1. I will stop picking the Minnesota Vikings in my weekly pool.
With a head-scratching loss to the Bears Sunday, a game in which a Vikes D that was highly regarded coming into the season gave up a rather thought-provoking 48 points to Chicago’s pedestrian offense, Minnesota has finally managed to dishonor my trust by making a habit out of its Jekyll-and-Hyde act. Picked by many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, Brad Childress’ team has struggled to find consistency through the first third of the season. But for all their troubles, Minnesota still sits just one game back in the NFC North, a division up for grabs and unlikely to claim a winner until the final weeks of the season.
The Vikings’ M-O entering 2008, and the basis for their widespread preseason accolades, was the notion that they would have the ability to control both sides of the line of scrimmage, ranking near the top of the league last year in rushing offense and defense. The only chink in the armor was that the secondary would consistently decline to take the field, allowing opposing teams to abandon the run and successfully become one dimensional.
Thus far in 2008, however, there appears to be a new flaw in Minnesota’s blueprint. As was the case a year ago, Adrian Peterson has the running game in fine shape (ranked 10th with 128.4 yds/game) while the front seven has been characteristically stout, allowing a third-best 70.7 yds/game. Even the maligned pass defense, which finished dead last statistically in 2007, has held up its end, holding opponents to just under 220 yards through the air.
The mediocrity that has doomed Minnesota can be directly attributed to a pathetic special teams unit that has inexplicably surrendered five touchdowns through seven games. After allowing a punt return to Green Bay in the first game of the season, the Vikes not-so-special teams gave New Orleans’ Reggie Bush permission to prance around the Superdome turf en route to what may have been a three-return concerto performance had he not tripped while running back one punt. And then there was this past Sunday. First, punter Chris Kluwe, after dropping a snap, had his illegal kick blocked and recovered for a Bears score. Then the folly continued when return man Charles Gordon was struck by a rolling punt inside his own ten while trying to block a Chicago defender. The ball came to rest in the end zone where it was recovered by the Bears for another cheap touchdown.
The bye week couldn’t come at a more perfect time. In two weeks, the Houston Texans will come calling to the Metrodome for what should be a plethora of mismatches that will favor the Vikings.
Maybe I’ll give them one more chance.
2. The Wildcat offense has become extinct. It was nice while the gimick formations and plays worked, but the Baltimore Ravens showed the Miami Dolphins that trick plays are best reserved for moments of surprise, not regularity, in a 27-13 win Sunday. The Ravens top-ranked rush defense gave up only 71 yards.
Head coach Tony Sparano and his staff installed an offensive package that has been widely seen in the collegiate game but rarely utilized in the NFL, where defenses are presumed way too fast and intelligent to succumb to such an irregular scheme. Alas, when the Wildcat offense, which features RB Ronnie Brown behind center in a shotgun formation and QB Chad Pennington split out wide, put up points against the defending AFC champion Patriots earlier this season, coaches began to fall in love.
Giving Brown a pass-run option, the staff clearly began to marvel at the possibility of him throwing for 3,000 yards, a product of floating passes to Pennington, a dead-armed quarterback turned Hall-of-Fame wide receiver. Clearly, Dolphins coaches discounted the likelihood that such an unconventional offense will have no effect on defensive units that have a shred of competence. After all, what are the chances Brown does anything but run the ball when he receives the snap, say, 90% of the time?
Have we seen the last of the Wildcat? Hopefully, but probably not. While many of those pages of the playbook will be torn out following Sunday’s defeat, the Miami coaching staff would be wise to store some tricks up their sleeves, especially if Pennington continues to perform like he did against Baltimore (24-35, 295 yds) in the Dolphins’ base offense.
3. Somewhere Scott Linehan is bawling his eyes out over his former team’s newfound success. Fired as the Rams head coach after Week 4, which concluded an eight game losing streak and a .342 winning percentage over his two plus seasons in St. Louis, Linehan has witnessed from the confines of his home the resurgence of a team that some say rolled over on their former coach due to a glaring lack of respect and trust.
Under Linehan’s control, the Lambs were outscored 147-43 through four games in 2008 and had managed a measly 10 first-quarter points. But since ex-defensive coordinator Jim Haslett took over, the Rams have beaten two of the NFC’s elite teams–Washington and Dallas–despite the fact they have been outgained both times. Underscoring the lack of overall offensive production has been the play of an opportunistic defensive squad. After forcing just two takeaways while getting scorched the first month of the season, the combined rejuvenating efforts of Haslett and promoted defensive coordinator Rick Venturi have obviously resonated. The past two weeks, the Rams have forced seven turnovers, four of which played a major role in creating a short field for the offense during St. Louis’ 34-14 dismantling of the Cowboys Sunday. The previous week in Washington it was safety O.J. Atogwe’s 75-yard TD sprint following a fumble recovery that turned the tide in a 19-17 victory.
In just two games, Haslett, a former head coach with New Orleans, has nearly mastered something that Linehan failed miserably at for the better part of three seasons: motivating his players.
But don’t jump the gun. The Rams are still viewed as a lower-tier NFC team with the middle portion of a brutal schedule yet to come, including this Sunday’s road game at Foxborough. It’s a long season and anything can happen in a division as downtrodden as the NFC West. But with renewed optimism now flowing throughout the entire St. Louis roster, and veteran players reestablishing their leadership in the wake of the coaching change, the Rams at least have some momentum and the feeling they can run with anyone.