The Vikings have made it to the halfway point of the season with a disappointing 3-5 record, but there is reason for optimism for the second half, as the team has shown some resilience in the past couple weeks, young players are developing, and some units are beginning to gel.
The Vikings also appear to have an easier schedule over the next month or so, and could yet make it to the postseason. If they were to manage such a feat after starting the season 0-3 and 1-5, it would likely mean the team continues to develop well, and despite likely earning only a bottom seed, could prove more formidable in a postseason unlikely to offer higher seeds much of a home field advantage.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Vikings will likely need to nearly run the table to make the postseason, and deficiencies on defense are far from rectified. Nevertheless, there is a lot to inspire some optimism going forward.
Vikings Offense Among the Best in the League
At the halfway point in the season, the Vikings offense leads the league in rushing yards per attempt (5.5), yards per passing attempt (8.9), and yards per reception (13.5). That’s a formidable trifecta any way you slice it. Gary Kubiak has taken advantage of all the weapons given him, which include the best running back in the league, the best receiving tandem, and a QB that can distribute the ball effectively when given time to throw. Overall the Vikings offense grades 3rd best in the league according to PFF, and is also third best in the red zone.
Kirk Cousins has not had his best half season, largely because of his INT tally (10), but he has managed to bounce back and improve his passer rating to a respectable 97.7- 14th in the league- despite at one point leading the league in interceptions.
But one reason for optimism for Cousins in the second half, and the Vikings offense in general, has been the improvement of the Vikings offensive line. Across the board the Vikings’ offensive line is improving and beginning to gel as a unit. Ezra Cleveland developing to the point where he’s holding his own has solidified the right guard spot, which has been the weak link all season. Brian O’Neill, Riley Reiff, and Garrett Bradbury are all having solid seasons so far, and even Dakota Dozier has been decent and capable of some key blocks in the running game from time to time. The key here is that the weakest link is a lot stronger, and we're not seeing the quick pressures that can kill drives in pass protection, while run blocking is gradually becoming a strength.
And that development up front is even more encouraging for the Vikings skill position players on offense, which collectively may be the most talented in the NFL. If you consider collectively QB, top two RBs, top two WRs, and top two TEs, the Vikings are proving to be at the very top in offensive skill position talent. Add a decent offensive line that allows them to do their thing, and the Vikings offense could very well be the best in the league. Many key stats are already showing that, but Ws remain an issue.
Defense Slowly Improving
The biggest reason the Vikings don’t have more wins is that until the last couple games, the defense had been giving up 32 points a game on average. That’s a big hurdle for the Vikings offense to jump every week. Particularly when it also results in falling behind early, and not much time of possession, which it has done.
But slowly the Vikings’ defense has become better at slowing down opposing offenses. They’ve never been dominant even in their best games this season, but more recently they’ve managed to prevent a few drives from becoming scoring ones, which was key in allowing the offense to win the game.
One example of this is rookie Jeff Gladney. Gladney has had his struggles all season, but has emerged as one of the better slot corners in the league this year. His receptions allowed per coverage snap (11.0) is now 4th best in the league among slot corners with at least 125 coverage snaps. He’s also the highest graded corner in the league in run defense, according to PFF. Of course Gladney hasn’t always played slot corner given the weekly musical chairs at cornerback for the Vikings this season, and still has a 131.0 passer rating allowed when he has been targeted (slot and outside), but he’s improving in all facets. If the Vikings can solidify the outside cornerback spots, Gladney could become a top slot cornerback - he already is actually when he plays there.
But it’s not only the rookies or young players that are improving. So too are the top veterans. Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith have all had slow starts to the season, particularly the first few games. The two All-Pros have been improving in recent games and appear to be getting back to form, although their PFF grades still are not what they were last season.
Other veterans like Shamar Stephen, Anthony Harris and Ifeadi Odenigbo are managing decent, rather than exceptional, performance. For Stephen, that represents a step up in PFF grading, but for Harris it's a substantial downgrade. And for Odenigbo, somewhat disappointing given his occasional flashes last season. Armon Watts has put together four solid games now, after starting the season with four pretty forgettable ones.
Eric Wilson has been a mixed bag at linebacker. He’s had some highlight reel plays that tend to overstate his overall performance, which isn’t as good when you add in tackling and run defense, where he has struggled.
For other guys like Cameron Dantzler, Troy Dye, Harrison Hand, Hercules Mata’afa, James Lynch and Holton Hill, they’ve missed a lot of time or just haven’t played enough to really judge their development. None of them have been particularly outstanding when they have played, but for the Vikings defense to take another step forward, at least a couple of these guys will need to step up, or their replacements like Kris Boyd or newcomer Chris Jones.
Overall, this isn’t a defense that will rival those of the past few years for the Vikings. But it could be one that can manage to hold opposing offenses to the low 20s in points, in hopes the Vikings’ top offense can score more. In that regard, Zimmer’s defense is currently ranked 6th in both 3rd down conversions allowed, and red zone TDs allowed, so there’s some hope along those lines, despite a bunch of other mediocre defensive stats, including allowing nearly 30 points a game over the first half of the season.
The Vikings 3-5 record in the first half of the season has been a big disappointment. The poor showing has largely been due to the worst defense the Vikings have had in the Mike Zimmer era. Still, had the Vikings managed another stop in two of those 1 point losses, they’d be 5-3 against the toughest schedule (as it turned out) in the NFL over the first half of the season.
Looking ahead, the Vikings have about as good an opportunity as you can get in the NFL to continue stacking wins. The next four games are all very winnable for the Vikings, although the Bears will be an important test for the Vikings offense.
The Vikings look to have a championship caliber offense if the offensive line continues to gel, and key players like Dalvin Cook remain healthy. It will be up to the Vikings offense to deliver the victories throughout the second half of the season, and hopefully the Vikings defense can make their job easier by holding opponents to at least under 25 points a game, and by getting off the field so the offense can do its thing.
Should the Vikings manage to make it to the postseason, despite such a poor start to the season, there is no juggernaut team in the NFC this year, and home field advantage is pretty much nonexistent, so lower seeds won’t be at much of a disadvantage in the postseason.
In the meantime, the Vikings have a chance to built momentum and confidence over the next month, which could propel them to make, and compete in the postseason.
It’s been a strange year, and the Vikings making the postseason after a 1-5 start may not even be all that remarkable in a year filled with anomalies.
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