It’s not exactly a news flash that the Vikings are struggling in their passing game. Last week against Seattle they managed just 44 yards through the air. Two weeks before that against Arizona it was 43. Those are two pretty good defenses but nevertheless, those numbers are not acceptable. Especially when you’re running the ball the way the Vikes are running it. The whole “running opens up the passing game” line is not just a cliche. It’s supposed to be the whole essence of the Vikings’ offense. And right now it’s just not happening.
So what can the Vikings do to fix this mess? The fans have plenty of suggestions, ranging from “fire Bill Musgrave” to “bench Christian Ponder” to “hire a wizard.” But none of those are practical. Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave have to deal in what is actually doable with the personnel they’ve been handed by Rick Spielman. Within that strait-jacket of a framework, the brain trust is scrambling to find answers.
Frazier is of course not going to get into specifics when discussing offensive changes, but he is willing to give hints. He said the Vikings are working to get this smoothed out and they will try some offensive tweaks this weekend against Detroit. “You see things on tape where you know people are getting a good feel for our rhythm and how we do things,” Frazier explained. “We’ve got to make a few adjustments and that’s what we’re going to try to do for our ballgame.”
Vague enough for you? Frazier gives a tiny bit more detail here. “Part of it will be some of the adjustments that we’ll make with some of the routes that we’re asking our receivers to run and also what we’re doing protection-wise to help our quarterback. So, we’re going to make some adjustments that we think will help us — without being too specific about what those route adjustments will be.”
In other words, they’re doing what any team would do when faced with a massive problem in their passing game.
One major factor may hamper their efforts this weekend: Percy Harvin’s health. If Harvin can’t play, they will be in even deeper trouble than ever. Harvin is the only reliable receiver they have out there right now. Christian Ponder has completed 182 passes and 62 of those have been to Harvin. An even more stark reminder of Harvin’s immense importance. Ponder has 1806 passing yards this year, and 1063 of that is YAC. And Harvin himself has 517 of those YAC yards. In summation, Ponder would be totally screwed without Harvin.
Even with Harvin in there, the Vikings’ passing game has been completely unproductive two of the past three weeks. The big problem is that teams are now scheming to take Harvin away. Harvin himself addressed the major adjustment defenses have shown. On those bubble screens the Vikings love running so much, defenses are now running down linebackers and safeties instead of corners. This makes it much more difficult to execute, because you’re asking receivers to block linebackers and safeties instead of corners. So those plays are getting blown up more often.
But even when the Vikings think they have that, the ball needs to be delivered accurately. That became an issue against Seattle. Ponder had Harvin against a coverage Harvin evidently thought he could beat for a TD. But Ponder missed the pass badly. That prompted Percy’s sideline tirade. No doubt Harvin is frustrated with Ponder. Sometimes Ponder gets too much heat for the lack of downfield action – he doesn’t exactly have Jerry Rice out there – but when he can’t hit the short simple stuff either, he deserves to get slammed.
We’ll have to see what actual adjustments Bill Musgrave dreams up this week. Again, if Harvin isn’t in there, I can’t really see what they’re going to do. Jarius Wright is an option as a Harvin replacement but he’s obviously nowhere near being up to speed on the offense. Jerome Simpson is limited by injury and Michael Jenkins is limited by being Michael Jenkins. It’s all fine and good to try different routes, or emphasize route running in practice, or encourage guys to finish their routes off (something they should know anyway), but when all is said and done, you have to have football players out there who can make plays. And right now the Vikings have only one receiver capable of making plays.
The other question regards Ponder himself. Even if Musgrave finds ways to get guys open, can Ponder deliver the ball with consistency? Is Ponder even capable of making some of these throws that Musgrave wants to mix into the offense? Seriously. When was the last time you saw the Vikes even attempt an out route? Is that because Ponder is missing receivers or is it because they just don’t think Ponder can make that throw? In today’s NFL, you have to be able to throw the out. It’s the best way to beat zone coverage. But the Vikes never use it. They also never throw to their tight end up the seam. That’s another great zone-buster. How about play action sucking up the linebacker and hitting the receiver on a post or cross in front of the safeties? The Vikings see teams do that to them constantly. They never do it back. Does Musgrave not know about those routes or does he just not have faith in Ponder to execute them?
Something to consider.
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