It’s that time of year again to go out on a limb and make predictions for the Vikings season, which begins this weekend against Atlanta.
Getting Back on Track
I’m hoping to get back on track after having my worst year prognosticating the Vikings regular season record last season. To review, here is my track record going back to 2015:
Prediction: 10-6. Actual: 11-5
No prediction (Bridgewater had gone down), but I liked the Vikings to repeat as NFC North champs over the Packers, “but it may come down to injuries, particularly along the offensive line where both teams are weak.” Of course that was the year the Vikings offensive linemen were dropping like Northern troops at Cold Harbor, and a 5-0 season turned into 8-8.
Prediction: 12-4. Actual: 13-3.
There wasn’t much enthusiasm for the Vikings before the season started in 2017, and most expected middling results again for the Vikings after going 8-8 the year before. But the Vikings surprised on the upside, despite once again losing their starting QB early to injury.
Prediction: 13-3. Actual: 8-7-1.
Obviously way off last season. Probably the biggest reason for being off so much came down to expecting a similar offense as 2017 from John DeFillipo, which proved not to be the case. The other was although I thought the Bears might be the most improved, I figured that would only get them to 8-8 or so. I also thought the Packers would be better than they turned out to be.
With the changes to the offensive coaching staff and scheme this year, I could see the Vikings having the type of season I predicted last season. But I also think the NFC North is a tougher division than when I made my prediction last year, and the Vikings have a pretty tough schedule with five games against playoff teams outside the division.
I have no doubt that the Vikings offensive scheme will be closer to 2017 than 2018 in terms of run-pass play mix. I also think it will feature all the hallmarks of Gary Kubiak’s offense over the years, some of which we’ve seen in the preseason: outside zone running, mostly under-center, play-action, misdirection, double TE and/or RB/FB sets, QB bootlegs and occasional deep shots down the field.
Dalvin Cook could lead the league in rushing if he stays healthy.
But I am concerned about the level of execution on offense. I suspect the offensive line will be similar to the 2017 offensive line: better than 2018 as a result of a better scheme, but still nothing to write home about.
The key to overcoming that shortcoming on offense will be the Vikings ability to execute an up-tempo offense. Not a no-huddle offense, but an offense that can call the play, get to the line and run it in 20 seconds or so. They were able to do that successfully in the first pre-season game -albeit only a few reps - but being able to do that consistently will give the Vikings generally smaller, more athletic offensive line an advantage over bigger, stronger defensive fronts. When big defensive linemen have to move fast for an extended period, without a break, they get gassed. And when they get gassed, they get beat - especially when they have to move fast laterally to make a tackle. Like on an outside zone run.
I like to think they can do this with practice, and hopefully they’ve been practicing it, but seeing is believing.
Gary Kubiak is also charged with developing offensive game plans for the Vikings, which will help a lot over last season.
Defensively, if the offense can perform similar to 2017 in terms of limiting turnovers, short drives, and maintaining time of possession, the defense should be able to perform better - from a playing with the lead standpoint, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But while I think the Vikings defensive front will be at least as good as last season, in part because Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen are healthy, and rotational depth is better, I don’t think that will be the case with the outside cornerbacks. Xavier Rhodes may play better than last year, and Waynes and Alexander about the same, but I don’t see a return to 2017 form for Rhodes. We’ll see how it plays out, but I don’t see outside corner as the strength of the defense. I think the Vikings safety tandem of Smith and Harris will be one of the best this season. I also think Anthony Barr will have a better year as he will be used more effectively.
In terms of NFC North competition, this could be the toughest division in the NFL this year, particularly on defense. The Bears and Vikings both have had the #1 defense the past two seasons, and look likely to continue as top units this year. Meanwhile the Lions defense could be much improved, and may be the best defensive line in the division- which is saying something- with Trey Flowers, Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, Mike Daniels, and Da’Shawn Hand. The Lions’ secondary is more suspect, but also has some good players in Darius Slay and Tracy Walker.
Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears take a step back defensively, similar to what happened with the Vikings last year, having lost defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and a couple good players from their secondary. That in turn could expose their offense a bit more, and Mitch Trubisky in particular, who had the advantage of a league-leading scoring and takeaway defense last season. Matt Nagy also has a year of tape in terms of his play-calling, which will help teams adjust and game plan more effectively this year. I still see them as the Vikings toughest competition for the division crown, however.
I’m more optimistic about the Lions this year than the general impression nationally. Their defense will be improved. Additionally, their offense could function better under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who could bring a more balanced attack and efficient passing game. The early schedule for the Lions is pretty brutal, with three playoff teams in a row before an early week 5 bye, and the Lions are not a team that has done well historically after a poor start.
I’m probably more pessimistic, however, about the Packers this year. Offensively, the Packers will be running the same Kubiak-Shanahan offense as the Vikings under new head coach Matt LaFleur. I just don’t see it suiting their personnel as well as it does the Vikings’. I’m also a bit more skeptical about team chemistry with the Packers under LaFleur, who hasn’t had much experience as an offensive coordinator, let alone head coach. The testiness between him and Aaron Rodgers could be a problem that never really goes away - just like with McCarthy only potentially worse judging by Rodgers’ tone on everything from the offense and audibles to special teams practices.
I’m also more skeptical about the Packers new additions on defense. I think they went with quantity over quality at edge rusher. It’s interesting that the Ravens could have easily afforded to keep Za’Darius Smith, but chose not too. Similarly, the Redskins could have afforded, but chose not to keep, Preston Smith. Additionally, first round draft pick Rashan Gary looks to be showing some bust signs as a couple analysts more or less predicted. He had only one hurry in 44 pass rush snaps this preseason. Lack of production in college was a red flag for Gary, particularly compared to his Michigan line-mate Chase Winovich, who’s had 3 sacks, 1 hit, and 8 hurries in 53 pass rush snaps for the Patriots this preseason. On the back-end defensively, the Packers improved with the addition of Adrian Amos from the Bears, but all of their corners are still pretty green, lack shut-down ability, and/or are durability concerns. If the pass rush isn’t improved, they’ll be exposed. Run defense could be an issue too - something Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has struggled with for the past five years.
All that, a tough opening schedule against four top defenses in the Bears, Vikings, Eagles, and Broncos before a road game at Dallas, 4 of six road games to end the season, and an Aaron Rodgers that looks past his prime and/or lacks chemistry with most of his receivers creates more downside risk for the Packers.
Beyond the Vikings’ division rivals, the Vikings have some tough road games at Kansas City, at Seattle on Monday night (again), and at the Chargers. The Eagles at home will also be a tougher game.
Overall though, I expect the Vikings will make progress in becoming more balanced offensively, playing complementary football, and putting the offense and defense in better situations for success than last year.
Currently the over/under for number of Vikings wins is 9. I’m going with the over, predicting the Vikings will finish the regular season 11-5, edging out the Bears for the division title.
How many wins will the Vikings have this regular season?
This poll is closed
15 or 16
13 or 14
11 or 12
9 or 10
7 or 8
5 or 6
4 or less