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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Minnesota Vikings: Time to shift the vision

By Kevin Seifert

Titus Young
The Vikings have struggled in pass coverage this season, giving up huge plays including a 56-yard touchdown to Lions receiver Titus Young last Sunday.
After taking permanent control of the Minnesota Vikings' coaching job, Leslie Frazier laid out a traditional and conventional vision for winning football games. His teams would run the ball and stop the run, a time-honored approach that sounds good in the locker room but is as outdated as the single wing.

If there were ever a season that could crush that theory, it's the one the Vikings are enduring in 2011. They rank among the NFL's top 10 in rushing yards and rush defense, but their punchless passing attack and tattered pass defense has driven the worst 13-game start in franchise history. At 2-11, the Vikings are obviously and glaringly swimming upstream in the pass-happy NFL.

Speaking generally last week, Frazier said he has reminded himself that this season is "a journey" and "part of what we have to go through to get to where we want eventually." He said he doesn't "foresee us forever being in this situation" and added: "I really believe that we will look back on it in time and say, 'OK, this is what happened in 2011 and this is why we are better in 2012, because of what happened in 2011.'"

Quite frankly, that will take some adjustment in vision.

Frazier built his hopes on offense around tailback Adrian Peterson, who averaged 94 yards and more than one touchdown per game before suffering an ankle injury in Week 11. Development from quarterback Christian Ponder would lead to a more balanced offense over time, but the Vikings' 2011 plan was either deeply flawed or a gross example of misplaced priorities. Both the quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and No. 1 receiver (Bernard Berrian) they opened the season with have already been waived. Neither has signed with a new team.

Their failures, and other reasons, have left Vikings quarterbacks with a combined 77.0 passer rating this season, ranking them in the bottom third of the NFL.

Peterson's presence, not to mention a $100 million contract extension, demands a strong commitment to the running game. So I don't think the Vikings need, say, the Packers' passing offense to be championship contenders. But there is no reasonable explanation to justify how the Vikings organized and executed a pass defense that is on pace to produce one of the worst seasons in NFL history.

Defensive end Jared Allen leads the NFL with 17.5 sacks, but even with his presence, the Vikings have allowed opponents to compile a 107.1 passer rating this season. As the first chart shows, that puts them on pace for one of the five-worst pass defenses -- based on opponent's passer rating -- since at least the 1970 merger. As the second chart shows, the Vikings have allowed more touchdown passes, intercepted the fewest passes and allowed the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL this season. Last Sunday, the Vikings did limit the yardage piled up by Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But even though he threw for a modest 229 yards, Stafford still completed 69 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and didn't have a turnover.

Their inability to slow down opposing pass offenses has all but negated a relatively strong run defense that ranks No. 9 overall in total yards allowed. And it's not as if teams aren't trying to run against the Vikings. Opponents have 352 rushing attempts against them, good for No. 17 in the NFL.

As with their pass offense, the Vikings didn't appear to make their pass defense a high priority entering the season. Their only starting-level addition was nose tackle Remi Ayodele, a run-stopper. And it's possible that none of the defensive backs considered starters in Week 1 will return in 2012.

Frazier has already admitted that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be playing if he had any better options. Fellow cornerback Antoine Winfield will be 35 in 2012, just had a playing-time clause reduce his salary by more than 50 percent and might not be a full-time player anymore. The careers of cornerback Chris Cook (off-field) and free safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) are in doubt, and a season-long rotation of strong safeties Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson revealed neither is up for the job.

Did the Vikings think they could cover themselves with their run defense? I hope not. These days, the best gauge for measuring the top teams is the differential between their passer rating (or QBR) and the passer rating (or QBR) allowed by their defenses.

Here are the teams with the top five QBR differentials through 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information:
  1. Green Bay Packers (13-0)
  2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (10-3)
  5. Houston Texans (10-3)

And here are the teams with the five worst differentials:
  1. Indianapolis Colts (0-13)
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
  3. St. Louis Rams (2-11)
  4. Vikings (2-11)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (6-7)

It would be fine if the Vikings continue running the ball well and can stop the run. But that can't be it. They won't compete in the NFC North, much less this league, until they rebuild their pass offense and reassemble a competent secondary. Until the NFL veers away from its love affair with the passing game, the Vikings have no choice but to shift their vision.