The Vikings have concluded training camp for another year, and will play their ‘dress rehearsal’ pre-season game tomorrow. There is still about three weeks until the season-opener against the 49ers at US Bank stadium, and still a number of things to work on, decide and practice before taking the field September 9th.
Here are some thoughts.
ALL THE TRAPPINGS OF A CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM
This training camp had a different atmosphere than last year in Mankato. In many ways it is a beginning of a new era, not just a new season.
Last year at this time, players were riding their bikes to and from their dorms as fans descended on the practice fields and campus of Mankato State. Head coach Mike Zimmer could be seen driving a golf cart around on the streets, and a couple national media outlets would stop by briefly on a routine tour of NFL training camps, and speculate- along with local media- on whether the Vikings could make it to the next level or not.
It all seems so long ago now.
Fast forward to today and the backdrop to this year’s training camp is all about winning the Super Bowl. There is no doubt the Vikings have a championship-caliber team - the accolades keep rolling in. Best defense. Best receiving duo. Best roster. Big contracts. Top power rankings. National media attention. Expectations could not be higher.
And as if to announce the Vikings have arrived as a championship team and franchise, not only do they have the best stadium in the NFL, they also have training camp in the best training facility in the NFL, with all the modern looks and conveniences. It all speaks of a championship team.
All they have left to do now is go out and win the Super Bowl.
What’s also different this year is the team’s attitude toward those high expectations. In the past, whenever a hint of Super Bowl talk was whispered, coaches and players would tamp it down. Not this year. Nobody’s making Namath-like guarantees, but coaches and players alike are not walking back Super Bowl expectations either - they’re embracing them.
Mike Zimmer’s comment to fans a couple weeks ago that, “you’re gonna be proud of these guys come February” is about as bold a statement as I can remember from a Vikings head coach in that regard. And beyond Zimmer there is a tacit acknowledgement among players that after a 13-3 season that ended in the NFC Championship game, the team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
From a national media standpoint, there seems to be no pullback in expectations for the Vikings this season either. Early power rankings have the Vikings no lower than 5th, and one or two rank them #1. Odds-makers also like the Vikings chances, giving them the 3rd best odds (9.5-1) to take home the Lombardi trophy in February.
So far the Vikings’ coaches and players seem to take the high expectations in stride, seemingly not pressured by them, nor coming off too cocky. It’s a sign of maturity for what still is a relatively young team. But also a team that has some valuable experience knowing how to win consistently over a grueling season and make a deep run into the playoffs - despite the inevitable injury setbacks and other adverse circumstances that every team must face over the course of a season.
It’s been a long time since the Vikings have had a team this well prepared to bring home a championship - perhaps going back as far as the 1970s.
STILL LOTS OF WORK TO DO
While the Vikings this season look pretty good on paper - best defense returning from last year with an upgrade in Sheldon Richardson; near top 10 offense with an upgrade at QB and the return of Dalvin Cook; best rated special teams as well - there is still progress and improvements that need to be made. Let’s look at some key areas.
Quarterback / Offense
While Kirk Cousins may be the more talented quarterback compared to Case Keenum last season, and with better career stats, the Vikings offense was able to thrive last season thanks in large part to having one of the highest rated quarterbacks in the league behind center. So, just like Keenum last season and Bradford two years ago, the Vikings will need Cousins to have one of his best, if not the best, season of his career to continue to improve on the offensive side of the ball.
Last season the Vikings were ranked 11th in passing yards (but only 21st on passing attempts), 12th in passing TDs and 2nd in interceptions. Beyond that, the Vikings offense was also ranked 3rd in 3rd down conversion rate, and 9th in converting TDs in the red zone. All that points to a very efficient passing game last season for the Vikings, if not the most explosive. Cousins will need to improve his game over his historical averages in a few key areas, while continuing to do well in areas of strength - particularly the deep ball. Areas of improvement include:
- Better red zone efficiency. The Vikings converted on 57.9% of red zone opportunities last season. 55.6% if you include the post-season. The Redskins under Cousins have gone from 61.2%, to 45.9%, to 54.3% from 2015-2017 respectively. That averages out to 53.8% over Cousins’ last three seasons. Looking at it this way, Cousins would need only marginal improvement to replicate the Vikings’ success in the red zone last season. Ideally, the Vikings would improve to over 60% conversion rate in the red zone, which is certainly doable. Here’s why:
Cousins and the Vikings offense continue to focus on red-zone offense in training camp, so hopefully this will have a positive effect on Cousins’ performance. It’s also helpful to have one of the best red-zone receivers returning for the Vikings in Stefon Diggs. Additionally, one of the main areas of improvement for Laquon Treadwell so far in training camp has been his ability to make impressive catches on back-shoulder / corner routes in the end zone. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was said to be the Eagles’ red-zone guru, taking them from a 49% red zone conversion rate in Wentz’ rookie year, to a league-leading 65% last season. All of these things are reasons for optimism when it comes to the Vikings red-zone performance with Kirk Cousins.
Here is coach DeFilippo talking red-zone with the Eagles last year:
- 3rd down conversions. Last season the Vikings converted 43.5% of third downs - 3rd best in the league. Over the past three seasons with the Redskins, Cousins went from a 43.5% rate in 2015, to 45.2% in 2016, to 32.4% last season. Those ranked 5th in the league his first two years, but a near-worst 31st in the league last season. The key for Cousins here is to prove that last season was the anomaly, and get back to the mid-40s conversion rates he had back in 2015-16. The key for the Vikings offense is to prove that 2017 is the new baseline, and not prior years when their 3rd down conversion rate was around 38%.
While execution is always paramount, in both cases a change in offensive coordinator may have been key. The Redskins went from Sean McVay to Matt Cavanaugh, while the Vikings went from Norv Turner to Pat Shurmur. McVay went on to be coach of the year last season with the Rams, and is seen as one of the bright young minds on offense. Shurmur became head coach of the Giants.
While Shurmur proved to be an excellent offensive coordinator for the Vikings, John DeFilippo looks to be similar to Shurmur in terms of overall philosophy (west-coast offense) and penchant for tailoring his offensive scheme to suit his players. DeFilippo has also embraced being more innovative, with an attention to detail and knowledge of the game that make him one of the more promising younger minds on the offensive side of the ball. His work improving Carson Wentz from his rookie to 2nd year was nothing short of amazing. Here is Flip last year detailing some concepts the Eagles introduced after studying their opponent defense:
You can see as DeFilippo outlines the plays and concept, his attention to detail, the fluidity of his understanding as he goes through each element, and the importance of scouting and oppo research in game-planning week-to-week.
Again while execution is always paramount in converting 3rd downs or any play, we’ve seen at times in the past when play calling is a bit stale or predictable, 3rd down conversions become more difficult and ultimately bring down the conversion rate. A little more advanced play design, good oppo research and game planning, self scouting, and a willingness to change things up can help provide an edge to an offense on game day. DeFilippo seems to embrace all that, which should help move the chains.
- QB Turnovers. This may be the biggest area for Kirk Cousins to improve. Over the past three seasons, Cousins has averaged 12 interceptions a season - which is a little over a 2% interception rate. Keenum had only 7 last season - a 1.5% rate. But more than the interceptions, Cousins also lost 5 fumbles last season, whereas Keenum only lost one. That’s a total of nine more turnovers Cousins had last season compared to the Vikings. There were several games last season that could have gone from a win to a loss had the Vikings committed another turnover, so improving in this area is key for Cousins if the offense is to improve this season.
The Vikings have had some success in this area in the past with both Case Keenum and Sam Bradford. Both quarterbacks interception rates went down over 50% their first year in Minnesota. There could be various reasons for the drop in interception rate, but certainly one factor was the emphasis by the coaching staff on taking care of the football and not forcing throws. There may also be other scheme and coaching aspects to the lower interception rates, along with simply not being in as many adverse game situations where risking an interception was necessary to try to win the game.
Vikings QB coach Kevin Stefanski has worked with QBs in the past on improving in this area, while Vikings OC DeFilippo was instrumental in Carson Wentz throwing 50% fewer interceptions his 2nd year compared to his rookie year.
There hasn’t been a clear pattern to Cousins’ interceptions in the past. Sometimes it was a misread, sometimes an inaccurate pass or bad decision, and others on a tip or dropped pass. Better coaching and preparation can help reduce the interceptions on misreading the defense and to some degree in decision making. And simply having a better defense and team around him may help reduce the number of adverse situations he faces where the risk of an interception is higher. Other coaching tips regarding ball placement in the red zone or other throws may also be helpful in reducing the number of Cousins’ picks.
Coaching is also key in reducing fumbles. Practicing what to do when pressure gets to you and getting two hands on the ball should help reduce fumbles, it just needs to be emphasized in practice and translated on the field.
- Sacks. While it hasn’t been such a big issue in previous years, last year Cousins was sacked 41 times for a league-leading 342 yards lost. While only 6 of those sacks were attributable to Cousins (for holding the ball too long), designing/calling better protections, getting more value from Cousins’ mobility, and greater awareness late in the play to avoid a sack or some of the lost yardage are all areas for improvement here.
This is another area where OC DeFilippo may be helpful with his play designs (more rollouts, etc.), along with better protection calls/designs. This is also an area that can be practiced - from sack avoidance to securing the ball or simply throwing the ball away more often as necessary.
Looking at all these areas of improvement, there is reason for optimism based on the recent past, points of emphasis in practice, the strengths of coaches and the team overall.
Injuries have been somewhat of a setback so far in putting together the offensive line this training camp, but there is opportunity there as well for someone new to step up and improve a position over last year. The musical chairs game of shifting offensive linemen to various positions continues longer than is ideal, but I suspect there is some method to the madness as well.
My sense that with the development of Aviante Collins and Brian O’Neill, and perhaps Danny Isidora and Josh Andrews as well, the coaching staff is wanting to use these more athletic offensive linemen to complement established veterans Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Part of the reason for that is in hopes of improving the Vikings screen game. Here’s why:
From a self-scouting perspective, if you’re trying to defeat the Vikings offense, the weakest link is not at any of the skill positions - it’s the offensive line. Therefore you may go with more blitz packages and pressures to take advantage of that weak link, rather than take your chances vs. the Vikings top-ranked players at all the skill positions on offense.
So, establishing an effective counter to pressure packages becomes an important part of the offensive game plan - and screens are some of the most effective plays against pressure packages. But to be effective in the screen game, you need athletic linemen that can move quickly into position and block well in space. Guys like Aviante Collins and Brian O’Neill, for example, are good at doing so and are the type of linemen you want for an effective screen game.
The problem is that they may not be the best at this point when it comes to normal run and pass blocking. But they continue to improve as well. And so the moving parts in assembling an offensive line continue to move. I suspect that even after the regular season opens and the starting offensive line is named, there is a good chance some of those starting week one may eventually be replaced. We’ll see. But it is somewhat encouraging to see at least a couple offensive linemen develop to the point where they may be able to upgrade an offensive line position over last year.
With everybody returning on the starting defense, and an upgrade at defensive tackle with Sheldon Richardson, there is both talent and continuity pretty much everywhere on the Vikings defense. The key however is not to be complacent with such an enviable situation.
What worked last season for the Vikings defense schematically will undoubtedly be countered this season, one way or another. All the Vikings tendencies and tricks will already have been cataloged, and counter-measures designed to defeat them. Additionally, the Vikings defensive will also need to come up with some more effective way to stop the run-pass option, or RPO, which hurt them so badly against the Eagles and which is being employed by more and more teams across the NFL.
Mike Zimmer has been known as an innovator on defense, and so it’s not surprising that the Vikings may introduce a new wrinkle or two to his defensive scheme.
One thing the Vikings appear to be experimenting with in training camp is the 4-3 Under Front. This is a different alignment than the Vikings have used in the past (a 4-3 Over front), and may also involve using Anthony Barr more on the line of scrimmage as a rusher. Part of the reason for experimenting/installing this concept may be part of a RPO counter that goes along with some different coverage concepts as well. We’ll have to see if/how this may be implemented, but perhaps not in pre-season if they want to avoid giving other teams an advance preview of what they’re up to.
Beyond this, there may be other ways in which the defense may evolve. I could see more use of man coverage as Trae Waynes has become more adept in man, allowing one of the lowest passer ratings in the league when targeted in man coverage last season, and with more of a pass rush in the form of Sheldon Richardson.
Also, with the development of Mike Hughes, Mike Zimmer could decide to implement a 4 CB sub-package, perhaps for use in red zone situations, with a five-man front including Barr, along with Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith in the middle.
The development of Jaleel Johnson may also have a positive impact on the interior line, as he’ll likely rotate at both NT and DT spots - without as much drop off as Shamar Stephen last season.
Lastly, while the Vikings owned the best defense in the NFL last year in terms of both points and yards allowed, they were well down the list in terms of turnovers and sacks. And while part of the reason for that was by design - preferring to stop 3rd down conversions to jumping routes or sending lots of pressure packages the addition of Sheldon Richardson may help in both of those areas. First, Richardson may help add pocket pressure on quarterbacks, getting them off their spot and perhaps moving outside to the waiting arms of Everson Griffen or Danielle Hunter. He may also get to the QB himself. Secondly, that added inside pressure could result in some additional errant throws that may end up as interceptions.
Bottom line, while the Vikings return the best defense from last season, they’ll have to change and evolve to keep that top ranking. The addition of Sheldon Richardson will likely improve an already talented defensive roster, but it’s up to coaches Zimmer and Edwards to evolve and game plan their scheme effectively to stay on top.
The Vikings have a better roster on paper than last this time last season. Trae Waynes is better. Sheldon Richardson is an upgrade. Kirk Cousins is an upgrade over Sam Bradford. Andrew Sendejo is coming off a better year. Laquon Treadwell is better. Daniel Carlson is better. Along the offensive line, there is potential for improvement among starters, but depth looks improved when the seemingly inevitable OL injuries happen.
But also the quality of Vikings opponents this season will be better. The Vikings play both Super Bowl teams this season - on the road. The Rams and Saints will be tough games too. Aaron Rodgers’ return makes the Packers a competitive team, and the Lions have always been close games. And the Bears will likely be better as they get further along their rebuild.
Still, the Vikings have the roster and talent second-to-none in the NFL this year. You can argue a couple teams are roughly equal in terms of overall talent - Eagles, Rams, Saints, Patriots - but no team has a clear advantage.
So what does that mean? It will come down to coaching. How well Mike Zimmer, John DeFilippo, and George Edwards can effectively game plan and utilize the talent on the Vikings roster to create advantages and mismatches will be key. The Vikings have a lot of ways to beat their opponents, a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball. But those weapons need to be deployed and used effectively for the Vikings to meet their Super Bowl expectations this season - and bring home the Lombardi trophy.
The Vikings went 13-3 last season. This season will they:
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Have a better record