Vikings at Chiefs Review: Vikings Win With the Same Formula and Continue to Hide Weaknesses
Image courtesy of John Rieger-USA TODAY SportsTraditionally the game where starters are kept in the longest, the Minnesota Vikings had put out their fair share of presumed first teamers against the Chiefs and there were definitely moments that legitimately built on the optimism of the previous preseason games. Unfortunately, there were other signs of consistent issues that haven’t bitten the Vikings in the preseason yet, but could spell trouble come the regular season.
All that said, if this is what it means to falter, Vikings fans will take it.
Matt Cassel, “competing” for a starting spot, had his weakest game of the preseason so far, or considering his performance overall, his “least good.” Bookending his night with scoring drives, it was what came after an incisive 53-yard touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson that should have fans a little worried.
For once, his statline for the night is deceptive in the other direction—Cassel’s game was better than a 78.6 passer rating or 5.5 adjusted net yards per attempt. The victim of more failed plays then most quarterbacks can expect—notably the missing toe-tap from Greg Jennings and consecutive drops from Matt Asiata and Cordarrelle Patterson—Cassel did enough work for more. Outside of two failed drives at the end of the second quarter, he once again operated with rhythm and efficiency.
Unfortunately, those two drives were egregiously bad, and Cassel’s unusually flustered response to pressure manifested in an interception and some very poorly thrown passes that helped kill drives.
That response to pressure was exacerbated by the poor play of offensive tackle Matt Kalil, although Austin Wentworth’s limited time in Phil Loadholt’s stead was disastrous, and Loadholt did give up bad pressure on one play. Kalil played extremely poorly, not just giving a sack, but forcing extra blockers to help out against Tamba Hali, a good but not great rush linebacker.
For every consistency that keeps the arrow moving up, another consistency drags the Vikings back down. For now, it seems like Cassel’s accuracy and rhythm is a consistent, positive feature of the offense, while Matt Kalil’s struggles have become more and more in a troubling pattern.
His partner Phil Loadholt once again had a few struggles, but was solid overall—just like last week—while the interior line held up extremely well against a powerful Kansas City defensive line, even though it was missing Mike Devito. Charlie Johnson found ways to impress in the third quarter, pulling well in space while not causing too much worry in pass protection, while Sullivan and Fusco were their reliable selves, Sullivan in particular holding up against one of the best nose tackles in the league.
With all that came some mediocre offensive production, though Cordarrelle Patterson looked good in his limited targets, showcasing a set of receiver fundamentals he hadn’t before, from release technique to working with his hands better than he ever did in Tennessee. Patterson has shown clear and sustained improvement this offseason from last year, and this game was a good example, even if one were to take away his deep shot at the end of the quarter. He once again took advantage of his balance, too, to shake some tackles and create space where there wasn’t any. This growth has been a theme of his during the offseason and he’s following through on it.
Jerome Simpson was neither spectacular nor unimpressive, getting separation—especially getting open against zone looks—despite few opportunities. Greg Jennings generally did well, but was often used to move defenders around the field more than provide a first-look target himself. His biggest opportunity for a play was squandered uncharacteristically by a concentration mistake, not making sure to keep his feet inbounds on a beautiful Cassel throw. Neither of them have been receiving a lot of attention, but both have been performing well.
Working with those receivers and a few others was Teddy Bridgewater, who without many opportunities to really drive down the field, looked the part and seemed in control in the way he had been against Arizona at home. Though there were some miscues, they were hardly fatal or the type that seem too much of an issue, though his predilection for getting the ball out late did creep in from time to time.
The running back situation is interesting, even if it seems like there’s a predetermined outcome. Matt Asiata these past few games has shown he is more than a back who can take the blocking given to him, though many might remember the slip-up in the backfield more than they will the deceptive running and great agility. Jerick McKinnon once again didn’t get many looks, but Joe Banyard looked decent and Dominique Williams was impressive, even after accounting for the backups he played against.
Kyle Rudolph found himself in more space than usual this game, and certainly took advantage of it.
For the offense it seems that the pattern has been positive, with repeatable skills showing up again and again, this game no exception. Unfortunately, this also holds true for Kalil’s unfortunate play thus far.
On defense, Fred Evans had nothing short of a phenomenal game. With one of the best first steps in the league, Evans has suffered from an inability to cohere that skill with many others necessary to play DT at a high level in the NFL, as well as the fact that he’d been mired behind Letroy Guion. In this game, Evans not only showcased his excellent get-off, but a fantastic ability to shed blocks that wasn’t something he was known for earlier, along with smart reading of the play saw him everywhere with constant pressure on the quarterback and presence in the run game. Hopefully this pattern continues, because Evans has certainly not been reliable, even as a backup, for the Vikings.
Everson Griffen had a tendency to overpursue on plays, but still got to the passer with boatloads of pressure, using a variety of pass-rushing moves and solid technique overall. This year, Griffen looks like a polished rusher, and with his physical skills that could be dangerous.
Brian Robison may be even more dangerous. Unblocked pressures aside (he seemed to have at least two), he also beat the right tackle for gap control and quarterback hurries often. Though he had some issues in coverage, that’s not really his job. With the three of them on the line, as always, was Sharrif Floyd, who has been a different player this year than last year. With a better first step and more explosiveness, Floyd has the ability to use both his power and burst to get into the backfield. Playing with a better pad level on a more consistent basis has helped him to, as has adding pass-rushing moves to his repertoire.
Shamar Stephen also played significant snaps. He played well for what his role was, though he didn’t exceed it in quite the way that Mike Zimmer had been praising him for. Holding up well against double teams and working off blocks, Stephen looks to be worth every bit of the small investment the Vikings made for him, and then some.
Unfortunately, just like last week, it will be difficult to tell if this is the result of truly solid defensive line player or because they played a questionable offensive line that was pocked with injuries as well as a lack of talent. For the most part, the things that you can count on—fundamental technique, discipline and motor—all showed up in big ways, allowing the Vikings not just to put a lot of pressure on Alex Smith, but project future pressure from the defensive line.
Just like valuing consistent themes from the preseason games on offense gives us some clue on what to look for, the defense gives us the same opportunity. While generally very successful, there have been some repeat issues that have cropped up.
On the second level behind the defensive line were a rotating set of linebackers. Chad Greenway found the bench for some well-earned rest, but not after some stellar play that included good coverage, an interception and a solid run-stuffing set of tackles for little or no gain. Anthony Barr had a great day, producing pressure, covering his assignments well and playing the run with intelligence and aggression. The constantly rotating linebacker group did have some chemistry issues, and Barr ended up giving a pass in coverage that he shouldn’t have as a result.
Michael Mauti’s limited time looked good, and he made a few plays based off his instinct alone, including edge runs for limited gain. On the other hand, Audie Cole had a mixed day, with a set of consecutive failures in coverage that don’t help his case for the middle linebacker spot, were it not for similar weaknesses from the player ahead of him on the depth chart, Jasper Brinkley. He was late to react to the snap more often than not and that hurt him against the small running backs that populate the Kansas City roster.
In coverage, there was a rotating set of safeties. For what it’s worth, the broadcast showed a better safety from the starter Chris Crocker than Robert Blanton, who was out of position a few times. It’s always difficult to tell how the safeties did. Harrison Smith certainly seemed fine and the Vikings need him to be in order to improve the defense from what it once was.
Xavier Rhodes looked great in coverage, and it's a relief that the plays that highlighted him in the Arizona game were the flukes they seemed to be. On the other side of the field, Captain Munnerlyn had a few more problems, but those were washed away with a good interception after reading Alex Smith's eyes in the red zone. Josh Robinson was a little more worrisome, but aside from his pass interference call, he wasn't egregious.
Of the backups who stood out, only Wentworth put together a holistically negative impression and that was in part because he was a backup going against a top-tier pass-rusher. Nevertheless, against the second team defensive line from Kansas City, he was still poor.
Marcus Sherels had a miscue or two, one on special teams, and that may be Josh Robinson's saving grace as the starter on the outside in nickel situations.
Rodney Smith didn't look like he built on his case too much, winning an onsides kick, but losing a contested ball in a play from scrimmage. Even though he wasn't entirely at fault, it's the kind of play he needs to make. His primary competition, Adam Thielen, didn't take the field by storm on normal offensive downs, but was stellar as a punt returner and has improved dramatically enough there that he may make the roster from that alone.
Other than that, the Twin Cities' favored Louisville son looked good without having to march down the field under his own power to do so. Two excellent touchdowns to Allen Reisner showcased a night where Teddy was able to get away with some late decisions by showing up big in the red zone, where he struggled in camp.
Teddy went to the end zone corner that had been troubling him, and it worked out on the second attempt. He also continued to show amazing poise under pass rushing pressure and did a good job getting out of trouble.
With him, almost as always, was Jerick McKinnon, who didn't let a lackluster start prevent him from doing real damage. He showed skills that a classical running back should have, which is a surprise for the quarterback convert. Reading traditional blocks, showing vision and sinking into his cuts all helped him get major yardage with small creases and he made the most of his time.
That may keep out Banyard and Williams, both of whom had good nights, though it was Dominique Williams who probably did more with the blocking he received, and not only because he hurdled a defender. Williams plays with more power and marginally less speed, making him seem like the better of the two options.
On special teams, Blair Walsh looks to have gotten over the run of bad form he had earlier in the preseason and the units weren't tested too much in kickoff coverage or returns. Unfortunately, Jeff Locke continues to have a disappointing preseason, and it's not entirely the case that he's being helped out by the coverage units, either.
Between camp and the preseason games, some patterns have emerged. A well-executed offense with rhythm and temp seems to be one of them, and the Vikings will only look better once they include Adrian Peterson. On defense, a strong defensive line, albeit not entirely tested, may help prop up a rotating set of defensive backs who need some more help.
More worrisome, and what may end up being responsible for losing close games will be the edge protection from Kalil, the field position problems with the punting unit and Matt Cassel's general inconsistency. On defense, it will be a young corps that's still working on transitioning between zones and figuring out positioning in the new scheme.
There are a lot of good things the Kansas City game said about the Vikings, but don't let that gloss over some of the more worrisome things that it may portend.