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Bye Week Bothers and Week 12 Picks

With the Vikings on their bye week, we discuss some issues they must address down the stretch and into any possible postseason.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings
Xavier Rhodes and the Minnesota secondary need to improve if the Vikings hope to make a deep playoff run.
Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

After eleven straight grueling weeks of football, the Minnesota Vikings are finally enjoying a a much-needed and well-deserved week off. For nearly four straight months, the team has spent the majority of their time together at TCO Performance Center or on the road. The brief hiatus will see the players and staff scatter about the country before they regroup to prepare for a big Week 13 Monday night game in Seattle. Everyone is planning on spending the bye week differently:

  • Mike Zimmer is retreating to a deer stand on his ranch in Kentucky with a slab of chew the size of a hockey puck.
  • Rick Spielman gave his annual bye week media Q&A and will spend the rest of the week perfecting his master plan of getting Trevon Diggs, Antoine Winfield Jr., and J.D. Spielman in next year’s draft.
  • Rob Brzezinski is creating a pivot table in Microsoft Excel that will contain the calculations needed for team-friendly contract extensions of eight star players with the 37 dollars the team has left in cap space.
  • Eric Sugarman will spend every waking moment creating the perfect mix of modern medicine and shaman ritual to heal the hamstrings of Adam Thielen and Harrison Smith.
  • Kirk Cousins will spend most of his break walking around Home Depot wearing his white New Balance shoes and cellphone holster, tinkering with the minivan in the garage, and making sure the thermostat stays at 66 when company comes over for Thanksgiving.
  • Danielle Hunter is taking it easy by cutting back to only 4,000 bicep curls a day.
  • Kyle Rudolph is taking it easy by only doing 37 charity events over the break.
  • Xavier Rhodes is heading to the Verizon store in the Mall of America to see if they can fix the coverage issues he’s been experiencing.
  • Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell are spending the week watching film. Not of the Seahawks—a DVR recording of the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
  • Sean Mannion is heading back to California to spend time with his family for Thanksgiving only to remind them several times that he really did beat out Kyle Sloter for the backup spot in Minnesota.

Jokes aside, the fans could probably stand to use a break as well after back-to-back four-point wins that came down to the final moments. The nail-biting victories over the Cowboys and Broncos made us feel like the guys in the action movies that just cut the wire to diffuse the bomb. Sure, we survived, but we were one false move from everything blowing up in our face, and now our nerves are shot.

While the last two games have left us more jittery than The Waco Kid’s shooting hand, the Vikings enter the bye at 8-3, just a half game back of the NFC North lead and firmly entrenched in the NFC Wild Card standings. Winning six out of seven games after a tumultuous September has been quite a feat. As Ted covered in his playoff odds article, the Vikings are in great shape for a postseason berth.

Making the playoffs is always nice, but everyone from the front office to the Practice Squad is fully aware of the ultimate goals of this 2019 Vikings team. The long-term futures of the coaching staff, general manager, and several core players depend on how the final five-plus games unfold.

Even the biggest purple Kool-Aid drinkers will acknowledge that there are some areas where the Vikings need to improve if they hope to make a deep playoff run. With no game to preview this week, we’ll use this space to briefly discuss where the team needs to get better after the bye.

Get healthy

Relatively speaking, the injury bug hasn’t sunk its teeth very deep into the Vikings this season. However, the injuries to key players have started adding up lately. The hamstrings of Thielen and Smith will be the most monitored tendons in Minnesota for the rest of the month. A prolonged absence from either player in December would greatly affect what their respective sides of the ball want to do. Hopefully Anthony Harris will be able to return after missing the Denver game. Going against most of the quarterbacks the Vikings will face down the stretch with backup safeties probably doesn’t bode well. Josh Kline has been the best part of one of the weakest areas of the team. The middle of the offensive line will suffer if he can’t return from his second concussion. The middle of the defensive line isn’t nearly the same without Linval Joseph eating up blockers. If next week’s injury reports are a little less crowded than they have been recently, that can only help the team’s prospects.

Secondary is a primary concern

The Star Tribune’s Michael Rand wrote about how the Vikings offense has caught up with or may even be passing the defense this season. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the secondary. The Vikings are giving up huge chunks of yardage through the air, which is wildly uncharacteristic of a Zimmer defense. As Bill Barnwell noted in his NFC playoff picture article, the Vikings are 30th in QBR allowed against deep passes. It’s no surprise that Minnesota’s third down defense has dropped to 14th after two straight years of being the best in the league.

Most of the scorn for the secondary has been directed at Xavier Rhodes, and rightly so. The former All-Pro corner has degraded from #RhodesClosed to #Rhodeskill over the past two seasons. Of course, it isn’t all on him. Trae Waynes has seemingly mastered the art of staying stride for stride with a receiver yet somehow avoiding to make a play on the ball and allowing the catch. Mike Hughes has taken his lumps while learning on the job and muffing punts in his second season. Zimmer’s defense has always asked a lot of his corners; he may have to change his scheme or ask a lot of different players if he wants to see better results.

Why don’t you just meet me in the middle?

You’re probably aware that Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are having very good seasons. The dynamic duo has combined for 15.5 sacks this year. They have 23 quarterback hits and 129 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, the bad-ass bookends aren’t getting much help from the middle of their line. The Vikings’ rotating cast of interior defensive linemen have a total of 30 pressures in 746 pass rushing snaps this season, which is a 4.0% rate. Last year, inside linemen created pressure on 8.1% of their pass rushes. It might not seem like the Vikings miss Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson all that much since they have so many options there this season. But without pressure in the middle, quarterbacks have been able to step up in the pocket to avoid Hunter and Griffen more often, which gives them more opportunities to exploit Minnesota’s underwhelming secondary. If the Vikings can find ways to generate more pressure up the gut, the entire defense would benefit.

Keep ‘em guessing

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Vikings offense hasn’t always been the model of consistency this season, but when they’re firing on all cylinders, they’re a sight to behold. Cousins has been a revelation in the new and improved Stefubiak offense. His gaudy numbers can no longer be waved off by the old tropes of garbage time and empty stat padding. The play action and misdirection along with the effective running from Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison has been an extremely difficult combination to stop for most of the first eleven weeks. The interior offensive line is still a notable concern, especially when it comes to pass blocking top-end inside rushers. But the overall improvement of the offense has been one of the main reasons why the Vikings have already matched their 2018 win total.

That said: if it ain’t broke, don’t just sit there and wait for it to break either. A big part of what has made the Vikings offense so effective this season has been running different plays out of similar looks. With all the film study and analysis taking place in the modern NFL, teams can’t keep running the same plays and expecting them to keep working.

For example, the long touchdowns to Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph against Denver last Sunday came from the same concept. The Vikings sold a Cook run to the right, had Cousins roll out left, and he found the open target with a step on the defense. Now that those plays are on film, opponents may not bite as hard on the play action. So perhaps the Vikings actually do toss to Cook or run different route concepts from that look the next time around. Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak have done well to confuse opposing defenses; they must continue to add new wrinkles during and after the bye for the offense to remain effective.

The Vikings have met or exceeded a lot of expectations through the first three months of the season. They have put themselves in a great position to make the playoffs in an absolutely loaded NFC field. But if they are going to make this season special, they’re have to clean up some of the issues that have bogged them down thus far.

The stretch run is shaping up to be one hell of a ride.

And now for my Week 12 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

TEXANS over Colts

I almost went with the upset here after each team’s performance last week. But the status of T.Y. Hilton is still up in the air, Marlon Mack is out, and the Texans really need to avoid the season sweep if they hope to retain their AFC South title. I’ll give them the nod at home on a short week. I certainly wouldn’t bet on this game though.

FALCONS over Buccaneers

The Atlanta defense suddenly can’t stop dominating division opponents. Jameis Winston has never been able to stop giving the ball to opponents, division or otherwise.

Broncos over BILLS

Sure, the Vikings looked awful in the first half last week, but the Broncos did their part in making the Vikings look awful. Despite their opposite records, Denver is actually ranked seven spots higher than Buffalo in DVOA. I’m going with Denver to finish their road upset this week.

BEARS over Giants

If the Chicago offense can’t get going a little bit against this porous New York defense—regardless of whether Chase Daniel or Mitchell Trubisky is the starter—how are they going to score points the rest of the season? I’d love to pick the continuation of the Bears’ demise this week, but I can’t bring myself to choose Daniel Jones against a Chicago defense that’s still very good.

Steelers over BENGALS

After last Thursday’s pyrotechnics, I hope Pittsburgh goes back to playing hard-to-watch, inconsequential games against divisional opponents.

BROWNS over Dolphins

I’m going back to the old “picking against Miami” survivor pool strategy, mostly because there aren’t any better options this week. I’m 10-1 on the season after the Raiders held off the Bengals last week. I’m sure Cleveland won’t have any carryover effects from the Myles Garrett incident. They’re such a well-coached team that they’ll just regroup and easily beat the Dolphins...right?

Lions over REDSKINS

Yes, I’m picking Jeff Driskel on the road. And I actually feel pretty good about it. Why? Because until Washington’s two garbage time touchdowns last week, they had gone 16 straight quarters without finding the end zone.

Raiders over JETS

If Oakland takes care of business here, they’ll have the same record as the Chiefs atop the AFC West through 12 weeks. Just as everyone predicted.

SAINTS over Panthers

Well that Kyle Allen honeymoon certainly ended in a hurry, didn’t it?

EAGLES over Seahawks

Philly is beat up, their offense is sputtering, and they’re about to face Russell Wilson coming off a bye. So why are they still 1.5-point favorites against Seattle? I realize that home field is usually worth three points, but that means the people in the desert think the 8-2 team is only 1.5 points better than the 5-5 team. I have no logical explanation for this pick other than trusting Vegas and expected win/loss based on point differential. (The Seahawks are only +21 despite being six games over .500.)

TITANS over Jaguars

So it turns out that Ryan Tannehill being added to Tennessee might be more impactful than Nick Foles being added to Jacksonville. Football is weird.

PATRIOTS over Cowboys

If this game was in Dallas, I would probably pick the Cowboys. New England’s offense hasn’t done much of anything for the past month while Dak Prescott & company are moving the ball at will. But the Patriots are still 9-1 and they have won 20 straight at Gillette Stadium. Plus, you know, Bill Belichick vs. Jason Garrett.

Packers over 49ERS

I swear this isn’t attempting one of my classic jinxes, although I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that. I don’t completely trust Jimmy Garoppolo with all of his turnovers and the San Francisco run defense has been quietly suspect lately. I have a bad feeling that the Niners will fail us in their one-week stint as our favorite team in the NFL.

Ravens over RAMS

Lamar Jackson is an unavoidable force that can make the even most difficult tasks look routine. Meanwhile, it looks like Sean McVay is trying to avoid Jared Goff because he’s making even the most routine tasks look difficult.

Last week: 12-2
Season so far: 101-60-1