Cassel brings balance to Vikings' passing game

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2013 - 12:40 AM

Don’t worry, Adrian Peterson is still the Vikings’ offensive focus. But the right mix of passes is crucial to success, too.

 

Adrian Peterson practiced Wednesday and is on schedule to start Sunday at Cincinnati. Don’t worry, that’s still a good thing.

Yes, the Vikings threw for 382 yards and reached their highest point total (48) since Week 16 of the 1998 season without Peterson against the Eagles on Sunday. But no, it wasn’t the reigning league MVP’s absence because of a sprained right foot that opened up the offense and created perfect balance between Matt Cassel’s pass attempts (35) and the team’s number of rushes (35).

“We expect [Cassel] to be able to play well with Adrian,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We’ve seen the two of them on the field together. We’ve seen the success with them on the field together.”

For proof, let’s go all the way back to London and Week 4. With Cassel making his Vikings debut, coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense opened up and was perfectly balanced between passes (25) and runs (25). Cassel had a team season-high 123.4 passer rating and two touchdowns to Greg Jennings, including a 70-yarder, while Peterson ran 23 times for 140 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, including a 60-yarder.

Frazier also mentioned for further proof the second half and overtime of the Chicago game on Dec. 1. In relief of injured Christian Ponder, Cassel passed 33 times, completing 20, for 243 yards and a touchdown, while Peterson ran 35 times for 211 yards (6.0) in a come-from-behind victory.

Achieving that kind of balance with or without the league’s best running back isn’t easy and depends heavily on the nine-year veteran quarterback’s experience. In less than 40 seconds between plays, Cassel often is asked to survey the defense, accurately decipher what’s real and what’s a disguise, pick between a run and a pass and then communicate that to the other 10 offensive players.

“The [run-pass] option comes up quite a bit in our offense,” Frazier said. “We get so much eight-, nine-man boxes that we have to run against. There are times we’d rather not do that. Even when Adrian is in there, we still have that same option for the quarterback. But there also are times when we say, ‘Hand it off no matter what.’ ”

Cassel has now proven he can help Musgrave execute perfect balance with or without Peterson. On Sunday, third-string running back Matt Asiata carried the ball 30 times for 51 yards (1.7) and three touchdowns. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in NFL history that an NFL player had 30 carries and three touchdowns while averaging less than 2 yards a carry.

“I don’t think our game plan really changed that much,” Cassel said. “We pretty much stayed balanced and were able to throw the ball and set up our play-action and do those kinds of things. So from the game-plan standpoint, I don’t think much would have changed if Adrian was playing.”

The Pittsburgh and Philadelphia games were the only ones the Vikings achieved perfect run-pass balance. The team’s two highest passer ratings — 123.4 and 116.6, respectively — and its two highest yards-per-attempt numbers by far — 9.9 and 10.9 — came in those two games.

On the flip side, the two most unbalanced games were, not coincidentally, the Vikings’ two most humiliating losses. In the 35-10 loss to Carolina, the Vikings passed the ball 44 times and ran it 13. A week later, with quarterback Josh Freeman starting after only four days of practice with the first team, the Vikings threw the ball 53 times and ran it 14 in a 23-7 Monday night loss to the Giants.

“We stuck with the game plan on Sunday, but it was a different guy carrying the football,” Frazier said. “But we think we can still be creative with Adrian in the backfield.

“Our offense, as long as Adrian is Adrian, will always revolve around Adrian. But we want to be able to throw the ball and have success, especially with the receivers that we have. Now, some of that is contingent on the QB play, and Matt did a terrific job for us on Sunday. You gain more confidence, seeing some of the things he was doing in the ballgame.”

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