The Minnesota Vikings have reached the bye week, sitting with a record of 5-3-1, a half-game back of the Chicago Bears in the division. Earlier in the season, when it seemed as if the wheels were falling off the wagon, getting to the bye week in decent shape seemed like a pipe dream. But, they made it - and in pretty good shape. Around the conference, the Saints have all the momentum right now - coming off of good wins versus a pair of Super Bowl favorites in the Vikings and Rams. Speaking of the Rams, they seem to be a team - at least until the loss versus the Saints - that can hang with any team in the league offensively. But, on the defensive side of the ball they look like a team that can be beat. In the East, Washington looked like the team to beat, but lost a pair of starting offensive linemen for the season on Sunday. That could open the door for a dangerous Philadelphia Eagles team. The Carolina Panthers are finding a groove in the NFC South, and could make some noise down the stretch, and certainly look to be at least a Wild Card favorite at this point.
The Vikings roster is largely the same as it was coming out of camp. Many of the NFL talking heads predicted that the Vikings - with a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and the unfortunate passing of line coach Tony Sparano - couldn’t possibly have a seamless transition. Looking back at this point, it looks like they were right. The tie versus the Packers, and the ugly loss to Buffalo were two games that should have gone down in the win column. The loss to the Rams - on the short week after the Buffalo debacle felt like - and I hate this term - a “good loss”. The Vikings seemed to be on the cusp of taking control of the game versus the Saints, before Thielen’s costly fumble and Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s decision to go for it on fourth down. In order to get a better feel for the team, let’s take a look at it position-by-position and see where the team is trending.
The Vikings on Offense
Kirk Cousins - Trending: Even He’s the 84 million dollar key to the offense. When he’s on, he’s absolutely fun to watch, and the offense seems unstoppable. But there are times - within games, even - that the offense sputters.
Latavius Murray - Trending: Even Murray is a violent, speedy running back when he finds his groove. If the offensive line continues to gel (more on that in a bit), he is more than capable of putting up decent numbers, and is the type of player that can wear down a defense - something the team was missing early on.
Dalvin Cook - Trending: Up Cook’s injuries are problematic, but when he’s in the game he’s a real weapon. There are parts of the playbook tailor-made for his abilities that I don’t think we’ve seen thus far.
Kyle Rudolph - Trending: Even Rudolph has been solid, and considering the number of playmakers at Cousins’ disposal, that’s probably all we should expect. His touchdown numbers could stand to be higher, but in general the red-zone offense hasn’t been great.
Adam Thielen - Trending: Down This is one where I hope to be really wrong. To say that Thielen’s numbers are unsustainable is sort of taking the easy way out. But, until the Lions game, he was on a pace that only one other player has ever been on. I expect his numbers to start to drop. To what extent remains to be seen.
Stefon Diggs - Trending: Even The good news is that if Thielen’s numbers begin to go down, Diggs’ numbers should go up. The bad news is that Diggs is dinged up again. His health is the key.
Laquon Treadwell - Trending: Up Get the pitchforks out. Yes, I am saying Treadwell is trending up. He’s on pace for nearly fifty catches and 500 yards. His early season case of the dropsies seems to have gone away, and his confidence is definitely growing. There’s absolutely no reasonable reason to think he can’t or won’t improve down the stretch.
The Backups - Trending: Up Aldrick Robinson is a nice weapon, and Brandon Zylstra and Chad Beebe have proven that they have the capability to make catches in the regular season, as well. Each has contributed a big play at least once this season.
Offensive line play is dependent on continuity and combinations. One domino falls, and the rest are weakened. If the line can continue to gel, every facet of the offense gets better - from the running game to the passing game to the playcalling. Being able to watch the game and say that the line “doesn’t suck” has been rare this season, but the last two games have been promising.
Reiff/Isidora/Elflein/Remmers/O’Neill - Trending: Up The Vikings offensive line play to begin the season was just plain awful - even in the victories. This combination looks like it gives the team the best chance for offensive success. The recent development of Brian O’Neill is a great trend, and even the play of Mike Remmers has improved because of it.
Reiff/Compton/Elflein/Remmers/Hill - Trending: Down If this early season iteration of the line had been pallbearers at Tony Sporano’s funeral, they’d have tipped the casket over. They weren’t just bad, they were awful. Here’s hoping that the team doesn’t need to return to this combination any time soon.
The Vikings on Defense
Linval Joseph - Trending: Up Joseph’s play this season has been good, but not great. Like the offensive line, so much is dependant on the unit as a whole. Big Goon can wreck a game, and as his rapport with Sheldon Richardson improves, his play should too.
Sheldon Richardson - Trending: Even Richardson, meanwhile, has been great. If he continues at this level all season, it’s hard to see the Vikings letting him walk. He’s been as good as advertised (or better, depending on whose advertising you listened to), and has made the others around him better.
Everson Griffen - Trending: Up He’s baaack! It’s so damn nice to see him out there again. I still feel that his sudden absence from the locker room and lineup was the sole reason for the Buffalo letdown. He’s having fun on the field, and that’s a good sign for him - both as a player and a person.
Danielle Hunter - Trending: Even Danielle Hunter is the best defensive end in pro football. Period. He’s a physical freak, and a four down terror. He is the perfect storm. And, as my late brother used to say, “you can’t get perfect-er”.
The Backups - Trending: Up To say that Stephen Weatherly has stepped up his game is an understatement. Lost in the excitement of Danielle Hunter’s game on Sunday was the games that Stephen Weatherly and Tom Johnson had: They combined for 8 QB hits, five tackles for loss, and three and a half sacks.
Eric Kendricks - Trending: Up Kendricks’ play over the last few weeks has been great. Earlier in the season, Mike ZImmer made comments to the effect that the defensive struggles may have had to do with him “overcoaching” the players. Kendricks may have been one of those players. He looks like he’s playing with instinct again.
Anthony Barr - Trending: Even This is a big year for Barr and the Vikings organization. If his play doesn’t improve, it’ll be hard to see the team letting Waynes or Richardson walk in order to keep him. He hasn’t made big plays, and he’s been scorched more than once in the passing game. Another player who may have been “over coached”. If he can pick up his play after the bye, the VIkings defense is going to be scary good.
The Backups - Trending: Even Eric Wilson looked solid against the Lions, but that’s not saying much. Ben Gedeon is what we thought he was. This is a position group the team should address this offseason.
Xavier Rhodes - Trending: Up Rhodes’ play has been spotty this season, but as the number-one corner on the team, holding Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford to a total of 307 passing yards is an eye-opener. Someone has to cover the receivers in order for the defensive line to pile up all those sacks.
Trae Waynes - Trending: Up Waynes’ play this season has been great. There may not be a better Cornerback in the league against the run, and his pass coverage has been improving for the better part of two years. Again, 307 passing yards against Brees and Stafford. Did anyone watch Marcus Peters take on Michael Thomas on Sunday? Asking for a friend.
Mackensie Alexander - Trending: Down Every time he makes a big play, it seems like he surrenders one. With Mike Hughes’ injury, the heat lessened a bit on Alexander’s seat, but that won’t last forever, and Alexander seems like the type of player who gets worse under pressure. He needs to step up his game over the remainder of the season.
The Backups - Trending: Even Holton Hill has been as good as Mike ZImmer and Company advertised in training camp. He looks like a rookie sometimes, and other times he seems like a seasoned vet. Marcus Sherels can fill in for a series or two, but the team has better schematic combinations that they can play with in the defensive backfield.
Harrison Smith - Trending: Up Smith - like Kendricks, went through a rough patch mid-season where he wasn’t making plays when the team needed them. Perhaps he was covering too often for mistakes by others in the defensive backfield, but as the rest of the team has tightened up, he can now begin to make the big plays Vikings fans are accustomed to seeing.
The Backups - Trending: Even Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse and even George Iloka have strung together some quality play in the absence of Andrew Sendejo. In fact, the effect of losing Sendejo has been pretty negligible. If they can maintain this level of play, the Vikings may not seek to retain Sendejo in 2019, when his cap hit will be $5.5 million.
The Vikings on Special Teams
Dan Bailey - Trending: Even If Mike Zimmer ever heads the NFL’s Competition Committee, expect him to make a hard push for eliminating the kicking game altogether. Bailey has been shockingly mediocre to downright disappointing for the Vikings - and that’s a step in the right direction after the Daniel Carlson experiment. There’s no reason to think he won’t miss more kicks as the season progresses.
Matt Wile - Trending: Up Matt Wile has been on fire as of late. Being added to the roster just before the season had to have affected his kicking. He’s getting more comfortable now, and it’s beginning to show in his performance.
So What Are You Saying?
Sitting at 5-3-1, when the team should have been at least 7-2 stinks. But twelve players or groups on the team trending up coming out of the bye week feels like winz! The NFC North title is absolutely up for grabs at this point, which means a playoff home game. The offensive line is showing signs of coming together - the bye week helps. The defensive line is coming together - the bye week helps. Dalvin Cook and Stefon Diggs are certainly happy there’s a bye week. I think that running the table isn’t out of the question. Would you be happy with 12-3-1 record heading into the playoffs? I would!