Offensive formations and film observations: Week 4 vs. Steelers
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Welcome to another installment of 'Offensive formations and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Pittsburgh Steelers
Every Tuesday after a game, we'll take a look at what the Vikings offense looked like, bring you five key takeaways from film study and hand out a proverbial game ball and name the goat(s). Every Wednesday, we'll provide you with a similar breakdown and analysis from the defensive side of the ball.
The Vikings offense produced 393 yards and 34 points in the win, raising their points average to 28.8 (5th in NFL) and yards average to 350.5 (15th).
A few home-run plays, including receiver Greg Jennings' 70-yard touchdown and running back Adrian Peterson's 60-yard touchdown, kept the offense on the field for a season-low 23:33 of 60:00. A week after running 79 plays, the offense proudced more points and yardage with just 52 snaps. The season-high 7.7 yards per play came from a simplified, but effective, game plan that used half the formations seen a week ago.
1 tight end / 2 receivers / 1 fullback: 16 plays
Shotgun 1 tight end / 3 receivers: 12 plays
2 tight end / 1 receiver / 1 fullback: 11 plays (10 in second half)
2 tight end / 2 receiver: 10 plays
Shotgun 2 tight end / 2 receivers: 2 plays
Victory: 1 play
Total plays: 52
1) With backup quarterback Matt Cassel at the helm, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave ran out of the shotgun 14 of 52 plays [27%]. The Vikings used returning fullback Jerome Felton on half the snaps. They weren't playing from behind like they were at times against the Cleveland Browns, so the Vikings only ran out of the shotgun 3-wide set on 12 plays, down from 31 against the Browns. Peterson's 6.1-yards per carry and two touchdowns helped keep the Vikings out of passing situations.
The offense underwent an upgrade at quarterback starting with the first snap, when Cassel fired to receiver Jerome Simpson for a 13-yard gain on first down. The entire offense faked a run, except for Cassel and Simpson. Even Jennings crashed down to block as the Steelers bit on the fake. Sometimes the play call goes for a play-action handoff to running back Adrian Peterson before dropping back. However, Cassel released the ball in less than two seconds, with Peterson still behind him. This little nuance shaves enough time off the play, sans Ponder's known hesitation as well, the defenders can't read the fake in time to drop back with eight in the box. Partial credit has to go to the play call, as the threat of Peterson is enough to draw defenders, making the play-action handoff unnecessary. It's a pass-run option, with Simpson's route built into the backside of the run play. Ponder has had chances with the same play call, but has been late or inaccurate when faced with pressure dialed up against the run. Cassel's ability to stand in the pocket under pressure, which the offensive line handled fairly well, and see the field through the linemen also deserves credit.
2) On 23 first-down plays, the Vikings ran nine runs and 14 pass plays. Their commitment to get the passing game going was evident from the start, as they ran seven passes in their first 10 plays.
Cassel's quarterback rating of 123.4 may be more than Ponder has ever had, but his performance was far from satisfying. Cassel was bailed out by teammates Cordarrelle Patterson, Peterson, Jennings and Simpson, not to mention the offensive line, in a variety of ways. Cassel's first shot downfield went to the rookie Patterson on their first drive. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor actually intercepted Cassel, but Patterson has the wherewithal to turn around and poke the ball out of his hands in the corner of the endzone. Jennings caught a seven-yard pass in the second quarter and turned it into a 70-yard touchdown after he made two defenders miss and outran the rest. Cassel misfired on a couple of simple routes, one into the right flat by tight end John Carlson, who saw the ball sail over his head, and the other to Peterson on a check down. Taylor dropped a second interception after Cassel locked onto Simpson on another slant route. Simpson then recovered a fumble 11 yards downfield just before halftime, after Cassel was sacked and fumbled.
The Vikings linemen, tight ends and halfbacks put together their most complete game in pass protection on Sunday. The pass protection, along with a quicker release time, led to a season-low three pressures on Cassel's 27 dropbacks (11%). Left tackle Matt Kalil easily handled 35-year old defensive end Brett Keisel in one-on-one matchups most of the night. Only safety Troy Polamalu gave the Vikings consistent trouble, as he essentially lined up as the Steelers fourth linebacker in the box on most snaps. However, Peterson made perhaps his best block of the season when he stuffed linebacker Lawrence Timmons at the line, allowing Cassel to complete a 51-yard catch-and-run to Simpson in the third quarter. Overall, Cassel stretched the field and didn't hesitate on throws we have yet to see Ponder make this season. But he had his share of inaccuracies and head-scratching decisions, they just didn't come back to bite the Vikings on Sunday.
3) The Vikings and Musgrave were able to use up nearly eight minutes of the fourth quarter off of 14 plays. They gained just 67 yards and missed a 44-yard field goal, but Cassel hit on his only six passes of the final period and Peterson crossed the first-down marker three times to give the ball back to Pittsburgh with no timeouts and 1:43 left in the game. The execution was on point, but the playcalling may have to adapt as they won't play the third-oldest defense in the NFL again.
4) It's surprising how much it seems like Simpson is the first read in this offense. Simpson had three catches before Jennings had one, albeit his went for a 70-yard touchdown. He leads all Vikings players with 19 catches on 32 targets for 342 yards and five plays of 20-plus yards. Jennings finally had his breakout game in purple, but he still has just 14 catches on 23 targets for 252 yards this season. Simpson (11) nearly tripled Jennings (4) in targets on Sunday. Tight end Kyle Rudolph hasn't done much but run block as his two receptions for six yards (on two targets) are his least since the Dec. 9 win against the Chicago Bears last season. His first target on Sunday didn't come to him until 5:34 left in the third quarter. Rudolph averages 8.6-yards per catch, but has just 12 receptions and one touchdown this season. After the first quarter of games, he's on pace for 48 receptions, 412 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson regressed to playing 13 snaps after seeing 19 against the Cleveland Browns a week ago. Patterson caught one ball for nine yards on two targets and continues to rotate with Simpson every few plays.
5) Peterson performed well behind fullback Jerome Felton, who returned from a three-game suspension to make his season debut on Sunday. Felton took a while to get warmed up, losing his footing and grip a few times early. He was a non-factor in Peterson's 60-yard touchdown run, but made some plays in pass protection to help Cassel later in the game. The Vikings placed Felton all over the lineup, motioning him in and out of the backfield onto the line and sometimes offset. He's likely one of the main reasons the Vikings ran 10 of their 27 second-half plays out of the run-heavy, two-tight end, single fullback set. Most of those plays came in the fourth quarter, when the Vikings ran Peterson six of the final 14 plays. Coincidence or not, Peterson had his best performance of the season with Felton back -- racking up 140 yards on a 6.1-per-carry average.
Game ball: Peterson, Felton, right-side OL. Peterson's best production of the season wasn't without help from his blockers. From right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt and to the sideline, Peterson ran the ball 13 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns in their gaps. Neither Fusco nor Loadholt allowed a hurry or hit to the quarterback. Fusco may have gotten away with a hold on Timmons during Peterson's second touchdown run, but blocked two linebackers on the play nonetheless. Loadholt didn't always have the quicker first step in run blocking, but got in the way enough to not allow a tackle at the line.
Goat(s): There wasn't a consistently bad performance, even Musgrave, as noted above, found a way to use eight minutes of game clock on 14 plays in the fourth quarter. But the choice is Jerome Simpson, simply for doing his first-down 'dance' after recovering Cassel's fumble 11 yards upfield for a first down.