The Vikings head into their bye-week with a division win over the Lions that was never in doubt, giving them a 5-3-1 record. It was a needed victory to regain a little momentum as the Vikings enter what looks to be the most crucial stretch of their schedule in the four games after the bye-week.
But before we get into that, let’s take a look at each position group for the Vikings, and what is trending as the Vikings enter their bye-week.
Kirk Cousins is on track to have his best season since becoming a starting QB. This has been apparent early on, and as the weeks have passed he has continued at this level. He has completed more passes than any other QB in the league so far (259 - 27 more than #2), is 3rd in passing yards, 8th in passing TDs, 9th in passer rating, 12th in QBR, 7th lowest interception rate, 3rd in both completion % and adjusted completion %. He is now 2nd in deep passer rating, a fraction behind Drew Brees.
In general he remains a top 10 quarterback, and in terms of passer rating, the best in the NFC North. Pro Football Focus (PFF) has him at #8 on their list.
The biggest negative in terms of Cousins’ performance has been his fumbles - 8 - which lead the league. Second on the negative list is the number of sacks - 24 - which is high but is also reflective of the offensive line protecting him. The last is the number of batted balls he’s had. These are the negatives that jump off the stat sheet - and undoubtedly will be a focus of defensive line opposition research.
But Cousins is also performing well in some areas where he has been criticized in the past. For example, he has been criticized in the past for not playing well in big games. But looking at his game-by-game performance so far this season, his best games have been against the Vikings’ best opponents - New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Green Bay. You could say he also has played down to inferior opponents - the Bills, Jets and Cardinals games were not his best - but the not ready for prime time dig does not seem to apply to him so far this season.
Another area where Cousins has not done as well in the past is when under pressure. But so far this season he has the 3rd highest passer rating when under pressure - 91.5. He is also the most accurate QB in the league when under pressure, and has the highest completion percentage (68.7). This has been key to his performance as he has also had more dropbacks under pressure than any other QB in the league.
Obviously Adam Thielen has had a career-year so far this season, leading the league in receiving yards and receptions- with nearly 1,000 yards receiving (947) after only 9 weeks.
Thielen also leads the receiver group in catch percentage, at 75.7%, just ahead of Kyle Rudolph at 75.6%. Laquon Treadwell is third at 69.2%, then Stefon Diggs at 68.2%, and finally Aldrick Robinson at 53.8% in a smaller sample size - only 13 targets and 7 receptions.
Not surprisingly, Thielen and Diggs have also accounted for over half of all of Kirk Cousins’ targets, with 103 and 85 respectively, out of 356 total. Kyle Rudolph and Laquon Treadwell form the B group in terms of number of targets, with 45 and 39 respectively, while the running backs and Aldrick Robinson form the C group with around 15 targets a piece.
The biggest change from last year is the number of targets Laquon Treadwell is getting. While he has only been targeted a little less than half that of Diggs, he has been about as productive as Diggs on a per-target basis. That’s a little surprising and a sign of improvement. Despite some frustrating drops on 3rd down, Treadwell’s catch rate has improved from 57.1% last year to 69.2% this year - 3rd best on the team. And while his 253 receiving yards are nothing to write home about, that total does eclipse his career-to-date total heading into this season.
But despite some improvement, Treadwell could see more competition for snaps from newly acquired WR Aldrick Robinson, who seems to have taken the Jarius Wright role of being fairly productive in very limited snaps. Robinson, like Wright, is smaller (5’10” 185lbs) but with some field stretching ability and a pretty good skill-set when it comes to adjusting to the ball and making contested catches. I wouldn’t be surprised if John DeFilippo used Robinson a bit more as a deep threat and to open things up underneath for Thielen and Diggs.
Overall the receiver group may be slightly improved over a year ago so far, but like last year, I would expect more teams to focus on eliminating Thielen as a target, which will require others to step up if Thielen gets more attention. But one of the reasons Thielen is so productive is that the Vikings use him often in the slot, where opposing defenses seldomly have their best cornerback. This creates a mismatch that is difficult for defenses to overcome without extra attention, and adding a safety over the top of Thielen creates opportunities for other receivers.
Going forward, I would not be surprised if opposing defenses cause Kirk Cousins to alter his target mix, but the Vikings look to have the depth in their receiver group - including running backs like Dalvin Cook - that could continue to allow the Vikings passing game to maintain it’s production level.
The Vikings offensive line continues to be the weak link on the offensive side of the ball. Injuries to left-tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Tom Compton, and Pat Elflien have all hurt offensive line performance, both in pass protection and run blocking. This on top of a fairly mediocre cadre of starters across the board.
The result has been an offensive line that PFF ranks #29 in the league after nine weeks. A big part of that ranking is based on the pass blocking efficiency of the offensive line as a whole - basically what percentage of pressures on dropbacks they have they allowed as a unit - which also ranks near the bottom at 28th in the league.
On the run blocking side, the Vikings rushers are averaging 4.2 yards per carry - 19th in the league. Taking a deeper look into that, about 3 yards of that 4.2 yard average came after contact, meaning the Vikings offensive line only blocked for an average of 1.2 yards per carry. This is not particularly good either. There is no one in particular to blame for the poor run-blocking - nobody gets particularly good grades here. But getting Tom Compton back (who suffered an MCL sprain week 7) would be helpful.
Looking at the current starters, there is some reason for optimism going forward. First, Brian O’Neill has proven to be an upgrade at right-tackle. And with the return of Riley Reiff, not only did the Vikings get their best overall lineman back, they also were able to relegate their worst pass protector - Rashod Hill - to swing tackle. Having Reiff and O’Neill as bookends should help reduce some of the pressure on Kirk Cousins going forward - and may help some in the running game too.
Getting Tom Compton back will also help over the performance of Danny Isidora since he took over for the injured Compton week seven. Apart from the Rams game, Compton has been consistent and solid, if not great. That makes him the best performing interior lineman for the Vikings right now. I expect him to be back after the bye-week.
But one starting job that remains an on-going concern is at center. Pat Elflien has yet to establish himself as a solid core to the offensive line. He improved from low levels as the season progressed last year, which was understandable as a rookie, before getting injured in post-season. Those injuries caused him to miss pretty much all the off-season and training camp, as well as the first few weeks of the regular season this year. And it shows. He’s performing well below his season averages as a rookie so far this year according to PFF, and continues to earn poor grades pretty much every game. Worse, after peaking in the Jets game week six, he’s been trending downhill. There is little to suggest that he is mastering his technique or making progress in either run or pass blocking - as has been the case with Brian O’Neill. As it stands now, Elflien is the lowest graded player on offense for the Vikings.
It may be that benching Elflien in favor of Brett Jones, who performed at a much higher level last year as the starting center for the Giants, may give Elflien the motivation he needs to improve his game. He may also not be 100% recovered from his injuries of a year ago. But whatever the reason, Elflien’s performance is an on-going concern as a weak link in a struggling offensive line.
Lastly there is right-guard Mike Remmers. He is the only starting lineman week one that hasn’t missed some time in the regular season due to injury. But while Remmers has been the only consistent starter on the offensive line this year, his performance on the field has been anything but consistent. He had a nice game at Green Bay, but followed it up with three clunkers in four games in pass protection. Then he went bi-polar against the Saints - having a near-elite graded game in pass protection but very poor in run blocking. He followed that up last week with by far his best game run blocking, but only mediocre in pass protection. For an established vet like Remmers, his performance is a bit perplexing. Sure he’s in a new position at right guard, but he played there all during the off-season and pre-season and has had plenty of time to get the kinks worked out. There are other factors that could account for some of his seemingly random performance game-to-game - quality of opposition for example - but even this doesn’t explain the sometimes good, sometimes bad performance in both run blocking and pass protection. In any case, he’s already allowed more pressures - including sacks - this year than he did all of last season on about 200 fewer snaps.
But despite all that, there is some reason for optimism with Remmers going forward. His worst games in terms of allowed pressure in pass protection were the first four weeks. Since then he’s been much better, allowing only two or three pressures maximum per game. And he’s only allowed one hurry in the last two games, according to PFF. He also had by far his best game run blocking last week against the Lions, so hopefully he can build or maintain from there.
Overall, the generally poor performance of the offensive line has been somewhat muted by Kirk Cousins’ ability to perform well under pressure, and the occasional big run that masks some of the difficulties the offensive line has had in run blocking.
But moving forward, a healthy Riley Reiff, an improved Brian O’Neill, the return of Tom Compton, and perhaps the improvement of Mike Remmers are reasons for optimism. Replacing Pat Elflien with Brett Jones could lead to improvement too.
The Vikings running game has suffered from the struggles up-front along the offensive line, but also from the absence of Dalvin Cook, who’s only appeared in four games so far this season, and has struggled to get back rhythm/confidence as a runner until maybe last week against the Lions.
Latavius Murray has filled in reasonably well as a journeyman back, but every time a hole opens for him only to see him stumble or trip after ten yards- when he might have gone for 30 yards or more- you miss Dalvin Cook. The 70-yard run Cook had against Detroit may have only gone for 10 or so if Murray had that carry. But while Murray may not have the explosive ability of Dalvin Cook, he has done fairly well as the workhorse back for the Vikings, and occasionally breaking one for a big gain.
But beyond the two main backs for the Vikings, there is the general question of how well the Vikings running game has been overall.
Statistically, it is way down from a year ago in terms of yards, primarily because the Vikings’ run-pass mix has shifted substantially toward the pass. Currently the Vikings are ranked 29th in the league in both rushing attempts and yards. I’m pretty sure this was not intentional, given Mike Zimmer’s mantra (and John DeFilippo too) of being able to run the ball effectively. But being behind in games has led to more passing, in order to catch up. It may also be that the Vikings have a bit more confidence in the passing game - and want to get the ball into the hands of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs - which has also led to more passing. Especially in the absence of Dalvin Cook.
Still, there have been games where the Vikings inability to have a consistent running game has hurt them - and have made it more difficult to close out games when they’ve had the lead. The Vikings have averaged 4.2 yards a carry so far, which is fine, but the reality is there are a lot of little-to-no-gain runs that have plagued the Vikings running game. The occasional big runs of 10, 20 or 70 yards boosts the average per carry, but trying to close out a game on the ground has not been so easy for the Vikings - primarily due to the inconsistency up front. The fact that the Vikings have averaged over 4 yards per carry in only two of their first nine games (Arizona and Detroit) also shows how misleading that 4.2 yard rushing average is.
And against Detroit, for example, the Vikings had 128 rushing yards on 23 carries. But take away the 70 yard run by Dalvin Cook, and the Vikings had 58 yards rushing on 22 carries - only 2.6 yards on average for those 22 running plays. This has also made it hard to establish the run early on - putting more pressure on Cousins and Company to deliver in more difficult situations. In the three Vikings losses, they averaged only 56 yards on the ground. In the five Vikings wins, they averaged 120 yards on the ground.
Looking on the positive side, at least the the Vikings running game is trending in the right direction. Over the first five games, the Vikings averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. In the last four games, however, they’ve improved to 4.65 yards per carry. Let’s hope that continues.
Trends and Outlook
Overall the Vikings offense ranks 13th in points and 12th in yards through nine games. Not bad by any means. In terms of 3rd down conversions, they rank 19th at a 38.7% clip. And in the red zone they rank 17th with a 55.6% TD rate. Both of these could use some improvement - especially red zone scoring on the road which is only 43% right now.
A more effective ground game would help in all of this. It would make 3rd down conversions easier, and give opposing offenses more to worry about in the red zone. The return of a healthy and upgraded offensive line should help in this regard.
Another area to keep in mind for the Vikings going forward is their screen game. John DeFilippo had emphasized an effective screen game - and they focused on that a certain amount later in training camp. But so far that hasn’t materialized much. The Vikings certainly have a back in Dalvin Cook that can turn an ordinary screen pass into a big play, but he’s been out most of the time so far. They also have receivers that can block downfield very well. But they haven’t had linemen that have been as good in open field blocking. Now that Brian O’Neill is starting at right-tackle, they may be more effective running screens to that side. Riley Reiff can be effective at times in that role too. And with the return of Dalvin Cook, and the addition of Ameer Abdullah, the Vikings could be a lot more effective in the screen game. That being the case, it makes it more difficult for opposing defenses to dial up pressure - knowing they could get caught with a called - or audibled - screen.
Looking ahead, there are reasons for optimism and improvement in the Vikings offense going forward - starting with the return of a healthy and upgraded offensive line. The performance of Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will likely continue to generate the lion’s share of the Vikings offense, but the return of Dalvin Cook, along with the addition of Aldrick Robinson and perhaps Ameer Abdullah, will make it more difficult for opposing defenses to focus mainly on shutting down Thielen and Diggs.
Another key element that may help the Vikings offensively is a better performing defense, which I will assess in the next few days. But looking ahead I would not be surprised if the Vikings playbook expanded a bit on offense, and hopefully this will include a healthier run-pass mix led by a better ground game, more sustained drives, and more TDs in the red zone. And with improved offensive line play, I would not be surprised if the Vikings offense landed in the top ten by the end of the season.
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