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Early insights into the Vikings’ season

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Warren gives us some impressions of the purple two games into the year

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It’s a long season. And after the first couple games, and plenty of mixed signals, the Vikings open a key stretch of six games in the next month that will define whether they will be a contender in the last half of the season.

There are a couple tougher games in this stretch, but for the most part this is a stretch where the Vikings should be stacking wins and building for a tougher second half of the schedule beginning on the road in Kansas City in November.

But to start stacking wins, the Vikings need to figure some things out in terms of team identity, and get better within their scheme on both sides of the ball.

Let’s take a look.

Defense Struggles with Complexity at Times

The slow start defensively against the Packers was a case of the Packers having prepped some Zimmer defense beaters, and the Vikings being caught flat-footed in response. Here is a good example:

If you look at Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes pre-snap, they communicate well and Rhodes appears to hand off Davante Adams to Smith, but Adams’ post-corner route is the perfect route for the zone coverage, and leads to a big play en route to the Packers first touchdown.

It’s plays like this that make you wonder why Zimmer doesn’t call more straight man coverage and bring more pressure. Rodgers had all day to throw on that play, and Adams was about as wide open as can be, leading to an easy toss and catch for big 30+ yard gain.

Of course there are man coverage beaters too, and Rodgers can handle pressure as well as any QB, but when you have talent on defense, you can afford to lean on it more too. And later on that’s what happened. For instance, in the 3rd quarter, on back-to-back 2nd and 3rd down and 7 yards to go:

Apart from the (uncalled) offensive pass interference (push-off) by Jimmy Graham against Anthony Harris, everyone was pretty well covered. And while the pressure wasn’t great, it distracted Rodgers enough and got him off his spot to force the incompletion.

You can see in both plays essentially man coverage. On the 2nd down play the Vikings rushed four, and on third down they rushed five. A lot going on pre-snap on both plays, which gives Rodgers’ some doubt in his pre-snap read. And that, along with man coverage and some pressure, is enough to force a higher level of execution for the plays to be successful.

The Packers come up short in part because they’ve got younger players and a new scheme that makes it difficult for a QB like Rodgers to do his thing as effectively. The Vikings, by contrast, have just about everybody with several years experience in the scheme and talent at every level and position where there is no obvious weak link to exploit. And that raises the degree of difficulty in execution.

Sometimes it’s not so much about dialing up the right play as a coordinator, it’s simply allowing your superior talent and experience on the field to do it’s thing without a lot of complications - except what you give the opponent pre-snap.

Certainly it’s important to not get out-schemed by becoming predictable, but leaning on talent and experience and simply letting it operate on the field is important too. Having the mentality that you can match-up against anybody and out-execute them is important too.

The Vikings are probably the most tenured defense in their scheme across the board, and don’t have any obvious holes that can be easily exploited. Using that to greater advantage, and making that a bigger part of the identity on defense will help the Vikings defense become more stout.

Offense Not Good Enough Yet

Clearly the focus for the offense early on this season has been to establish the run game, which they’ve done with success. Dalvin Cook leading the league in rushing didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but it is certainly a noteworthy change from last year.

But in terms of the passing game, including play-action, and use of tempo, there is still a long way to go.

One of the key problems at this point continues to be pass protection. The Vikings offensive line is ranked second-to-last in pass blocking efficiency according to PFF, and Garrett Bradbury has really struggled. Against the Packers, he had two drive killing reps in pass protection. The first resulted in the Kirk Cousins’ fumble; the second, late in the 3rd quarter, was a holding penalty that nullified a nice pass to Thielen to the Packers’ 32 yard line and backed the Vikings up for a 2nd and 21 at midfield which ultimately killed the drive.

The problem for Bradbury is simply that he can’t hold his anchor against a bull rush and finds himself time and again getting blown back and/or on the ground trying to stop the penetration. That hasn’t been much of a problem for Brett Jones, in roughly 800 pass blocking snaps over his career at center, and who’s done as well as a run blocker as Bradbury, so there are options for the Vikings.

Pat Elflein’s absence has been a non-factor, with Dakota Dozier performing at least as well, if not particularly good overall.

With the offensive line pass protection continuing to be a weak spot, you might expect more and better bootleg calls from Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak. So far, those call have been of the rather basic variety, with Cousins hooking out a bit after the play-action to dump off to a tight end or back out in the flat - with mixed success.

A variation on that play that could be more effective is using wide receivers like Diggs and/or Thielen to run whip-routes, where they run inside and then switch back outside to gain separation and receive the ball from Cousins. Varied-depth crossing routes from the opposite side could also be more effective as it puts linebackers in a poor position to make a play. Here is an example of the latter, when Kubiak was OC of the Ravens in 2014:

Here is an example of the former (whip-route), although the receiver is out of the frame initially:

Of course the Vikings did try this play, and in a similar position on the field as these examples, but the execution was much worse:

Obviously a host of problems with the execution of this play, which especially on first down, should have been a throw-away by Cousins. But here are the execution problems:

  • Tyler Conklin (and Kyle Rudolph) missed his block on Dean Lowry, which forced Cousins back into a poor position to throw off his back foot;
  • Jaire Alexander was playing off-coverage on Thielen, which made his slow-motion whip route ineffective.
  • Stefon Diggs wasn’t open when Cousins threw the ball. Kevin King had got inside position at that point, and Cousins’ throw off his back foot was slow arriving - giving King the perfect opportunity to make the interception.
  • Not sure what Kyle Rudolph’s assignment was there, as he neither ran a route nor blocked anybody. But had he done a whip route or little post-corner route he may have provided Cousins with a better target than Diggs. Alternatively, he could have helped block Lowry, which would’ve given Cousins a better opportunity to at least run for a short gain. Lining him up on the opposite side for a shallower or trailing crossing route would’ve been more effective in any case.
  • Offensive line could’ve done a better job selling the run, but a moot point as the linebackers didn’t have anyone to cover.

There was some controversy over the play call to begin with, given the Vikings had been effectively running the ball. Of course that is when a play-action pass is most effective, particularly on first-down, and this play has been a red-zone staple in Kubiak’s offense for a long time. And as those Ravens’ examples show, it can be very effective in the red zone, if executed better.

Beyond this anecdotal insight into where the Vikings are in terms of executing Kubiak’s offense, there is also the lack of any up-tempo use on offense. Up-tempo, or getting plays off quickly, but not no-huddle, can give the offense an advantage as they move across mid-field - catching the defense off-guard and often simply tiring them out. Particularly when running the ball well, this can lead to some big gains when the defense gets gassed at the end of a play, is slow to get into position, and can’t substitute.

The one (relatively) quick snap the Vikings had - which didn’t seemed planned - led to the long Diggs TD pass against the Packers.

Promising Signs

What is promising on offense, despite some poor play from many players on offense, the most obvious coming from Cousins (but you could single out several other players too), is that the offense ranks very high in yards per attempt in both run AND pass. The Vikings rank #4 in rushing yards per attempt (5.7) and 8th in net yards per pass attempt (7.3). Overall, the Vikings 6.3 yards per play is tied for 8th in league rankings.

The Bears and Packers rank #29 and #30 in yards per play offensively.

So, as the Vikings are able to make more progress in executing Kubiak’s offense, things could continue to improve.

Defensively, the Vikings rank 6th in points allowed per game, and 9th in 3rd down conversions allowed. The problem at the moment is their 27th ranking in red zone TD % allowed - currently 80% after allowing all of Green Bay’s red zone attempts into TDs. Their 15th ranking in yards allowed leaves plenty of room for improvement as well.

But overall, the Vikings defense has allowed the Vikings offense the opportunity to win in both games, and there is no reason to believe things get worse as that hasn’t been their history under Mike Zimmer.

Turnovers

The first two games of the Vikings season have been a tale of turnovers. The promising sign for the Vikings is that they’re tied for the league lead in takeaways (5) after two games - the emphasis on generating and retaining fumbles seems to have paid off so far. Last season the Vikings were last in fumble recovery %, recovering only 33% of them. So far this year, they’ve recovered 4 of 5, or 80%.

The problem of course is that they also have 4 giveaways - all at Green Bay. And that’s why they lost. That trumped a nearly 200 yard rushing performance (the Vikings first loss when rushing for over 100 yards in 3 years), and a defense that gave up 21 points, but also basically 3 scoreless quarters.

The good news is that it isn’t usual for the Vikings to have 4 giveaways in a game - they haven’t done that for 3 years either. But it definitely something they need to focus on improving. The official game record against the Packers lists a total of 5 fumbles for the Vikings, 2 of them lost.

Cousins should be embarrassed at his decision to make that red zone INT throw on first down at this stage in his career. I hope the Vikings’ coaching staff didn’t sugar coat it with him either.

We’ll see what kind of impact that has on the rest of his season. He had 10 INTs last season, which as a % of attempts was a career low.

It’s a Long Season - and it’s Still Early

I’m expecting the Vikings to bounce back well from the loss at Green Bay with a dominant performance at home against a poor Raiders team. But beating the Raiders at home is the least of the expectations for the Vikings this season. Executing better on both sides of the ball, hopefully avoiding key injuries, and building momentum for later in the season is what September and October are all about.