Thursday, November 26, 2015

Captain Munnerlyn

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The lights at TCF Bank Stadium were too bright for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and as it has so many times this season, the glare of the spotlight blinded Mike Zimmer’s young team to one unfortunate truth — they’re not ready to dethrone the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

Sure, the Vikings seemed to be the favorites heading into yesterday’s 30-13 loss, but talk is just unnecessary noise.  “They’re riding a five-game winning streak, holding teams to less than 17 points per game, winning by running the football,” we said. All true, but meaningless once the first whistle blows and the game begins.

It was clear from the start that the Vikings are an improved team, but better than the Packers? Not yet. They shot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties, costly miscues in pass protection, and missed opportunities in the game’s most crucial moments. In a game they needed to win, the Vikings folded under the pressure.

Don’t look at this game as a repeat of their Week 1 performance, though. This wasn’t an unprepared team, or even an outmatched team. It was a team that let the emotions of the moment take over and throw off the chemistry that’s made this such a surprisingly successful season. Captain Munnerlyn, a new addition to Quote of the Week,  reflected on that point after the game:

“I think some guys are too excited and some guys have never been in these situations before. The only way to be in that situation is to take this stance, I’m glad they got the experience. You have to treat it like a normal game. We did a lot of uncharacteristic things trying to get up for this game when you just have to treat it like a normal game and let the game come to you.  I don’t feel like we did that today.”

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Since Mike Zimmer’s arrival in Minnesota, the Vikings haven’t unlocked the door to beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The door slammed in their faces last October, when Christian Ponder and Mike Zimmer’s young team lost 42-10 to the Packers in embarrassing fashion at Lambeau Field. It creaked open later in the year, when Teddy Bridgewater returned to the lineup and nearly beat Green Bay at home, 21-24.

Now, the key is in the Vikings’ hands, and they’re standing at the door ready to turn the handle. Sitting alone in first place and a game ahead of Green Bay, Sunday’s Week 11 matchup could be Minnesota’s greatest opportunity to win the NFC North since their historic 2009 season. To do that, though, they must stop Aaron Rodgers.

Linval Joseph spoke to reporters on Tuesday and expressed confidence as the team prepares for their toughest test yet. “He’s a very good quarterback, elite quarterback and in this league, you want to play against the best,” he said. On Sunday, Joseph will have the chance to sack Rodgers and lead the Vikings to a win. But against a quarterback like No. 12, it’ll take more than just sacks to pull out a victory. They’ll need Mike Zimmer’s best blitz packages, solid play from every cornerback, and a disciplined, yet aggressive pass rush for their eighth win of the season.

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In this weekly series of articles, I’ll be breaking down what went RIGHT or what went WRONG each game for the Minnesota Vikings. This week, thanks to a turnaround victory over the Detroit Lions, I’ll be focusing on the positives and what the Vikings can build on moving forward this season.

In the NFL, game plans can and do change on a weekly basis. Against a team like the San Francisco 49ers, stopping the run has to be a defense’s number one priority — though that’s not always the result. When playing the Detroit Lions, for example, teams put a premium on shutting down Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Matthew Stafford’s other receiving weapons.

On the offensive side of the ball,  finding a balance between running and passing is ideal. Depending on the defense or specific one-on-one matchups, that can change. Take the New England Patriots in Week 2 — Tom Brady threw the ball 59 times against the Buffalo Bills and shredded Rex Ryan’s defense. Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins rushed the ball 37 times against the St. Louis Rams, riding the legs of Alfred Morris and Matt Jones to a victory.

A look at the Vikings’ first three offensive plays from both games illustrates this variation perfectly:

  • (9:19) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete short right to J.Wright.
  • (9:13) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete deep left to C.Johnson (T.Brock).
  • (9:07) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass incomplete deep left to J.Wright [A.Lynch].

The Vikings started their first offensive drive on San Francisco’s 26-yard line after a blocked field goal and Andrew Sendejo return, but couldn’t capitalize on the premium field position. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner scripted running plays, but Teddy Bridgewater checked into passes based on the defense’s alignment and coverage. After missing Jarius Wright in the flat and misfiring on two deep balls, Bridgewater and the offense watched Blair Walsh push a 44-yard field goal — giving the ball right back to the 49ers.

Against the Lions, Turner’s first few offensive calls — downhill, inside zone runs — illustrated his plan to feed Adrian Peterson early and often:

  • (14:55) A.Peterson up the middle to MIN 25 for no gain (E.Ansah).
  • (14:26) A.Peterson left tackle to MIN 36 for 11 yards (G.Quin, E.Ansah).
  • (13:57) A.Peterson up the middle to MIN 38 for 2 yards (J.Jones).

In the first quarter alone, Peterson had 13 carries and surpassed his game total of 10 rushes from the previous week. The offensive line established itself against the Lions from the start and Peterson set the tone on the team’s first drive. He looked more patient, more decisive, putting together 11-yard and 25-yard runs as the Vikings marched down the field for their first touchdown.

Special players make special plays, as evidenced by Adrian Peterson’s ability to turn the corner and outrun edge defenders, but their success wouldn’t be possible without the development of effective game plans. From an offense’s first scripted plays to a defense’s blitzes and pre-determined coverages (Xavier Rhodes shadowing Calvin Johnson,) the Vikings’ preparation is key to a victory each week. After the jump, I’ll take a look at some of that preparation (and a few individual performances) that highlight how the Vikings defeated the Detroit Lions in Week 2

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When it comes to roster depth, Minnesota is doing quite well at the cornerback position.

On Monday, the Vikings added Jabari Price back to the active roster, leaving only Josh Robinson inactive. Robinson suffered a torn pectoral muscle prior to team OTAs and is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

Head coach Mike Zimmer came to Minnesota with experience as a defensive coordinator, and it’s no secret that his specialty lies on that side of the field. Even more specifically, defensive backs seem to have a special place in his heart.

Associated Press Dave Campbell wrote the following last month:

Zimmer coaches [cornerbacks] as critically as any players on the Vikings, and if there were a contest held to determine his favorite position on the field the others would probably be fighting for second place.

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The inevitable cuts are looming, and after tonight game, we’ll see the Minnesota Vikings’ active roster go from 89 players to 75 by September 1st. Through three weeks of preseason football, not much has changed — Teddy Bridgewater is still the man, Charles Johnson is the Vikings’ best receiver, and the defensive line is loaded with talent. There’s plenty to be excited about, but plenty left to prove for a handful of players, whether they’re clinging for life on the roster bubble or trying to find their groove with a new team.

As head coach Mike Zimmer noted earlier this week, the Vikings don’t view tonight’s matchup with the Cowboys as a “dress rehearsal.” Rather, it’s a test for his young team against a 2014 playoff contender and this year’s NFC East favorite, per 1500 ESPN’s Derek Wetmore:

“We really don’t gameplan for it. Our guys have been through all that for 16 weeks now anyway. It’s still about us and doing what we do and seeing if we can do it good against a team that we really haven’t studied much.”

“It’ll be a good test. They’re a very good offensive team, they’ve improved a lot defensively, they’ve always done a good job on special teams,” Zimmer said.

With that said, here are a few Vikings I’ll be watching closely tonight. If not a tune-up for the regular season, this evening’s game will provide the starters extended playing time and the reserves a chance to prove they belong on the roster:

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