On Tuesday morning, inspired by another wholly uninspiring performance from the Vikings offense, I created my second favorite Vikings-related diagram ever: the 2018 Vikings Blame Cycle.
The 2018 #Vikings Blame Cycle. Sound about right? pic.twitter.com/dBqqUR5Wrl— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) December 11, 2018
Of course it became outdated just 30 minutes later thanks to John DeFilippo getting the heave-ho, but the underlying sentiment remains intact. Most of the feedback I received for the diagram fell into one of two camps:
- Many compartments of the Blame Cycle are simultaneously true.
- I definitely should have included something about kicking and/or Mike Priefer in there.
For the past couple weeks, Vikings fans have seemed less interested in what is going wrong and more focused on who to blame for why it’s going wrong. Everyone can agree that Minnesota’s offense has been an extended exposé of excruciating excrement, yet nobody can come to a consensus when it comes to the root cause. There’s a camp that’s convinced Kirk Cousins is exactly what those scorned Washington fans warned us he would be—a stat-stuffer that wilts when it counts the most. His career record in prime time and against teams with winning records are brought up among this crowd almost as much as the amount of his guaranteed contract.
Others will argue that the offensive line is the crux of the conflict. These people pretty sure Rick Spielman is unaware that it’s legal to take a guard or tackle before day 3. (Shut up, Pat Elflein and Brian O’Neill don’t really count, because they still ignored other guys in earlier rounds. WILL HERNANDEZ WOULD HAVE SOLVED EVERYTHING.) Of course Cousins is struggling; he’s constantly running for his life! Have you not seen the total pressures allowed from Pro Football Focus?!
The final group is readjusting this week because they have lost their favorite punching bag. When you go 2 for 10 on third or fourth down with three yards or less to go, and the only two you converted were on quarterback sneaks, you might have a problem with your play calling. DeFilippo might turn out to be a good coordinator or coach down the road, but his 13-game stint in Minnesota wasn’t exactly a résumé booster. At least the coach-loathing cadre still has Zimmer! Depending on who you ask, Zim is either focusing too much on the defense or meddling too much with the offense when it isn’t his strong suit. The new-age, high-octane NFL has already started to leave him in the dust.
If you fall into one of the camps that’s convinced there’s one major facet that’s to blame for the Vikings’ woes this season, I regret to tell you that it isn’t nearly that simple. As with most complex issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of all the extreme opinions. I created the (partially tongue-in-cheek) Blame Cycle to illustrate that the problems are multi-faceted, which means there isn’t one magic solution that will turn the team around.
Personally, I think the attacks on Zimmer are the most misguided of the bunch. His daughter shared an emotional Instagram post lashing out at the fans that have been vocal against the Vikings Head Coach. It’s easy to empathize with her sentiment. Zimmer doesn’t deserve a free pass here—high stress and long days are par for the course for anyone that leads an NFL team—but I have no doubt that he’s doing absolutely everything he can to make things right. One would be hard pressed to find a coach that has had to deal with such a wide range of calamities both on and off the field that Zimmer has had to endure in just under five years. And nobody expects him to magically become some sort of offensive guru. He’s a defensive guy, and he has that side of the ball playing well enough to win. That said, it’s hard to argue with what Mark Craig said about firing DeFilippo—there’s a hint of last-gasp desperation behind the move.
What Zimmer needs is the offensive version of what Sean McVay has in Wade Phillips: a guy he can trust to maximize efficiency without a ton of guidance. He seemed to have that with Pat Shurmur last season, but it most definitely did not work with DeFilippo. Hopefully Kevin Stefanski will be able to use his familiarity with the team and Zimmer to employ an offensive philosophy that’s more effective in the short time he has this season.
It won’t be easy for him though. Nobody has been pressured more than Cousins this season, and it appears that he’s starting to hear footsteps in the past couple games. Cousins had some good numbers against pressure earlier in the season, but we went 0 for 7 in the nine dropbacks he was pressured against Seattle. Getting pressured only nine times is practically a beach vacation compared to some of the other games this season, but Cousins seemed to let the early pressure he faced from the Seahawks affect him the rest of the game.
I can’t defend a lot of what Cousins did on Monday, but some of that pressure the offensive line allowed was pretty terrible. Miscommunication and poor execution continue to plague the line at inopportune times. This near-interception that ended the first drive was brutal. Seattle didn’t dial up a very exotic blitz, yet Akeem King was able to waltz in to clobber Cousins while Pat Elflein ended the play looking for someone to block.
It’s plays like these that make you wonder just how much losing Tony Sparano—who was the Head Coach of the Dolphins the last time these two teams met in Minnesota—has impacted this team. Multiple people close to the team believe that the effect of his passing can’t be overstated.
When your quarterback is seeing ghosts because his offensive line can’t get their assignments right often enough, perhaps you might want to call some plays that help ease the pressure on both parties. DeFilippo actually did that a couple times with play action and designed rollouts on Monday. Lo and behold, they actually worked!
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins is averaging 8.7 yards per attempt when using play action and 6.7 when he doesn’t. Yet the Vikings run play action on only 18.6% of his dropbacks. That’s tied for 30th among quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks this season. You don’t have to run for 150 yards a game for play action to be effective either; simply getting the defense to hesitate for a split-second can make a big difference.
But too often, especially on short yardage situations, DeFilippo’s play calls didn’t do the struggling offense any favors. When you combine all the problematic areas of the offense, you get the rock/paper/scissors conundrum of ineptitude that resulted in a major coaching change with just three games remaining in a playoff push.
Bryan Baldinger had an excellent two-minute breakdown that further illustrates how Stefanski will have his work cut out for him. And although Cousins certainly gave the haters plenty of ammunition in Foxborough and Seattle, I tend to agree with Sam Monson’s view of the overall situation. The familiar trope of lamenting Cousins’ $84 million contract is nowhere near the biggest problem the Vikings are facing. The offensive line’s poor play has exacerbated the volatile play that Cousins has been known for throughout his career. He hasn’t lived up to the contract yet, but his deal isn’t destroying the team’s ability to compete nearly as much as the line is.
If the Vikings offense hopes to get back on track at home this week under Stefanski, there are worse teams to face than the Miami Dolphins. Miami is 29th in yards allowed, 27th in weighted defensive DVOA, and they’ll likely be missing their best cornerback, Xavien Howard. Howard is tied for the league lead in interceptions with seven. If he misses his second straight game with a knee injury, you have to like the matchup of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen against Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bobby McCain, and Torry McTyer. Tom Brady and the Patriots carved up the Dolphins for 344 yards through the air last week.
Miami’s defense has been giving up yards in bunches to teams other than the Pats too. The Dolphins have allowed over 400 yards of offense in eight of their 13 games this season, including their last three. Miami gives up explosive passing plays at an 11% rate, which is better than only the lowly Oakland Raiders this season.
The Dolphins pass rush has been pretty quiet this season as well. They have only 22 sacks on the year, which again would be the worst in the league if it wasn’t for Oakland. Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn will definitely need to be accounted for on the edges, but neither player is the force they once were. Nothing is guaranteed with the Vikings offensive line, but Miami is a much better matchup than many of the Vikings’ previous opponents.
After watching film on the Dolphins defense, there’s one potential matchup that has to have the Vikings salivating—getting Dalvin Cook involved in the passing game against linebacker Kiko Alonso. Alonso does have three interceptions this year and leads the Dolphins in tackles by a mile, but opponents are 51 of 71 for 622 yards and four touchdowns when targeting him this season. If Stefanski can conjure ways to get Cook in open space, it could result in some big plays.
While Miami’s defense has its share of flaws, they do have one major strength: forcing a lot of turnovers. They’re tied for third in the league with 25 takeaways and tied for seventh with a +8 turnover margin. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into detail on how that could come into play on Sunday.
The Dolphins offense has been a lot less predictable. Getting Ryan Tannehill back in the lineup the past three games has been a boost, but their week-to-week performances have been all over the map. They had the crazy overtime win against the Bears where they had hundreds of yards after the catch, and they moved the ball efficiently enough to be able to steal the game against New England on the final play last week. But despite some fairly impressive overall numbers—especially when it comes to his 8.1% touchdown rate—Tannehill has yet to break 300 yards in a game this season. He does have some decent targets at his disposal; DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are solid options on the outside and Danny Amendola can still be a headache in the slot. But the Vikings secondary appears to match up with them pretty well, especially if Trae Waynes can return from his concussion this week.
Tannehill has also been sacked seven times in the last two weeks. Laremy Tunsil and Ja’wuan James are a good tackle pairing, but the middle of their line can be shaky. The Patriots had a lot of success on stunts and pressure up the gut last Sunday, something the Vikings should be able to replicate.
The most consistent weapon for the Dolphins offense has been their rushing attack, led by the Benjamin Button of running backs, Frank Gore. The 35-year-old Gore is still chugging along to the tune of 4.7 yards per carry this season. Kenyan Drake has 463 yards rushing of his own on 102 carries while being second on the team in targets and receptions. After giving up 374 yards on the ground over the past two contests, the Vikings will need to have a better performance against the run on Sunday.
While the Dolphins might be fortunate to be at 7-6, they’re far from terrible. And you already know how the Vikings have performed against teams with a winning record this season. Hopefully last week’s debacle in Seattle will prove to be the nadir of the season and not an ominous sign of how the year will peter out.
It’s a bit cliché, but I came away with the feeling that Seattle was the better team on Monday because they were the better team. They were fired up and unified while the Vikings looked uncertain of themselves and each other all night. Seattle is the epitome of the classic Bill Simmons “Nobody Believes In Us” team. Everyone had written the Seahawks off after losing so many key players, yet they’re a virtual certainty to be a frightening 5 seed. On the other side of the spectrum, the Vikings were basically the “Everybody Believes In Us” team before the season, and they have crumbled under the crushing expectations.
Well guess what, Vikings? Nobody really believes in you anymore! So maybe quit trying to be perfect and just play some damn football—especially you, Kirk! Cousins needs to stop playing like his sphincter is sealed tighter than a NASA airlock and get back to the form he showed earlier in the season. While there is still plenty to lose in 2018, the Vikings need to stop playing like it and let loose a bit to reverse their recent slide.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding Stefanski and the wildly vacillating performances we have seen from both the Dolphins and Vikings this year, I could honestly see this game being a 30-point blowout for either team. I’m still terrified that Sunday’s game could be the knockout blow that sends the 2018 Vikings to the canvas. Sure, they wouldn’t be out of it thanks to the meteoric mediocrity that has taken over the race for the 6 seed in the NFC, but it would crush any lingering hopes of accomplishing anything meaningful in the postseason.
So like many nervous fans before a big game, I’m turning to words of inspiration to quell my doubts. Today I paraphrase the timeless ballad “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses:
And when your fears subside
And shadows still remain (oh yeah)
I know that you can win one
‘Cause there’s no one left to blame
So never mind the offense
We still can find a way
’Cause nothin’ lasts forever
Even cold December pain.
Firing John DeFilippo won’t be the healing salve that cures all the offensive ills that have plagued the Vikings this season, but perhaps it will be the wake-up call to get things back on track. I don’t think the Dolphins are nearly as good as their record—they’re still -55 in point differential. If the Vikings can’t win this one at home this week, I don’t want to envision the horrors of Twitter and our comments sections. I believe we’ll see the purple bounce back in a big way on Sunday and keep the virtual riots at bay for now.
Besides, we know better than anyone that winning on a miraculous final play is fun and all, but it doesn’t exactly bode well for the following week.
Vikings 27, Dolphins 16
And now for the rest of my Week 15 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
CHIEFS over Chargers
I mean, I’ll really miss last week’s Jags/Titans matchup, but I suppose that this game will do for a Thursday night. I could see the Chargers finally breaking their nine-game losing streak to the Chiefs, but asking them to do so on the road on a short week is probably a bit much.
Texans over JETS
The Saturday games start this week! The perfect way to cause domestic turmoil during the holiday shopping season! Houston finally had their improbable nine-game win streak broken last week. They couldn’t have asked for a better opponent to start a new win streak.
Browns over BRONCOS
The injuries to Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Harris appear to be the straws that broke the Broncos’ backs. Gregg Williams is still an awful human being, but I have been pretty impressed with how Freddie Kitchens has put Baker Mayfield in positions to succeed the past few weeks.
FALCONS over Cardinals
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now a rather embarrassing 9-5 on the season after the Steelers were upset by the Raiders in Week 14. I’m not sure Atlanta can stop any NFL offense right now, but I’m pretty certain Arizona doesn’t have one of those.
Lions over BILLS
Detroit has finished either 9-7 or 7-9 in four of the past five seasons. They probably need this one to keep that streak alive.
BEARS over Packers
Let’s face it, Vikings fans. We aren’t going to catch Chicago. Don’t we want them to finish off Green Bay once and for all and increase the chances of them sitting all their key players when we need to win against them in Week 17?
BENGALS over Raiders
No Thank U, Next.
COLTS over Cowboys
Two months ago this might have been one of the worst games on the slate. Now it’s one of the most intriguing matchups of the week! This one means more to Indy, so I’ll take them at home.
GIANTS over Titans
Please stay on your mini hot streak and win this one, G-Men. Nobody wants to see Tennessee sneak into the postseason and play an unwatchable game on the Saturday night of Wild Card weekend.
RAVENS over Buccaneers
Baltimore was a couple of Patrick Mahomes magic acts away from upsetting the AFC’s best team on the road. I think they’ll have an easier time with one of the NFC’s worst teams at home.
JAGUARS over Redskins
Jags fans: “Wow, I can’t believe how our quarterback play absolutely murdered our season.”
Skins fans: “Hold our Port City.”
Seahawks over 49ERS
The Vegas line on this game is super fishy—Seattle is only favored by 5 against a team they beat 43-16 two weeks ago. There’s no way I’d pick against the ‘Hawks here, but be careful if you’re going to put actual money on this one.
Patriots over STEELERS
Pittsburgh hasn’t played a good game in over a month, New England has owned them for most of this century, and the Pats are always ruthless after a particularly bad loss. Not a great combo for a team that could lose control of the AFC North this week.
RAMS over Eagles
The Rams going from Chicago’s league-best defense in the cold to Philadelphia’s collection of no-namers along the secondary at home is the real-life equivalent of switching from All-Madden to Rookie. Unless there is some leftover Nick Foles magic from the beginning of the calendar year, this one could get ugly for Philly.
Saints over PANTHERS
Cam Newton has to be injured, right? Even if he isn’t, these two defenses are trending in opposite directions. The Saints have 24 sacks and twelve takeaways over their past five games. The Panthers have nine sacks and three takeaways in that same span while giving up points and big plays in bunches. I think New Orleans will do us a solid and bury Carolina for good down the stretch.
Last week: 9-7
Season so far: 129-77-2