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Vikings Thanksgiving Evaluation and Bye-Week To Do List

Washington Redskins v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Mike Zimmer has said in the past, when reporters ask him how he feels about the Vikings rankings in one statistic or another, that he doesn’t really put much stock in them until around Thanksgiving, when he may evaluate them a bit more.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at where the Vikings stand, having already played their last game before Thanksgiving, and perhaps draw some insights and a ‘to-do’ list for the Vikings during the bye-week.

Vikings 2019 Season Stats

Statistic Offense Defense
Statistic Offense Defense
Points Per Game 26.3 (8th) 18.6 (5th)
Yards Per Game 378.6 (9th) 338.6 (15th)
Points Per Play 0.421 (5th) 0.293 (5th)
Yards Per Play 6.1 (5th) 5.3 (12th)
3rd Down Conversion % 43.94% (9th) 37.32% (14th)
4th Down Conversion % 72.73% (2nd) 52.17 (20th)
Red Zone TD % 66.67% (5th) 46.67% (4th)
TDs per Game 3.2 (6th) 2.0 (5th)
Rush Play % 50.15% (3rd) 36.34% (7th)
Yards Per Rush 4.6 (9th) 4.1 (11th)
Rushes Per Game 31.3 (3rd) 23.1 (9th)
Rushing Yards Per Game 142.5 (3rd) 94.2 (6th)
Rushing TDs Per Game 1.3 (7th) 0.3 (1st)
Pass Play % 49.85% (30th) 63.66% (26th)
Completion % 70.62% (3rd) 64.98% (20th)
Yards Per Pass Attempt 8.1 (2nd) 6.5 (12th)
Pass Attempts Per Game 29.1 (32nd) 37.6 (27th)
Passing Yards Per Game 236.2 (16th) 244.5 (19th)
Interception % 0.94% (4th) 2.42% (12th)
Sack % 6.43% (16th) 6.97% (13th)
Field Goal Conversion % 88.24% (8th) 85.71% (23rd)
Turnover Margin Per Game 0.4 (11th) -0.4 (11th)
Giveaways/Takeaways Per Game 1.1 (10th) 1.5 (11th)
Penalties Per Game 6.7 (9th) 6.2 (29th)
Penalty Yards Per Game 63.5 (22nd) 50.3 (28th)
Yards Per Penalty 9.4 (27th) 8.1 (21st)
Time of Possession % 50.03% (15th)% 49.97% (15th)
PFF Grade 80.5 (4th) 82.2 (6th)
Overall Team PFF Grade 89.7 (4th)
Net Point Differential 84 (5th)
FiveThirtyEight ELO 1642 (3rd)

Statistical Insights

A lot of numbers to analyze, but a couple things stand out:

  • Vikings red-zone ability - on both sides of the ball - have made the difference. But even more so on defense. Giving up big plays on defense has led the Vikings’ ranking to fall to 15th in yards allowed per game, but points allowed per game remains very good at 5th overall - 18.6 points per game. That differential reflects superior red zone ability rather than takeaways - the two reasons points and yards per game allowed may have a significant differential.
  • The Vikings don’t have one particular area where they’ve struggled all season, based on league rankings, but yards per game and 3rd down conversions allowed are below what we’re used to seeing from a Mike Zimmer defense in recent years.
  • The Vikings yards per pass attempt (8.1 - 2nd ranked) and pass attempts per game (29.1 - last ranked) suggests the Vikings would do better passing the ball more, but it doesn’t always work that way. Part of the reason for the good passing stats is that defenses have to be prepared to defend the run half the time, which sets up play-action passes, etc.
  • One reason the Vikings yards per pass attempt is 2nd ranked is because Kirk Cousins leads the league in big play passes (25+ yards) with 28 on the season.

Statistical Trends

Although they don’t show up in the point-in-time stats above, there are some trends that are noteworthy.

Yards Per Rush

At the end of September, the Vikings were averaging 5.6 yards per rush. By the end of October, it was down to 5.0. Now it stands at 4.6.

That still isn’t bad, and the early stat may reflect how Dalvin Cook and a Gary Kubiak offense took the league by surprise, but nevertheless the Vikings need to find ways to keep their rush game potent, and the outside zone run in particular.

If you look at each team’s top two rushers, the Vikings easily have the most big play rushes (10+ yards) with 39 between Dalvin Cook (25- 3rd most) and Alexander Mattison (14). But big rushing plays have been fewer in recent weeks. Both the Chiefs and Broncos held the Vikings to less than 100 yards rushing - the Broncos holding the Vikings to a season-low 37 yards on the ground.

When the Vikings rush for over 100 yards, they win. Or at least they have done 35 of the last 37 times.

Yards Per Game Allowed

The Vikings defense has allowed 338.6 yards per game so far this season, which is near average for the league. But over the past six games, that number has averaged 377.2 yards per game, which is bottom tier. If you exclude the Redskins game, that average jumps to 409.4 yards per game in 5 of the last 6 games - worse than Miami’s season average.

That increase in yards per game allowed is entirely due to increases in passing yards allowed, and yards per pass attempt, which has steadily risen since September. Average yards per rush attempt allowed have actually fallen a bit.

Opposing teams have used a pretty pass-heavy offensive game plan against the Vikings - passing nearly two-thirds of the time or 63.66% - sixth highest in the league - and that hasn’t changed much all season.

Opposing team’s QB passer ratings have remained steady all season, however, and have even come down a bit as the season has progressed, in large part due to lower completion percentage allowed, and strong red-zone performance limiting TD passes.

The reason for both slightly lower QB ratings and the higher total passing yards comes from Mike Zimmer’s change, following the Bears game, to implement tighter coverage with his cornerbacks. That led to fewer dink-and-dunk completions (and lower completion percentage) and fewer red zone TDs, which combined to lower QB passer ratings. But it also led to giving up more chunk passing plays (and more passing yards).

Playing tighter coverage is something of a trade-off, but with decent cornerbacks, it forces the opposing offense to execute at a higher level if they’re to be successful. And considering the nearly $42 million investment the Vikings have made in their defensive secondary in terms of this year’s salary cap - more than any other position group - coaches should expect those players to be able to handle more difficult assignments.

Coming into the bye-week, the Vikings coaching staff should be well aware of all these stats and trends, and prioritize them into a to-do list to accomplish during the bye-week.

Bye-Week To-Do List

In press conferences this week, Gary Kubiak mentioned the team would be doing some self-scouting and some opposition research for the stretch run, while Mike Zimmer mentioned that fixing the defensive secondary would be high on his list.

That suggests their to-do list may correspond largely with the short-one I put together:

1. Get Healthy

The first thing on the Vikings bye-week to-do list is to get healthy. Adam Thielen, Linval Joseph, Josh Kline, Anthony Harris, and now Harrison Smith - who left the Broncos game with a hamstring injury - are all key injured players the Vikings need back and healthy for the stretch run.

Having two weeks in-between games could likely be enough to see them all back on the field December 2nd in Seattle.

But beyond the guys that have missed games, there are others that have been on the injury report, and still more that have been banged-up in one way or another over the past three months. Getting those guys back closer to 100% is important too, as lesser ailments can effect performance to lesser degrees, even if not on the injury report.

The Vikings are fortunate at this point in the season that injuries are not worse (knock on wood), as an NFL season is part demolition derby, with the healthiest teams often making the postseason, and making deeper runs.

The Vikings are fortunate to have a one of the better training staffs in the league, and I’m sure they’ll be assessing every player and making recommendations to help fix whatever ails them.

2. Improve the Outside Zone Running Game

The second thing the Vikings need to do is develop ready-counters to possible defenses against their outside zone run game- and implement them in real time, as needed.

Dalvin Cook getting around the corner or cutting back inside the tackle for a big gain is becoming an endangered play in the Vikings arsenal. Defenses have been focused on defeating the outside zone run, and stopping Dalvin Cook in particular.

The Vikings coaching staff has been developing counters to keep their outside zone run game potent, but they’ve been slow to implement them. Having audible-ready variations installed and practiced so they can be dialed up anytime is the best way keep the outside zone run effective.

The extended practice the Vikings had going up-tempo the second-half against Denver should also be good experience down the road, as going up-tempo can tire a defense by giving them less rest time in-between plays, which could lead to some out-sized gains on outside runs as the defense struggles to get off the ball and fit their gaps. Edge rushers may have a harder time setting their edge when somewhat gassed, which can lead to the big runs outside.

In any case, the Vikings need to practice all the outside zone run variations, depending on defensive alignment, so they can actively counter them in real time. Variations may include the fullback’s blocking assignment, using pitches to the running back to get him out wide faster, using tight-end motion across the formation to either gain an extra blocker or clear-out a defender, or using a tight-end in the slot to help pinch the edge-rusher or take-out a second-level defender.

The beauty of Kubiak’s offense is they can all be done with the same personnel on the field, and, because different plays can involve the same pre-snap look, don’t give the play away.

3. Fixing the Defensive Secondary

Jerry Gray and Mike Zimmer need to make a point of emphasis on cornerbacks finishing in coverage - and winning contested catches. Too often, Vikings cornerbacks are in good position with the ball in the air, only to give up the reception. They’re all guilty of this. Not only could this reduce the big plays given up, but could also lead to more interceptions. Vikings’ cornerbacks have only two interceptions all season.

The key skill that seems to be missing is being able to read the receiver and look back for the ball in time to make a play. It’s a difficult skill to master to be sure, as it involves timing, reading the receiver’s eyes, agility, body positioning, and locating the ball in a split-second. Better receivers know the drill too, and add to the difficulty by making some false cues to throw off their defenders. Look back too soon and the receiver could break past you. Look back too late and the receiver beats you on the contested catch - or you’re more likely to get flagged for a defensive pass interference call if there is sufficient contact.

That has to be a daily position drill for CBs, with varied routes and receivers, to help improve those skills. Opposition research and knowing every receiver’s moves and tricks, inside and out, is also key.

Use of defensive secondary personnel, given the depth of the group, should also be a consideration. Mike Zimmer said perhaps he should be using Jayron Kearse more. Perhaps that is true. He is a good match-up against more athletic tight-ends, and has been good in the red zone. But an evaluation of each DBs strong-suits and best uses should be part of the bye-week coaching deliberations.

4. Play-book adjustments

At this point in the season, the Vikings know what plays are working and which ones are not - on both sides of the ball. With that in mind, the play-books should be culled of the bad plays, but also some new ones added. The remaining teams on the schedule will be doing their oppo research too - as will playoff teams - so the coaching staff needs to come up with some new offensive plays they haven’t shown yet for use in a variety of situations.

Defensively, Mike Zimmer should evaluate his pressure packages. Just like offensive plays, some work better than others. Dialing back the ones that haven’t been effective, while dialing up new ones, should be a part of this week’s work, along with fine tuning.

5. Opposition Research

The bye-week is a big one for scouting - both self-scouting and scouting the remaining teams on the schedule and potential play-off teams. Putting together film on every player on those teams, along with overall tendencies and so forth, should help improve game planning through the all-important stretch run. Marshaling resources to get that done is a big part of the bye-week work load, and hopefully the Vikings and coach Zimmer have improved on that process over the years.

Bottom Line

The Vikings have a lot of things going for them as they prepare for the key month of December, and a possible post-season run. But while the bye-week is an important physical rest and recuperation time for players, it’s also an important time for coaches to do a lot of behind the scenes game planning, scouting, research and coaching to help improve their team mid-season. And for players, while it may be a nice break physically from the weekly demands of the NFL, the best players remain tuned-in to all the mental preparation and film study that is required if they’re to be at their best.