The defensive line is supposed to be the heart and soul and strength of the Vikings’ defense, but so far this season it has underperformed. Outside of the Pittsburgh game when the Vikes brought relentless pressure against Ben Roethlisberger, we just haven’t seen the dominance we were led to expect (and frankly should expect given how much of the team’s cap space is being eaten up by the unit in question).
What exactly is the issue with the Vikings’ supposedly top-of-the-line front-4? Why can’t they consistently get to the quarterback? Why does it seem that teams can now run on the Vikings with impunity? It’s not all on the D-line of course – part of the problem with the run game is lack of gap-control and that’s on the linebackers and corners and safeties as much as the front-4 – but it’s obvious that the Vikings are not controlling the line of scrimmage the way they would like.
To me, you have to begin by looking at the players and the way they are being used. We know there is plenty of talent up there, Pro Bowl talent at some positions, but is that talent being maximized?
I go back to the preseason and the comments of DC Alan Williams, who said he wanted to use more of a rotation along the defensive line, rather than lean on certain veteran players. Of course Williams said the same thing last year and when the games actually happened, the rotational approach never materialized. The vets – Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison – got the bulk of the action, while guys like Everson Griffen and Christian Ballard were used only situationally.
Well guess what? Alan Williams is being made a liar of for the second straight season. Once again, the big “hockey line” rotation plan along the defensive line is not materializing. The vets are getting the bulk of the snaps, with Everson Griffen being used mostly in pass-rush situations, often at defensive tackle, and rookie first rounder Sharrif Floyd barely being used at all.
Just look at Kevin Williams’ snap count thus far. Before the season, Leslie Frazier said he wanted to limit the fast-fading 33-year-old former All-Pro to around 35 snaps per game, and get Floyd plenty of action. But through the first five games of the season, Williams is averaging over 50 snaps per game, and Floyd is mostly sitting on the bench. And it’s not like the Vikings are mixing Floyd in more as the season progresses. Per Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com, Floyd was on the field for only 19 snaps against the Panthers, a season-low.
We can only wonder why Sharrif Floyd isn’t seeing more time on the field. Is he just “not ready” in the eyes of Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams, or is there a more complicated dynamic going on here? Could this be a case of Kevin Williams getting in the ear of Leslie Frazier and talking the coach into leaving him on the field despite the presence of Floyd? Or is Frazier simply a guy who for some deep philosophical reason can’t stand letting a rookie play when he has what he views as a still-capable veteran ahead of him on the depth chart?
We’ve seen this before with Frazier, this unwillingness to sit a veteran and let a younger guy get playing time. In 2011 Frazier clung to Cedric Griffin long after Griffin had convinced everyone else that he was no longer physically or mentally capable of holding down his position, even though the Vikings had a young draft pick in Brandon Burton who they should’ve been looking at in a season that went down the tubes pretty early on. We saw another example last year when painfully slow Michael Jenkins consistently saw an inordinate amount of playing time while speedster rookie Jarius Wright sat and watched.
You could argue that Frazier was equally stubborn in his insistence on acquiring a veteran QB to start in 2011, allowing Christian Ponder to “sit and learn.” That stubbornness resulted in the debacle of Donovan McNabb, a debacle that may have ultimately hindered Ponder’s progress.
But nowhere has Frazier’s aversion to sitting veterans shown up more than in the defensive line dynamic. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are aging, but Frazier refuses to reduce their playing time even though Rick Spielman keeps giving him other talented players to mix in.
Everson Griffen could see more time in place of Allen, sparing the veteran some wear-and-tear, but if Griffen does get on the field it’s almost always at left end in place of the younger Brian Robison or inside in clear passing situations. And Floyd was drafted specifically to take Williams’ place, yet can’t get on the field to save his life.
Again, is Frazier simply incapable of making the tough choice to reduce a veteran’s playing time, or is he a pushover who gives in when veterans complain about their snaps, or is it a combination of both?
I can see where Frazier might feel a little embattled if Allen and Williams ganged up on him and insisted on being left in the game despite Alan Williams’ desire for a rotation. And Frazier himself might feel that, in the heat of battle, he’d rather have his experienced warriors on the field.
But that’s an attitude that I think might be hindering not only the progress of younger players but the performance of the team. Do you really maximize high-mileage players like Jared and K-Will by letting them play practically the whole game? Or are you actually doing them and yourself a disservice? Players play and coaches coach, and sometimes coaches have to make hard decisions about older guys they like and respect. Sometimes it seems that Frazier is simply unwilling to make those decisions, which ends up hurting him and the team.
Want a sobering example of the potential negative effect of Frazier’s unwillingness to face reality with his veteran players? Look no further than Jared Allen’s performance thus far in 2013. Allen all-but-disappeared in the Panthers game, getting mostly neutralized as a pass rusher and being frankly manhandled against the run. PFF gave Allen a -4.9 grade for that game, his third-worst grade in the past five years. And his worst grade in those five years? A few weeks ago against Cleveland.
I don’t know what’s wrong with Jared Allen, but maybe the problem is that he’s getting old and he’s played too many downs in recent years, and it’s time to start giving him some rest during the game? There’s no excuse for not giving him more time on the bench when you have a guy like Everson Griffen who very well might end up being your starting right end next season after Allen likely walks.
There is every reason in the world for Leslie Frazier to have the talk with Jared Allen where he finally explains what the deal is: that Jared is old and wearing out and probably won’t be here next year anyway, so he needs to sit more and the hell with Jared’s concerns about racking up stats to help him score one last big contract. Jared’s contract isn’t Leslie’s concern; Leslie’s concern is winning games and keeping his own job.
And if Jared doesn’t like that talk? That’s tough. As I said before, players play and coaches coach. Leslie Frazier is officially on the hot seat and one of the reasons he’s there, at least it seems to me, is that he lets the veterans push him around too much. Both Kevin Williams and Jared Allen need to see their snaps reduced, so Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen can gain experience at those positions. And, just maybe, having the younger, fresher guys in the game might actually help the defensive line perform better in the short term? It’s not an outlandish notion.