Yes there is such a thing as an encouraging loss. My ten points on Saturday night’s game…
1. The Offensive Line Looked Better
There seemed to be legitimate improvement with the O-line, not just “they were so bad anything would have looked better” improvement. High marks to Charlie Johnson who held his own in the running game and absolutely did not get torched or burned or lit up in pass protection, even when blocking DeMarcus Ware (who frankly seemed uninspired to me). More high marks for Anthony Herrera who despite coming off knee surgery looked perfectly mobile on a couple of pulls. Kudos also to Jim Kleinsasser who was a mauler in run blocking. Speaking of the run blocking: No it wasn’t your imagination, those were pretty nice holes for Adrian Peterson. Bill Musgrave clearly enjoys having both Kleinsasser and Dugan in the mix at tight end and used them to help the power game. Memo to defenses around the NFL though: When Kleinsasser or Dugan lines up split outside, there’s almost a 100% probability they will motion back inside and block for the running back. Flies in the ointment: John Sullivan is still having snapping issues and Phil Loadholt got beat badly by Victor Butler on a speed rush leading to a knock-down of McNabb.
2. Bill Musgrave is Not Darrell Bevell, Part 2
The Vikings established early that they plan to run the ball down people’s throats, and that’s fine, but in this day-and-age the “run it down their throats” philosophy only goes so far – at some point you have to open it up and play some modern-day football. Bill Musgrave seems to understand this. I offer as evidence the following sequence from the Vikings’ third series: TE bunch right (Cowboys call time out); Two-wide with two TE, 1 back, running play, then…3 wide with 1 back; 4-wide shotgun empty backfield; four-wide shotgun with one back; 3-wide with 2 backs; bunch left shotgun; 3-wide 1-back QB under center; 3-wide 2 backs shotgun; no-huddle 4-wide shotgun (sadly McNabb suffered his tipped-ball interception here, ending the drive; really nice play by Hatcher reading McNabb and breaking on the ball to tip it away from Kleinsasser). Maybe a sequence like this, complete with multiple 3-and-4-wide formations, some empty backfield, a dash of hurry-up and a couple McNabb audibles – one leading to a Vikings time out – happened more than I remember during the Childress-Bevell days, but I doubt it. Point being, after playing power/play-action football for the entire first quarter, Musgrave pushed the tempo a little, got some more receivers in the mix and generally changed things up. This kind of stuff will presumably work even better when they get Visanthe Shiancoe back.
3. The Interior of the Defensive Line is a Problem
We’ve spent much of the off-season worrying about the left defensive end position – now it’s time to focus our possibly unwarranted anxiety on the interior of the line. What’s a delicate way to make this first point? Oh screw it, I’ll just say it: Remi Ayodele is worthless. I initially thought of him as a poor man’s Pat Williams, what with his reputation for being an adequate run defender, but now I see he’s more of a poor man’s Fred Evans, which is alarming. No Fred isn’t a great player either but I’ll say this for him, at least he gets penetration occasionally. Remi Ayodele? The best you can say about him is he doesn’t always go backward. Then there’s Letroy Guion. I think it’s safe to say Mr. Guion is in no danger of stealing Kevin Williams’ job while Williams is suspended. Of the four men who rotated at the defensive tackle spots during the first-team portion, Christian Ballard was probably the most impressive, getting a sack on Tony Romo (one of the few times in the game where Romo was actually forced to get up from his rocking chair). I can’t emphasize this point enough: Romo had way too much time. It’s easy to sit here and blame the guys on the ends but the fact is, any good quarterback can easily elude outside pressure if there’s no inside push. You only get a good 4-man pass rush if there are guys bringing it in the middle and on the outside. And right now the interior guys aren’t getting it done. Kevin Williams coming back will help fix this, unless of course Williams’ plantar fasciitis prevents him from being able to push off, in which case…I don’t even want to think about that case.
4. Brian Robison Can Have the Left End Job
I thought Robison outplayed Jared Allen Saturday. He did have a horrendous missed tackle on Jason Witten on about the second play of the game but after that I thought he did a good job. I noted one really nice open-field tackle on Kevin Ogletree after Ogletree tried in vain to shake-and-bake him, a couple good pressures, one knock-down of Romo off a fairly effective spin move and one play where he chased Romo into a sack. Oh and he also forced a run play outside (unfortunately the first man with a chance at the tackle, Brandon Burton, missed and allowed a decent gain). The notion of Robison not being used as an every-down player can now pretty well be scrapped. I’ll still be curious to see how he holds up against a more experienced right tackle than Tyron Smith, but for now, I’m ready to put my faith in Robison.
5. Bernard Berrian, You Are the Man
He still isn’t the guy you want to throw the ball up to and let him try to get it, as I think Donovan McNabb is finding out. Oh and that TD catch? He bobbled it at first. I’m not trying to be Mr. Negativity, I’m just pointing out a fact. Here’s another fact: If this team is going to have any deep game at all, Berrian will have to be the man providing it. So far, he has one 49-yard TD this preaseason on a perfect pass over a defender who in his own words “got double-moved.” There, you see? Berrian doesn’t just run straight down the field – he can do a double-move. And if McNabb keeps getting the kind of time he did Saturday, he will have a chance to pull more double-moves. Big if.
6. Cedric Griffin is Cedric Griffin
Cedric looks like himself to me: A crafty veteran who isn’t particularly fast or brilliant in one-on-one coverage but will tackle you if he can get to you. In other words, a solid Cover-2 outside corner. Romo threw to his side a lot, as if meaning to pick on him because he’s coming off injury, and he did just fine. Why are some people worried about him? So he popped an ACL twice in one year. What are the chances of it happening again?
7. Marcus Sherels? For Real?
Sherels keeps finding ways to pop up on the radar screen. Last week he had a pick, this week while in at nickel corner he made a brilliant play knocking away a 3rd down pass intended for Ogletree. By my count, that’s two more good plays than Asher Allen has made in his entire career. Okay that’s a joke. But seriously, could Sherels actually be the fourth corner over Asher? Probably not but between his apparent cover skills and punt return ability, he clearly has what it takes to stick. And I’m guessing that by now he’s done enough to earn a spot.
8. Donovan McNabb’s Conditioning
Yeah he did look like he was sucking air a couple of times. But I doubt Leslie Frazier would go so far as to yank him in 2-minute situations. Maybe if the Vikings had an awesome back-up like Rex Grossman on the roster…
9. Joe Webb/Christian Ponder
The people who persist in being enamored of Joe Webb’s talent got more fuel for their fire Saturday. Webb led a snappy 3rd quarter drive highlighted by a pretty sideline pass to Manny Arceneaux – no fumble this time by Manny; thanks for that – and finished off on a 1o-yard Webb scramble for a TD. Maybe Webb could come in for a sequence or two early to give Donovan a blow, save Donovan for those later 2-minute situations. Actually it’s not a crazy idea; I’m sure the Wildcat enthusiasts – all four that are left – would be in favor of it. As for Christian Ponder…well at least he’s got a solid hold on that #3 job. And I’m pretty sure his arm strength isn’t a problem, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to overthrow Juaquin Iglesias by five yards on his first deep ball. Also his mobility looks good, especially when he’s scrambling around after a terrible shotgun snap. Ah, preseason fourth quarters. Without the game tape we wouldn’t even remember you.
10. Position Battles
I’ve got Adrian Awasom holding firm, Manny Arceneaux moving back up in the receiver mix, Sherels almost locking down a spot, Jaymar Johnson fading even further into irrelevance, Ryan D’Imperio still on the bubble, Greg Camarillo looking more-and-more like he’s about to be a former Viking and Allen Reisner still hanging around on the fringes. And I’m probably wrong about all of those. The big lesson I learned this year is not to try to guess 53-man rosters on the basis of what happens in preseason games. Too many unforeseen variables.
I neglected to say much about Adrian Peterson. Maybe that’s because Adrian running 14 times for 81 yards seems so ho-hum. And anyway the blocking was the big story. Peterson did what a good back should do when provided with holes. He didn’t break any huge runs; his biggest was a 15-yarder, nothing to get geeked about. Also he made a couple of curious reads, trying to bounce balls outside that he should’ve taken in. And he was a non-factor in the passing game. Okay he did make that one nice ankle-breaking move on a linebacker trying to fill a hole. That was cool.