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Numbers Favor the Vikings in Washington -PurplePain

 History has been very kind to Viking teams who have started as strong as the 2012 squad has in their first five games.   Prior to 2012, in 51 seasons of Minnesota Viking football, the team has opened a season with a 4-1 record just seven times (1969, 1970,1971, 1977, 1992, 1996 and 2004).  In EVERY one of those seasons, the Vikings reached the playoffs; advancing to the NFC Championship Game in 1977 and to the Super Bowl in 1969.

 This week, the Vikes will try to push their record to 5-1 at FedEx Field in Washington.   However, the Vikings have proven to be an unreliable road team in the past decade, winning just 31 of their past 85 road games (36.5%), and registering only 5 wins in their last 20 attempts away from the Metrodome and TCF Bank Stadium.   All those trends seem to become irrelevant whenever they travel to D.C to play the Redskins.     The all-tie series record shows the Vikings winning 10 games and the Redskins victorious 11 times, but, Minnesota has won 7 of 11 games in Washington, and their last three contests at FedEx Field.

 Even though the Vikings have won both games in Washington under Head Coach Leslie Frazier, they will field a squad with a decidedly different attitude and style of play on both sides of the ball than the Redskins have seen in those contests.  For example, Christian Ponder is expected to take the majority of snaps at quarterback as opposed to 2010 starter Brett Favre, and Joe Webb last year when he finished the game against Washington when Ponder was injured.  

 The Vikings on Offense

While Ponder struggled in his first season as a Viking signal call, throwing as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns, this year he has shown an ability to consistently move the offense and turn drives into points.  In fact, the Minnesota offense has scored on 25 of 54 drives this season.  That success ratio becomes even more impressive when you discount the drives where the Vikings were simply trying to run out the clock late in the game versus San Francisco, Detroit and Tennessee.

 Perhaps the biggest difference in the 2012 Viking offense is the ability to sustain drives.  While most die-hard Viking fans will note that the offense seems predictable at times, with a run, run, pass short and punt mentality, that style of play has resulted in only 11 drives that were “3-and-Out” series this season.  And, three of those short drives occurred clock-draining mode to seal victories.

 Why does all of this matter?  As a result of a more efficient offense, the Vikings rank 14th in points scored this season.    Conversely, in 2011, the team lost several games by less than 7 points.  For most of that season, the Minnesota offense ranked in bottom quarter of all teams in points scored.   Scoring just a few more times per game on average this season, has resulted in a 4-1 record, as opposed to a 1-4 record after the first 5 games of 2011.

 Much of the improvement in the Viking offense can be attributed to better execution of the offense designed by Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave.   Upon arriving in the Twin Cities, Musgrave made it clear that the team would rely on the run, as well as a ball-control pass game that focused on short passes to Percy Harvin, and featuring the Tight Ends.   

 Adrian Peterson returns to the scene of his knee injury last season, and appears near 100%, racking up 420 yards rushing on limited work, and averaging 4.4 yards per carry.   But, the Redskins have seen little of Peterson the last two seasons, as Toby Gerhart got the lion’s-share of the rushing attempts in both wins.  Should the Redskins attempt to focus on stopping Adrian, Musgrave will be sure to move to his short-passing game.

 Ponder’s improved understanding of the offense, coupled with much-improved pass blocking by his line, has increased his 2012 completion percentage to 69%, while his passer rating has jumped to 95 from 70 last season.   Clearly, Percy Harvin is the key target in the passing game.  He has caught 38 balls for 407 yards this season, versus 18 at this time last year for just 177 yards.  Ponder’s timing and accuracy enables Harvin to quickly gather the ball and turn up-field for additional yardage.  

 Meanwhile, even though some fans are wondering where John Carlson is in the offense, the tight ends are making a huge impact in 2012.   Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and Carlson have accounted for 23 catches and 205 yards.  Comparatively, last season under the passing leadership of Donovan McNabb, the Viking tight ends only had 13 catches after five games.   It remains to be seen whether injured speedster Jerome Simpson will be able to play this week, but if not, Ponder will look to stretch the field with deeper throws to Devin Aromoshadu and Michael Jenkins.

 The Vikings on Defense

While the improved offensive performance helps the Vikings move the ball more efficiently and put points on the board, the largest factor in Minnesota’s surprising 4-1 start is the dramatically improved play of their defense.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a more passive defense in the first two games of the season, literally changed its personality 180 degrees since that time. 

 Starting with the upset win against the 49ers, first-year Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams defense has become an aggressive, ball-hawking and smothering unit.   It is as if, all of the sudden, the light went on, and the defenders knew their assignments in the Tampa 2 defense.   The Viking defense has returned to it long tradition of stone-walling the run, as they rank #6 against the rush, giving up a paltry 78.6 yards per game.

 In past years, a stout run defense, meant teams would simply pass with relative ease against the soft zone defenses of the Vikings.  Not so in 2012.   With Viking opponents often facing comeback scenarios against Minnesota this season and being forced to throw, the Vikings are only giving up 225 yards through the air per contest, and are ranked a very respectable 15th against the pass.  

 The national media has rightfully singled-out the improved play and hard-hitting style of the Viking safeties, but cornerbacks Antoine Winfield, Josh Robinson and Chris Cook have also played much tighter in their pass coverages.  Such “press” coverage has resulted in more passes knocked-way, forcing errant throws by quarterbacks, and limiting the yards by receivers after the catch.  Put simply, the Viking defense’s ability to cover receivers and make sure tackles is getting opposing offenses off the field with more regularity.

 Combine the results against opposing offenses rushing and passing attacks, and you will discover a Viking team defense that has improved from 21st to 7th in total yards allowed, and have jumped from 31st in points allowed in 2011, to 6th this season.

 When you consider how different this Viking team is from last season, the 4-1 record really should be no mystery at all.









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