After their strong showing against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday, the Minnesota Vikings finished the preseason 4-0, the seventh time the Vikings have gone undefeated in the preseason during their 54 year history.
This preseason has illuminated some surprises, both good and bad, but has shown us what to expect out of the Vikings in the 2014 season.
Everson Griffen is the real deal
After receiving a huge $42.5 million deal this offseason, which some analysts believed to be a bit steep for an “unproven” defensive lineman, Everson Griffen has shown the NFL why he’s worth the money the Vikings will be paying him. Griffen ranked 3rd among all 4-3 defensive ends during the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus Preseason Grades.
During the time he got during the preseason, Griffen was consistently fighting off would be blockers, and wreaking havoc in the backfield– especially by getting to the quarterback. Griffen collected 1 sack, 3 quarterback hurries, and 4 quarterback hits in the 2 games he had substantial playing time in.
One thing that is just as important as his pass rushing, is Griffen’s ability against the run. Griffen may not have blown the walls off as a run defender, but last season Jared Allen was abysmal against the run– and Griffen seems like an immediate upgrade in run stoppage, as well as pass rushing.
It’s safe to say that I’m very excited to see what Griffen can do as a starter, after playing sparingly through his first four seasons. During the course of the 2014 season, the NFL will quickly take note of Griffen, as he should be the defensive lineman that every offense prepares for during the week leading up to playing the Vikings.
Although he is still young, and his talent is still raw, Griffen has continued to develop during his time in the NFL, and the sky is the limit for this physical specimen.
QB might not be a “weakness” after all.
Going into this season, I was expecting quarterback to be one of the weakest position on the roster: with one unproven rookie, one inconsistent veteran, and a 12th overall pick that never panned out.
However, the quarterbacking unit under Norv Turner has substantially improved since last season. Matt Cassel blew my expectations out of the water, accumulating a 103.3 passing ratting through the preseason. Better yet,he looked comfortable with Norv Turner’s offense, and threw the ball well down the field–something that is essential in Turner’s offense.
Even more impressive, Teddy Bridgewater looks like he’s learned a lot from Norv Turner. He may have started out slow, but Bridgewater has improved every single week; and now, he’s looking more comfortable in the pocket, and much making quicker decisions– something he needed to improve on after the first two preseason games. He’s also looked very mobile in the pocket, making a few Fran Tarkenton like plays to avoid a-would-be sack.
Even if Matt Cassel isn’t the answer this season at quarterback, Bridgewater should have no problem filling his spot. Bridgewater did not commit a turnover in the preseason, after fumbling in his first game against the Raiders (which was recovered by the Vikings.) To go along with his turnover free preseason, he also amassed a 117.1 passer rating.
Bridgewater may still have awhile to go before he can be the focal point of an offense, and Matt Cassel may not be the long term answer at quarterback, but the Vikings’ quarterback situation is a lot better than most people expected going into this season.
If the Vikings can win the turnover battle, they’ll have a great shot to win
It may be overused by NFL analysts, but winning the turnover margin is extremely important. Especially when the turnovers that you create are at the perfect times, like the 3 redzone turnovers the Vikings had this preseason.
Even after a long drive on defense, the Vikings found ways to make plays, either picking the opposing quarterback off or forcing a fumble in the red zone. The Vikings struggled to force turnovers over the past few seasons with their Tampa 2 defense, having only 20 takeaways last season. Even worse, they’ve consistently ranked in the bottom of team turnover differential, ranking 28 last season.
To show how important team turnover differential is, Sporting Charts shows that all of the teams in the top 5 for team turnover differential were playoff teams, and were all considered some of the best teams in the NFL.
Not only did the Vikings fail to force turnovers under Leslie Frazier, the Vikings also had the 4th most turnovers. During the entire preseason, the Vikings’ two primary quarterbacking options (Bridgewater and Cassel) combined for only one interception.
If the Vikings can continue to create turnovers like they have during the preseason, continue to take care of the football, and win the turnover margin, it will greatly increase the Vikings’ chances at making the playoffs; especially with the best running back in the NFL in their backfield.
Offensive line is running blocking well, but pass blocking is suspect
Throughout the preseason, the Vikings’ offensive line has run blocked very well. It was most obvious in the final preseason game against the Titans, where the Vikings ran for 206 yards (111 coming from Joe Banyard, who was cut during the second wave of roster cuts.)
The Vikings’ offensive line boasts one of the best run-blocking right tackles in the NFL in the 6-foot-8 343 pound behemoth Phil Loadholt. Matt Khalil is also an above average run-blocker, as well as right guard Brandon Fusco.
Although the offensive line has looked great in the running game, they have struggled mightily in pass protection, especially 3rd year left tackle Matt Khalil. Khalil got embarrassed by Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali nearly the entire time both of them were on the field.
If the Vikings want to be able to stretch the field, which Norv Turner is known for doing, their offensive line will have to hold up during the 5 and 7 step drops that will be required on these deep passes.
The offensive line consistently allowed pressure with only 4 pass rushers, something that will need to change if the Vikings want to have success.
Defensive line depth is no issue
The Vikings’ first and second string defensive line impressed me all season. Outside of the 4 starters– Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, and Brian Robison–the Vikings have found a few other young players that have really stood out during the preseason.
Corey Wootton recorded a strip sack and recovery last game against the Titans to add to his 2 other sacks in the preseason. Rookie Shamar Stephens has held his own the entire preseason after taking a bulk of the snaps for Linval Joseph. Stephens has been so impressive, he was awarded a roster spot over veteran defensive tackle Fred Evans.
Tom Johnson has really stood out this preseason as well, playing primarily at the 3-technique defensive tackle position, accumulating 2.5 sacks. If the Vikings can have two defensive tackles that can rush the passer in Floyd and Johnson, it will be a long day for most NFL quarterbacks.
The Vikings may not boast the best defensive line in football, but they have 8 solid players who can play multiple positions within the defensive line. With a deep defensive line, there can be a consistent push rush throughout the game, because the defense can keep all of the linemen fresh by continually subbing them in and out. The Superbowl Champion Seahawks were a perfect example of this in 2013.
Hopefully, the Vikings’ defensive line continues to play at a high level going into the regular season, because a great defensive line can dominate a football game, something the Vikings haven’t been able to since the famous “Williams Wall” in the late 2000s.