Vikings Territory content maker Drew Mahowald recaps the preseason and delivers the fifth Skol Scale reading of 2017 and shares his thoughts on the Vikings Week 1 victory over the Saints.
The Minnesota Vikings have been labeled as one of the biggest wild cards in the NFL entering the 2017 season. The 2016 season brought anomaly after anomaly and never allowed for a fair evaluation of the team.
Most semi-knowledgeable football fans can recognize the greatness on the Minnesota defense. Legitimate Pro-Bowl talent on all three levels of the defense. But the concern this offseason and throughout the preseason has been the offense. How will the brand new offensive line perform? Will a running game of any kind exist or will this offense be one-dimensional again? Can the Vikings still win if the offense performs at the same level as last season?
We got some answers to those questions Monday night, though they are temporary answers. The offensive line stepped up tremendously, especially in pass protection, to provide polarizing quarterback Sam Bradford time to pick apart a lackluster New Orleans secondary. Rookie tailback Dalvin Cook snapped Adrian Peterson’s rookie debut franchise record with Peterson watching from the other sideline. And that last question? Well, for now, the answer is N/A.
The offense marched up and down the field with ease. After a couple of possessions of timidness and checkdowns from Bradford, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and Bradford aired it out. Clearly, ‘Sleeves’ brought out his phone on the sidelines and scrolled through the bowels of Vikings Twitter and read the harsh criticisms of his checkdown-happy tendencies and decided to prove the haters incorrect.
Bradford’s performance was enhanced by terrific chemistry with receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, both of which deserve more national recognition than they receive. Thielen’s move to the slot creates even more lopsided mismatches for defenses and usually results in an advantage for either Diggs on the outside or Thielen. Each receiver dominated the New Orleans secondary and Bradford’s tosses hit the bullseye nearly every time.
Defensively, the Vikings didn’t tally the turnovers or splash plays they became famous for in 2016. Instead, they won with situational defense. When a stop was needed, they delivered. It was the “bend but don’t break” method executed perfectly — hence future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees only leading his offense to one touchdown, and it was in garbage time.
Minnesota’s method of success Monday night leads me to believe 2017’s hot start is different from 2016’s false 5-0 hope built on anomalies. Last season, the Vikings started hot by forcing an impossible number of turnovers on defense and winning despite a very pedestrian offense. It was unsustainable, and the heaping pile of injuries was the tipping point of the inevitable collapse.
The Vikings’ Week 1 win over the Saints presents a much more sustainable method of success. They didn’t win with oddities or a bunch of random splash plays. The defense contained one of the most prolific NFL offenses while only recording one sack. The offense took advantage of mismatches and marched down the field with ease on seemingly every possession, albeit against a poor defense. If a couple of those red zone stalls end in seven points instead of three points, we’re talking about this offense in a completely different context.
Is this level of offensive performance sustainable? Probably not. But, is winning with strong defense and a complimentary offense more sustainable than banking on an enormous rate of turnovers and defensive touchdowns like the Vikings did in 2016? Absolutely.
With that, let’s get into the good and bad from the Vikings’ season-opening thrashing of the Saints.
Sam Bradford: *picks up jaw from the floor* Are you friggen kidding me with some of those throws? Sleeves was playing Madden on rookie level Monday night. He was placing throws exactly where they needed to be at exactly the right time. It was mesmerizing. Turns out, this dude is a prolific passer when he gets time to throw and has quality receivers. I know, it’s truly shocking considering I’ve only shouted this from rooftops for over a year now.
Seriously, though, look at this toss. Jarius Wright runs a crosser and is blanketed so well that he’s invisible. There’s not a window there to throw in, so Sleeves just creates one.
Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen: A fifth-round pick and an undrafted free agent absolutely torching an NFL secondary for 16 catches on 18 targets, 250 yards and two touchdowns. Thank heavens the other 31 teams whiffed on these dudes.
And one more thing — what kind of living being is able to hold onto this ball after taking this dirty and vicious of a hit? Because it’s not a human being.
The Offensive Line: The run blocking was a bit shaky until late in the game, but this unit — which hadn’t played a competitive snap together until Monday night — exceeded my expectations in pass protection. Newly-acquired left tackle Riley Reiff allowed exactly zero pressures or hurries in 35 pass protection snaps. Mike Remmers and Joe Berger handled the dynamic duo of Sheldon Rankins and Cameron Jordan exquisitely while Nick Easton and Pat Elflein held their own under the bright lights. If this group can stay healthy (go knock viciously on wood immediately) and sustain a level of play that is better than 2016, this offense can produce.
Dalvin Cook: The torch has been passed. Dalvin Cook is the new superstar running back in Minnesota after racing past Adrian Peterson’s previous franchise record for rushing yards in an NFL debut. Cook’s edge speed is a treat to watch and he finishes runs like a bowling ball. Plus, his pass protection is miles ahead of anywhere Peterson got in that department. Once he refines his receiving abilities, this guy will be a true superstar every-down back.
Run Defense: New Orleans boasts a fairly talented trio of running backs in Peterson, Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. The three-headed monster was supposed to shred Minnesota’s mediocre rush defense. However, the opposite happened. After Peterson opened the game with a nine-yard carry, the Saints did not gain more than seven yards on any carry the rest of the game and managed 2.5 yards per carry. Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith get top grades for their contribution to the run-stuffing performance. Additionally, Trae Waynes made several excellent tackles in run support (we’ll discuss his coverage issues shortly). For Smith, it’s not even about getting the tackle — it’s just about blowing up the play for somebody else to get the stop.
Trae Waynes: Look, Waynes saved his performance on Monday night by making several open field tackles against the run. But he was responsible for half of New Orleans’ passing yards. Brees completed nine of 10 attempts for a passer rating of 140 when throwing to Waynes. He got torched by something named Tommylee Lewis and was still called for pass interference. The one thing we could rely on with Waynes was his ability to keep things in front of him due to his recovery speed. Now, not so much.
Red Zone Offense: The Vikings had to settle for field goals three times. Sure, they did score three touchdowns, but you’d like that success rate to be higher. Minnesota’s running game stalled several times in the red zone and put the Vikings in difficult conversion situations and it led to three field goals. Again, if the Vikings convert one or two of those field goals into touchdowns, we’re looking at this game completely different.
Kai Forbath’s missed extra-point: I’m not actually concerned about Forbath moving forward, but it gives me an excuse to drop Mike Zimmer’s reaction in here so I had to include it.
Skol Scale Figure: 7.5
The Skol Scale jumps by 1.5 points, the highest movement on the Skol Scale in the measurement’s two-month history. Minnesota stormed out of the gate and refuted any pessimistic claims made about the lackluster preseason. The Vikings dominated the Saints in a fashion that appears more sustainable than a year ago.
Week 2 presents a road matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a trip to one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s defense is similar to the Saints in that it boasts some solid names in the front seven but the secondary is exploitable.
Offensively, the Steelers are as explosive as anyone. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown represent two of the NFL’s most talented skill position players. Plus, Brown’s prowess in the slot will likely cause matchup problems for the Vikings defense.
But the Vikings did just hold the No. 2 offense from 2016 to one touchdown and less than 20 points. That should mean something, right?
More Skol Scale Figures:
6. Interesting because some things are better/worse than I expected. Pass rush -, Cook catching -, O-Line++, things will shift. We'll see.
— Nick Miller (@NicholasMMiller) September 13, 2017
I'll say 5 … in honor of 5-0 … a reminder that it can all go downhill quickly from here. Last night was fun, let's see them repeat it.
— JZ Designs (@TheJrad) September 13, 2017
4. Because I know better.
— Alex Goble (@GobleLikeNoble) September 13, 2017