The Vikings have completed just over a quarter of their games this season, and while there is room for improvement in most areas, it’s been a good start to the season overall.
My guess is that even the most purple Kool-Aid-soaked fans would be happy with the Vikings at 4-1 after five games, sitting atop the NFC North division and currently the #2 seed in the NFC conference post-season tournament.
But on the other hand, apart from the Packers game, the Vikings haven’t played well for a full game. They got beat soundly by the Eagles, won against the Lions and Saints in ugly fashion, and couldn’t blow out the Bears despite a dominant first half. But a win is a win is a win, as they say.
On the one hand, if the Vikings go on to win the division and make a deep run in the playoffs, the Vikings resilience and ability to eke out wins could be seen as a precursor to that success. On the other hand, if the Vikings languish and finish around .500, their struggles in these last few games could be seen as a precursor to that as well.
Which direction the Vikings take will depend on whether their issues are of the type they can ‘clean-up’ as they move forward, or if they’re more structural in nature- not enough talent and/or inadequate coaching.
One question that appears to be answered is how well the Vikings would respond to the new coaching staff, and the new environment accompanying the regime change. So far, the response has been very positive. Players seem more relaxed, more positive in both their comments and their approach, and apart from the Eagles game, have been able to respond positively when they’ve needed to. As much as anything, that positivity has led them to win three games in a row in which they didn’t play their best for four quarters.
But beyond the positive impact of the new coaching staff and regime change, there are a couple key issues the Vikings have struggled with since the Packers game that will need to be improved for the Vikings to beat better teams going forward.
Let’s take a look.
Offense Struggling to Beat Man Coverage
The biggest change for the Vikings offense since the Packers game is that opposing defenses have switched to playing more man coverage, whereas the Packers played mostly zone coverage. In the Eagles case, they (the Eagles) had played almost all zone coverage in week one, so coming out and playing mostly man coverage week two against the Vikings caught them off-guard. Darius Slay virtually shutdown Justin Jefferson, and the Vikings other receivers had a difficult time getting open against man coverage.
Beyond that, the Eagles were able to disrupt routes and timing, and create some confusion, which showed up in Kirk Cousins’ performance as well. Cousins often appeared more tentative and uncertain, and between that and some pressure, his accuracy was off, and his completion percentage way down at 58% - a rate that continued against the Lions. Cousins also had three interceptions against the Eagles, one on a bad route by Justin Jefferson.
The Lions defense paid close attention to what the Eagles did defensively and did much of the same- a lot of Cover-2 man coverage, otherwise known as Cover-5. That led to a lot of bracket coverage on Jefferson, with a man underneath and a safety over the top. That held JJ to just 14 yards on 3 receptions. That puts the burden on Adam Thielen, KJ Osborn, and other receivers to get open against man coverage, and that’s still a work in progress. Against the Lions, seven receivers had more yards than Justin Jefferson, so Cousins was able to spread it around, but it’s difficult to have a productive offense with a 58% completion rate.
The other thing the Cover-5 coverage has done is largely eliminate the Vikings big play passing game. The Vikings have completed just one pass over 20 yards since week one, prior to the Bears game, and average yards per passing attempt has gone from 8.7 week one to under 6 yards since.
The challenge here for the Vikings is to run better route patterns for Cover-5. There aren’t a lot of them in the Rams offensive playbook from last year, so that will be something for Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips to work on. Hard to do while also having to travel and adjust to a London game, but installing some plays specifically to beat Cover-5 would be helpful. Cover-5 has the cornerbacks playing man coverage, so wherever JJ lines up or moves to, they can play the same coverage against him, with the cornerback playing man coverage and a safety dedicated over the top as need be. Not every team has the horses to play that coverage well, but good teams do and the Vikings need to be able to beat it when it shows up.
One issue here is that Adam Thielen, at this point in his career, and KJ Osborn don’t have the speed to challenge defensive backs over the top, so it’s difficult for them to draw a safety away from Justin Jefferson or get much separation most of the time. They can be reasonably productive overall based on route running skill, but it makes it difficult to move the chains consistently. And prior to the Bears game, third down conversions had been a big issue for the Vikings, as they ranked just 27th in the league with a 31.3% conversion rate. That rate improved to 7th and 42.9% after the Bears game, but I wouldn’t say it’s fixed based on one game against the Bears.
Getting running backs and tight ends involved can help move the chains, along with improvement from Theilen and Osborn against man coverage. Also getting the speedy Jalen Reagor more involved could be helpful too in stretching the coverage and opening up more downfield routes.
Against the Bears, they were missing their best cornerback, so they opened the game playing more zone coverage, which was just the balm the Vikings offense needed to get going. But in the second half, they began mixing in more man coverage, and that was enough, along with a Cousins INT and missed FG, to stall the offense enough for the Bears to make a comeback.
Another aspect of man coverage is that Cousins seems more hesitant against man coverage in delivering the ball. This may be improving somewhat, but it appears that he has less confidence in receivers getting open and running the right option route against man coverage than against zone.
Vikings’ Pass Defense is Too Soft
By virtue of the one seven-point game against the Packers, the Vikings defense was ranked 14th in points allowed after five games…. but 24th in yards allowed. Most of those yards have been allowed through the air, as the Vikings rank 28th in net yards per passing attempt allowed.
Both components of a good pass defense- pressure and coverage- have been wanting for the Vikings after five games.
When it comes to coverage, the Vikings rank 27th in the league in team PFF coverage grade. The Vikings play mostly zone coverage, and the issue most of the time is simply that they play too soft and are unable or unwilling to play tight coverage on short and intermediate routes most of the time. That has led to opponents being able to drive the field and turn possessions into scoring drives. The Vikings rank 10th in scoring drive percentage allowed, but that is largely due to the Packers scoring only once in eleven drives, and Vikings’ opponents making only 60% of their field goals. The Vikings also rank 29th in red zone touchdown percentage allowed (76.9%). That translates into ranking 14th in points allowed. The Vikings rank 2nd in opponent field goal percentage made (60%) so far this season, which is unsustainably low. The Vikings are also tied for 11th in opponent plays allowed per game (61.8), so using that as a proxy for opponent drives per game, which could help explain the disparity.
In any case, beyond the soft coverage, the Vikings have not been able to pressure the quarterback as much as may have been expected before the season started. Danielle Hunter in particular has struggled to pressure the quarterback, ranking just 48th in PFF pass rush productivity among edge rushers playing at least 50% of pass rushing snaps. Za’Darius Smith is the highest of any Vikings defender in pass rush productivity but ranks just 18th. The Vikings have faced some teams with pretty good sets of tackles in Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans, so that may help explain it. The Vikings pressure rate was high against the Bears, although Justin Fields was able to escape from it frequently.
In Hunter’s case, there may also be a bit of a learning curve as he adjusts to a 3-4 scheme, but overall, the Vikings just haven’t been able to pressure the quarterback enough to help the coverage defenders and force some bad throws as well.
Offensive Line Improving
On the positive side, the Vikings offensive line is improved this season. Ed Ingram isn’t there yet as a pass blocker, but otherwise there has been improvement in Christian Darrisaw, who is the highest graded offensive player for the Vikings according to PFF, and from Garrett Bradbury, who is now the 9th highest graded center. Ezra Cleveland has also improved, while Brian O’Neill has more or less equaled his high-level performance of recent years. Credit new Vikings OL coach Chris Kuper for some of that improvement. There’s also a bit more of a punishing attitude on display at times, particularly on the left side, as Darrisaw and Cleveland have put some good licks on defenders on several occasions this year.
Overall, the Vikings offensive line has gone from an 84.4 pass blocking efficiency grade according to PFF last season, to an 85.3 grade so far this season. The grade would be higher but for Ed Ingram, who’s given up 17 of the 53 pressures allowed so far by offensive linemen. More significant improvement has come in run blocking, however, where the Vikings rank third in the league in team run blocking grade, according to PFF. Garrett Bradbury has the worst run blocking grade at 66.2, while everyone else is in the 70s. The Vikings are running zone runs about twice as often as gap/power runs, and the Vikings offensive linemen grade much higher on the zone runs.
Bottom line, there is still some improvement needed, particularly from Ingram, but it looks like the Vikings may have finally put together a solid offensive line. Some of that may be scheme related, some of it may be better coaching, but overall the offensive line is moving in the right direction.
PFF Team Grading
Through five games, here are the PFF team grades for the Vikings, with ranking in parathesis.
Overall: 79.1 (4th)
Offense: 77.0 (5th)
Passing: 73.0 (7th)
Pass Blocking: 65.2 (t15th)
Receiving: 71.0 (13th)
Running: 82.5 (6th)
Run Blocking: 74.0 (3rd)
Defense: 68.7 (10th)
Run Defense: 77.5 (3rd)
Tackling: 73.0 (6th)
Pass Rush: 70.9 (13th)
Coverage: 51.8 (28th)
Special Teams: 77.3 (18th)
Overall the only glaring weakness for the Vikings so far has been their coverage grade, discussed above. Their run defense grade has been a pleasant surprise, although so far the rushing yards stats don’t correspond, in part due to playing the top rushing teams so far. The Eagles, Lions, and Bears rank 4th, 5th, and 6th in average rushing yards per game, and the Saints and Packers rank 10th and 11th.
Player Expectations: Who’s Outperformed, Who Hasn’t
Among the Vikings starters and key backups, here’s some more notable under and over achievers compared to expectations and how they performed last season.
- Christian Darrisaw. The arrow was pointing up for him, but he’s outperformed expectations.
- Garrett Bradbury. Low expectations here, but he’s shown notable improvement.
- Cam Dantzler. He’s underrated based on a few bad plays, but he’s been the Vikings best performing cornerback since he was drafted, including this year.
- DJ Wonnum. He’s been more productive with fewer snaps. Tied for second-most pressures.
- Danielle Hunter. He’s got two fewer pressures than Wonnum on 160% of his snaps. He also leads the team in missed tackles with six.
- Cam Bynum. He’s way off his rookie year performance thus far.
- Harrison Smith. His performance has also declined from last season so far.
Overall, the notable improvement in two of the starting offensive linemen is encouraging, and Dantzler working his way into a groove at cornerback too. But the defense is also missing star power at this point. Still, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has talked about the impressive leadership of this group many times, and that certainly has played a part in not getting rattled and making plays when needed, especially in the 4th quarter where they rank 5th in least points allowed.
A certain amount of the Vikings struggles may be the result of a learning curve when it comes to the new schemes on both sides of the ball. Defensively, my guess is that Ed Donatell had them playing more conservatively on the backend as they get used to the scheme and build a knowledge base working together. As they gain a greater comfort level, they may be able to tighten up coverage a bit more. But the Vikings don’t have top-tier talent/athleticism in their secondary. A lot of experience and know-how, but guys like Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson can’t run with the younger, faster guys all the time, so they need to use their technique and savvy to make up the difference.
But it’s also important to know that the nature of the Fangio scheme is to take away big plays and make the offense execute a long drive- the bet being that an offense having to convert three or more third downs in a drive, with roughly a 35% chance of conversion each time, is likely to stall most of the time.
Up front, it may be that Hunter is finding the transition to the Fangio scheme more difficult. It may be that the gap-and-a-half principles of the Fangio run defense, and that associated technique, may be more difficult to integrate into his pass rush plan on non-obvious passing downs. But Hunter has also faced some of the better tackles in the league over the first five games too. Za’Darius Smith as well.
Overall, the Vikings could use to spend more time in practice on red zone defense. They haven’t done well in the red zone so far, but they have the personnel to be much better in that area, particularly defending against rushing touchdowns.
Offensively, there is improvement in several aspects over last season, a good deal of that having to do with scheme, but the main issue is being productive against man coverage. The Eagles played nearly all zone coverage against the Lions week one, so when they played Cover-5- man coverage underneath with two high safeties- most of the time against the Vikings, it was unexpected and it showed. They struggled with it against the Lions as well, and at times against the Saints. The Bears didn’t play it much early on, and that led to the big first half for the Vikings offense.
But in the future defensive coordinators will look at the Vikings tape and undoubtedly go with more man coverage, if they have the defensive backs to do so, and make someone other than Justin Jefferson beat them. That’s the formula the Vikings offense will need to beat going forward. Their bet is that by manning up against Jefferson with a safety over the top, they can minimize his production, and they don’t see other receivers as being able to make up for that loss.
And so part of being able to beat that formula is to get more production out of receivers not named Justin Jefferson, and to come up with more route combinations that work against that type of coverage. The Vikings could really use to have another receiver step-up, whether it’s Thielen, Osborn, Reagor, Irv Smith Jr., or even the running backs. Becoming more comfortable with play design against man coverage, for both receivers and Kirk Cousins, will be important too.
While the Vikings will need to improve on some things to beat the best teams in the league, they’re also building a positive, winning culture early on, and will need to continue to build on that foundation. When players like Cam Dantzler can step up to finish a game, Kirk Cousins can lead a few game-winning drives, special teams can produce some key plays, and Justin Jefferson does his thing, that can become more infectious over time. That is something of a common trait among winning teams and Super Bowl contenders. They may not play well every quarter of every game, but they make the plays they need to for the win. The Vikings are showing a little of that so far this season, and the confidence that builds from it.
There’s still a lot of football to be played before we get to the post-season, and anything can happen. The NFL is more of a demolition derby than anybody cares to admit, so the Vikings staying healthy will be as key to their success going forward as anything else.
But, if they’re able to remain relatively healthy, their remaining schedule doesn’t look terribly fearsome. In fact, based on one measure- PFF ELO- the Vikings had the third easiest remaining schedule prior to the Bears game. As it stands now, there are only three games remaining on the Vikings schedule in which they are not the favorites: Dallas, at Buffalo, and at Green Bay.
Top 5 easiest remaining strength of schedule according to PFF ELO:— Brad Spielberger, Esq. (@PFF_Brad) October 4, 2022
Could be five playoff teams
Are the Vikings’ struggles so far more of the ‘can clean them up’ variety, or are they of the more structural ‘not enough talent’ variety?
This poll is closed
Can clean them up
Not enough talent