The Minnesota Vikings 2017 season has been an interesting one so far, to say the least. In week one, the Vikings dispatched an old nemesis with a familiar face, THE face of this franchise for a decade.
Things seemed rosy until QB Sam Bradford injured his knee in week one, and has now become week to week while missing the last two games. With Teddy Bridgewater on the PUP list, and not able to practice or be activated for another month, the short term present and future, with Case Keenum at the helm, suddenly seemed murky.
Instead, the Vikings come out of two games (and counting?) with Keenum buoyed with confidence. But why? A heretofore unremarkable backup quarterback running a team that went a mere 8-8 last year shouldn’t have the Vikings or their fans feeling so good about things.
But they are, and here’s why.
It All Starts Up Front:
The biggest priority heading into the off-season last year was fixing an absolutely horrid offensive line. It was literally one of the 2-3 worst in football last year, and the Vikings went to work, not stopping until rosters had to be cut down to 53 players.
When the smoke cleared, there were four new guys at five new positions on the offensive line, with lone holdover Joe Berger moving from center to right guard. In the draft, they took Ohio State center Pat Elflein, who is the first rookie center starting for the Vikings in over 50 years, and looks to be a long term answer there. The big ticket free agent acquisitions for the line were Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, the new right tackle and left tackle respectively. There was a ton of angst that Remmers and Reiff were bad signings and the Vikes could have/should have done better and that grumbling still continues, but consider this:
66 offensive tackles have allowed a sack and/or hit this season. The Vikings OTs Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers are not on that list.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) September 28, 2017
Digging a little deeper, let’s look at some Pro Football Focus numbers. Yes, yes, grain of salt and all that, but it’s still a number we can use as a baseline compare and contrast. Again, my disclaimer: if you can email me (or let me know in the comments) a better stat to use to compare a position as difficult to grade as offensive line, I’ll take a look at it. Anyway, so far this year, their numbers are:
Mike Remmers 77.9, 18th of 72 graded tackles
Riley Reiff 78.6, 19th of 72
In the off season, they replaced a tackle quintet of Matt Kalil, T.J. Clemmings, Andre Smith, Jeremiah Sirles, and Jake Long. Of those four, Sirles is still the only one with the Vikings, and his PFF score is 61.3. He doesn’t have enough snaps to qualify (only 4), but if he did, he would rank 38th.
The only other of the four that has played this season is Matt Kalil, who is currently the starting left
turnstile tackle for the Carolina Panthers. His PFF score so far this year:
38.2, 66th of 72
Last year, the Vikings grades were even more dismal, as I tweeted this in March after the Vikings had signed Reiff and Remmers:
Sirles, who is not included in that tweet, had a PFF score of 68.1 last year.
Hey, remember up above, that tweet that showed how good Reiff and Remmers have been in keeping the QB’s clean? How did our old buddy Matty Turnstile do, just this past Sunday?
Matt Kalil gave up a league-high three sacks, per @PFF. Small solace, but one was a coverage sack that Cam held too long.— Joe Person (@josephperson) September 25, 2017
Yes, small solace indeed, Carolina. He’s also given up five sacks total this year, tops in the NFL. Heh. Prayers up for Cam Newton, you guys.
The Running Game:
The improved offensive line has made everything else on offense possible, but drafting Dalvin Cook was a pretty deft move by the Vikings, too. In three games, Cook has entered Adrian Peterson territory, breaking two team records:
Most Rushing Yards in First Career Game - Vikings History— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 12, 2017
2017 Dalvin Cook 127
2007 Adrian Peterson 103 pic.twitter.com/wxLefQsX8V
Cook is also lighting up the NFL, as he is in the top five in rushing overall:
Cook is also extremely good at breaking tackles, too:
Top 3 broken tackles leaders are rookies:— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) September 28, 2017
Dalvin Cook, 22
Kareem Hunt, 21
Chris Carson, 19
Cook is also a more complete player at this point of his career as well. He’s third on the team with 10 receptions, and is as good a blocker in pass protection for a running back that the Vikings have had since Chester Taylor. I think it’s fair to say that he’s got a long ways to go to get to Adrian Peterson territory as a pure runner, and will probably never match the ‘wow’ factor Peterson had in his prime. But at this stage of his career compared to where Peterson is at his, he’s a much better option for this offense, and I don’t think that’s really debatable.
Passing The Ball:
Sam Bradford set the tone with his week one performance against the Saints, putting up a gaudy line of 27/32 for 346 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. After a disappointing performance by Case Keenum in Pittsburgh, he rebounded in a big way against Tampa Bay:
Through three games, that’s a 69.9 (nice!) completion percentage, an average of 287 yards a game, with 2 TD’s/game and no interceptions. As impressive as those numbers are, the no picks is a number that really stands out. The Vikings offense has yet to turn the ball over this year, and if they can keep that to a minimum, they’re going to continue to be dangerous.
How About Those Wide Receivers, Though?
Last year, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen really emerged as a pretty good tandem for the Vikings offense. Even with all the struggles that unit had, each guy put up over 900 yards receiving (Thielen 967, Diggs 903). They were both pretty quiet 900+ yard seasons, though, as their individual performances were overshadowed by an offense that struggled to run the ball, pass protect, and throw down the field. We’ve hit on the improvement in those areas, so let’s see if that’s affected Diggs and Thielen at all:
Oh...I see it HAS affected them! The top ranking seems surprising to a lot of folks, but it really shouldn’t be. If you look at all the troubles the Vikings offense had last year, and then looked at the numbers both Thielen and Diggs put up, in context this isn’t as eye popping as most people think it is. We knew Diggs and Thielen were pretty good in spite of a bad offense last year, even if most ‘experts’ didn’t think so. So why wouldn’t they get even better if the offense as a whole got better?
A True Shutdown Cornerback Is Invaluable To A Modern Defense:
Having a guy that can lock down an opponent’s best weapon on offense is invaluable in today’s pass happy NFL. When you take away the biggest game changer an opponent has, it forces them to adjust their game plan, and puts them out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory. I would argue that with how much the passing game has evolved in the NFL, a true shutdown corner on defense is almost as important to that unit as a good quarterback is to the offense.
If you don’t have a way to neutralize or eliminate an explosive player, you’re going to give up a lot of explosive plays, and no scheme or defensive concept will mask it. Not for a whole game, anyway. But if you do have a guy that takes away half the field and essentially eliminates the best playmaker on the other team, it makes your whole defense better. It forces the QB into holding on to the ball longer, or he elevates a weaker receiver to his primary option. On defense, it allows you to focus on the secondary component of the offense they are facing, and work to eliminate that. if you can avoid mental mistakes, that gives you an advantage that will be tough to beat. Let’s take a look at what Xavier Rhodes has done so far:
Yeah, that’s pretty good. He is also currently living rent free in the head of Mike Evans, too.
But The Vikings Started 5-0 Last Year:
So what does it all mean? Through three games? Nothing, really. This could all fall apart after 5-6 games, just like last season did, and we’ll find out this was all Cinderella before midnight struck.
But there’s also a couple key differences, too. This year feels like it’s a more sustainable success. For one, the offensive line is better, and that just makes the entire offense hum. The offense is scoring an average of 24 points a game, and they’re holding on to the ball in terms of time of possession a lot longer.
Last year, the offense was doing juuuuust enough to win because the defense was playing at a level that proved to be unsustainable. In that 5-0 start, the Vikings had scored 119 points, an average of 23.8 points a game, almost identical to this year. But if you look a little closer, you can see there was trouble brewing right below the surface.
The defense and special teams had accounted for 26 of those points (two defensive touchdowns, two punt return touchdowns by Marcus Sherels, and one safety). Remove those points and the offense was scoring only 18 points a game. They were also helped by a defense that had a turnover margin through five games of +11, and were +9 through the first three games.
Through three games this year, the turnover margin is a more realistic/sustainable +3, and although the defense has been very good, they have not produced a touchdown, nor has the special teams. I’m sure those plays will come at some point of the season, but the point is that the Vikings don’t need them to win games like they did last year. It’s no coincidence that when those plays stopped coming, the Vikings quit winning. As a matter of fact, in the Vikings three remaining wins after the 5-0 start, the defense and/or special teams scored in two of them (Cardinals, Bears).
So yes, it’s still early, and there’s a lot of football left to be played. But even with Sam Bradford out indefinitely, it feels like this team is a lot more of a complete football team than last year, and is set up to win for the long haul of a full season.