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Five Games, Five Thoughts

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a surprising, and disappointing, start to the season for the Vikings. 2-2-1 after five games was not what was expected. I figured 4-1 at this point before the season began.

But while the 49ers win was as expected, the tie with the Packers was a disappointing blown win. And the Bills game a total disaster. The Rams loss was disappointing, but not unexpected. And the Eagles game was a nice road win and small redemption against a team anything but Super at this point.

And so there have been some surprising developments and turn of events. Some good, some bad. Let’s take a look.

Kirk Cousins is Earning His Paycheck

Before the season started, there was some doubt on whether the Vikings’ investment in Kirk Cousins would pay off. So far it has. After five games, Cousins ranks as follows in key metrics:

Passer Rating: 105.1 (7th)

QBR: 71.0 (7th)

ANY/A: 7.24 (8th) (adjusted net yards per attempt)

Interception rate: 0.9% (4th lowest)

Completion %: 71.2% (5th)

Adjusted Completion %: 81.0 (4th) (Completion % less drops, throw-aways, spikes)

Passing yards/game: 337.6 (3rd)

Cousins’ passer rating, completion %, ANY/A, interception rate, and passing yards/game are all tracking at single-season career bests since Cousins became a starter. 11 TDs in five games is also on pace for a career high in a single season.

Cousins, known for his deep passing ability, leads the league in deep passer rating at 139.2.

He also has the third highest passer rating under pressure in the league, at 98.4 - and that hasn’t been his strong-suit in the past.

So overall Cousins is producing very well, and limiting his INTs. The only on-going concern which has plagued him in the past is his fumbles, and to a lesser extent sacks. I credit him with four fumbles (the backward pass which Roc Thomas dropped counts as a Cousins fumble but I put that on Thomas) and three lost in five games. Hopefully that will improve as the season progresses or that would be a career-high as well.

I also credit offensive coordinator John DeFillippo for Cousins’ strong performance. He seems to be adapting his play calling and scheme to suit Cousins’ strengths, and is helping him improve as a quarterback.

The shaky start for the Vikings certainly cannot be put on Cousins, who has performed very well overall through five games.

The Defense is Down Across the Board

After five games, I don’t believe there is a single defensive starter from last year that has a higher PFF rating overall this year compared to last year. Most are down significantly - around 15 points on average. Elite players last season are average so far this year. Others are down too. But the point is that it isn’t just a player or two that is bringing the defense down, it is across the board worse performance at every level of the defense.

One area of particular weakness so far has been the Vikings’ linebackers in coverage. Eric Kendricks has been targeted 22 times so far, and given up 17 receptions for 280 yards and a TD. That translates into a 133.7 passer rating when Kendricks is targeted. Anthony Barr hasn’t been targeted as often, but has given up 7 receptions on 11 targets for 134 yards and 3 TDs. That translates into a 145.5 passer rating when targeted.

Looking at how this happened, clearly there were coverage mismatches that need to be addressed by the defensive scheme. Barr for example against the Rams was in a mismatch covering a wide receiver deep against the Rams. Coverage has never been Barr’s strength. Kendricks has struggled with coverage at times in the past, and is again this season.

The funny thing about the across-the-board regression in player performance, and in overall performance in terms of points and yards allowed (23rd and 20th respectively - down from #1 last year) is that the defense is still performing very well in key situational football. When it comes to third down, the Vikings defense is still performing very well - allowing only a 29.7% conversion rate - 3rd best in the league. And in the red zone, the Vikings are currently ranked 4th in the league, with a 38.1% conversion rate allowed.

So how can the Vikings be so good on 3rd down and in the red zone and still be way down the rankings in terms of points and yards allowed?

Answer: They’re giving up big plays (not necessarily on 3rd down) that allow teams to move down the field and score and/or have more red zone opportunities. Turnovers on offense have played a role too. Bottom line, the Vikings defense has allowed an average of 4.2 red zone scoring opportunities per game so far this season - most in the NFL. Last season that average was 2.6 - 4th fewest in the league.

Special Teams - Too Much Drama

Daniel Carlson missed three field goals against Green Bay. Dan Bailey missed two at Philadelphia. Matt Wile had a punt blocked for a TD at Green Bay as well. That’s 22 points surrendered in 5 games - a little over 4 points a game. That’s way too much.

Overall, the Vikings are making only 58.33% of their field goal attempts over the first five games. That’s 30th in the league. By contrast, 8 teams have yet to miss a field goal attempt, and 17 teams have made 87.5% or better of their field goal attempts.

Offensive Line Still a Work In Progress

While the Vikings offense has been alright, with the exception of the Bills game, but overall it’s a bit underwhelming - given all the weapons the Vikings have at their disposal on offense. Cousins, Thielen and Diggs have all been playing at a high level.

But looking at the perennial weak link in the Vikings offense and team, the offensive line has not been holding up very well through five games. We can talk about how each particular linemen has done, but overall as an offensive line, the Vikings pass blocking efficiency (pressures per snap - hurries, hits, sacks - with a weighting toward sacks) as measured by PFF is 31st in the league, at 79.4%. Only Arizona has been worse so far this year.

On the run blocking side, there is little to be happy about when it comes to the offensive line either. Looking at the total rush yards by the Vikings, and the number of yards gained after contact, the Vikings offensive line has basically been giving the Vikings rushers an average of about 0.75 yards per rush before contact. That’s not much at all. And the Vikings average yards per rush of 3.4 yards is terrible too - 29th in the league.

So, ranking 31st so far in pass blocking efficiency as a unit, and 29th in the league in yards per rushing attempt - there is a lot of improvement needed in the Vikings offensive line from here on out. Some consideration should be given at this point to having Brian O’Neill replace Rashod Hill at right-tackle.

Problems are Real, but Will They Last?

Looking at the good and bad on defense, the fact that the Vikings continue to play good situational football on 3rd down and in the red zone will serve the team well as the season progresses. I suspect the big plays they’ve given up on occasion may be in part a scheme issue that needs to be addressed. As the #1 defense last season, and a top defense for several years, the Vikings scheme is getting scrutinized and some flaws may have been found that need correcting. The flaws could also be self-inflicted adjustments that need to be re-worked.

But when every player is performing worse than last season, and not just a player here or there that is causing the defense to stumble, the reason may be more schematic than anything else.

Clearly the defense has missed Everson Griffen - going back to last year when he had the foot injury that curtailed his performance. But Danielle Hunter has shown as good or better pass rush productivity (hurries, hits and sacks per snap) as Griffen did last season, and Sheldon Richardson has also proven to be an upgrade at 3-tech in that respect. That has helped compensate for Linval Joseph being a little down in his pass rush this year, and getting Stephen Weatherly up-to-speed at the other DE spot - and he seems to be there now. Bottom line is that the overall pass rush productivity is not down over last year’s average so far.

What is different from last year is not being as sound in coverage on the back end. Whether it is missed assignments, scheme issues, or simply poor execution, the back end has given up more big plays so far this year that have been damaging and led to the high points allowed stat over last season.

But given the proven talent on the back end, it would seem these issues could/should be worked out going forward. Perhaps there were some changes introduced this year on defense that didn’t work out well, or led to some more tentative play in coverage. But whatever the reason, it would seem more likely that these issues are worked out rather than seeing a permanent decline in performance in the back-end given the talent there- and all still in their prime.

The kicking game remains a sore spot for the Vikings going back to Gary Anderson in 1998, and has flared up again in recent years with the decline of Blair Walsh and now the failed experiment with Daniel Carlson. Dan Bailey has respectable career stats, but last season was a notable drop-off for him compared to earlier years (75% FG rate vs. high 80s average prior to that), and so the Cowboys brought in a new guy and let him go. So far Bailey has maintained his 75% field goal rate, which isn’t good - but better than Carlson. Hopefully Bailey can get back into a groove and help right the special teams ship that has been blown totally off-course so far this season. He’s only 30 years old, which is fine for a kicker, and one bad year isn’t necessarily a sign of decline. Adam Vinatieri made only 73.5% of his field goals back in 2003 (age 31 at the time), but bounced back to 93.9% the next year and is still kicking at age 46.

Hopefully having a veteran kicker should help erase some of the drama, and help get the Vikings field goal rate back up to 85% or better, which is where it should be.

The last key area of concern is the offensive line. Unlike the other areas, this one seems likely to persist - in part because it has for many years already. But still there is some basis for improvement over current performance levels.

At the moment the relative weakness is coming from center and the right side. I’m not sure how much better Pat Elflein will get in pass protection - he wasn’t that good last year and hasn’t been this year so far - but there is still plenty of time for him to improve in his second year as you might expect over a rookie campaign.

Mike Remmers has not done well so far at right guard, but most of this poor performance was against Buffalo and Aaron Donald/Ndamukong Suh at the Rams. He stabilized somewhat against Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham last week, allowing only 2 pressures - vs. 8 in each of the previous two games.

That leaves the right-tackle spot. Rashod Hill has generally gotten worse as the season has progressed so far, particularly in pass protection, and is reflected in his PFF grades in that regard. At this point Brian O’Neill is grading better than Hill in both pass protection and run blocking, on about half the snaps, and it may be time to give the rookie the starting job. O’Neill has the potential to improve as well as he gains experience, and that could help shore up the right side of the Vikings offensive line.

Bottom line, it hasn’t been a good start to the season for the Vikings, with the loss to the Bills at home being the low point, but there are legitimate reasons to expect some improvement as the season progresses. It may be that the win over the struggling Eagles may have helped turn the tide for the Vikings as they enter a softer spot in their schedule the next couple weeks against the Cardinals and Jets, and then a two-game home-stand against the Saints and Lions before the bye-week.

Going into the bye-week at 6-2-1 would do a lot to set things right heading into the second half of the season.