Sunday, September 14, 2014

Despite loss of Peterson, Vikings still have plenty of weapons vs Patriots

If you can run the ball in the National Football League, it opens up your entire playbook on offense.

Running the football is what puts the action in play action, which forces the opponents' pass rush to hesitate, if only for a split second - but many times is the difference between your quarterback being able to step into his throws or ending up flat on his end zone is that split second.
Wilfork has to hope that Easley is ready for extended snaps

The Minnesota Vikings can run the football - or at least they could have, had the team not deactivated All Pro running back Adrian Peterson in response to him being indicted by a Texas Grand Jury on charges of  reckless injury to a child - so their dynamic, as well as Peterson's personal life, has been dramatically altered.

To a man, the Patriots' defenders indicated that they were looking forward to the challenge of trying to keep Peterson in check as a result of pulling their run defense into the garage for an overhaul after it sputtered and died last Sunday in Miami...

...but now their proving grounds on the turf of TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota have become less ominous - which is not to say that the Vikings don't have decent complimentary running backs in third-year load Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon, but those guys are not Peterson.

Not even close.

In fact, in Minnesota's entire backfield, the depth chart yields the fact that the remaining backs have less than 100 NFL carries combined, with third year man Matt Asiata leading the way with 49 carries for 185 yards, edging out fullback Jerome Felton, who has 42 career rushes in six full seasons for 136 yards - but has no carries since the 2011 season.

All of that is less than inspiring to say the least, but a 3.5 yards per carry average is at least respectable, and since everything in the Vikings' offense starts with the running game it goes without saying that coach Mike Zimmer is going to turn Asiata and/or McKinnon loose, and nescience be damned...

...which makes one also wonder why the team let Toby Gerhart and his 4.6 yards per carry walk away to Jacksonville for what amounted to chump change.  Of course, they had no inclination that Peterson was would run afoul of the law and leave them with nothing but unproven journeymen and untested rookies, but why risk it?

Indeed, what's done is done - but the Vikings are sold on Asiata, who at 6' 0" and 235 pounds is a big, between the tackles runner that always finishes going forward, which actually still feeds right into what Zimmer likes to do on offense, but probably won't commit the Patriots to many eight man fronts like Peterson does to opposing defenses.

The fact that most teams have to bring a safety down into the box to help stop Peterson is what opens up so much on the outside, as quarterback Matt Cassel leads an offense that plays right into what killed New England last season and, to an extent, last Sunday: the screen pass and short dump-offs.  And with the Patriots probably missing their best coverage linebacker in Jamie Collins with a thigh injury, the playing field is leveled somewhat.

This anomaly will impact the pass rush as well, as both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will have to be aware of the edges and recognize when the screen is coming - which is easy enough, because the tackles will yield ground to allow the rush to collapse the pocket toward Cassel, who will loft the ball over the pack to the back or receiver with blocker set up in front for the jailbreak.

And when one recalls that wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is an emerging talent in the running game - he was Minnesota's leading rusher last week with 102 yards on just three carries running around the weak side on the trendy "Jet Sweep" - it goes without saying that the Vikings still are dangerous on offense, and if Asiata and McKinnon get into a groove, New England's defense could find themselves back on their heels...

...and with the quality and girth of the Vikings' offensive line leading the way, that certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

Players to watch:

Cordarrelle Patterson - How much Peterson's absence affects Patterson's game will be an interesting component to this game - and not just in those Jet Sweeps.

Patterson is a very real running threat, and is the first receiver in league history to score on running plays of 35 yards or longer in three consecutive games, his 67 yard score against the Rams last Sunday helping to make him the first receiver in Vikings' history to have a 100 yard rushing game.

In the passing game, he has been limited by Minnesota's lack of an elite arm to get him the ball downfield, settling for more underneath stuff and using his blazing speed to turn short tosses into long gainers.  Cassel will take a shot or two down the field, but he is at his best with the intermediate throws - so if the Vikings' offense is going to evolve to the next level, it will fall to Teddy Bridgewater eventually.

Patterson is particularly dangerous on kickoff returns, as he notched touchdowns of 101 and 109 yards last season to go along with a stupid-good 32.5 yards per return.

Jennings, Rudolph and the rest -  The long-time Packer Greg Jennings is a savvy possession receiver who led the Vikings in receptions and yardage last season and is the perfect compliment to Patterson - as are Jarius Wright and Rodney Smith - but tight end Kyle Rudolph may be on of the more important receivers for Minnesota on Sunday, though he is not as dynamic as some of the better tight ends in the league...

...but he is a load as a wing blocker and is certainly someone that Cassel will target underneath against the Patriots, particularly with Collins out - which leads us to...

Patriots' linebackers - As big a loss as Peterson is to Minnesota's offense, Collins is to the Patriots' defense.

It seems that Belichick tinkering with the front seven has caused some flawed technique, and while many are calling for a switch back to a more 4-3 look, the team's roster move of activating rookie linebacker Deontae Skinner while cutting veteran Darius Fleming indicates that the 3-4 may be here to stay.

Skinner is a 3-4 inside linebacker with excellent instincts and violent downhill plugging ability, and even though he moves well laterally, his turtle-ish 4.93 speed limits him in coverage - so look for New England to run some three safety packages in the nickle to team with Jerod Mayo on passing downs while Dont'a Hightower reduces down to rush the passer from the wing.

Dominique Easley - Whether the Patriots go to more of a 4-3 look or stay with the 3-4, the time is now for Easley to become part of this defense.

During camp, the staff indicated that they wanted to take an approach with Easley that mirrored what the did with Collins last season, but given the injury situation and lack of depth along the line, the first round draft pick will probably take on an expanded role.

Easley is more about penetration than than plugging gaps, and his superior explosion and quickness off the ball is essential to a three-technique tackle's job of blowing up plays in the backfield.  Obviously, the rookie is largely untested, but we will have a better idea of his skill set after he faces an excellent Vikings' offensive line.

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