Throughout the Vikings season and seven-game winning streak, a weekly refrain from Vikings’ coaches and players is that they haven’t played their best football yet. There was a lot of visual evidence to support that- and statistical evidence too.
Then the Vikings got blown-out at home by the Cowboys. Stats like point differential, which wasn’t good to begin with, became an historical anomaly. Who ever heard of an 8-2 team with a negative point differential? And yet the Vikings are indeed 8-2 with a -2 point differential.
The 8-2 Vikings Are Terrible and Going Nowhere
And that’s not the only thing that’s bad about the 8-2 Vikings.
Offensively, Kirk Cousins (aka Kirko Chainz) is having the worst season of his career statistically. His 85.6 passer rating ranks 25th - down there with has-beens like Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford. That’s 20 points lower than his average over the previous three seasons with the Vikings.
Defensively, the Vikings rank 29th in yards allowed and 19th in points allowed. They’re also 31st in passing yards allowed and 30th in net yards per passing attempt allowed. And they’re 32nd in red zone TD percentage allowed.
Overall, the Vikings rank 24th in DVOA, an efficiency metric adjusted for strength of opponent at -10.2% (tied with the 3-7 Broncos), meaning the Vikings are a little over 10% worse than the league average team.
All of the above puts the Vikings as firmly in the ‘pretender’ category as any 8-2 team in NFL history (erh, well, at least as well as I can remember). It also portends an overachieving Vikings team that just had its bubble burst by the Cowboys and now will spend the rest of the season descending back to earth.
On Thanksgiving they face the top defense in the league in EPA allowed, with the 2nd best pass rush after the Cowboys- and without their top left tackle Christian Darrisaw. The Bill Belichick-led Patriots have allowed the lowest scoring drive percentage in the league as well and the second-fewest points.
The Jets’ defense the following week is also very good, with a top pass rush, run defense and top CB in Sauce Gardner. The Lions on the road the following week may have the worst-ranked defense, but they’ll be adding first-round pick Jameson Williams at WR to their top ten offense. The Colts are improving and nearly beat the Eagles, the Giants are tough at 7-3, and then there are two road division games against the improving Packers and Bears.
And so the Vikings could face matchup issues and improving teams that create problems for the Vikings the rest of the season.
And, the Vikings have been relatively healthy so far this season, but now their depth will be tested as Christian Darrisaw may miss some games and they’re thin at cornerback. And how long can they expect all these old guys on their roster to last without injury?
It may be too late for the Vikings to not make the playoffs after an 8-2 start, but one-and-done seems the most likely postseason outcome for the Vikings.
This is one narrative for the Vikings. Here’s another.
The 8-2 Vikings Haven’t Played Their Best Football Yet
Throughout the Vikings’ seven-game winning streak, there was a consistent refrain from both Vikings coaches and players: we haven’t played our best football yet. And there was a lot of visual and statistical support for that refrain.
The Vikings were able to make key plays in critical situations- something they’ve focused on from the outset of head coach Kevin O’Connell’s tenure- and that has carried them through some difficult games and inconsistent performances. The team has developed a winning culture and many players have made key plays throughout the season that have made a difference in the game’s outcome.
But despite that winning culture and playmaker mentality permeating the roster, the team is still struggling with many scheme issues- both in mastering their own schemes and adjusting to other teams.
The Cowboys loss was a not uncommon occurrence following a big, miracle-type win: a flat performance as the team’s energy was consumed in the previous week’s performance. The Cowboys were hungry after suffering a humiliating defeat in Green Bay and the game meant a lot more to them than it did to the Vikings, whose postseason and division title is all but assured. And it’s not like the Cowboys are a bad team either. They rank high in most statistical measures.
But the loss to the Cowboys clears away the euphoria after the Bills victory and returns the team to the reality that any team can beat them if they’re not well prepared for the game, and don’t play well. Once again they have something to prove.
But it’s not like they haven’t proven some things already as well. Their strength of schedule and strength of victory (average winning percentage of teams they’ve beaten) so far is second highest among NFC playoff contenders, and stronger than most AFC playoff teams too. From a DVOA perspective, the Vikings have had the 8th most difficult schedule so far. By contrast, the 49ers and Eagles have had the 2nd and 3rd easiest schedules so far and the Cowboys the 12th easiest.
Moving forward, the Vikings have the 5th easiest schedule in DVOA. The Cowboys have the 6th easiest, but remain two games behind the Eagles in their division. The Eagles have the 15th easiest schedule and the 49ers have the 10th easiest schedule. The Vikings currently own the 2nd seed in the NFC playoff tournament and a two-game lead over the 3rd seed 49ers (plus they win the tie-breaker currently) and a 3-game lead over the NFC South leading Bucs. They’re effectively two games behind the Eagles for the first seed given the Eagles have the head-to-head tie-breaker.
So given all that, the Vikings are in good position to at least maintain the second seed in the playoffs. But the question remains: how good can they be over the stretch run and into the postseason?
Here there is some reason for optimism- and that the Vikings have not indeed played their best football yet.
The first reason behind that is Kirk Cousins. While Cousins has improved his game as a playmaker and field general this season, his major passing stats are at career lows. Part of that has resulted from getting to know a new scheme. Part of that has resulted from getting used to how defenses play that scheme- which has been more varied- and adjusting to those schemes. And part of it is because opposing defenses- in a league-wide trend- are better at taking away the deep ball. This has hurt Cousins’ production.
For example, last season 12.7% of Cousins’ pass attempts were 20+ yards down the field. This season only 8.5% have been. Cousins had the highest passer rating in the league on deep balls last season and the 4th highest PFF grade on them. This season he ranks 16th and 15th respectively.
The loss of deep (20+ yard) pass attempts over last season has been made up by an equal increase in intermediate (10-19 yard) pass attempts. But he was 4th in PFF grade and 2nd in passer rating on those attempts last season and this season he ranks 9th and 15th.
Cousins also has a higher percentage of throws over 2.5 seconds (45.4%) this year compared to last year (41.0%) - probably due to additional processing time associated with the new scheme and defensive coverage responses to it.
The good news is that over time, Cousins will become more familiar with both of these things, which should help him improve. Practice makes progress, and every game helps in that respect. Kevin O’Connell is asking more of Cousins as a field general and playmaker as well, and Cousins has made progress there, but there is a transition time before he will be as good in the new system as he was in the old. He has six or seven more regular season games to improve before the playoffs, depending on whether the Vikings play their starters in the final game at Chicago.
Such progress from Cousins is not unrealistic, as he has historically performed much better statistically his entire career as a starter. He’s done better as a playmaker in key situations this season, even as those plays have been tougher to come by, but some of the more routine, methodical aspects of his performance this season have been down.
At some point I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kirk have a lights out game, with a passer rating north of 120- something he did four times last season but has yet to do this season. Cousins also has just three games so far with a passer rating over 100 this season- something he had nine games last season- so even beginning to eclipse this mark consistently would be improvement that is also realistic.
The addition of TJ Hockenson has been felt a bit already, but that should also buoy the Vikings offense going forward as they continue to integrate him into their offense, and he earns more targets. Getting Christian Darrisaw back will also help.
The second reason is that the defense has underperformed so far this season. With two top edge rushers, a solid interior defensive line and run defense despite leading the league in light (six-man) boxes, and a top cornerback in Patrick Peterson this season, the Vikings defense has a lot more upside potential than its 19th ranking in points allowed and 29th ranking in yards allowed suggest.
It’s taken some time for Danielle Hunter and Patrick Peterson to improve over the course of the season, while Za’Darius Smith has been solid from the get-go, as has the interior line with Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson. James Lynch and Khyiris Tonga have done surprisingly well in rotation as well. Having a solid run defense with light, six-man boxes is a key element for success in a Vic Fangio defense. But that hasn’t translated into greater success for the Vikings defense overall.
The reason is that both starting safeties- Cam Bynum and Harrison Smith- along with linebacker Eric Kendricks have declined significantly in coverage this season from a year ago. Smith is on-track to break his single-season interception record, but despite that his coverage grade has dropped from 81.8 last season to 60.2 this season. His run defense grade is also down too, making his overall grade 61.5 for the season. That’s down from 77.9 a year ago.
Similarly, Cam Bynum’s coverage grade has dropped from 71.2 last season to 54.2 this year. For both safeties, adjusting to a new system and new assignments may contribute to lower coverage grades this season. That may include a more cautious approach with deeper drops to prevent big plays but allowing more catches in front of them. Bynum had a couple bad games against the Saints and Bears but has been trending up since then.
Eric Kendricks’ coverage grade has dropped from 72.6 last season to just 38.6 this year. I’m sure Kendricks has lost a step over the years, but a nearly 50% drop in his coverage grade suggests there may be other things bringing it down. It may be that he’s less sure with his coverage assignments in the new scheme or how offenses attack it with route combinations. In any case, this is an area for realistic improvement for Kendricks going forward. His coverage grade has been trending up since week 8, but we haven’t seen any of his fabulous interceptions or pass break-ups this year. Perhaps we will in the coming weeks.
The last element that has hurt defensive performance recently is being thin at cornerback. Cam Dantzler has been top third (41st of 120 CBs) at cornerback but is missing time on IR with a neck injury. Akayleb Evans has had growing pains replacing Dantzler, but also showed some promise in the Commanders game. He got schooled against Diggs in the Buffalo game, but his arrow is pointing up and he’s also an excellent run defender. Andrew Booth Jr. still has a way to go before he can be considered a solid backup. At this point the best thing for the Vikings is for Evans (concussion) and Dantzler to return to health. Dantzler is eligible to return after the Jets game, and Evans may clear concussion protocol to play against the Patriots.
But overall, at some point key veterans like Smith, Kendricks and Bynum should begin to tighten up their game as they become increasingly comfortable in the new scheme. Getting some key people back from injury- Tomlinson, Dantzler, Evans - should also help.
Lastly, let’s not forget about coaching.
Kevin O’Connell gets high marks for bringing in a winning culture, focusing on situational football and turnovers, and updated schemes. But he’s also learning as a head coach, getting to know what his team and players can and cannot do, and both sides of the ball are still in year one with their new schemes.
This last part of the regular season will be mostly about building upon what has been developed so far and continuing to fine tune scheme and adjustments in preparation for the postseason. There is still a lot of improvements that can be made at this stage that can yield better results for the team going forward. Each week will provide more reps, more looks, more installs, more practice, and more familiarity going forward.
It’s All About the Postseason
It’s been a chaotic season in many respects for the Vikings this year, but it’s also one where they’ve run away with the NFC North title, which they should be able to clinch by early December. It’s also a season where the Vikings will compete in the postseason, mostly likely with the second seed in the playoffs, but possibly the first or third depending on how the rest of the season unfolds.
It’s the first time the Vikings have been in this position since 2017, so we should be thankful for such a good start to the season and a realistic hope for a deep postseason run. It’s also a promising start for the new regime, and the future beyond this season looks bright for the Vikings as well, even as they begin to move on from some long-time core players in the coming years.
But for now, it’s all about preparing for the postseason and putting the current roster in the best position to succeed in what will likely be some tough playoff games. They usually are. Each game will be important not only in the outcome, but also to the extent it helps the team improve toward its ultimate goal of advancing in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.
The Vikings are fortunate to have a head coach and coordinators that have been there before- along with most of the starters. Winning a Super Bowl last season gives Kevin O’Connell credibility with the players that past head coaches haven’t had. He knows what it takes and that will be helpful once the postseason begins in January.
In the meantime, embrace the chaos and enjoy the rest of the season.
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