ offense can be a top unit with one holding penalty a game, which has been their average, but can’t be expected to overcome 5 holding penalties in one game. As this level of holding hasn’t been an ongoing problem, I suspect it can be fixed in short order. Indeed, there was only one holding penalty in the second half against the Bengals, compared to four in the first half.
Prognosis: easier, quick fix.
Offensive Line Quality
The other issue that ties-in with the holding penalties is the overall quality of the offensive line, which is a long-standing problem. This season the Vikings got rid of the weak link last year in Dakota Dozier, but they still have a group of young guys that don’t have a lot of years as starters, so they may be more prone to mistakes, whether from first game issues or other causes. Getting them settled down, now that they’ve got a real game under their belt this season, going over the tape, addressing issues, working them in practice, will help. For Oli Udoh, in his first year as a starter, it might take longer, but he has a good natural skill set so he doesn’t have to be perfect every time to be effective. PFF credits him with only 1 QB hurry against the Bengals, so if he can cut out the penalties, he could prove to be a solid upgrade. Udoh’s size and length could also come in handy helping out Garrett Bradbury.
For a guy like Garrett Bradbury, there may be more upside limitations, even with good technique, which Zimmer addressed pretty frankly in his press conference. He said Bradbury can get overpowered by bigger guys and that they need to give him more help from the guards. Bradbury isn’t the only 300 pound center in the league going up against 325-350 pound nose tackles, who are traditionally double-teamed. But he hasn’t held up nearly as well in pass protection, and needs that double-team help to prevent his getting blown back and collapsing the pocket. That becomes a week-to-week game planning issue, depending on the nose and defensive tackles the Vikings are facing.
But typically centers don’t face the brunt of the pass rush, which falls more on the tackles, and to a lesser extent guards. The Vikings have a top right tackle in Brian O’Neill, but left tackle is currently held by long-time backup Rashod Hill, as top draft pick Christian Darrisaw has been out with a groin injury. Hill has done well in spot duty in the past, and doesn’t have size or length limitations, but hasn’t been as consistent over longer periods. He got all the first-team reps throughout the off/pre-season, so he’s more prepared to start than in the past, but he faces some tough matchups in the coming weeks. PFF credits him with only two QB hurries against the Bengals, in 49 drop backs, so if he could continue at that pace he would hold up just fine- if he can also cut out the penalties. But I suspect the Vikings may game plan to help him on occasion against some of his tougher matchups, or at least see how it goes with a contingency plan.
That leaves Ezra Cleveland, who gave up a sack against the Bengals, basically getting beat on a swim move. He gave up a hit and hurry as well. Difficult to say how representative that is for Cleveland, who’s bigger and stronger this year than last, and has most of last year as a starter under his belt. Last year he had a rough first game- to be expected- and another one against Tampa Bay going up against Ndamukong Suh, but other than that held up fine. This year should see some improvement over his rookie campaign, but he could still struggle some against top defensive tackles.
Prognosis: getting to an average quality offensive line, which would be an improvement over previous years, is possible in the short term with existing players, and the first game out wasn’t terrible apart from the penalties. Having a plan to address weak spots with TE/FB or guard help, and a reasonable amount of improvement from young guards is the logical path to get there.
Getting to a top performing offensive line doesn’t look like something achievable this year, unless the Vikings get unexpectedly good performance from Hill and Bradbury the rest of the season, while Cleveland and Udoh prove to be significant upgrades. The slow comeback of Christian Darrisaw doesn’t suggest he’ll be ready for a starting role until at least the Vikings’ bye-week, and even then that could be dependent on how well Hill is doing at that time. Rookie tackles typically struggle to be league average, even first-round picks, so expecting Darrisaw to be an immediate stud is unrealistic.
Breeland had a rough start to his Vikings career, and it’s fair to say that had he performed better, the Vikings would’ve won that game. His play was key in two Bengals touchdown drives. Apart from Breeland, the Vikings coverage was good- the rest of the team allowed just 154 yards passing in 70 minutes.
In his press conference, Mike Zimmer played down Breeland’s issues in coverage. He said his pass interference penalty was simply a matter of looking back for the ball over his outside, rather than inside shoulder. He said officials tend to call pass interference when a defensive back turns toward the receiver to look back for the ball, and not when they turn away from the receiver to look back. That issue looks like a quick fix.
But Breeland has also been beat twice on long go routes since joining the Vikings – something that hasn’t been an issue for him in the past. In fact, Breeland was the best performing CB last season against deep routes- but struggled more against shorter ones. But Breeland was beaten once by Tyreek Hill in preseason, and again by Ja’Marr Chase against the Bengals. It would appear that Breeland simply didn’t get a good enough bump on the receiver off the snap in both cases, but Zimmer also said his coverage call in that situation wasn’t the best. Regardless of the call, however, Breeland has to be more consistent off the snap, or whatever it takes to not allow big plays, as the Vikings coverage appears to be putting him in a lot of man-to-man coverages on the outside, deep routes, without much help over the top.
Prognosis: both the penalty and coverage lapses should be short-term fixes, given Breeland’s history against deep routes. Both seem like easily fixable technique issues, particularly the penalty, but Breeland has to execute those fixes. It doesn’t appear to be an issue where Breeland is just too slow or is physically outmatched, which would ultimately have a fix of having another player on the field. The Vikings have decent options there if Breeland fails to make the necessary technique adjustments, but Zimmer- who knows his defensive backs- didn’t seem overly concerned.
As a coach evaluating a player, you look at technique issues and also there frequency. Sometimes a CB with more consistent technique problems doesn’t always get targeted, so maybe it doesn’t look as bad as it could be, while a CB that has good technique most of the time gets targeted for a big play that makes him look worse than he is overall. So it may be that Zimmer likes what he sees in Breeland most of the time, and thinks the fixes or technique issues that have caused the penalty and big play are relatively minor. That could very well be the case, but Breeland will have to show that it is.
Any time the Vikings give up 149 yards rushing, that’s not a good day at the office for the run defense. Zimmer blamed himself for that in large part, saying he got out of some of the calls he made earlier in the game that put them in better position to defend the run, largely based on Bengals’ previous year tendencies. These type of things can often be an issue early in the season, when oppo research isn’t reliable, because you don’t know what changes teams are hiding until the regular season begins. As the season progresses, teams have less to hide and tendencies once again are revealed, giving coordinators better visibility to make their calls.
Zimmer said he liked what he saw from his run defense, however, presumably meaning he liked how his players performed when put in the right call to defend the run. Looking at a PFF breakdown of the Vikings defense, however, paints a more mixed picture. While there were 30 stops- wins for the defense- there were also 14 missed tackles – 5 by Breeland. Overall the Vikings PFF tackling grade, which in good years has been one of the best in the league, was ranked 30th after week one. Team run defense grade ranking wasn’t much better at 24th.
While it’s true that being in a pass play alignment in defending the run can create more difficult scenarios tackling- having to tackle Joe Mixon in space vs. tackling him while bottled up at the line of scrimmage for example – overall tackling and run defense needs to improve. A play-by-play breakdown may prove to be more encouraging, based on defensive alignment, but one way or another run defense and tackling needs to get better than week one showed.
Prognosis: short term fix. Getting better aligned against the run is something Zimmer, with umpteen years calling defenses, will hone as the season goes on. It’s a process for every coach, every year, and this year is no exception. And for teams with more continuity in play-calling, there are fewer surprises.
Individual players that had relatively poor grades in tackling or run defense against the Bengals have not had those problems consistently in the past. For example, MacKensie Alexander was credited with two missed tackles on Sunday, but hasn’t had more than 8 missed tackles in a season since entering the league. Bashaud Breeland was credited with 5 missed tackles, but hasn’t had more than 14 in a season. Sheldon Richardson had a 38.8 run defense grade on Sunday, but hasn’t had a season run defense grade below 67. 7 the last several years. He had one tackle for a stop on Sunday, and no missed tackles.
Analyzing the Positives
Alongside the problems, the Vikings had a number of positive take-aways from the Bengals game as well- some expected, some perhaps more of an unknown heading into the game.
Cousins, Thielen, Jefferson
The keys to the Vikings passing game from a year ago began with a great deal of continuity from last season, overall putting up a solid game typical of the trio. The depth of target was shorter than last year, but largely a function of the situations the offense faced- many 2nd and 3rd and long situations, where the defense played an umbrella coverage to take-away the long routes. But this looks like it will continue to be a strength of the offense, and with better situational setup, could also result in more explosive plays- something the Vikings passing offense ranked third in last season.
While this was largely expected, seeing the Vikings passing game began with a solid performance, despite worse than usual situations, was encouraging.
We’d heard that Osborn had a great off-season, but didn’t see it so much in preseason, creating some unknown in terms of which, if any, receiver may emerge as a bona-fide WR3. While one game doesn’t a WR3 make, Osborn went a long way toward eliminating doubt about his ability to fill that role. It wasn’t just his great YAC play to pick up a key 3rd and 24 conversion, it was also the fact that he was targeted 9 times, suggesting his ability to get open has improved, catching 7 of those targets for 76 yards. Dede Westbrook is still in the mix as an alternative for WR3, but a bit behind given he missed all of the off/pre-season. He could also provide some needed production as an additional receiver which takes on a bit more importance given the loss of Irv Smith Jr. at tight end.
It remains to be seen if Osborn can extend his performance over the course of a season, but his first game shows significant improvement in his ability to gain separation, and confidence, which bodes well for the future.
Michael Pierce, Pass Rusher
While the addition of Pierce, along with Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson, into the starting lineup at nose tackle was expected to be a benefit to the pass rush by doing a better job of collapsing the pocket- enabling edge rushers like Danielle Hunter a better path to the quarterback, Pierce picking up two sacks on his own was a welcome surprise.
Defensive line coach and co-DC Andre Patterson talked about Pierce’s unrecognized talent for rushing the passer during the off-season, and he appears to be giving Pierce the opportunities to recognize that ability. His two sacks in only 15 pass rush attempts against the Bengals doubled the number of sacks he had his last two seasons in Baltimore. Again, one game doesn’t make a new trend, but clearly Patterson’s assessment and Pierce’s results against the Bengals suggest more to come.
Pierce faces aging Pro-Bowl center Rodney Hudson Sunday at Arizona, who had just a 28.5 pass blocking grade week one, after seeing his pass blocking grade decrease to average last season from the All-Pro level it had been throughout his career.
How well the aging Peterson would do with the Vikings was a question mark, given his age and slide in performance the last couple years. His first game was encouraging, allowing just 2 receptions for 13 yards on 3 targets, and a 75.7 passer rating when targeted.
He’ll have a bigger challenge on Sunday, where he’ll likely draw All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins in coverage. How he does against Hopkins, who had a solid start to the year on Sunday, could provide a better assessment of where Peterson stands in his attempt to return to top form.
Nick Vigil as Base Linebacker
The Vikings linebacker depth behind Eric Kendricks and the injured Anthony Barr remained largely a question mark this off-season, although Vigil appeared to separate himself from the rest of the contenders for LB3. His performance against the Bengals was encouraging from a base linebacker standpoint, with 8 tackles for a defensive stop, including a sack. His coverage ability is as yet unproven, and his track record suggests that’s not a strength. Against the Bengals he gave up 3 receptions on 3 target for 21 yards. Not great, not terrible. But as a base linebacker who’s effective against the run and can blitz, he’s a nice addition to the group.
Special teams had been a liability all season last year for the Vikings, with field goal and extra point percentage made at the bottom of the league, coverage and return units lackluster, even punting not all that great.
The Bengals game proved to be a 180 degree difference from last season, with a clutch 53-yard field goal made at the buzzer (twice), a booming 63-yard punt in overtime to flip the field, and solid performance from all special teams units, although returns attempted might have been better, or not attempted in the case of the one kick return.
The overhaul of special teams- coach, kicker, punter, key personnel – appears to be an initial success. Again, it’s only one game, but if the Vikings were to get this kind of performance from their special teams units throughout the season, that will doubtless add to the win column.
Second Guessing Preseason Reps
The Vikings lost Irv Smith Jr.- their highest graded offensive player in preseason- for the season in a meaningless preseason game. But after the Bengals game many criticized the lack of reps in preseason for the Vikings starters. Patrick Peterson, Justin Jefferson, Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen (4 snaps) didn’t play in preseason. They weren’t the problem and had solid games for the most part.
The starting offensive line and Kirk Cousins had 30 snaps in preseason. They had one declined penalty between them. Bashaud Breeland had 37 snaps in preseason, and was the highest graded defensive starter on the team, with an 84.6 overall PFF grade, and an 85.8 coverage grade- both near elite.
Kirk Cousins had a fairly poor 49.8 overall grade in preseason, not having his best receivers to throw to and the backups having trouble getting open. After week one he’s the 8th highest graded QB in the league according to PFF at 80.9, just behind Patrick Mahomes at 81.0. And Cousins has a higher passing grade than Mahomes too.
There is no basis to believe playing starters more in preseason would’ve helped the problems they had against the Bengals. Zero. Nada. Niente. The risk of losing another starter to injury, however, is a real one. Image the reaction if Zimmer played the offensive line twice as much in preseason, and Brian O’Neill was lost for the season. All those criticizing him for not playing starters enough in preseason, would be second-guessing him for playing them too much and getting them injured in meaningless games.
It’s a 17 game season, and injuries, which can and do have a decisive impact on a team’s fortunes during the regular season, are bound to happen. Any sensible coach is going to limit preseason reps as much as possible for two reasons. One, injuries are going to happen, and reducing the risk of them to starters in preseason makes sense. Secondly, injuries are going to happen and you need to give your backups valuable reps to prepare them to step in when needed. Preseason is the only opportunity to give them significant snaps.
Most of the problems the Vikings experienced against the Bengals on Sunday- the penalties in particular – were signs of first-game sloppy play and for the most part disappeared after the first half. But those penalties were key in killing several drives for the Vikings offense, and to that extent were the primary reason the Vikings lost the game.
But these are not chronic problems. The Vikings have typically been one of the least penalized teams in the league, and were so last year, and there is no reason to believe suddenly something permanent has changed. Instead, the more logical conclusion is that the penalties were the product of first game issues, whether jitters or adrenaline in the case of the false starts, or some footwork technique that hadn’t been a problem- at least not to this extent- in the past that can be corrected without much problem during the week of practice.
Defensively, the issues with Bashaud Breeland are also correctable in the short term with some attention to technique work. Cameron Dantzler last season gave up a big play in the first game, but improved gradually during the season last year and became one of the best CBs in the league the last several games. Breeland is an established vet with a career 86.9 passer rating allowed. There is no reason to believe his 145.8 passer rating allowed against the Bengals is his new normal.
Beyond that, the weaknesses the Vikings showed against the Bengals are either of lesser importance/impact, or can be better managed or mitigated as specific issues in real games are identified.
On the positive side, there were questions about the Vikings’ special teams and WR3 that appeared to be answered positively after the Bengals game, although it is just one game. The Vikings pass rush, which was terrible last season, looks closer to normal for the Mike Zimmer era, although with 5 sacks in the first game, they’re on track to easily surpass the number of sacks they’ve had in a season. Of course that will likely even out over the year, but they’re off to a good start, even if overall pressures weren’t as good as the sack total would suggest.
It’s a long season. Way too long for over-reactions to one game. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, some words of wisdom: