In Glengarry Glen Ross, a movie about the high-pressure world of real estate sales, Alec Baldwin famously declares to the salesmen on his team “Coffee is for closers.” If that rule applied to football teams, the 2013 Vikings would be drinking a lot of tea. Or water. Or juice. Anything but coffee.
Maybe the Vikings should bring Baldwin in at halftime to deliver his famous speech from the aforementioned film. They need someone to remind them that coffee is for closers. Maybe then they’ll stop giving away games in the second half.
It’s becoming completely monotonous, this habit of building leads and then choking them away. Sunday’s game against the Packers was only the latest example. We’ve been seeing this on a fairly consistent basis going back to 2011, when the Vikings started the season with three straight losses in games where they had at least a ten point lead going into the half.
We all remember that infuriating run of games, no? The meltdowns got worse with each successive week. They led the opener with San Diego 17-7 at the break, only to lose 24-17. They led the Week 2 game against Tampa 17-0 at the half, and went on to lose 24-20. The trend reached a deafening crescendo in Week 3 when they built a 20-0 lead over Detroit, then proceeded to be outscored 23-3 in the second half, finally losing the game 26-23 in overtime.
That was a long time ago, but things don’t seem to have really improved in the meantime. The Vikings are still coughing up games late. They have held the lead in the fourth quarter in six of their eleven games this year, but have only managed to win two of those games. They lost to Chicago, Cleveland and Dallas on game-ending drives. They had a 23-7 lead early in the fourth against Green Bay Sunday then watched the Packers score 16 fourth quarter points to tie it. In the end they settled for a 26-26 draw.
What is the explanation for this consistent trend of late-game futility on the part of the Vikings? I’d like to say I have dug deep into the numbers and unearthed some telling statistical evidence. But I haven’t done that and frankly I don’t need to do that. I don’t think it’s that complicated, frankly. It boils down to one simple thing: the Vikings don’t have good enough players.
Look at this Sunday’s game. What were the key plays late in that contest? One that leaps to mind immediately is Matt Flynn’s 28-yard 4th down completion to James Jones on the game tying drive. Everson Griffen jumped offsides, giving Flynn a free play. Flynn found Jones matched up with Marcus Sherels and threw it up, knowing it didn’t matter if the ball was intercepted. Jones caught the pass against Sherels’ weak coverage and the Packers got a first down.
What drives you nuts about that play is that Alan Williams made a great aggressive call, sending Audie Cole on an up-the-gut blitz that resulted in Cole planting Flynn. Unfortunately Flynn had already recognized the offsides jump by Griffen and the fact that he had a free play. And Sherels’ downfield coverage was not good. So on that play you had complete lack of discipline by a defensive lineman and bad coverage by a corner. Can’t blame the playcall on that one.
That wasn’t the only bad play by Sherels. Earlier in the fourth he was called for a 35-yard interference penalty that helped the Packers get back in the game. That was also with Sherels matched up on James Jones. Lest it seem I’m picking on Marcus Sherels, I should also point out that Chris Cook got badly burned by Jarrett Boykin for a 34-yard completion in overtime. And let’s not forget about Andrew Sendejo taking a terrible angle on Eddie Lacy’s key 17-yard run during the Packers’ second fourth quarter TD drive.
If it seems like I’m mainly focusing on defensive backfield play here…well, it’s because I am. I think that lack of talent in the secondary has been the main issue for the Vikings over the past three years. Two years ago, the Vikings sported one of the absolute worst secondaries arguably in the history of the NFL. This year they once again have a terrible secondary.
The Vikings didn’t have a terrible secondary in 2012, when they went 10-6 and made the playoffs. What was different last year vs. this year? Several things. One, you had Antoine Winfield playing the slot corner for most of 2012. Two, you had a healthy Harrison Smith emerging as a playmaking safety. Three, you had an adequate Chris Cook at right cornerback.
Things have just gone terribly wrong in that defensive backfield this year. The Vikes have found no one to step up and take Winfield’s place at the slot corner. The safety position has been a trainwreck ever since Harrison Smith went out. And Chris Cook has regressed to the point where he is now a flat-out bad football player. Injuries have thrust mediocre-to-horrific players like Sherels, Sendejo, Mistral Raymond and A.J. Jefferson into spots they are not equipped to handle.
The only bright spot recently in the secondary has been Xavier Rhodes, who is steadily progressing in his coverage ability. Rhodes played well against James Jones Sunday until suffering yet another ding and having to miss part of the game. Rhodes’ inability to stay healthy has been pretty frustrating given the flashes he has shown.
People want to blame scheme for a lot of this, and want to also point to the lack of a consistent pass rush as part of the reason the secondary has struggled, but I don’t think either of those things matter. It doesn’t matter what plays Alan Williams dials up and it doesn’t matter if you get a pass rush going. The guys on the back end have to hold up their end and they haven’t been doing it.
Sometimes things like this just come down to a guy making a play. Last year when the Vikings were winning games, it seemed like someone would always step up and make something happen when it was needed. It could be Winfield or Harrison Smith or even Jamarca Sanford, who ended the season with a team-high four forced fumbles. This year we haven’t seen the playmaking late in games when it’s been needed.
If Sherels or Cook or Sanford or Sendejo had just made one play, Sunday’s game could have ended up very differently. Right now you can’t count on any of those guys to step up. The defensive line hasn’t been consistently great this year but those guys have stepped up enough. Robison had a huge game Sunday, and Kevin Williams, Everson Griffen and Jared Allen have all had their moments.
The Vikings could also stand to get more playmaking out of their linebackers. Audie Cole showed a couple flashes Sunday, which could have been a fluke or perhaps was an indication that Cole is a guy who is ready to provide an answer at middle linebacker. I know a lot of people like Erin Henderson but just accumulating tackles isn’t the mark of a good linebacker, not in the Vikings’ scheme. Henderson should be doing more as an up-the-middle pass rusher and in coverage.
Chad Greenway, another tackling machine, did make a couple big plays Sunday and is a guy you can occasionally count on to show up, though not as often as you would like given his big salary and strong reputation among the fans and national media.
Like I said before, I don’t believe it’s hard to diagnose what is wrong with the Vikings’ defense. It is simply not stocked with enough good personnel to hold up over the course of a season. There are too many guys being put out there in situations where they are over-matched. No team is going to have great players at every position, but you at least need guys who can perform their role without suffering repeated mental or physical breakdowns.
All that stuff gets exacerbated in late game situations when the tempo gets ratcheted up and the pressure with it. Chris Cook? Marcus Sherels? Andrew Sendejo? Josh Robinson? They don’t have any business being on the field, early or late. Jamarca Sanford? Erin Henderson? Letroy Guion? Adequate players at best.
It’s not going to get better until the Vikings spend some money upgrading their defense. Rick Spielman can preach building through the draft all he wants but he knows how dire this situation has become and that the draft alone won’t get it done.
The Vikes will have some cap space this offseason with expensive players like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams coming off the books. If Spielman wants to do his incoming coaching staff a favor, he’ll shell out some dough for a good linebacker and a good corner. That still won’t be enough to fill every hole, but it may at least get the Vikings to the point where they are functional on defense. Then they hope that some younger guys take another step in their development and help get them beyond merely functional.
Only when they’ve closed the talent gap will the Vikings be able to build leads and hold them. Right now it’s just painful watching them try to cling onto their leads late in games. You just know someone, probably one of their woefully bad corners or safeties, is going to do something stupid and give the game away. If even Matt Flynn can tear you apart in the fourth quarter, you have serious problems. A coaching change won’t be enough.