The Minnesota Vikings aren't necessarily considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders this season, but a deep dive into the All-22 Coaches Film reveals a budding heavyweight adhering to the kind of blue-collar formula that helped the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks own the NFC for the past five years. Sunday's matchup with the Packers will serve as a de facto NFC North title game -- and while Green Bay has dominated the division recently, I believe Minnesota is about to force a changing of the guard by beating their longtime rivals and capturing the division for the first time since 2009. I don't think the Vikings will stop there, either, as coach Mike Zimmer is on his way to building a force to be reckoned with in the conference and league going forward.
1) Teddy Bridgewater is growing into a playmaker.
For all of the criticism hurled at Bridgewater for his pedestrian numbers, it's time to appreciate his ability to guide his team to wins. The second-year pro has the best record (16-11) of any quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft class. Most importantly, he's guided the Vikings to the top of the NFC North while displaying the management skills and football IQ of a veteran.
In the All-22 Coaches Film, Bridgewater shows exceptional poise and leadership skills directing the Vikings' offense. He patiently works the underneath areas of coverage, opting for checkdowns over risky throws in traffic. Although the workmanlike approach fails to produce spectacular highlights, it has helped him complete over 65 percent of his passes and compile a 90.6 passer rating as the director of a conservative offense that places a premium on the running game and ball security.
With his peers (Raiders QB Derek Carr and Jaguars QB Blake Bortles) putting up big numbers as leaders of wide-open offenses, Bridgewater has been pegged as a game manager benefitting from the presence of a potential Hall of Fame running back (Adrian Peterson). While it is certainly a valid point, based on his role as a complementary player, I see a young quarterback that's beginning to show signs of developing into a solid playmaker from the pocket. Since Week 14, Bridgewater ranks second in passer rating (123.2, second only to Kirk Cousins' 126.8 in that span) behind a 70.3 completion rate and a 6:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers speak volumes about his efficiency as a passer from the pocket.
From a schematic standpoint, the Vikings' offense features a number of "layups" and quick-rhythm throws that allow Bridgewater to play "connect the dots" from the pocket. He is asked to quickly process information during the pre- and post-snap phases and deliver the ball to the first receiver who breaks open. With the Vikings' offense featuring a number of "catch and run" specialists on the perimeter, the small-ball approach has yielded solid results for the squad. Most importantly, it has allowed Bridgewater to move the chains without putting the ball in harm's way. Of the 36 NFL quarterbacks with at least 125 pass attempts under 10 air yards, Bridgewater is the only one without an interception (9:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 99.9 passer rating on passes of 10 air yards or less).
Against the Chicago Bears in Week 15, the Vikings used a shallow cross concept to generate a big play on the perimeter, as you can see in the play below. Stefon Diggs is positioned at "X" on the back side of a trips formation. The Vikings are running a mesh concept, with Diggs running a shallow crosser underneath a middle hook and high crosser. With the crossing action creating potential picks over the middle, Diggs comes open for an easy completion for Bridgewater, and Diggs eventually finds his way to the end zone (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Although Bridgewater has shined directing the Vikings' short passing game, the young passer needs to push the ball down the field to exploit opponents attempting to condense the field with tight coverage (eight-man fronts to stop Adrian Peterson; tight coverage to stop the short passing game). Bridgewater struggled with his deep-ball efficiency for most of the season, completing only 42.3 percent of passes that traveled 15-plus yards in the air through Week 13, with a 2:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio on such passes. Since Week 14, however, he has connected on 72.7 percent of such passes, with a 2:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 154.4 passer rating.
Against the Bears in that Week 15 game, Bridgewater dropped a dime to Diggs on a seam throw that showcased his touch, timing and anticipation on vertical passes, as you can see in the play below. The Vikings are aligned in an empty formation, with Diggs in the slot. The rookie receiver is instructed to run a fade route from the WR2 position as part of a seam-China combination route. When Bridgewater sees the Bears in man coverage, he targets Diggs on the fade and delivers a perfectly thrown pass to the front pylon. With a perfect pass delivered on target, Diggs scores a 15-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Bridgewater showing better efficiency pushing the ball down the field, the Vikings have been able to attack opponents overloading the box on early downs.
In the play below, from the win over the New York Giants in Week 16, the Vikings are aligned in a slot I-formation, with tight end Kyle Rudolph positioned to the right. He is running a seam post to exploit the Giants' single-high safety coverage. Rudolph works up the field and creates enough separation from Craig Dahl to provide Bridgewater with just enough room to squeeze in the throw. With the timing and execution on point, the Vikings score an easy touchdown on a simple concept (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Adrian Peterson is still the best RB in the game.
At a time when 30-year-old running backs typically find themselves cast aside, Peterson is showing observers that veteran runners can still dominate the game from the "dot" back position. The ninth-year pro leads the NFL with 1,418 rushing yards, displaying the same ferocious running style and burst that helped him pile up the second-most single-season rushing yards in league history (2,097, in 2012). Most impressively, he's tallied seven 100-yard games this season despite facing eight- and nine-man boxes due to the presence of a young quarterback in the backfield.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Peterson, I see a rugged runner with exceptional vision, balance and body control. He has one of the best stop-start cuts in the business, and his ability to accelerate in the hole is remarkable for a veteran runner. Although he has lost a bit of the top-end speed that once made him a threat to score from anywhere on the field, Peterson has four runs of 40-plus yards in 2015, tied for second most in the NFL.
From a schematic perspective, the Vikings have maximized Peterson's talents by featuring a downhill running game that allows him to attack the line of scrimmage with his shoulders square. This allows Peterson to probe the interior of the defense on an assortment of hard-hitting runs that routinely put him in one-on-one matchups with linebackers in the hole. Given Peterson's combination of strength, power and stop-start quickness, the isolated matchups typically produce positive gains in the Vikings' favor.
In the play below, from the win over the Giants in Week 16, Peterson is aligned in the "dot" position, in an ace formation. He takes the handoff on an inside zone directed to the right. He makes a nifty jump cut at the line of scrimmage, bounces to the outside and outruns the Giants' defense for a 39-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Peterson can still dominate the game at his relatively advanced age, and the Vikings are at their best when he is the focal point of the offense. The Vikings are 8-1 when Peterson receives 20-plus carries and sport an unbeaten record (7-0) when he notches 100 yards or more. Given the correlation between Peterson's individual performance and team success, the Vikings should lean heavily on their workhorse heading into the playoffs.
3) The Vikings are building a championship-caliber defense under Zimmer.
There's no disputing Zimmer's track record as a defensive architect based on his success directing elite units throughout his career. The veteran coach has been a part of 11 playoff teams during his NFL tenure, including seven division champions. Thus, it is not a surprise he has quickly transformed the Vikings' young, athletic defense into one of the top units in the NFL.
Looking at the numbers, the Vikings rank near the top of the NFL in the key defensive categories, those that traditionally lead to championships. The Vikings rank sixth in scoring defense (19.3 points allowed per game) and eighth in third-down defense (allowing a 36.1 percent completion rate). Although they haven't generated turnovers at the rate Zimmer would prefer, the Vikings sport a 6-1 record when they have two or more takeaways this season.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it's clear the Vikings are an exciting defensive unit with a young, athletic core that is beginning to come into its own. From the defensive line to the secondary, the Vikings have disruptive playmakers at every level, and Zimmer is starting get key contributions from his budding stars.
Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph have emerged as dominant forces along the line of scrimmage, exhibiting a combination of strength, power and athleticism that allows them to act as a wrecking ball at the point of attack. Joseph, in particular, has been a destructive playmaker. He overwhelms blockers with his sheer size and brute strength, which forces opponents to direct double-teams in his direction. Griffen hasn't matched his production from a year ago, but remains a legitimate threat to wreak havoc off the edges. He has teamed with a rapidly improving Danielle Hunter and the ultra-versatile Anthony Barr to give the Vikings an electric pass rush with the potential to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game.
On the second level, the Vikings have plugged a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate (Eric Kendricks) into a playmaking position at the heart of the defense. Kendricks leads the team in tackles (83 total stops) while adding four sacks as an extra rusher on creative blitzes. Kendricks' knack for finding the ball is uncommon for a first-year starter -- and he does it without comprising the integrity of the defense with unnecessary gambles. He is one of the best "see ball, get ball" defenders that I've seen enter the NFL in the last five years.
Harrison Smith anchors a secondary that's loaded with blue-collar playmakers. The fourth-year pro hasn't become a household name, but he is unquestionably one of the best safeties in the game. From his penchant for delivering big hits as the designated enforcer between the hashes to his superb ball skills as a center fielder, Smith is one of the new-school safeties prompting defensive coaches to set traps for opponents in the back end.
Against the New York Giants in Week 16, Smith showcased his spectacular ball skills and superb football IQ on a pick-six that essentially sealed the deal for the Vikings. In the video clip below, Smith is positioned near the box as a potential eighth defender, but he is responsible for the deep half in the Vikings' cloud scheme. Smith reads Eli Manning's eyes at the snap and flies over the top of the fade route to snag an interception on a deep ball that's intended for Reuben Randle:
With Smith exhibiting the savvy and awareness to bait a veteran quarterback into making a costly mistake, the Vikings' secondary is starting produce the turnovers that Zimmer (and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray) covet in key moments.
If the Vikings continue to get outstanding complementary play on each level, the spry defense will spark an unexpected run in the postseason and serve as the foundation for a team that could rule the NFC for the next few years.