After ten games, all of them close, there are some interesting trends and insights emerging from this Vikings team that seem to break with past editions in the Mike Zimmer era. Here are a few notable insights, along with a look into the rest of the season.
The Vikings Aren’t That Great a Running Team So Far This Year
Ever since Adrian Peterson, who was just released by the Titans and may be looking at the end of his career, the Vikings have been able to run the ball well. Whether AP or Dalvin Cook, the Vikings made a point of being able to run the ball well. But this year has been very average.
The Vikings have averaged just 4.3 yards per carry this season, which ranks 15th. They’re 14th in attempts, 11th in yards, and 31st in rushing TDs.
Dalvin Cook used to be one of the highest graded backs in the league, but this year he’s not even close. He’s currently ranked 44th out of 63 RBs according to PFF, and the Vikings team run grade ranks a lousy 27th in the league. Dalvin still has his moments, but he looks like some of the wear and tear is beginning to catch up with him. He’s not quite as explosive and elusive as he once was, although he can still make a lot of defenders miss. Alexander Mattison hasn’t looked any better, although like Cook he can put together a pretty amazing run here and there. But overall, I’m not sure the Vikings are scaring too many opponents with their run game this year. What’s more, they don’t run the ball a lot either- ranking only 14th in rush attempts on the season.
Additionally, in terms of run blocking, the Vikings aren’t really showing much either. They rank just 19th in team run blocking grade, and of the top 5 PFF graded run blockers on the team, 3 of them are wide receivers.
The Vikings Are Even Worse Defending the Run
If the Vikings run game has declined some this year, their run defense has too - or at least compared to 2019 when the defense was relatively healthy.
As it stands today, the Vikings are second-worst in the league in yards per carry allowed, at 4.8. Their overall team run defense grade by PFF ranks just 19th, and their team run stop win rate ranks last at 26% according to ESPN Analytics and Next Gen Stats. Their top 4 run defenders play either safety or cornerback.
According to PFF:
The Vikings are getting solid results, but the players they brought in to solve their run defense issues haven’t been getting the job done — both through on-field play and absences due to injury. No team is allowing a higher average per rush than the 4.8 yards per attempt the Vikings are giving up. They rank second in yards per carry before contact (1.9) and are fortunate there aren’t too many teams wanting to lean on the run game as their primary objective. -PFF
The Vikings Defense is the Weakest Unit on the Team
Overall, the Vikings defense is bottom third in both points and yards allowed, ranking 22nd and 28th respectively. And while they still do relatively well on 3rd downs- ranked 8th in the league at 37.1%, they haven’t fared as well in the red zone. This season they rank just 25th in the league in preventing touchdowns in the red zone, allowing 67.9% of red zone opportunities to become touchdowns.
That’s 0-3 in the Mike Zimmer Traditional Football Checklist
Mike Zimmer has been on record saying, many times over the years, that he wants to be a smart, physical football team that runs the ball well, can stop the run and play good defense. So far this season, the Vikings haven’t done a good job in any of those categories.
The question, especially going forward, is whether there is any tangible reason for improvement, and secondly- does it really matter?
Answering the second question first, there is a modern view of football, particularly among pundits more so than coaches, that running the ball is for losers. It’s a passing league, all the rules favor passing, and you’re not gonna win or lose games based on how well you run the ball on offense or stop the run on defense the vast majority of games.
And statistically there is evidence to support that view. What difference does it make if you run for 4.3 or 4.8 yards per carry? Or allow that many yards per carry defensively? Often times teams that ran for a lot of yards were able to do so late in the game, when they’ve had a lead, and are able to wear down a defense and run out the clock, not needing to score points. And after all, the Bucs and Chiefs won the last two Super Bowls and neither ran the ball well or often. And the Chiefs and Patriots, who won the Super Bowl in 2018, didn’t defend the run well in those Super Bowl years either.
But on the other hand, its not just the old timers like Mike Zimmer who value establishing the run. Younger coaches like Brandon Staley and Kyle Shanahan, who the Vikings play this weekend, like to establish the run for the physical aspect it brings to a defense, as Staley points out here:
Brandon Staley is my new favorite coachpic.twitter.com/Ai86NCvz5C— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) October 6, 2021
We saw some of that on display against Cleveland, who under Kevin Stefanski likes to run the ball behind their very good offensive line and running backs, and defensively were also physical in shutting down the run. Winning the battle in the trenches, or at least not losing it, remains an underrated aspect of the game. So far, the Vikings haven’t really won the battle in the trenches in games, but outside of the Cleveland game perhaps, haven’t lost it decisively either.
The other part of the question, is there any tangible reason the Vikings may improve in these facets of the game going forward, is key.
In terms of overall defense, the defensive line and secondary seem to be going in different directions in terms of injuries. The secondary is getting players back from injury/Covid, while the defensive line is still adding to the list of unavailable players. What is encouraging for both groups is that the backup talent is proving to be good caliber and not much of a drop-off in talent, apart from DE behind Danielle Hunter.
But Armon Watts, Cameron Bynum, and Cameron Dantzler have all performed well in replacement of Michael Pierce, Harrison Smith, and Patrick Peterson. The Vikings have also gotten some good reps from James Lynch- who’s actually the highest graded run defender on the defensive line right now- and for a game at least in Kenny Willekes. So in terms of more tangible reasons for improvement, getting a healthy secondary back, with more proven depth, is likely to be a positive going forward.
On the defensive line, it looks like its going to get worse before it gets better, particularly now with Dalvin Tomlinson and Kenny Willekes on the Covid list, and Everson Griffen’s status very much in doubt due to a mental illness relapse today. But it looks like the Vikings are going with Sheldon Richardson to replace Danielle Hunter at his DE spot going forward, at least for perhaps the majority of reps, as the defensive line struggles with so many key players out. But moving forward, Dalvin Tomlinson will probably only miss one game, and Willekes should be off the Covid list soon too. Michael Pierce will be eligible to come off of IR after the 49ers game I believe, and getting all those players back will be helpful for the rotation and keeping everyone fresh. Still, the DE spot, particularly if Everson Griffen is an extended absence, looks like a weak spot and the Vikings will need to continue to take some chances with blitzes to get pressure on the QB.
The other tangible reason for improvement in the secondary is Bashaud Breeland has been playing much better the last few games. The Packers challenged Breeland early in the game, targeting him for some big plays, but he was up to the challenge and they backed off of him after he nearly picked off Rodgers. Overall, since week 5, Breeland has allowed just a 70.8 passer rating when targeted- best among CBs on the team. Patrick Peterson is right behind him at 76.3 over the last three games he played during that stretch.
Vikings Passing Game is One of the Best in the League
As I mentioned in my Kirk Cousins MVP piece the other day, the Vikings passing game is the 2nd highest graded by PFF, despite having the worst team pass protection grade in the league. Team pass block win rate, at 53%, also ranks poorly - 27th in the league. Despite that, Kirk Cousins has done well in both PFF grade and EPA efficiency metrics.
As you can see, the Vikings and Kirk Cousins rank pretty high on both measures, once again despite having mediocre pass protection. One of the reasons the Vikings and Cousins seem to defy the odds in having a top passing game despite not so great pass protection, is that Cousins has managed to avoid sacks most of the time. In fact, Cousins’ sack rate, despite relatively high pressure rates, is 2nd lowest in the league after Tom Brady, who has the best pass protection in the league. So Cousins has been able to either get rid of the ball fast enough when under pressure, or sidestep it, to avoid taking sacks.
In that sense, it’s a little like 2017 with Case Keenum, who also managed a great passing game despite facing a lot of pressure. In Keenum’s case, he had the uncanny ability to sidestep or dip and avoid the sack, whereas Cousins simply gets rid of the ball fast enough most of the time, while also either stepping up or escaping the pocket to avoid pressure at times as well. Cousins’ average time to throw, at 2.55 seconds, is one of the quickest in the league. Of course it also helps substantially to have a good set of receivers in JJ and Thielen, who can win contested catches and get open with their route running- and not have a lot of drops either.
The other thing I would say about the Vikings pass protection, while it hasn’t been good- subjecting Cousins to pressure a little over a third of his dropbacks this season, that’s an improvement over last year. The other aspect that has improved is the quick pressures. In the past, the Vikings would sometimes allow an immediate pressure, either due to a whiff in pass blocking or missed assignment, which led to sacks and often times strip sacks from the blind side as Cousins wasn’t expecting pressure that early in the play. We haven’t seen as many of those this year, which are the most difficult for a quarterback to mitigate.
A Model of Consistency
Over the first ten games, the Vikings rank 11th overall in DVOA, an overall efficiency performance metric complied by Football Outsiders. That ranking is consistent with a team with a better win-loss record than the Vikings, and based on how the Vikings performed in this metric, the estimated number of wins the Vikings should have right now is 6.7 - nearly two more than the Vikings actually have. That is consistent with the Vikings losing a couple close games to good teams- Arizona and Baltimore for example - where they played well enough or were in a position to win, but still fell short.
In fact, the Vikings are the only team in the league to lead in every game by at least 7 points, and are the most consistent team in the league, measured in DVOA variance from game to game this season.
Normally consistency is a hallmark of a well-coached, disciplined team and is something most teams strive to achieve at a high level. The Vikings have had a good deal of success with this so far this season, as we haven’t really experienced the occasional flop of a game from the Vikings, when they just seemed to start flat and never really get much going en route to a double-digit defeat.
By comparison, below is a graph charting the variances in DVOA week-to-week between the Vikings in yellow squares and the Bills, the least consistent team in the league, in red circles. While you can point to the Bills better record and say who cares about consistency in that context, consistency does matter especially when it comes to the playoffs. A more consistent team also may not have as many exploitable flaws that some teams can take advantage of more than others.
The Aggressiveness of Mike Zimmer
The general impression of Mike Zimmer is that of an old-school, conservative coach with a more traditional, and some would say outdated, approach to the game of football. And there are aspects of the Vikings play-calling and approach to back that up. The commitment to the run that is part of the Kubiak-scheme is one. Not being as aggressive in end-of-half situations offensively. Sometimes playing too soft defensively in coverage.
But on the other hand, according to Next Gen Stats, the Vikings under Zimmer this year have also been fairly aggressive, and also smart, when it comes to going for it, or not, on 4th down:
Zimmer and the Vikings have quietly been among the sharpest NFL teams on fourth down this season. Across 51 fourth-down situations when the optimal choice helped the team’s chances of winning at a greater rate than one percentage point, Zimmer has made the correct decision 86.3 percent of the time (44 times), the best mark in the league this season and a figure up significantly from Zimmer’s effort last season (69.1 percent, 25th-best in 2020). -Next Gen Stats Analytics Team
That Zimmer and the Vikings have been the best in 4th down decision-making, not to mention the best in the league in actually converting 4th downs, improving significantly over last year, suggests Zimmer has made better use of analytics in his game management decision-making.
Analytics may also be somewhat behind Zimmer’s more aggressive stance offensively over the last two games.
Certainly all the stats sited in the piece- like not running the ball all that well- are known to Zimmer and his staff, and undoubtedly many more. And all that, along with an offensive player talent assessment, may be behind Zimmer, Klint Kubiak, and Kirk Cousins taking a more aggressive approach offensively, which in this case simply means dialing up a few more pass plays, and a greater propensity to throw it up to Justin Jefferson, hoping he’ll come down with the ball. Jefferson has remained the highest graded wide receiver against man coverage this season, according to PFF, so there is statistical evidence, in addition to visual evidence, that Jefferson is a dangerous weapon in these situations.
Overall, the Vikings have the 9th most pass attempts in the league, up from 27th last year, suggesting Zimmer and Company have adjusted their play-calling tendencies significantly this year to favor more passing. That may simply be a reflection of what’s working for the Vikings offense this season, rather than a change in core philosophy.
In his press conference this week Zimmer said he wanted Cousins to continue to be aggressive in throwing the ball downfield, as that will open up other things on offense, and other players. Most likely that will result in teams doubling Jefferson, and/or playing 2 deep safeties, which leaves fewer defenders against the run. That can also opens things up for other receivers as JJ draws the focus of the defense.
Above are the Vikings play-calling tendencies so far this season, according to Sharp Football Stats. If you look at the Vikings’ most successful play on 3rd down, of any distance, they’re all passes to Justin Jefferson. Don’t think opposing defenses aren’t aware of this, particularly on 3rd and 4+ yards, when passes to Justin Jefferson are also the most frequent play call. The difficulty for the Vikings offense will be finding ways to get Jefferson in single coverage, which may involve more 4WR sets. So far this season, the Vikings have run 4WR sets on 22% of 3rd down plays- second-highest in the league.
Bottom line here is that Zimmer and Company are more willing to embrace a more aggressive and/or modern analytical approach this year than he is given credit for, although particularly in the embrace of a more aggressive passing game, the tactical change is more recent. That approach is also likely to put more pressure on the offensive line, pass protection, and Kirk Cousins in particular. So far Cousins has managed a relatively low sack rate despite relatively poor pass protection, but that may not continue forever. Additionally, that approach may lead to more turnovers, which the Vikings offense has made the fewest of any team in the league this season. But it may also be just what the doctor ordered in terms of pressuring defenses and using the strength of the Vikings offense more effectively.
The Vikings have managed to perform with consistency, with occasional aggressiveness that may have been learned based on how the season has progressed. Close games and a relatively poor running game has led to more risk taking offensively, particularly in giving Justin Jefferson more opportunities to make contested catches. That has helped keep all their games close, and may have salvaged their post-season hopes in recent weeks.
But the Vikings have also not won the battle of the trenches this season. They may not have lost it much either, but that basic, physical element of the game is one where the Vikings need to improve on both sides of the ball to rise from potential wild card team to a bona fide threat to make a deep playoff run. How well they fare against the 49ers, who appear to be returning to the style of game the Vikings faced in the 2019 playoffs, will provide some insight to wear they stand on that score.