Pelissero: Passing game remains chief issue as Vikings exit bye
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Minnesota Vikings return from their bye week for practice on Monday, one week before they open a daunting four-game stretch with a road tilt against the New York Jets (3-1).
In the 20 days that follow, they'll host the Dallas Cowboys (1-2) and visit Green Bay (3-1) and New England (2-1) -- three more teams that, like the Jets, were considered likely playoff contenders entering the season.
The Vikings beat Detroit 24-10 on Sept. 26 to improve to 1-2, but many of the same problems cropped up that hurt them in losses to New Orleans and Miami.
Here's a look at five areas the Vikings need to improve and/or decisions they have to make entering the most challenging month on the schedule:
1. Passing game
The evidence: The Vikings entered the bye ranked 24th in passing offense (185 yards per game) and 31st in passer rating (60.4). They have only seven pass plays for 20 or more yards and none longer than 33 yards. Thirty-three of QB Brett Favre's 60 completions (55%) have gone to tight ends and running backs, while five wide receivers have a combined 27 catches for 266 yards (9.9 average) and one touchdown.
The solution: Practice, practice, practice. The passing game is all about rhythm, timing and tempo -- none of which Favre has found with his evolving cast of receivers so far. WR Percy Harvin (migraines, hip) has missed substantial time since the opening weekend of training camp. WR Greg Camarillo didn't arrive until Aug. 25 and WR Hank Baskett until Sept. 21. With No. 1 WR Sidney Rice (hip surgery) sidelined at least two more games -- and probably until sometime in November -- the roster at receiver at least seems stable (for now). So, it's on coaches to figure out how to play to those players' strengths and on Favre to push the rapport that's been lacking. The Lions game showed several possible developments in how the receivers will be deployed. Struggling WR Bernard Berrian played a season-low 40 snaps, Harvin saw more of his action in the slot and Baskett -- the biggest target in Rice's absence at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds -- played 18 snaps only four days after signing.
2. Pass rush
The evidence: Through three games, the Vikings have four sacks, which was tied for 23rd in the NFL entering the weekend. All-Pro RE Jared Allen has only one -- a trash sack against Miami as QB Chad Henne tried to run out of the pocket.
The solution: Wait. Allen is a notorious slow starter whose sack rate in October (1.38/game) is nearly double his rate in September (.71/game). On the other side, LE Ray Edwards has yet to register a sack but has caused plenty of disruption in the pocket. With 18 unofficial quarterback "pressures" through three games, Edwards was tied with St. Louis' Chris Long for the most in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com. UT Kevin Williams (one sack, 15 pressures) also has come on over the past two games, and the return of big CBs Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook allowed the Vikings to play far more press coverage against Detroit than they had previously. The slower receivers get out in pattern, the more time the rush has to get home, not to mention that Griffin and Cook are marked upgrades over Asher Allen and Lito Sheppard in coverage.
3. Offensive line
The numbers: Favre has taken six sacks -- roughly on pace to match last year's 34, which were his most since 1999 -- and unofficially has been hit 22 times. RT Phil Loadholt (two sacked allowed, seven total pressures), RG Anthony Herrera (one sack, seven pressures) and C John Sullivan (one sack, four pressures in two games plus one snap) have been the primary culprits. Run blocking improved with Ryan Cook in place of Sullivan (calf) against Detroit, which allowed HB Adrian Peterson 160 rushing yards on 23 carries (7.0 average), including an 80-yard touchdown.
The solution: Help as needed. The Vikings found one answer for perimeter protection problems against the Lions, either chipping or sliding the line and keeping in an extra blocker (usually TE Jimmy Kleinsasser) on 18 of 32 dropbacks (56.3%). That ploy won't work consistently against teams with better secondaries, though, since it also takes a man out of pattern. Sullivan's health likely will dictate the plan at center, but it's worth noting that Cook's strength is run blocking -- something the Vikings need to stay strong while the passing game continues to evolve. Each of the Vikings' next four opponents run some version of a 3-4 as their base defense, putting the added pressure of handling a big, physical nose tackle on the center to execute the inside-zone scheme.
4. Nickel linebackers
The evidence: MLB E.J. Henderson only has been targeted six times in pass coverage (all complete, for 70 yards), but opponents have had success when they can make him cut laterally, such as on Lions TE Tony Scheffler's stuttered 5-yard touchdown reception. Ben Leber comes off the field for a majority of nickel snaps but usually is productive when given coverage opportunities -- including a goal-line interception in zone against Detroit. SLB Chad Greenway mostly covers the flats and hasn't given up a reception longer than 12 yards even though he's been thrown at 17 times (15 complete for 103 yards).
The solution: Keep expanding Leber's opportunities. It's not a knock against Henderson, whose mere presence on the field 10 months after a gruesome leg injury was a minor miracle. But Greenway is going to play every snap, so the only way to give Leber more play-making opportunities is to cut down Henderson's workload or incorporate more 3-3 looks. Leber did take the final regular nickel series (eight snaps) against Detroit, his most protracted action in that package this season. The quality of tight ends the Vikings will face in the coming weeks -- the Jets' Dustin Keller, Dallas' Jason Witten, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley -- is one more reason to put pride aside, work through possible communication issues and make sure the best pass defenders are on the field.
5. Kickoff depth and coverage
The evidence: PK Ryan Longwell's gross average (67.5) on 11 kickoffs would be the best of his career. But he's worked exclusively in the controlled environment of domes, he has only one touchback and opponents are averaging 24.9 yards per return. Perhaps most telling, not a single opponent drive has begun inside 20-yard line and the average field position is the 27.
The solution: Kick and cover better. KOS Rhys Lloyd ended up in Carolina after the Vikings cut him, so there's no solution on the street. Sheppard missed two tackles against Detroit, which averaged 28.4 yards per return on a day Longwell's average hang time was only 3.66 seconds and three balls ended up on the hashes. Longwell never will regularly put the ball 5 yards deep -- the Vikings will take on-target to the goal line with 4 seconds of hang -- but everyone has to execute the plan to limit the drives that are starting at or beyond the 30. The good news here is nobody's busted a long one. The (possibly) bad news is the Jets' Brad Smith is the best the Vikings will have seen.