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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings offensive line will be critical to team’s success under Bradford, Peterson

By Derek Wetmore

BY ARIF HASAN

Follow Arif on Twitter

The debates are over. Sam Bradford, for better or worse, is on the Minnesota Vikings roster and will presumably take over the starting quarterback spot for Shaun Hill when the offensive staff deems him ready—possibly as soon as Sunday against the Tennessee Titans for the season opener.

With or without him, however, the offense will probably funnel through the success of the running game, and primarily Adrian Peterson.

Even so, there will be times that the passing game will be important; 3rd and long situations will require an efficient passing game and only two teams since 1984 have run the ball over 600 times in a year.

In either case, the offensive line will be critical to the success of the Vikings offense.

The Vikings offensive line was spectacularly bad at one of its two critical responsibilities last year and marginally good at the other. In sets of data from both Pro Football Focus and STATS, Inc., no quarterback was under pressure more often in the past decade than Teddy Bridgewater was in 2015.

Passing

Per Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater’s pressure rate in 2015 led the league by four percentage points above scrambling Russell Wilson’s and an additional percentage point above deep-throwing Carson Palmer’s. The difference between first and second was the same as the difference between second and tenth.

Once adjusted for opponent, it looks even worse—the difference between first and second expands even further to equal the gap between second and 16th.

This is critical, because passer rating will drop between 30 and 36 points for the average quarterback when under pressure than in a clean pocket (depending on one’s definition of pressure). That’s larger than the difference than the top passer in the league and the worst passer.

In the past five years of play, the best passer rating (belonging to Aaron Rodgers) is 35 points better than the worst passer rating (Blaine Gabbert’s). Any chance you can turn an opposing passer from Rodgers into Gabbert is one well worth taking.

Philadelphia had one of the least-pressured passing offenses in the league, owed in large part to the large discrepancy between playcalling, where quick dropbacks dominated the scheme over the deep seven-step drops in the Minnesota Vikings’ scheme. The data show that the Vikings had the fourth-most difficult scheme to block for in the NFL, while the Eagles had the fifth-easiest:

https://twitter.com/PFF/status/560489544077045760/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

It wasn’t much different in 2014, nor did it change much when the Vikings found reason to play Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder over the past two years. In 2013, Brandon Weeden led the league in percentage of passes that were deep dropbacks despite coming from a spread, shotgun system with little dropback footwork.

There’s a good chance that despite Bradford’s experience in a superficially (but at the moment very relevantly) similar system, Turner will have Bradford take seven-step drops more often than the rest of the league, putting the offensive line under more stress.

Given that Bradford has had poor results under pressure—he led the league in accuracy under pressure but passed so rarely beyond the line of scrimmage in those situations that his passer rating and QBR under pressure last year and throughout his career have been poor—this will be an essential point of emphasis for the offensive line.

At best, the differential between his DVOA (a proprietary Football Outsiders metric that combines success rate with explosive playmaking) under pressure and without pressure is around the league average. This still ranked him 27th among quarterbacks under pressure overall.

In 2013, in an Air Coryell offense that much more closely matches Norv Turner’s, Bradford ranked 22nd in that differential, 26th under pressure and 29th without pressure.

When adjusting all quarterbacks for pressure (i.e. giving them all average pressure rates), a commenter on that Football Outsiders piece found Bridgewater to be the tenth-best quarterback and Bradford as 30th.

If, instead of using DVOA, one uses yards-per-attempt, the Eagles offense overall ranked 31st overall when giving each team an equal pressure rate.

As a result, it will be all on the offensive line to reduce pressure. Sam Bradford with no pressure at all would rank third among all quarterbacks in DVOA last year (assuming those other quarterbacks faced pressure their normal amount).

If they kept the pocket clean as much as the best pass protecting line in football last year (the Bengals’), he’d rank 13th. If they did it as much as they did last year, he ranks 28th.

For a team that’s intent on moving the chains to maintain a hold on the ball, get in field goal position and at times run the ball in, that difference is huge. The Vikings intend to win with a defense and a running game, and that approach prioritizes minimizing turnovers more than teams led with high-flying offenses, like in Pittsburgh or Arizona.

And pass protection becomes increasingly critical in many ways, as Bradford ranked third in fumble rate in 2015 on sacks and runs among quarterbacks, behind only Eli Manning and Josh McCown. That’s no fluke, as he ranks sixth among all quarterbacks in career fumble rate for those with at least 400 attempts since 2010, when he was drafted.

If Shaun Hill starts, that’s no better—he ranks seventh.

Bridgewater ranked 42nd of 46.

Though the Vikings added two pieces to their offensive line, there’s not much hope for improvement unless Tony Sparano can fundamentally change the players. While T.J. Clemmings was the guiltiest of the offensive linemen in terms of pass protection, Andre Smith wasn’t much better over the past two years.

Clemmings ranks 59th of 80 offensive tackles in pressure rate (per PFF), but Andre Smith ranked 53rd. Matt Kalil remains on the team and ranked 55th. Among guards, Alex Boone will be an upgrade at the left guard position over Brandon Fusco, but Brandon Fusco will be on the starting offensive line at the right guard position. Boone effectively replaces Mike Harris and the difference between them is small. Harris ranked 20th at his position, while Boone ranked 15th.

Keeping Fusco, who ranked 75th, requires faith that he has grown stronger after a full offseason without rehab from a torn pectoral and a move back to the right side. That may be the case, and what little we saw of him in the preseason was inconclusive.

He didn’t end up against a three-technique one-on-one in pass protection too often, but when he did he was largely clean until the middle of the second quarter, where he gave up one hurry, followed by a quarterback hit when picking up a stunt on Kyle Rudolph’s touchdown.

Joe Berger at center is a great run blocker and an average pass protector, but that still means allowing pressure on occasion.

Should everyone perform at the level they did the past two seasons (and the Vikings drop back 500 times again), then the Vikings would move from having 233 pressures to 220, or 44% of dropbacks. That would still lead the league.

Price in some improvement from the fact that Bradford has a quicker release than Bridgewater and some improvement from Fusco as a result of the offseason and move back to right guard, and the Vikings would still give up pressure at around a near league-leading 40 percent of the time.

The fact that the starting offensive line in the preseason seemed to give up pressure at that same rate is concerning from that perspective.

Running

The offensive line was a pretty good run-blocking unit last year.

Berger was likely the top run-blocking center (a judgment not just from PFF, but also from Duke Manyweather—a noted critic of PFF and offensive line coach to several NFL players), while Matt Kalil has quietly grown to be a much better run-blocker than pass protector. Brandon Fusco is a bit more obvious with what his forte is, and Mike Harris was equally good as a pass protector as he was a run blocker—better than average.

The Vikings upgraded in both pass protection and run blocking with Andre Smith over T.J. Clemmings, though much more as a run-blocker.

Minnesota may not be set up with a line as good at run blocking as Dallas’ is, but it could achieve top-tier status with a few tweaks.

That, too, will be more important than ever because of the particular strengths of Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson. Peterson has always been a boom-bust runner who has more than made up for his smaller runs with enormous and explosive large runs.

But what happens when two consecutive runs fail to get much yardage is a third-and-long situation where the team is required to pass in order to convert. With Teddy Bridgewater, that wasn’t much concern as he ranked eighth of all quarterbacks in the past three years in converting 3rd and long (between seven and 12 yards), along the lines of Aaron Rodgers (sixth) and Cam Newton (seventh). Sam Bradford, unfortunately, ranked 38th of the 42 qualifying quarterbacks.

Bradford doubled his conversion rate when it came to mid-range conversion opportunities, so creating favorable down-and-distance scenarios when Peterson isn’t busting a big run will be key.

That will be quite difficult because Peterson had a low rate of success in avoiding negative plays despite how well the offensive line blocked. Some of that has to do with tight end and fullback blocking, but some of it has to do with either too much aggressiveness or patience from Adrian Peterson.

The way to counter that from the perspective of the offensive line is to get even better—so that failures are three yards instead of one.

The Vikings rank twelfth in percentage of runs that were more than two yards after excluding third-and-short situations, which is a good start but not enough to keep the offense on schedule often enough to achieve its goals if the quarterback situation isn’t ideal.

Minnesota finished 38.4 percent of its drives with a score, which is the seventh-best rate in the NFL. While the offense wasn’t known for scoring touchdowns, the team consistently found itself in scoring position. A lot of that had to with its ability to generate first downs, which is why the Vikings had the third-fewest three-and-outs per drive in the NFL.

All of that comes back with a downgrade at quarterback if the offensive line blocks for three yards on running plays more often. Making sure Peterson gets three yards before contact means that the offense can be sustainable, even if it isn’t the centerpiece.

If Tony Sparano can improve the offensive line in either capacity, they might be able to paper over the problems Minnesota has fallen into with the quarterback situation and the unique issues that might arise from a boom-bust running back.

The post Vikings offensive line will be critical to team’s success under Bradford, Peterson appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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