Mark Craig's Sunday Insider: Lack of pre-snap penalties a positive change

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 6:37 PM

It's the lack of pre-snap penalties (false starts, etc.) that have been a problem for the Vikings in years past.

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Christian Ponder lines up against the Detroit Lions.

Photo: Paul Sancya, Associated Press

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The Vikings offense is built around strength and intelligence.

The strength part is obvious nearly every time Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin or even Toby Gerhart touches the football for what's become the league's ninth-ranked rushing attack. But what about the brainy part of the equation?

Well, it's not a tell-all statistic, but pre-snap penalties -- such as false starts, illegal motion, illegal formation and illegal shifts -- are signs of players who aren't focused, aren't very smart, or both.

In coaching circles, the pre-snap penalty is the equivalent of missing a tap-in putt. They just shouldn't happen.

In that regard, the Vikings obviously have smiles throughout their coaching staff. Why? Because the Vikings lead the league in fewest pre-snap penalties with two.

Two.

They have one false start and one illegal motion. And that's it. The only other teams in the league with fewer than five pre-snap offensive penalties are Detroit (three) and Green Bay and Atlanta (four apiece). The Lions have two false starts, while the Packers and Falcons have three apiece.

"We are trying to adhere to what we want our identity to be as a football team," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after the Vikings became relevant this year by pulling the NFL's upset of the season with a 24-13 win over the 49ers in Week 3.

"We want to be a smart football team, want to be a tough football team, want to be a disciplined football team. We have a lot of work ahead of us, there's no question about it, but we saw some things in that ballgame that gives us some hope that we're definitely headed in the right direction."

The Vikings haven't lost since. They're 4-1 entering Sunday's game at Washington.

As for penalties, well, only three of the teams that have played five games have fewer than the Vikings' total of 27. Atlanta, 5-0 and the team the Vikings offense is modeled after, has just 16 penalties. Carolina has 25, and the New York Giants have 26.

A year ago, the Vikings were 1-4 and had 38 penalties, including eight offensive pre-snap penalties. Having four times the pre-snap penalties needlessly stalled a lot of drives prematurely.

That's one reason this year's ball-control offense is working a lot better than last year's version. This year, the Vikings rank fourth in the league with nine drives that have lasted five minutes or longer. Eight of those drives have resulted in points, including four touchdowns.

The Vikings also rank eighth with 10 drives that have lasted 10 plays or longer. Nine of those have resulted in points, including four touchdowns.

A year ago, the Vikings had only 18 five-minute drives and 24 10-play drives the entire season. This year, they're on pace for 29 and 32, respectively.

Of course, overcoming pre-snap penalties isn't impossible. The Bears (4-1) have 14 of them, including 12 false starts by a jumpy front line that struggles to protect Jay Cutler.

The Cowboys are averaging a league-high four pre-snap penalties per game. They've had 16 of them, including 12 false starts, in just four games.

The Vikings, meanwhile, are on pace for just six pre-snap penalties for the season. That, of course, would require them maintaining the brainy part of their identity.

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