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How the Vikings Got to 7-1 and Are They For Real?

A regular season halftime assessment

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Washington Commanders Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings own the second-best record in the NFL after eight games. They also have a 99% chance to make the playoffs, a 98% chance to win the NFC North division, a 13% chance to be the top seed in the NFC postseason tournament, and a 7% chance to win the Super Bowl according to the forecasting website 538. They also forecast a 13-4 regular season record for the Vikings. All those probabilities place the Vikings in the top five teams in the NFL.

And yet, because the Vikings haven’t been dominant in any game since week one against the Packers, and because they haven’t beat any likely playoff team at full strength (the win over Tua-less Miami doesn’t count), the Vikings are a team many national pundits (and some local ones too) question as a real contender.

But is that a fair assessment?

There are no perfect teams in the NFL- every team has weaknesses. The Chiefs and Bills have had more games where they were dominant, but also clunkers where they lose to teams like the Colts and Jets. Is it better that the Bills have more dominant wins even though they’re 3-7 in their last ten one-score games? Does that make them more of a Super Bowl contender? Playoff games are often one score games.

Even the Eagles, who have been dominant so far this season, have had close games against the D’Andre Hopkins-less Cardinals and the Detroit Lions. They’ve also averaged a +2 turnover margin per game, which history shows is unsustainable over the course of a season.

And so while the Vikings have their flaws like every other team, they’ve also showed the maturity not to panic or fold under adversity and the ability to make plays when they’ve needed them. Other top teams show these traits as well, but so far this season the Vikings’ claim to contender status has been their ability to win close games by making plays.

How many times after a loss have you heard a head coach say, “we didn’t make enough plays” or “they made more plays than we did” in explaining the loss? Those are standard refrains in postgame press conferences from losing head coaches- in part because they’re usually true.

How the Vikings Got to 7-1

The Vikings haven’t gotten to 7-1 because they’ve played nearly flawless football. They haven’t got there because of a superior scheme that opponents have yet to figure out. And they haven’t got there on the back of a superstar(s) playing lights out. But there are elements of each of those things that have contributed to the Vikings’ success.

Not Flawless, But Fundamentally Sound

In particular, the Vikings have done well in avoiding both penalties and turnovers, ranking 5th fewest in both categories. The Vikings also have the 8th fewest dropped passes and 4th fewest missed tackles according to PFF.

Those are the types of fundamental mistakes that contribute to a team beating itself, and the Vikings have done a good job in playing fundamentally sound football the first half of the season.

Beyond that, the Vikings have done well executing their scripted play offense to open games (typically the first 15 or so offensive plays are scripted as part of the game plan), having scored the most points (35) on their first drives of any team so far this season. That speaks to the execution of plays they’ve focused on in practice that week.

Offensive and Defensive Scheme Solid, if Not Surprising

Offensively, the Vikings’ scheme is difficult to defend, particularly with the personnel the Vikings have available, but between Minnesota and LA, there is a lot of tape available and most of the play designs are known. Opponents are countering in various ways (more on that later) with some degree of success, which has caused many drives to stall. So, it’s not like offensively the Vikings have this shock and awe scheme that is overwhelming opponents.

Defensively, the Vic Fangio scheme the Vikings run is en vogue this season, and well known to opponents. The Vikings play a lot of two-high-safety-based coverages to prevent big plays, making it a more difficult scheme to score against (some blame these schemes for the lowest scoring output this season since 2010) but it’s nothing new at this point and is increasingly popular. It also tends to allow more underneath yardage as a result. The Vikings rank 12th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed so far this season- a product of their defensive scheme to some degree.

Star Power Not Unusual

Justin Jefferson is the biggest star player for the Vikings, and his production puts him among the top few receivers in the league, but it’s not like he’s a juggernaut like Randy Moss was in 1998 either. He’s producing at a high level, and making more than his share of plays, but I wouldn’t say he’s carrying the team on his back either. Kirk Cousins has made plays of his own this season too- many of them to Jefferson- and qualitatively seems better this season as a field general and playmaker, even though his numbers are down. Dalvin Cook is improved over last season, but hardly Derrick Henry or Jonathon Taylor either.

Defensively, Za’Darius Smith has bounced back well from his injury last year, and ranks tied for second in sacks across the league, but beyond that there hasn’t been a real disruptive force defensively for the Vikings, and even Smith had a bit of a slow start, with just one sack in his first three games. The only other standout player defensively for the Vikings is Harrison Smith with four interceptions- tied for second in the league with several others. Smith Brothers 2.0 I guess.

But compared to teams like the Chiefs or Bills, who depend on their star QBs to deliver week-in and week-out, or a defensive powerhouse that depends on star defensive players to deliver, the Vikings don’t have an unusual amount of star power they’ve depended on this season in getting to a 7-1 record. It’s been more of a team effort. And while the Vikings have good players at many key positions, including probably the best four-man combination of tackles and edge rushers in the league, they also don’t have a lot of weak links for opponents to exploit. The Vikings overall team grade is 3rd in the league according to PFF, which probably says as much about the quality of the breadth of the Vikings roster rather than its star power.

Making Key Plays in Critical Situations

What the Vikings have depended on this season, in addition to playing relatively sound fundamental football, is a variety of players making key plays in critical situations. Sometimes that may be Justin Jefferson making a clutch catch or Kirk Cousins delivering a big-time throw. But it may also be defensive pressure from the defensive line that forces a bad throw for an interception. Or a big play on special teams. Or Cam Dantzler ripping the ball away to end a potential comeback and secure a victory. Or Jordan Hicks making a key tackle on a 4th down play to end a drive. Or Dalvin Tomlinson forcing a fumble to change the momentum in a game. Or Za’Darius Smith with a key sack to stall the opponent’s last drive. Or Dalvin Cook making a tough one-handed catch in the end zone to tie the game late. The list goes on.

The point here is that the Vikings have been focused on situational football after not doing well in key situations and close games last season, and because of Kevin O’Connell’s emphasis on that regardless of last season. The other point is that there have been many players that have stepped up in key situations, not just a few, to make a difference in the outcome.

Being Relatively Injury-Free

Another key to the Vikings’ success through the first half of the season is that the Vikings have been relatively injury-free. They haven’t lost many games from starters due to injury compared to most other teams. That is a key component for any winning team, as injuries- particularly to key players- can have a significantly negative impact on winning games. The correlation between healthy and winning teams in the NFL is pretty high, and those that fare the best late in the season and postseason are often those that are healthiest.

While there is a certain amount of luck involved here, the Vikings have also created their own luck here by employing the best sport science training staff and implementing their program to help reduce preventable injuries. Tyler Williams and Uriah Myrie head-up the Vikings player health and performance training staff and were brought to Minnesota from the Rams by Kevin O’Connell, where they helped the Rams consistently rank among the teams suffering the fewest games lost due to injury from players in each of the past five seasons. So in that sense it’s not all luck. It’s doing more to prevent injuries than other teams.

Vikings Still Not Playing Their Best Football

But despite the Vikings impressive record, they really haven’t played their best football yet- at least not for four quarters. There are a couple reasons why that is.

Offensively, what they’ve struggled with the most is how opponents choose to defend them. Head coach Kevin O’Connell talked recently how they’ve had to adjust to the various coverages and other defensive tactics opponents have used to defend the Vikings’ offense so far this season, and they’ve seen a lot of approaches. They’ve been caught off guard by some of them, most notably against the Eagles, but have slowly been able to make adjustments and counter those tactics over time. But along the way there have been misfires and stalled drives. As they learn from this and compile a catalog of different defensive approaches to their offense, and implement counters to each, they’re becoming better prepared to counter what defenses are doing to stop them.

The addition of TJ Hockenson also adds to the capabilities of the Vikings offense and gives them more viable options to counter and challenge defenses. The Vikings have been among the lowest in production from the tight end position this season, so the addition of Hockenson- who has learned the offense remarkably fast and played in 90% of offensive snaps his first game- should have much more immediate effect than anticipated.

Defensively, the Vikings are slowly picking up the finer points of Ed Donatell’s version of Vic Fangio’s scheme. For players like Za’Darius Smith, it was an easy transition having played in a similar scheme in Green Bay. For Danielle Hunter, it has been more of an adjustment from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. And for Patrick Peterson, it’s been a two-year transition from more of a press-man corner to mostly zone corner. He now ranks fourth among cornerbacks in pass break-ups with ten and is the 15th highest graded cornerback in the league according to PFF.

Looking back, it seems that Ed Donatell began more cautiously in how he asked his secondary to play and has slowly ramped up what he’s asking from them as they become better acquainted with the scheme and working together, and he becomes more attuned to their skill sets and what they’re capable of defending. That was frustrating to watch at times but makes sense as players young and old get acclimated to the scheme.

Up front, the Vikings defense is among the highest graded in run defense (although that includes all defenders) and the Vikings’ pass rush has slowly become more productive as Hunter becomes more comfortable in the new scheme, and as he’s not facing a top tackle every week- as he was earlier in the season.

And so as the season wears on and the Vikings can (hopefully) stay relatively healthy, the accumulated experience in their schemes and better recognition of opposing defensive schemes, the better they’ll be able to adjust and execute. Doing so will go a long way toward playing at their best for four quarters.

One Score Games and Beating Playoff Teams

With the Vikings running away with the NFC North crown this season, the second half of the regular season becomes a question of how best to prepare for the postseason. There are two main goals: stay healthy and try to get the top seed and first-round bye. In pursuit of that, continuing to work on weak points, playing good situational football, getting more fluent in the scheme and adjustments while continuing to make plays should be the focus. Ultimately the Eagles need to lose two more games than the Vikings over the rest of the season for the Vikings to gain a first-round bye.

It would be nice for the Vikings to start winning games by a wider margin, and maybe that happens later in the season against weak opponents with nothing to play for, but ultimately the goal is to be playing their best football entering the postseason and staying healthy. The next two games will be the toughest opponents on the Vikings schedule, and the only games left against likely playoff teams this season, with the possible exception of the Jets and/or Giants. But in terms of contender credibility, the Cowboys game may be the only real opportunity to gain much. The Bills game may help, but if Josh Allen doesn’t play it will be an asterisk win if the Vikings prevail. But who cares?

The 1994 Vikings went 6-0 against playoff teams that season. The 1998 Vikings had only four one-score games and won the rest by an average of 20.5 points. Those two teams combined for a 1-2 postseason record.

The point here is that there is no postseason bonus for beating playoff teams or blowing out opponents in the regular season. The only bonus comes from gaining a first-round bye and/or home field advantage in playoff seeding. The other advantage is entering the playoffs relatively healthy and rested. With that in mind, if the seeding has been decided prior to week 18, expect the Vikings to play their second-team against the Bears to end the regular season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin O’Connell gave more reps to backups later in the season either, should the opportunity present itself with a bigger lead in games.

Beyond that, the Vikings experience in close games and ability to make plays in key situations should serve them well in the playoffs- where they should expect games to be close. More reps and time working together defensively should be beneficial as well. Having a head coach and an offensive coordinator that won a Super Bowl last season, and a few others that have won Super Bowls in their career as well (Ed Donatell, Keenan McCardell) helps too.

Making Plays and the 1987 Twins

The 1987 Minnesota Twins were not a dominant team during the regular season. They finished 85-77. They weren’t a dominant team and came from a weak division that year. And yet as the season wore on, particularly later in the season, the team continued to make plays and pullout wins. So much so that Dan Gladden began to capture the season on video, sensing it was a special season. Indeed it was, as the Twins continued to make plays throughout the postseason, culminating in the Minnesota Twins’ first world championship.

It was Tom Kelly’s first full season as manager, and players noticed a change in atmosphere in spring training. They picked up a key addition in Gladden to go with a core of veteran players. Consistency wasn’t their hallmark during the regular season, but they had a great locker room and growing confidence as the season progressed, which carried into the postseason and helped them emerge as unlikely champions that season.

The 2022 Vikings aren’t there yet, but there are some parallels and similarities.

Stay tuned.


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