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2016 NFC North Preview: Vikings’ defense was a mirage last season

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APC breaks down the stats to find that Minnesota’s defense was actually much less impressive last season than it appeared on the surface.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Hi, I write these analytics-based previews every season. Last year, I told everyone that the the Lions would struggle to live up to their lofty 2014 season and that Joe Lombardi was a terrible fit, labeled the new Bear regime as rebuilding - but newly competent - and a threat to be good again fairly soon, and said that the Vikings were the biggest contender to Packer dominance based on an improving defense and an average, if unspectacular offense.

Now I’m here to tell you who got better and who got worse during the 2016 offseason.

I thought that the VIkings would contend last year on the strength of their defense, and contend they did, winning the North outright and coming up just short against Seattle in the playoffs in a close 10-9 defensive struggle. The Vikings were nearly the equal of the Seahawks defensively in 2015, allowing just 302 points - 2nd best in the NFC to Seattle’s 277. But while Seattle possesses a dynamic, balanced offense which scored the 3rd most points in the NFC, trailing only Arizona and Carolina, the Vikings were merely average (at best) on offense.

As badly as the Packers struggled on offense in 2015, they still managed to outscore the Vikings 368-365. DVOA saw the Vikings as exactly average as they came in with a solid 0.0%. Moreover, the Vikings didn’t have the Packers’ excuse. Yes, the Vikings did suffer the normal nicks and bumps as all teams do, but no one of Jordy Nelson’s caliber was lost for any extended period. While the Viking offense wasn’t the worst in the NFC, (an honor held by the San Francisco 49ers, who scored just 238 points on the year or 130 fewer than the struggling Packers), it was almost certainly worse than it looked.

Teams with dominant defenses usually find it easier to put up points on offense due to a combination of excellent field position, and, due to shorter opponent offensive possessions, a greater number of possessions overall. For example, the Carolina Panthers, who led the NFC in defensive DVOA and allowed the 3rd-fewest points in the NFC (just 6 more than Minnesota), outgained the Green Bay Packers’ offense on the year by 518 yards, most of which is accounted for by the run game. In the passing game, the Packers passed for 3503 yards while the Panthers passed for 3589. But despite a modest difference in yardage, especially in the passing game, the Panthers outscored the Packers by 132 points (500-368). Another way of thinking about this is that the Panthers 32 additional yards per game vs. Green Bay turned into an additional 8.25 points per game over what Green Bay’s offense was able to muster.

Arizona and Seattle also saw large offensive gains from dominant defensive play, but the Vikings, conspicuously, did not. There is a good reason for this, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first the offense: where the questions all revolve around the offensive philosophy, the enigma that is Teddy Bridgewater, the aging child abuser Adrian Peterson, and a wide receiver corps in need of upgrading.

Offense

The Viking offense is a tough nut to crack, analytically speaking. Their offensive line was a complete mess in 2015, putting Bridgewater under constant pressure and adding a ton of noise to his numbers. They are, more than anything, the reason the offense struggled, but that’s not the only story. Minnesota’s offense was also extremely conservative. They ran the ball 51.4% of the time, which is a lot. Even the run-happy Seattle Seahawks, with over 100 runs from their quarterback, only ran 50.5% of the time. The Packers run only 43% of the time. There is nothing wrong with running a ton if you’re good at it and the Vikings have Adrian Peterson. Granted, Adrian Peterson is trying to run behind the same poor offensive line that Teddy Bridgewater is trying to throw behind and he still put up 4.5 yards per carry. However, it’s possible that in 2015 Peterson was the least valuable back ever to win a “rushing title”.

Peterson may have led the league in rushing yards, but he also led the league in carries with 327. No other back in football had even 300, with Doug Martin the closest at 288, and Latavius Murray sliding into 3rd with 266. While Peterson’s 4.5 YPC isn’t bad, it’s far worse than true stars like Le’Veon Bell (4.9, when he’s actually on the field), the aforementioned Doug Martin (4.9), and Todd Gurley (4.8). Peterson averaged fewer yards per carry than Darren McFadden (4.6), and the same as Lamar Miller and Bilal Powell. Importantly, he also averaged fewer yards than Jerick McKinnon (5.2), his backfield mate and the Vikings 3rd down back.

Peterson, entering his age 31 season, is now in dangerous territory. Over the last 30 years, only 4 30-year-old (or older) backs have had over 320 carries in a season while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Tiki Barber actually did it twice as a 30-year-old and a 31-year-old. He would retire the following season to pursue an unsuccessful broadcasting career. Curtis Martin was brilliant as a 31-year-old, averaging 4.6 yards per carry over 371 carries with the Jets. The next season his average dropped to 3.3 ypc, and the next season he was out of the league. Corey Dillon averaged 4.7 yards per carry over 345 carries for the Patriots in 2004. The following season he fell to 3.5 ypc and saw his role reduced. The 2006 season saw him rebound a bit to 4.1 ypc in a limited role, but it would be his last.

It is possible that Peterson’s recent mandated year off as punishment for child abuse will actually serve to keep him fresh on the field as he enters his decline phase, but that is purely speculation. Ricky Williams, for example, was merely OK after returning from his retirement and subsequent substance abuse violation. Some will probably argue that Peterson is a freak athlete capable of playing into old age, but old backs breaking down is the rule, not the exception, and there are signs of it with Peterson. For one thing, Peterson isn’t the receiver he once was. In his age 24 and 25 seasons he averaged over 9 yards a catch while seeing over 50 targets a season. After a relative down year in 2011 where he missed 4 games, Peterson returned to again see 50 targets in 2012, but for only 5.4 yards per reception. The following season his targets dropped to 40 and his average still failed to climb over 6. In 2015 his average recovered a bit to 7.4, but his targets fell again as McKinnon became more of a threat on passing downs. More importantly, McKinnon showed that he far exceeded Peterson as a pass protector. This is an important point, especially when an offensive line already cannot pass protect. In truth though, it doesn’t really matter if Peterson declines further. His current incarnation is already a liability, as his boom-and-bust running style, and the booms that go with it, are all he has left.

The most important thing to understand about the Viking offense last year is just how predictable it was - not because of a lack of creativity in play-calling, but because of its inherent limitations and the star-power of Adrian Peterson. Peterson’s receiving numbers are as gaudy as they are because of more designed plays than normal. The other Viking weapons are pedestrian and featuring Peterson wasn’t exactly stupid, but it’s worth noting that as a safety valve, he was a disaster. Since he is no longer good at leaking out into the pattern and his blocking was a contributing factor to the merciless torture endured by Bridgewater, opposing defenses only had to account for Peterson as a runner; because on a passing down featuring Peterson, he could be covered by the defense’s worst cover man, and there would be pressure on Bridgewater. How bad was it? Under center, Peterson averaged almost 5 yards a carry, but out of the shotgun, his average dips all the way to 3.8, an almost unprecedented decline.

If the Vikings want to use shotgun, there is no reason for any team to defend against the run, and with the porous offensive line, this predictability was especially terrible for Bridgewater. Many college offenses work out of the shotgun frequently, and college quarterbacks including Bridgewater frequently have better numbers out of the shotgun than under center. It is a near-universal scouting concern. Bridgewater was better out of the shotgun in his rookie season with a -2.1% DVOA vs. an amazingly terrible -68.7% under center, but that flip-flopped last year as his under-center DVOA climbed to 12.5%, but his shotgun DVOA fell to -12.8%. The line played a part, the poor receiving corps played a part, but Peterson also did his part to undermine the passing game.

Jerick McKinnon, at this point, does everything better than Peterson - except for, debatably, running the ball. Peterson got the numbers and the glory last season, but in reality he hurt the offense more than he helped it, telegraphing play-calls to the defense and fumbling 8 times, including an absolute game-killer against Seattle in the playoffs as a capper to a 23-carry, 45-yard performance and a 10-9 loss. Peterson’s secondary skills have eroded with age as they tend to do. If his one remaining skill takes an kind of dip, say, to 4.2 yards per carry (or 10 fewer booms), he will quickly approach replacement level. It will be interesting to see if this Viking front office and coaching staff realizes it. I suspect that Peterson won’t fall off of a cliff, but I would wager heavily his carries come in closer to 225 than 325 this season. If that does happen, I predict the offense improves quite a bit, but that depends on...

Teddy Bridgewater

On the other side of the coin, all of this conservative playcalling, terrible line play, and awful receivers made it extremely difficult to evaluate Bridgewater. While contemporaries Blake Bortles and Derek Carr have managed to put up some impressive counting stats, Bridgewater has been unimpressively adequate. He throws an excellent short-to-medium ball, generally on time and on target, but Norv Turner loves the deep ball and the Viking have neither the line, receivers, or so far, quarterback to make that happen. Bridgewater was under pressure more than any other quarterback. In 572 attempts last year, Aaron Rodgers was sacked 46 times. His official sack rate per Pro Football Reference was 7.4% of passing dropbacks. Bridgewater had just 447 pass attempts last season, well over 100 fewer than Rodgers, but was still sacked 44 times, or on 9.0% of his dropbacks.

As the line was a huge problem last season, the Vikings are turning over a large chunk of it in an attempt to right the ship. Center John Sullivan returns after missing the entire 2015 season recovering from a lumbar microdisectomy. Alex Boone joins from the 49ers, and is expected to see time at left guard, pushing Brandon Fusco to the right side. The extremely disappointing Matt Kalil remains at left tackle as the Vikings somewhat surprisingly exercised his very expensive option, and newcomer Andre Smith is expected to start at right tackle, replacing the retiring Phil Loadholt. The former Bengal has connections to Mike Zimmer and there should be some comfort level there. Rookie Willie Beavers out of Western Michigan will also compete at guard. It can’t really be worse than what they put out there last year (29th in pass pro per Football Outsiders), but while this is almost certainly an upgrade, it’s probaby not an enormous one.

Sullivan was a very good center, but the injury he suffered was serious and there is no guarantee he ever recovers to his previous level. Both Boone and Fusco are mediocre at best, and Andre Smith was available for a good reason. If this line succeeds where others have failed, it will be quite a shock, and it was surprising to see the Vikings select only one lineman in the draft. The other big problem is that turning over an entire offensive line almost never works. Offensive lines that experience continuity over several seasons are almost always better than those that do not, and a change of this magnitude is likely to impair their performance even if the overall talent level is better. The surprise retirement of Phil Loadholt and continued presence of Kalil leaves the talent level as an open question. It is likely that the line remains a weakness.

At the receiver and tight end positions there is more hope. The Vikings used their first round pick on Ole Miss’s Laquon Treadwell, an excellent fit for Bridgewater’s skillset. The fact is that even if Treadwell is only average, he still represents an enormous upgrade over the departed Mike Wallace, who ranked 62nd in DVOA and is really only valuable as a deep threat. Wallace was always a poor fit in Minnesota (and it remains an open question as to whether he can be useful anywhere) and almost any production out of Treadwell will be an upgrade. Treadwell excelled against elite competition in college, and while he lacks great deep speed (and sometimes had trouble separating from tight coverage as a result), he checks all of the other receiver tools. He has good size, runs great routes, and wins 50/50 balls. A quarterback with an excellent short game couldn’t ask for a better addition, and if he can dominate as a primary wide receiver it should open things up for Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph. Diggs was the best of a bad bunch last year, and in a complementary role he is more than adequate. Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson can fill out the back end of the bench as well as anyone. Rudolph is slightly overrated, but he is also fine as a safety valve, big body, and over-the-middle target. With Peterson, McKinnon, Treadwell, Diggs, and Rudolph (don’t forget Moritz Boehringer!), Teddy Bridgewater should finally have some decent weapons at his disposal, but is he any good?

This is the toughest question of all, and while his accuracy numbers are fine, there is some cause for concern. For one thing, young quarterbacks who get hit a lot tend not to develop as well as their peers. Call it the Tim Couch/David Carr rule. The Vikings have tried to limit the beatings by limiting his passing attempts, but this also does him a disservice by robbing him of reps, and training him to be risk averse. Finally, his skillset is just a poor match for the prototypical Norv Turner offense. In many ways the Lions and Vikings might be better served to swap QBs. A “ground and bomb” offense with Peterson opening things for the giant arm of Matthew Stafford under the control of Turner doesn’t sound half bad, and Teddy Bridgewater’s talents just beg for receivers like Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. As it stands, Bridgewater is the key to turning this good team into a great one. If he does develop even a little and starts hitting some big gains down the field, if he can avoid getting killed, and if the patchwork line can come together, this team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If all of that punishment has gotten into his head and he spends all season running for his life, and Turner cannot adjust to the weapon at his disposal, the Vikings will live to regret it.

Defense

I’ve heaped some praise on the defense, but it’s worth pointing out that they actually didn’t impress DVOA that much, finishing only 14th, significantly worse than the Packers’ 9th-place ranking. It’s also worth mentioning that while the Vikings won the division and probably should have gotten out of the first round of the playoffs, they did slightly overachieve their 10-6 expected record. And finally, it’s worth noting that while their “points allowed” is impressive in a vacuum, due to the conservative, run-based offense employed by the team, the Viking defense faced only 170 drives, the 3rd -lowest number in the league. If, instead of measuring total points allowed, you measure points-per-drive, the Viking defense is only 12th. (Stat courtesy of the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac.)

Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks are great players, as is Anthony Barr when healthy. To some extent, whatever you get around them is just gravy, but the Vikings did show some vulnerability as well. The Vikings’ own version of A.J. Hawk, Chad Greenway, is still seeing significant time despite the fact that he is a huge liability, as is defensive end Brian Robison. The Vikings did select a couple of linebackers in the draft, but late, with Kentrell Brothers going in the 5th round and Stephen Weatherly in the 7th. Cornerback Trae Waynes was also a huge disappointment last season and proved easily burnable. He may not see much time as Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman holding down the starting positions, but Newman is pretty aged at this point and Captain Munnerlyn is more of a safety. Mackensie Alexander may see himself as a starter in nickel packages in short order, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he deposed both Waynes and Newman as a starter. Against the pass the Vikings were just 11th in DVOA, and against the run they were 18th. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but it’s just another indication that pace of play made them look far better than they actually are, and their glaring weaknesses are mostly returning.

This will never be a bad defense, but depth is a big question, and if anyone on the defensive line should go down, or not perform up to par, Chad Greenway will no longer be able to hide. It’s also worth noting that the Vikings didn’t exactly face a murderer’s row of good offenses last season. The Raiders were probably the 3rd-best offense they faced, and while they had a nice showing against the very good Cardinal offense by holding them to 23 points in a loss, the Seahawks put 38 on them. They were good in 2015 and they have the potential to be great, but they will face better offenses, and some regression would not be surprising.

Overall

When the Vikings beat the Packers in their final game to take the division, they held Aaron Rodgers in check, as many did last season. Rodgers was 28/44 for 291, 1 TD and 1 pick. The decisive play was a forced fumble by Rodgers caused by Griffen that was returned for a TD by Captain Munnerlyn. The Vikings needed it, as Bridgewater was just 10/19 for 99 yards with a hilarious pick. He was also sacked 3 times. Adrian Peterson had a touchdown, but he also had just 67 yards on 19 carries. The Vikings followed up this performance with their 9-point effort against Seattle.

This stretch represents both the problem, and the potential in the Vikings as they can shut down any given opponent at any time under the right circumstances, but if Peterson continues to age out of his star role, and if Bridgewater’s development continues to stagnate it might not matter. I suspect a little more McKinnon and a lot more Treadwell will make the passing game and the offense as a whole significantly better, while the defense takes a step back due to a tougher slate of offenses on the schedule, some old and bad players aging, depth issues in the secondary, and the big green way in the middle of the field. This was a 10-6 true talent team last year and that is where they remain, especially as the rest of the North, including the Packers, improved.

Stay tuned for Paul’s upcoming previews on the Packers’ other NFC North rivals over the next several days.