Vikings season report card: Offense and special teams
For seven years, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense — and the entire franchise — centered around its star, running back Adrian Peterson.
The offensive game plans started, and often ended, with Peterson as the focal point. The league’s best running back was the face of the franchise. The 2014 season wasn’t supposed to be any different. Norv Turner replaced Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator, but Peterson was in place to lead a run-first attack.
Then the unimaginable happened. Before the Week 2 game, Peterson was charged with injuring his 4-year-old son while disciplining the boy with a tree branch. Peterson was gone from the team to handle his legal proceedings while on the commissioner’s exempt list and was later suspended for the remainder of the season.
An offense suddenly without its best player was forced to adjust. Minnesota would score 10 points or less in four of the next five games. Making matters worse, veteran quarterback Matt Cassel was lost to the season with a foot injury. Right guard Brandon Fusco joined Cassel on injured reserve. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, signed to a big contract extension during training camp, would miss six games after double sports hernia surgery.
Slowly, the narrative changed for the Vikings. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater replaced Cassel and began to show the promise that prompted Minnesota to trade up to draft him with the final pick of the first round.
More and more, the offensive load was placed on Bridgewater’s shoulders and in the glove on his right hand. Not only did the offense transform with its new quarterback; Bridgewater, in many ways, also replaced Peterson as the face of the Vikings.
By the end of the season, Bridgewater was setting team rookie records, nearing NFL rookie marks, and Minnesota scored 30 or more points in four of the final five games.
The Vikings (7-9) finished tied for 20th in the NFL in averaging 20.3 points per game. They were 27th in the league in total offense, averaging 315.5 yards per game while changing identities on the fly.
Here’s how Minnesota graded out at each offensive position:
Coach Mike Zimmer said it himself during the season: The Vikings are Bridgewater’s franchise now. In 12 games as a starter, Bridgewater lived up to his billing as perhaps the most pro-ready rookie quarterback in a draft class that included three first-rounders and Derek Carr in the second round. Bridgewater, at least after one season, has also made Minnesota’s decision to trade up to select Bridgewater a smart one.
The Vikings sent a second-round pick and a fourth-round selection to Seattle for the right to add Bridgewater as their latest attempt at finding a long-term franchise quarterback. Bridgewater was the third quarterback in his draft class to be drafted, behind Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles and Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel.
On the field, the year of rookie quarterbacks was almost all Bridgewater. Carr had a strong first season while starting every game for the Oakland Raiders. However, Bridgewater was the rookie everyone was talking about by the end. He finished with the third-best completion percentage (64.4 percent) by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Bridgewater’s 85.2 quarterback rating was the eighth-highest among rookies in league history.
Bridgewater didn’t just stand out among rookies. During the final five games, when Minnesota’s offense showed its most improvement, Bridgewater was statistically one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league.
In the final five games, Bridgewater was tied for first with Dallas’ Tony Romo in completion percentage (72.1 percent), according to STATS. Bridgewater’s 103.0 quarterback rating was second only to Romo (117.1). Bridgewater was second to Seattle’s Russell Wilson in yards per attempt in that span, averaging 8.79 yards per attempt.
And Bridgewater demonstrated his growth in facing four teams in the top-12 in total defense throughout the final five weeks.
There is room for improvement. Bridgewater was sacked 39 times, the seventh-highest total in the league. The blame is shared with an underperforming offensive line, though Bridgewater seemed to grow more comfortable in the pocket and moving around, when needed, later in the year. Bridgewater was also intercepted 12 times on 402 pass attempts; only 11 quarterbacks who qualified for the league leaders were intercepted more often.
In Bridgewater, the Vikings have hope for the future of the game’s most important position and someone to lead the offense, with or without Peterson.
Cassel’s season never really got on track. He completed 68 percent of his passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win with Peterson in the lineup. Cassel then threw four interceptions in a Week 2 loss and was hurt in the first half of Week 3 in New Orleans.
The perfect veteran complement to Bridgewater, Cassel was brought in to give Bridgewater time to develop without being forced in. The incubation period for the young Bridgewater was 2.5 games. Cassel will return as a backup.
The Christian Ponder era has all but officially come to a close. Ponder was forced into action when Bridgewater was hurt for a Week 5 game at Green Bay. The game essentially put the final touches on Ponder’s time with Minnesota. He was dreadful against the Packers, completing 50 percent of his passes, being sacked six times and throwing two interceptions, while running for his life on countless other dropbacks.
Four seasons after being the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Ponder had plenty of opportunities with 35 starts for the Vikings. He finishes with a 75.9 quarterback rating for Minnesota, throwing 38 touchdowns to 36 interceptions and completing 59.8 percent of his passes. He was sacked 95 times in 37 career games.
Running backs: C
The Vikings discovered what life without Peterson was like. Often it wasn’t pretty. Peterson had 21 carries for 75 yards in the opener. The total would be bested six times during the season. Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson actually outgained Peterson in the first game with 102 rushing yards, but he would offer little production the rest of the way, finishing with 117 rushing yards.
Matt Asiata twice ran for more than 75 yards but never more than 100 in a single game. Asiata, the big, power runner, got the first chance to replace Peterson before he eventually ceded more carries to rookie Jerick McKinnon.
Asiata was a tough, physical runner but didn’t supply the same threat out of the backfield that Minnesota had been known for with Peterson. Asiata ended up leading the team with 164 carries and 570 rushing yards, but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. His best effort came in the season-finale, when he had 19 carries for 91 yards.
Asiata wasn’t enough to keep teams honest. McKinnon gave the running game a spark in the middle of the season. An option quarterback in college, McKinnon was likely only going to get sporadic work if Peterson was available and he took time to acclimate himself.
Then he burst onto the scene in Week 4 with 138 yards rushing — a season-high for any Vikings back — on 18 carries. After another game spent mostly on the sideline, McKinnon then took the bulk of the work for four weeks. He had 103 rushing yards against Buffalo’s strong run defense.
A smaller back, McKinnon was elusive and quick but also ran with deceptive power and broke tackles. McKinnon eventually suffered a lower back injury and he missed the end of the season after having surgery.
Joe Banyard looked decent in limited exposure. A midseason claim to pick up Ben Tate failed and he was eventually released before the season was over, taking 13 carries for 38 yards.
Minnesota finished 14th in the league in rushing, averaging 112.8 yards per game. There were few moments of brilliance without Peterson, but Asiata and McKinnon combined to at least give the Vikings a chance to run the ball at times. Bridgewater’s maturation would have likely benefitted from Peterson’s presence or a stronger alternative.
Now Minnesota has to decide how to go forward with Peterson and how content it might be with another mix of McKinnon and, possibly, Asiata.
Bridgewater could have used some more help in the receiving department, as well. By season’s end, the top option in the passing game was Charles Johnson, who was on Cleveland’s practice squad to start the season.
The Vikings finished 28th in the league in passing, averaging just 202.8 yards per game. The biggest disappointment — perhaps in considering the entire team and season — was Patterson. The second-year receiver was expected to make a major breakthrough. Instead, he was relegated to the bench for much of the second half of the season.
Patterson started strong in the opening win against St. Louis and also had two of his better games in Week 2 and 3 when Cassel was still in the lineup. But his season went off the rails as Bridgewater took over. The raw, imperfect second-year receiver couldn’t find cohesiveness with the rookie quarterback. Patterson’s routes were not precise and he had only one game — six catches for 86 yards against Tampa Bay — in which he had more than two receptions.
Patterson was eventually surpassed by Johnson and then also as the third wide receiver by Jarius Wright. After causing an interception in the season finale, Patterson was benched in favor of Adam Thielen.
Greg Jennings led the team in receiving. On 92 targets, he had 59 receptions for 742 yards and six touchdowns. Jennings, who thrived late last year with Cassel, also took time to connect with Bridgewater. But the two eventually found chemistry. Jennings didn’t have a 100-yard receiving game this season, but did snag four touchdowns in the final six games with Bridgewater.
Johnson gave Minnesota a potential building block at a shallow position. After the team’s bye in Week 10, Johnson surprised with six catches for 87 yards against the Chicago Bears. He’d score touchdowns in two of the next three weeks and topped 100 yards in an overtime win against the New York Jets.
Teams appeared to adjust to Johnson later, but he’s a big target at 6-foot-2 and he has speed. He suffered from occasional drops and is still an unpolished product. However, he could help the team in the future. In 12 games and six starts, he finished with 31 catches and supplied big plays with 475 yards and a team-leading 15.3 yards per catch.
Johnson and Jarius Wright became the first duo since Randy Moss and Nate Burleson in 2004 to both go over 100 yards in the same game. Wright, as he’s done in his first three seasons, has shown a knack for big plays. He caught a short screen from Bridgewater and took it 87 yards to beat the Jets in overtime.
But he’s still a part-time player for the Vikings. He was third on the team with 42 receptions for 588 yards and two touchdowns.
Tight ends: C
Rudolph was expected to be a big part of the offense after signing his training-camp extension. The natural connection was the past production Turner’s offenses have received from tight ends like Jay Novacek, Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron last year in Cleveland.
Injuries felled Rudolph and kept him from filling a high-volume roll. He had 10 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown and had been dealing with an abdominal injury when he had to leave the Week 3 game. He had double sports hernia surgery and was held out until Week 11. It was Week 12 before he made an impact and was still not 100-percent healthy.
Rudolph also missed Week 16 and finished with 24 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns.
In his absence, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford tried to fill the void. Ellison maintained his main role as a strong blocking tight end and had 19 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown. Ford took on more of Rudolph’s pass-catching responsibilities. He had 11 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown before fading down the stretch. He dealt with an injury and had four total catches in the last seven games.
The offense with Bridgewater and a healthy Rudolph will be interesting to watch. Bridgewater’s accuracy and work in the short passing game should likely take advantage of Rudolph.
Offensive line: D
If Patterson was the biggest single disappointment this season, the offensive line qualifies as the biggest enigma. The line was expected to be the offense’s strength — after Peterson. Minnesota returned its five starting offensive linemen, who were set to begin their third season together. Left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, Fusco at right guard and Phil Loadholt at right tackle had been together for all but two games the previous two years.
Zimmer said he thought the line would be a strength and the foundation of the offense. Instead, the line crumbled and didn’t provide the wall in pass protection or holes big enough for the downgraded running backs. Vikings quarterbacks were sacked 51 times this season, the fifth-highest total in the NFL. Minnesota was tied for 10th in the league in averaging 4.4 yards per rush, a respectable total paced by McKinnon’s 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
Center John Sullivan had a solid season in the middle, but the players on each side of Sullivan faltered and got hurt.
Fusco was the first blow. Another player signed to a contract extension early, Fusco was lost for the season after three games with a torn pectoral. Two months later, Loadholt was lost for the rest of the season to the same injury.
Vladimir Ducasse struggled in filling in for Fusco, suffered an injury himself and was replaced by Joe Berger. A longtime veteran and key backup for Minnesota, Berger helped solidify the right guard spot.
Johnson struggled again and gave up five sacks, seven quarterback hits and 27 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He also missed time and was replaced by Ducasse.
Mike Harris filled in for Loadholt, who was having an OK season before his injury. Harris struggled some against speed rushers and allowed five sacks, per Pro Football Focus, but the line was at its best later in the season and Harris had some good moments.
The line performed better late, in part because of Kalil. Kalil was a constant target of criticism early and one of Pro Football Focus’ lowest-rated tackles. He was trying to get over offseason knee surgery and said he didn’t feel right. The confidence issues, partly because of the knee injury, plagued Kalil. He was one of the most penalized players in the league, finishing with 12 penalties called against him while he gave up 12 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kalil’s season started to turn around. After being penalized three times in a Week 12 loss, which coincided with an altercation with a fan outside the stadium, Kalil had only four penalties — one of which was declined — in the final five games. He also allowed just one sack in the final six games, per Pro Football Focus.
And here’s how Minnesota’s special teams fared:
The specialists knew they were in for a tougher season as the Vikings transitioned outside to TCF Bank Stadium for the next two seasons. Kicker Blair Walsh concentrated his offseason program on transforming his body and getting stronger. The leg strength showed, but his outdoor accuracy issues continued.
Walsh was 26 of 35 on field-goal attempts this season, a career-low 74.3 percent which ranked 31st in the NFL. After two seasons inside the Metrodome, he had trouble outside at TCF Bank Stadium. He made 73.3 percent of his kicks at the stadium. Walsh has made 87 percent of his field-goal attempts in domed stadiums for his career, while averaging 80.4 percent outside.
Walsh was one of the league’s best kickers on kickoffs. He had a touchback percentage of 63.2 percent, which ranked sixth in the NFL. Combined with the Vikings coverage units, Minnesota’s opponents’ average starting position was the 21.6-yard line after kickoffs, which was 15th in the league.
Punter Jeff Locke has been under the microscope since replacing the outspoken Chris Kluwe last year. Consider Locke’s second NFL season another mixed effort. Locke has had some moments where he looks like he could be the punter Minnesota hoped it was drafting in the fifth round in 2013. Inconsistency has been a major issue, though.
Locke’s season averages weren’t far off from his rookie season. Locke’s gross punting average of 44.2 yards per punt equals his rookie performance. Locke’s net punting average was down slightly, from 39.2 yards per punt as a rookie to 38.7 this season.
Those numbers don’t stand up well across the league. Locke’s gross punting average was tied for 23rd in the NFL and his net average was tied for 21st. The team continues to state its support of Locke, but he will have to show more if he wants to keep the job.
The returners, Patterson and Marcus Sherels, were two of the league’s best in 2013. The same can’t be said a year later. Patterson, like his offensive struggles, didn’t provide much as returner in 2014. Part of the issue — for both Patterson and Sherels — was a glut of special teams penalties midway through the season. But the penalties weren’t as much of an issue later.
Patterson was dynamic as a rookie kickoff returner, returning two for touchdowns. The reputation stuck this season. Despite not having the same success — or the cohesiveness with the blockers in front of him — teams still avoided kicking to Patterson in many cases. Patterson averaged 25.6 yards per return, which was tied for sixth in the league. But his long was just 51 yards. It didn’t matter much, as teams squib-kicked plenty and Minnesota was second in the league with an average offensive starting position of the 25.1 yard line after kickoffs.
Sherels was a surprise last year, but not so much this time around. The steady Sherels was second in the league with 26 fair catches and had a long of just 35 yards. But he did average 11 yards per return, which was sixth in the league.
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