My, how the narrative has changed (again) with the Gophers.
Last year, so much of the focus was on Jerry Kill’s health … until the team ripped off a four-game Big Ten winning streak for the first time in 40 years, answering many questions about the coaching staff’s ability to work through any road blocks in its path.
This year, after the Gophers looked overmatched against TCU and completed just one pass against San Jose State, the talk shifted to an offense that looked either one-dimensional or just plain bad depending on your preference.
But consecutive victories over Michigan and Northwestern have re-established this team’s identity: very good on defense, sound in the running game and — this is key — able to throw enough to win. Mix in some solid special teams and the ability to hold a lead after halftime, and the Gophers have the makings of a team that can compete in any conference game this season.
That, of course, raises an interesting question: Are they good enough to not just join the discussion, win 4 or 5 conference games and go to a decent bowl game … but instead legitimately compete for a Big Ten title?
The schedule certainly breaks that way and allows one to dream a little. Without putting wins in the bank, you look at the next two (home against Purdue and at Illinois) and think it is very possible the Gophers will be 4-0 heading into a huge home game against Iowa (which also could be 4-0 in conference play at the time).
Winning the Big Ten West will almost certainly necessitate winning that Iowa game, too, since the closing stretch — home against Ohio State, then at Nebraska and at Wisconsin — are three major tests. But even if the Gophers went 1-2 with that closing group, they could at least find themselves in a tie for the West title. Win 2 of 3, and they would very likely win it.
That’s a long way to go, and it assumes a lot of wins that will require a lot of effort. But it’s not crazy to think about — nor is, perhaps, sweeping the three big trophy games (Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin).
Let’s try to find some meaning in the snap counts from the Vikings’ 17-3 loss to the Lions on Sunday …
OFFENSIVE SNAPS: 68.
QUARTERBACK:Teddy Bridgewater 68.
Thoughts: Pulling Bridgewater for his own physical safety would have risked doing damage to his development mentally. So the coaching staff had no choice but to let the kid take the medicine that rookies not named Luck or Wilson or Roethlisberger are force fed.
OFFENSIVE LINE: LT Matt Kalil 68, LG Charlie Johnson 68, C John Sullivan 68, RG Vladimir Ducasse 68, RT Phil Loadholt 68.
Thoughts: The initial thought is, wow, Atlanta’s defensive line has to be the worst in the league. Two weeks ago, the Vikings manhandled the Falcons up front. Sunday, the Lions looked like they had four fathers playing against their children in the backyard. Minus the fathers letting the children win, of course. Not having Brandon Fusco at right guard hurts. But the consistent breakdowns throughout the line has been a recurring issue for two years now.
RUNNING BACKS: Jerick McKinnon 46, Matt Asiata 16, Joe Banyard 7, FB Jerome Felton 5.
Thoughts: It was good to finally see McKinnon move ahead of Asiata as the starter and primary back. We’ll see if it’s a permanent deal, but one has to assume it is. Asiata is a hard worker and gets the most out of what he has, but McKinnon is the guy who gives the team the best chance at those explosive runs of 12 yards or more that are sitting on the exempt list next to Adrian Peterson. Felton hasn’t played much this season, but getting only five snaps tells us the Vikings knew they couldn’t just line up and run straight at the best defensive front in football.
RECEIVERS, TIGHT ENDS: WR Greg Jennings 64, TE Chase Ford 53, WR Cordarrelle Patterson 52, WR Jarius Wright 44, TE Rhett Ellison 29, WR Charles Johnson 14, WR Adam Thielen 9, TE MarQuies Gray 1.
Thoughts: Well, we hate to open up another line of questioning that goes “Why aren’t the Vikings using [FILL IN THE BLANK] more!?” But Wright sure seems to be more visible when he’s on the field than Jennings is when he’s on the field. Jennings typically plays the most snaps. And, granted, he’s hamstrung by quarterbacks who aren’t very good or aren’t experienced. But he played 20 more snaps than Wright and saw the same number of balls thrown to him (four). Wright caught four of them. Jennings caught three. Something strange is going on there. Patterson played a little fewer snaps than usual, possibly because of that hip injury that’s nagging him. Johnson got 14 snaps in part because of Patterson’s slight reduction in snaps. Patterson caught only two of the eight balls thrown his way. Bridgewater’s red-zone interception — in which the safety baited him into throwing the ball to Patterson — is a prime example of how bad an idea it is to force the ball to a particular receiver, no matter how good he is. It is surprising, however, that we don’t see more of those Percy Harvin-type bubble screens for Patterson. Ford is overlooked, but is becoming a player to watch. That’s why he played 53 snaps and caught four of the five balls thrown to him.
DEFENSIVE SNAPS: 70.
SECONDARY: CB Captain Munnerlyn 70, CB Xavier Rhodes 70, FS Harrison Smith 70, SS Robert Blanton 70, CB Josh Robinson 39.
Thoughts: Right off the bat, the first thought is Vikings fans should be thrilled that they have Smith at a key position on defense. Not only is he capable of becoming a Pro Bowl and even an All-Pro performer one day, he’s also one tough dude. He played 100 percent of the snaps even though he entered the game with a 50 percent chance of playing because of an ankle sprain. He wasn’t at his best, but he and the rest of the secondary did some decent work. For the final 56 minutes, Lions QB Matthew Stafford was held to 15 for 29 passing for 116 yards and no touchdowns. Blanton hasn’t missed a defensive snap this season. He’s the only defender to play every snap. He’s erasing his rap as an injury-prone player. But one has to think his playing time also is a sign that safety will be a priority in the draft next season.
LINEBACKERS: Anthony Barr 70, Gerald Hodges 66, Jasper Brinkley 31, Audie Cole 3, Michael Mauti 1.
Thoughts: This was Brinkley’s best game. He played less than half the snaps, but tied for the team lead in solo tackles with six, had a sack and two tackles for loss. Hodges missed only four snaps after tweaking his hamstring. He said it wasn’t a big deal, but that’s an injury to keep an eye on as Chad Greenway gets closer to returning from a broken hand and broken ribs.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Everson Griffen 65, Brian Robison 65, Linval Joseph 45, Sharrif Floyd 39, Shamar Stephen 34, Tom Johnson 21, Corey Wootton 10.
Thoughts: Johnson was by far the most efficient with the number of snaps he had. A sack and a QB hurry in which he blasted Stafford with a helmet to the chest showed a continuation of Johnson’s comfort with his role as a nickel pass rusher. Perhaps he should be getting more reps or even starting. Griffen had six tackles and was credited with a sack that he didn’t do much on as Stafford fell to the ground. It’s a different defense, so the sack totals aren’t going to be as high as in past seasons. So Griffen and Robison are being taught to rush more responsibly. That means they can’t abandon containment or the running game while striving for double digit sack totals.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Four players played a team-high 21 snaps on special teams: Thielen, Mauti, S Andrew Sendejo and S Antone Exum.
Team high snap total: Blanton, 78 (70 defense, 8 special teams).
The Lions game ball after 17-3 victory over the Vikings on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium went to a former Viking.
Lions defensive end George Johnson got revenge on his former team, recording 1.5 sacks and five tackles as part of a Lions defensive line that dominated the trenches with eight sacks on rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“We just knew eventually we might have that break out game, and this week it happened,” Johnson said, per the Detroit News.
Johnson said he gave the pregame speech to the defensive line before facing the team he spent the last two seasons with. Johnson was released by the Vikings on Oct. 19 and was not picked up by another team last season. The Lions signed him during the offseason.
“Last year being by myself at home, it hurt,” Johnson said. “But for them to take me in the way they did it felt pretty good, and I know they have my back.
Johnson said it didn’t hit him that he was back in Minnesota until he took the field and saw purple and gold on the opposing sideline. It was the first away game his wife and kids were able to attend this season.
“I know my brothers had my back,” Johnson said. “I consider this [defensive line] and this team my brothers.”
Vikings rookie running back Jerick McKinnon received his first career start in the 17-3 loss to the Lions at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday.
It’s about the only positive thing you can say about the Vikings offense. He was the only player with double-digit carries, rushing for 40 yards on 11 attempts. McKinnon also had a team high six catches for 42 yards.
McKinnon said he knew during the week that would receive the start over running back Matt Asiata, who had two carries for -5 yards and one catch for 18 yards.
“I tried to prepare myself the best for it, really dial in, focus in on my assignment and make sure that I was on top of everything,” McKinnon said.
The rookie has stepped up over the last three games since he was challenged by Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer to make the most of his limited opportunities. He received five carries in his first three games but has had 36 in the last three games.
Asiata didn’t hit double digits in carries for the first time since running back Adrian Peterson’s absence after the season opener against the Rams.
“It’s not up to me; it’s up to the coaches,” Asiata said on playing time. “I’m a team player and I do whatever the coaches tell me to do, I do. Seeing Jerick step up is a big thing. A rookie catching the ball out of the backfield and doing all that he can do is a positive for this team.”
Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said he wasn’t feeling 100 percent, dealing with a lingering left hip injury in the 17-3 loss against the Lions on Sunday.
Patterson rotated with wide receiver Charles Johnson on drives to remain fresh. It didn’t appear that Patterson needed to be attended to on the sideline with the injury, but he didn’t remain on the field throughout the game.
“I don’t feel like I’m 100 percent,” Patterson said. “I should be next week. Just keep getting treatment and keep grinding in treatment and do what it takes.”
Patterson initially injured the hip last week against the Packers, missing most of the second half in the 42-10 loss.
Patterson waived off Johnson midway through the fourth quarter on the Vikings only scoring drive – a 40-yard field goal from kicker Blair Walsh. On the 11-play, 45 yard drive, Patterson had first catch in the game and wanted to stay in with the adrenaline flowing. He finished with two catches for 15 yards on eight targets and one carry, a halfback toss, for two yards.
“I’m going to be out there,” Patterson said. “I don’t feel like I need to let my teammates down. Thursday, I sat out the whole second half. I can’t let that happen again.”
Johnson, who was signed off the Browns practice squad three weeks ago, finished with two catches for 22 yards. He’s received more snaps with Patterson’s injury over the last two games.
“It was good for me, and I’m still learning and growing,” Johnson said.
The offense struggled with rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater throwing three interceptions, the offensive line allowing eight sacks and the receivers failing to gain separation from defensive backs.
“It all starts with the whole offense,” Patterson said. “We’ve got to get open more for Teddy to see us and get the ball to us.
“It’s our job, no matter if they’re the No. 1 defense or the No. 32 defense. We got to do a heck of a job getting open, us receivers. It all starts on the offense. We did a poor job and next week we’ll try and make up for it.”
Well, I knew something wasn’t right when so many of us assumed that the team that lost to the Packers by 32 points (Vikings) would beat the team that beat the Packers by eight points (Lions).
Boy, were we wrong.
The feeling here was rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would make enough of a difference with his poise and quicker decision-making process to allow the offensive line enough time to hold off the Lions’ front four. I knew the Lions would be a better front than Atlanta’s, but thought they wouldn’t be THAT much better than the one we saw in St. Louis.
Boy, was I wrong.
The Lions are much better up front because they’re not only good pass rushers, but they’re also so physically strong. You don’t often see mismatches this one sided in terms of pure strength. But that’s where the Lions dominated the game from the get-go. Eight sacks, three interceptions, 11 tackles for loss and 12 QB knockdowns later, a 17-3 loss looks closer than the actual game felt.
The defense doesn’t get off the hook either. When a coach wins the coin toss and defers, he’s expecting more from his defense than giving up an 80-yard touchdown drive. The Vikings continue to play poorly defensively early in games. That needs to stop.
And I’ll also throw a dart at the punter, too. Jeff Locke needed to step it up with this overmatched offense facing the No. 1 defense. He punted seven times and the Lions’ average starting position off those seven punts was their 35-yard line. Locke’s net average was 37.9, including a 30-yard net on the punt that led to the Lions’ 60-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-0 lead.