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Know Your Division: Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings improved in 2014 with a 7-9 record under first year head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer returns for year 2 in Minneapolis sporting a good defense and the return of Adrian Peterson. The Vikings made use of their 4th place schedule winning at St. Louis and home against Washington in 2014. Vikings beat Carolina, Jets, Chicago and Atlanta at home and won at lowly Tampa Bay. Vikings were 2-6 on the road and 5-3 at home. The Minnesota Vikings were swept by the Packers and Lions and lost at Chicago notching a 1-5 division record. The Vikings lost at home to the Patriots and on the road at New Orleans, at Miami and at Buffalo to round out nine losses.

Stats and Upgrades

The Vikings produced the 20th ranked PPG offense scoring 20.3 PPG. HC Mike Zimmer and OC Norv Turner turned to rookie Teddy Bridgewater during Week 4 of the 2014 season and lost Adrian Peterson for 15 games due to suspension. The Vikings allowed 51 sacks of their QB and 40% pressure on Bridgewater’s drop backs. The Vikings turned the ball over 20 times with 13 interceptions and 7 fumbles lost. The Vikings should be better in the second year of Norv Turner’s offense with Bridgewater in his second year of his career.

The Vikings defense finished 11th in 2014 allowing 21.4 PPG. The Vikings were poor in run defense allowing 4.3 YPC. The Vikings had a strong pass rush notching 41 sacks but forcing only 19 turnovers (13 interceptions and 6 fumbles). The Vikings coverage had issues allowing 66% completion, 7.1 YPA and 26 TDS. The Vikings were 7th best in passing yardage allowed but were thrown on the 5th least in the league due to their run defense woes.

Strengths

Peterson and Run Game

The Vikings ran at 4.4 YPC (11th) in the league even without Peterson. This run success was due to rookie Jerrick McKinnon (4.8 YPC on 113 carries) and the legs of Bridgewater (4.4 YPC on 47 carries). Matt Asiata had 9 TDs but a poor 3.5 YPC on 169 carries. Peterson should boost the Vikings back to the top 2 in run efficiency similar to 2011-2013. Brandon Fusco returns to right guard after a very strong run blocking 2013 season. Right Tackle Phil Loadholdt and center JT O’Sullivan are strong run blockers that should help Peterson carry on where he left off in 2012/2013. However, the left side of the line with Matt Kalil and Joe Berger has struggled with run blocking in the past.

The duo of Peterson and McKinnon is very dangerous. The Vikings should have a top 5 or better run game in 2015.

Pass Rush

The Vikings can rush the passer with their defensive line and backup DTs. The Vikings also have an effective blitzer with OLB 1st round pick Anthony Barr. Barr had 4 sacks, 5 hits and 11 hurries in 12 games coming on the blitz. Barr should produce even more in year 2 of his career. Everson Griffen is the stud rusher (+12.4) with 12 sacks, 13 hits and 40 hurries on the 2014 season. Brian Robison struggled (-8.3) at the left end with 4.5 sacks, 11 hits and 37 hurries but has played better in past seasons.

Shariff Floyd is a top 5 DT (+8.9) in the league brining 4.5 sacks, 5 hits and 20 hurries despite missing 2 games. Tom Johnson had 6.5 sacks, 6 hits and 18 hurries (+5.0) out of nowhere in a backup pass rushing DT role. Scott Crichton and 3rd round pick Danielle Hunter are young talented backup DEs for the Vikings.

Weapons

The Vikings cut a disappointing number 1 WR Greg Jennings and traded for Mike Wallace using a 5th round pick. Wallace adds a deep threat for the Vikings but doesn’t have a high completion percentage. Wallace is not a true number 1 WR despite 10 TDs in 2014 with Ryan Tannehill. Tight end Kyle Rudolph returns after missing 7 games and Charles Johnson showed a spark in the second half of the 2014 season for Minnesota. Former 1st round pick Cordarelle Patterson struggled in year 2 and may be a bust but is a good return man and still is young and talented. Jarius Wright is a very average slot 3rd WR. The Vikings have firepower with these weapons and the focus on stopping Adrian Peterson. If Bridgewater develops, he could make teams pay for stacking the box on Peterson.

Weaknesses

Pass Protection

The Vikings could not pass protect allowing 51 sacks and pressure on 40% of Bridgewater’s drop backs. Matt Kalil has been awful the past two seasons at left tackle after a good rookie 2012 season. Left guard Charlie Johnson was terrible and will be replaced by Joe Berger or David Yankey. Berger and Yankey are backups at best.

JT O’Sullivan is a good center but struggled in 2014 in pass protection. Phil Loadholdt had a -4.5 pass blocking grade in 11 games for the Vikings. The Vikings added TJ Clemmings from Pitt in the 4th round of the draft. Clemmings fell in the draft due to a foot injury.

Brandon Fusco returns at right guard but is just solid in pass protection. The Vikings should have pass protection issues in 2015. However, the Peterson return should allow Minnesota to run block more and give the Vikings better down and distances. Less of a need for pass blocking is a good thing for the Vikings because they can’t protect their QB.

Coverage

The Vikings added Trae Waynes in the 1st round of the 2015 draft and Terrence Newman in free agency. The Vikings have two great players in corner, Xavier Rhodes (+4.5 coverage), and free safety, Harrison Smith (+3.8 coverage). Captain Munnerlyn was average in the nickel slot role (-.6 coverage) in 2014 coming in free agency from Carolina last offseason. Strong safety Robert Blanton was average in coverage as well (+.9) and could be replaced by Anthone Exum, rookie Anthony Harris or Andrew Sendejo. Josh Robinson struggled on the outside and tore his pectoral muscle this offseason. Starting LBs Greenway and Barr also had poor coverage marks but Gerlad Hodges excelled at OLB in space.

The Vikings are riding a lot on a rookie in Waynes, slot CB Munnerlyn and strong safety to improve their coverage. Vikings gave up a high completion percentage, above average TDS allowed and average YPA in low attempts. They should be improved but still not a top 10 pass defense. Waynes could have rookie struggles on the outside paving the way for 38 year old Terrence Newman to start.

Run Defense

The Vikings gave up 4.3 YPC in 2014 which was 23rd in the league. Brian Robison (-6.7) and WLB Chad Greenway (-8.4) were the big culprits in run defense struggles. Gerald Hodges (+7.5 run defense) could replace Greenway and new ILB Lance Kendricks was added in Round 2 of the 2015 draft. Barr did solid in run defense as a rookie and should grow there.

Floyd, Joseph and Griffen are all strong against the run but Tom Johnson was average and Stemar Stephen was poor as a backup DT. The Vikings need to step up their run defense in 2015, especially Robison and Greenway and the backup defensive tackles.

Wildcard

Bridgewater is a wildcard in year 2 after completing 64.4% of his passes with 14 TDS and 12 interceptions as a rookie. Bridgewater should get much better run support but will still have to deal with protection problems. Bridgewater was accurate under pressure in 2014 but that is difficult to maintain if the pressure continues. If Bridgewater can take a step forward with the help of Peterson, the Vikings could be looking at double digit win season. If Bridgewater doesn’t take the next step, the Vikings could be looking at a .500 or below season.

Schedule and Outlook

The Vikings have a bye Week 5 and play the NFC North twice, AFC West and NFC West. Vikings have a tough travel schedule to Arizona, San Francisco, Atlanta, Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Denver and Oakland. Vikings host Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago, Kansas City, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis and New York Giants. Minnesota has an even mix of home and away games every quarter of the season.

Vikings are a rising team with the return of Peterson, Rudolph and Fusco with Bridgewater year 2 as the wildcard. GM Rick Spielman drafted well on defense with Waynes, Kendrick and Hunter for Zimmer’s defense. Minnesota may have gotten a steal with TJ Clemmings tackle in Round 4.

However, the Vikings still have run defense, coverage and protection problems to resolve. This may cause Minnesota to lose some close games against some tough teams. Minnesota must figure out a way to win some division games because a 1-5 division record again won’t cut it for 2015.The Vikings and 9-7 with a tough schedule seem like a good match.