EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. While the players for the Minnesota Vikings were stretched across the country enjoying their week off during the bye, coach Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff were still tucked inside the team's facilities at Winter Park.
Frazier and the coaches had taken time recently to evaluate the play, specifically the passing offense, before the 34-24 win against the Detroit Lions. Minnesota needed to evaluate because of the struggles. Given a full week during the bye, evaluations were about trying to stay a step ahead of the competition with six games remaining.
"You get a chance to see how people are playing you as the season went on," Frazier said. "We saw how people have evolved in the way they played us on offense, defense and special teams. And some of the adjustments that we need to make to counter some of the things that they're doing. That's probably the most beneficial part of it, to see how teams hone in on certain things that we do."
The Vikings are in the thick of the NFC playoff race at 6-4, but have work ahead with a heavy divisional slate of games, including two each against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, who lead the NFC North with matching 7-3 records. Minnesota is currently on the outside of the playoff picture because of losses to Seattle and Tampa Bay, but the outlook could have been more grim had the Vikings not beaten Detroit heading into the bye week.
Much of the success in the last game could be attributed to some of the changes made after the first set of evaluations about the passing offense. Quarterback Christian Ponder said the emphasis worked then, along with a strong mindset from Ponder, who had struggled often during the previous few weeks.
"I think we just put in a lot of time that last week to make things work," Ponder said. "I went out and made sure I relaxed and slung the ball around and threw the ball with conviction, and I've just got to keep that going. We just had a lot of guys step up and I think we know now how we can perform, obviously. Just got to make sure we do it again this week."
Now for Ponder and the offense, two key points of emphasis will be turnovers and red-zone efficiency.
The Vikings have come away with points 40 of their 57 trips into the red zone, one of the better marks in the league. But Minnesota only ranks 17th in the NFL in converting those trips into touchdowns, crossing the goal line on 51.52 percent (17 of 33) of their red zone chances. Meanwhile, rookie kicker Blair Walsh is 23 of 24 this season on field goal attempts, the second-best percentage in the league, to help the Vikings rank 13th in points per game (23.8). Minnesota is minus-4 in turnover-differential this season, ranking 23rd with 16 turnovers to 12 takeaways.
Coaches stressing the two points was apparent, with the numbers readily available to Ponder.
"No, I don't think we're changing anything," Ponder said of the coaching staff returning from the bye with planned changes. "They just talked about what we need to work on. I think the biggest thing is our turnover-differential, I think we're 23rd in the league and then our red-zone, I think we're 17th in the league at 53 percent. So, obviously those are two things we've got to work on, especially with our schedule stacked up, those are things we have to perform at a high level on."
Ponder also mentioned third-down conversion rates as an area for improvement. The Vikings are 25th in the league, converting just 33.9 percent (43 of 127) of their third downs. As a result, Minnesota, which also struggled for a month in run defense, is 24th in time of possession, with the offense on the field for an average of 28 minutes, 48 seconds.
Frazier again said some of the focus has been what the team is doing schematically, saying they need to "continue to evolve." Some of the evaluations were eye-opening.
"We got a lot out of it," Frazier said. "Sometimes, being able to look back at yourself and just try to determine where you are and what you need to do to improve it can be humbling. We saw a lot of things we need to improve on, some areas where if we do improve we'll be a much better football team down the stretch. We spent some hours and days in getting that done. I think it will benefit us if we can implement some of the things that we saw as a staff that we can impart on our players, and then it's just a matter of our going out on the practice field and making the necessary improvements."
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