The reviews of the Vikings’ performance in Thursday’s 17-10 preseason win over the Buffalo Bills were not encouraging. Mike Zimmer said his “expectations were higher than that“, the offensive line was dissected and criticized (brilliantly I might add) and the national media noticed.
It wasn’t a great showing for the first-team offense, but it is preseason, after all. There’s a lot that can be written off with one drive of one preseason game. The players have been together for barely two weeks; many new additions are still acclimating to the playbook and the culture of the team. So things like Mike Remmers’ struggles, the sacks, and general lack of production don’t worry me. Or, at least, the game didn’t change how much they worry me.
Instead, one thing popped out in that game was the offensive strategy. I tweeted about it from the @purpleptsd twitter account:
Biggest takeaway so far is play calling. Shurmur has shown no indication that he wants to move away from the stuff that doomed us in 2016
— purplePTSD (@purplePTSD) August 11, 2017
This comes with a heavy caveat that in the first game of the preseason, teams generally hold back on the playbook and only practice the meat-and-potatoes staples. That fact is exactly why we should worry. These aren’t sloppy, shaking-off-the-rust mistakes. These are deliberate, and incorrect decisions. And there’s no reason to believe it will change.
To provide some context, 2016’s Pat Shurmur offense had problems. The results of his offense were subpar, averaging about 20.8 points per game, just outside of the bottom ten in the league. During that time, Bradford got just 46.3% of his passing yards in the air (the rest coming from YAC), second-lowest in the league next to Alex Smith.
This is by design- Shurmur’s offense is designed to operate with yards-after-catch, using misdirection to free up elusive runners for uncontested catches and room to run. This allows passes to be quick, mitigating pressure and sometimes making it impossible for any pressure to occur, even if a lineman gets beat. But in an NFL filled with athletic, physical corners and complex defensive schemes, this approach was unsuccessful, leading to a 3-6 record and a notoriously impotent offense. It didn’t help that the Vikings’ receivers, while effective deep, were average at generating YAC (Thielen was 42nd and Diggs 58th in YAC per reception). Considering Bradford’s largely undisputed deep passing ability coupled with the disconnect between the YAC ability and deep ability of the Vikings’ receivers, Shurmur’s scheme created an anti-synergy. He made the classic OC mistake- taking players and forcing them to fit your scheme, rather than adapting the strategy to fit the strengths of the personnel.
On Thursday’s game, we didn’t see much of the playbook, nor did we see much of the offense. But if the Vikings intended to practice their staple plays, which is the usual intention, we shouldn’t expect the offense to adjust its strategy at all.
I love when you only have one route running past the sticks on 3rd and Long…. pic.twitter.com/SbQL3COg31
— Josh Mensch (@JoshMenschNFL) August 12, 2017
On third and seven, Shurmur called a play designed to clear out defenders and get either Jarius Wright, Dalvin Cook or Kyle Rudolph the ball with enough space to get past the sticks. In theory, that seems nice, as it will punish a third-and-long blitz as well as a defensive play with too many players deep. But when Jarius Wright loses on his route and the only throw past the sticks that Bradford can make is a decoy nine route, you give the offense almost no chance to succeed. In this NFL, players can come up and make a tackle faster than when Joe Montana dominated the league in the late 80s. The immediate pressure and sack is the cherry on top, but is the result of systemic problem. Give Bradford protection, and he’s likely throwing short of the sticks anyways, or forcing the ball to Diggs regardless of the defender’s position. Bring out the punters. The play was over before it started.
In future preseason games, keep an eye on the depth of route that receivers run, especially the targeted choice. Pay attention to how many yards they’d have to generate after the catch on third down. On sacks, or plays that are derailed by pressure, look for any open receiver that could have gotten a first down. Most of all, think to yourself, “Is Pat Shurmur giving this offense a chance to succeed?”
Thanks for reading!