Now that the month of September is in the books for the Vikings’ 2023 season, let’s take a look at the Vikings’ roster and how it is shaping up after three games- all of them losses.
Overall Performance Grades Not as Bad as an 0-3 Record Would Suggest
Any discussion of the Vikings’ performance so far has to start with turnovers. The Vikings rank last in the league in turnovers with 9 in three games and are also tied for last in turnover margin at -2.3 net turnovers per game. NFL teams lose 70% of the time when losing the turnover battle, and the Vikings have lost that battle in all three games. You can chalk some of that to bad luck- the Vikings have only recovered one fumble in nine committed over three games, which is extremely unlucky- but you can also attribute that at least in part to not taking care of the ball, not capitalizing on takeaway opportunities, and not catching the ball. However which way you look at it, the Vikings must improve in this regard if they’re going to win many games this season.
But in terms of overall team performance, the Vikings are an outlier among 0-3 teams when it comes to PFF grades. There are four teams currently with a 0-3 record- coincidentally they play each other this weekend- but look at the overall team PFF grades among them:
t28th: Bears, Panthers
The Vikings’ overall team PFF grade is in the midst of a bunch of 2-1 teams- higher than some of them- while the other three are about where you’d expect an 0-3 team to be. That underscores the Vikings’ bad luck and turnover issues. In terms of overall bad luck, the Vikings rank dead last as well:
Adding up the four key luck areas- dropped interceptions, dropped passes, field goals and extra points, and fumble recoveries- and converting the circumstances into net added/lost win probability, and the Vikings are last in the league in lost win probability due to luck factors by a wide margin.
Evaluating the Roster
Putting aside luck factors, how the Vikings’ roster has performed has certainly impacted game outcomes as well, but overall hasn’t been enough to overcome turnover deficits. That’s not to say the roster is lacking talent or performance at key positions- it has several top performers in the positions that matter most- but also one position group that has disappointed compared to pre-season expectations.
Let’s break it down by position group.
Before the season started, I expected Kirk Cousins to benefit statistically over last season given this is his second season in Kevin O’Connell’s scheme and he’s had a rare year of continuity in terms of scheme, coaches, and play-callers. So far that has been the case.
The above chart represents composite rankings that include a full gamut of QB performance metrics over the first three games of the season. Based on those, the model used in this chart attempts to translate that into how many points (in terms of betting spread points) a quarterback is worth to the team over an average quarterback. It’s also meant to be predictive of future performance to some degree, as well as descriptive of performance so far this season.
Overall, Kirk Cousins ranks third on the list- and first among NFC quarterbacks. That tends to correspond roughly with other rankings- first in pass completions, attempts, passing yards, touchdown passes; third in passer rating; seventh in total EPA, adjusted completion percentage, and overall PFF grade among QBs; fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A).
Cousins is the 15th highest paid quarterback in average annual contract value (AAV) and all the others on the list are paid between $8-$17.5 million more in AAV than Cousins except Tua Tagovailoa, who’s still in his rookie deal.
All this is only over three games, but quarterback performance is one of the strongest positions on the Vikings at this point.
The offensive line performance has been a bit of a mixed bag, but overall better than expected over three games- particularly considering the Vikings have been rolling with a backup center for about 90% of snaps so far, and backup left tackles for about a game’s worth of snaps as well.
The above chart represents a composite score and rankings among three analytics outlets- PFF, SIS, and ESPN- weighted 40%, 40%, 20% respectively- to measure team pass protection. The Vikings rank fourth. That may seem a bit high, but let’s break it down to provide more context.
First, the Vikings lead the league in pass attempts, so even if the Vikings have given up more pressures than most teams (the OL has given up 44- 7th most) it has done so over more attempts, so the Vikings’ QB pressure percentage is lower than total pressures would suggest. Offensive line pass blocking efficiency, which measures pressure percentage with greater negative weightings given to sacks and QB hits compared to QB hurries, has the Vikings ranked 22nd overall.
But the other aspect of pass protection is that not every pass attempt is equal in terms of difficulty for offensive linemen. Quick bubble screens and other quick passes where defenders are unlikely to get to the quarterback even if the blocker totally missed his block, are easier situations for offensive linemen and rarely do they give up pressures in these situations. PFF separates these situations from what they call True Pass Sets, which are full-fledged passing attempts with five- or seven-step dropbacks, longer developing routes and time to throw. Somewhere between 75%-95% of QB pressures occur in True Pass Set situations where defenders have a legitimate chance to pressure the quarterback before the ball is out. The Vikings also had the most of these - True Pass Set passing attempts- with 74. Of the 44 pressures allowed by the Vikings’ offensive linemen, 36 came in True Pass Set situations. By contrast, the Chiefs- ranked 5th - have only given up 26 pressures in 72 True Pass Set situations - ten fewer on only two fewer TPS snaps. The Chiefs have also given up ten fewer pressures overall compared to the Vikings, on 17 fewer pass attempts.
But, if you consider the defensive fronts the Vikings have faced compared to the Chiefs’ offensive line so far- Bears, Jags, Lions vs. Bucs, Eagles, Chargers- the Vikings clearly faced better opponents. The Bears and Jags have two of the worst pass rush units in the league.
In terms of individual player performance, Ezra Cleveland has been the standout in terms of improvement over last season. He’s not only the highest PFF graded pass blocker on the Vikings’ offensive line at the moment, but he’s also only given up six pressures so far and no sacks. Only Brian O’Neill has allowed fewer pressures with five but has also given up a sack.
O’Neill himself has been very good- roughly on par with last season- and a top player at his position.
Christian Darrisaw has had a bit of a rough start- I suspect due to the ankle injury bothering him a bit- and has given up 7 pressures in just 100 pass blocking snaps. He gave up 23 on 612 pass blocking snaps last season. Five of those 23 last season came in the first two games though, so perhaps he tends to start the season slow.
The good news is that backup center Austin Schlottmann and right guard Ed Ingram- who have combined to allow nearly half of all the offensive line pressures so far- are likely to replaced going forward. Schlottmann will likely be replaced by Garrett Bradbury on Sunday, while Dalton Risner will likely replace Ed Ingram in the not too distant future. I wouldn’t bet on Sunday, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. The other good news is that the Vikings slate of pass rushing defensive fronts will begin to decline the rest of the season, although the Panthers on Sunday and especially the 49ers in a few weeks have top units.
In terms of run blocking, the Vikings have been good, but also inconsistent- partly due to the strength of opponents. The Eagles and Bucs have pretty decent run-stopping defensive fronts, and the Vikings’ offensive line struggled more to open holes in those games- although they didn’t run the ball much in either game. But against the Chargers they did much better, and that showed in average yards per rush going from about 3 yards over the first two games to just over 5 yards against the Chargers.
The chart above show the Vikings run blocking PFF grade on the horizontal axis and the ESPN run blocking win rate on the vertical axis. Overall, the Vikings have one of the better run blocking units in the league- which includes tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers too when run blocking.
Overall, the Vikings’ offensive line has at least met pre-season expectations, if not exceeded them, and is trending toward being one of the better offensive lines in the league, all things considered. Getting Garrett Bradbury back should help a bit and Dalton Risner at right guard should be an improvement as well. Strengthening the weakest link along the offensive line is the best way to improve overall pass protection, and if Risner works out at right guard, the Vikings will have done that.
After three games, Vikings’ TE2 Josh Oliver is the highest graded tight end in the league with at least six targets. TJ Hockenson is tenth. In terms of receiving yard per route run, a measure of efficiency for receivers, Oliver ranks 6th and Hockenson 11th. Oliver has only been on the field for about a third of the Vikings’ offensive snaps but has done well with the snaps he’s been given. Oliver also has the highest passer rating when targeted among tight ends with at least six targets at 131.8. Hockenson is 13th at 103.5. Together, they combine for the most receiving yards for tight ends on one team in the league.
Oliver is also the 5th highest graded TE in pass protection among TEs with at least 10 pass blocking snaps and 9th in run blocking among TEs with at least 25 run blocking snaps.
Overall, the Vikings have one of the best tight end tandems in the league so far this season. Given that, there is cause for the Vikings to go with more double tight end sets featuring Hockenson and Oliver.
Obviously, the Vikings have the best wide receiver in the league in Justin Jefferson. Just that gives the Vikings at least a top ten receivers group overall. But as Jordan Addison grows into the WR2 role, gets better at things rookie receivers often struggle with- getting off press coverage, blocking- he can elevate this group to top three in the league with the Dolphins and Bengals. Addison is already showing he is a good route runner and seems to have a good grasp of scheme, in addition to generally being good at the catchpoint.
The shortcoming here is WR3. KJ Osborn, who can be WR2 or WR3 at the moment, has not been that effective in getting open for the number of routes he runs (his 0.72 yards per route run ranks 85th among 97 qualifying receivers- similar to last season). He’s also had several drops that have been costly to the Vikings over the first three games of the season. And while a receiver like Osborn isn’t the featured receiver on many plays in the Vikings’ offense, there are several key instances- particularly on 3rd down and in the red zone- when Justin Jefferson is double-teamed when Osborn’s ability as a receiver has been wanting. As a receiver used to clear out a defender for targeting Jefferson or Addison he can be useful, but on the occasions when he needs to be a viable receiver that can get open and make sometimes difficult catches, Osborn has fallen short.
With the hamstring injury to Jalen Nailor, there isn’t a viable replacement for Osborn at this point, but when Nailor returns from IR he could begin to take some snaps from Osborn and could function well in all aspects of a WR3. But until then, the Vikings remain weak at the WR3 position.
But as it stands now, the Vikings rank eighth in overall PFF receiving grade (which includes TEs and RBs) as a team.
The Vikings chose the economy plan- as most teams do these days - at the running back position when they moved on from Dalvin Cook. There were reasons beyond salary cap saving for doing so- Cook has been post-prime the last two seasons and wasn’t providing the overall value represented by his salary cap hit.
But Alexander Mattison, Ty Chandler, and now Cam Akers provide a decent stable of running backs that can be effective as runners, receivers, and blockers. They may not be able to get much more than what is blocked for them, but the run game is secondary to the pass game in the Vikings’ offense. But after three games, the Vikings’ PFF running back grade ranks just 28th in the league. Part of that is reflective of the quality of run defenses the Vikings faced in their first two games, but more is expected from this group, which has fallen short of pre-season expectations so far. Mattison has the ability to earn tough yards between the tackles, as he showed against the Chargers, while Ty Chandler has some explosive ability as both a runner and receiver. We have yet to see Cam Akers, but he may be the most versatile back of the three.
But overall, this group remains a work in progress, and how things will eventually work out in terms of snap counts between the three backs may be something of an on-going experiment.
Bottom Line Offense
Overall, the Vikings’ offense ranks third overall in PFF grade rankings after three games. This is reflective of top five units across the board except for running back. It’s also reflective of an offense that ranks third in yards after three games as well. The downfall in terms of points, where the Vikings’ offense ranks 15th, has been turnovers as previously mentioned. But overall, the Vikings offense looks improved over last season and if they can stop the turnovers, could be among the top few units in the league this season. And after three games, they still rank pretty high considering the turnovers, with the prospect for improvement with Addison and Risner and Akers that could make them even better moving forward.
This is easily the weakest position group on the team right now. After three games, the Vikings pass rush ranks dead last in the league in PFF grade while their run defense grade ranks 27th.
The charts above represent ESPN win rates and PFF grades in team pass rush and run defense across the league. As you can see, the Vikings pass rush ranks last in PFF grade while around average in win rate. Run defense is sub-par in both measures.
The issue here is not enough talent. Danielle Hunter and Harrison Phillips are two quality starters- and Hunter already has 12 pressures and 5 sacks- but even these two are not off to the best starts overall, with overall PFF grades under 70. The main detractor for Hunter is run defense, while for Phillips its tackling and pass rush. But it gets worse.
DJ Wonnum grades a below average 51.6 overall according to PFF, while Dean Lowry comes in at a poor 37.7 overall, and Patrick Jones II an even worse 28.7 overall. These three have combined for just nine pressures and zero sacks in 215 combined pass rushing snaps. Lowry has yet to pressure the quarterback after 51 pass rushing snaps. Overall, among starting defensive linemen or significant role players not named Danielle Hunter, the Vikings have a total of 14 quarterback pressures and 1 sack in three games.
To be fair, for some of these linemen like Pat Jones and Dean Lowry, they’ve played inside and have occupied linemen while linebackers like Ivan Pace and Jordan Hicks have blitzed, but still they’ve contributed little in pressures and also in tackling and run defense as well.
But I’ve never understood why the Vikings feel they owe DJ Wonnum a roster spot. He’s never been a particularly effective pass rusher since being drafted in the fourth round in 2020, and yet he wasn’t played in the preseason games this year and was treated as a roster lock despite not showing much of anything. So far this season, Wonnum ranks second-to-last in pass rush productivity among edge rushers with at least 35 pass rush snaps.
Help on the Way?
While the Vikings’ defensive line has been unproductive outside of Danielle Hunter and to a lesser extent Harrison Phillips, there may be some help on the way. First, at some point Marcus Davenport should get over his ankle injury and finally hit the field for more than a few plays. The Vikings signed Davenport on a $13 million one-year prove it deal, which he has yet to do. Davenport didn’t always have gawdy sack numbers with the Saints, but he has had decent pass rush productivity- and better than his replacements over the past three games.
Beyond Davenport, the Vikings are just beginning to give some snaps to rookies Andre Carter II and Jaquelin Roy. Carter II has been promising on limited snaps, generating 3 pressures (2 of them QB hits) on just 13 pass rush snaps. Roy has just 9 total snaps so far, but grades about the same as Harrison Phillips in those. Having Roy as a quality starter would alleviate the need to have guys like Patrick Jones II playing inside where he has been ineffective against both pass and run.
Between the return of Davenport and Andre Carter II hopefully assuming a larger role, the Vikings could replace DJ Wonnum and Dean Lowry for the most part.
But as it stands now, after three games and the league leading blitz rate under Brian Flores, Vikings’ pass rush productivity at all levels of defense can be broken down as follows:
UDFAs I Pace Jr., A Carter II, J Metellus, B Whitley: 14 pressures on 65 pass rush snaps
Danielle Hunter: 12 pressures on 102 pass rush snaps
Everybody Else: 16 pressures on 418 pass rush snaps
Another way of breaking it down is that Benton Whitley, who’s played just one snap on defense so far this season, has one more pressure than Dean Lowry, Jonathan Bullard, Harrison Smith, Byron Murphy, Marcus Davenport, Khyiris Tonga, Jaquelin Roy, Cam Bynum, Akayleb Evans, and Brian Asamoah II - combined. The latter group have combined for 133 pass rush snaps.
Scheme and Play Calling Playing a Role in Ineffectiveness of the Defensive Front
The ineffectiveness of the Vikings’ pass rush, despite having the highest blitz rate in the league after three games, goes beyond individual player performance- although that is part of it. There is also a scheme and play-calling aspect to it.
For example, it only took about two quarters for opposing offenses to respond effectively to Brian Flores’ blitz-heavy scheme. From that point on, opposing offenses have responded with a quick passing game- a heavy dose of quick passes on short in or out routes, comebacks, and quick slants. They do this knowing that pressure is coming quickly, and that Vikings’ defensive backs are lining up 8-yards deep, reading the quarterback for a couple seconds, then reacting to the play. That has allowed opposing offenses to use a high-percentage, short passing game very effectively against the Vikings for two and a half games. Flores has not adjusted or adapted his scheme or play-calling in response.
Indeed, since the second half of week one, opposing offenses are a combined 74/90 in pass attempts - an 82% completion rate. Some have been lauding Justin Herbert’s performance last Sunday as an example of elite quarterback performance, but his 85% completion rate mainly on quick passes was simply a continuation of what Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts already showed him on film.
The quick passing game has made Flores’ blitzes largely ineffective. The Vikings have blitzed a league-high 64.9% of the time over the first three games and have the league’s worst pass rush grade according to PFF, and have been allowing an 82% completion rate since mid-way through week one.
Similarly, in week two against the Eagles, about mid-way through the game the Eagles began a heavy rushing attack as Flores was using light boxes with undersized players to focus on defending the passing game. The Eagles ran, and ran, and ran- but no response or counter was made by Flores. The Vikings gave up 259 yards rushing and 5.4 yards per carry by the end of the night. Apart from that, the Vikings have been decent in run defense- allowing just 2 yards per rush against the Chargers and Bucs.
Good Play from Linebackers
The silver lining to the otherwise lackluster performance of the Vikings’ defensive front is that the linebacker play has greatly improved from last season. Ivan Pace Jr., who quickly became the starter ahead of Brian Asamoah Jr., has been excellent. Pace is the third highest overall PFF graded linebacker in the league through three games, and the second highest defender at any position in his draft class, though he went undrafted.
Jordan Hicks has also improved over last season too and is the Vikings’ fourth highest graded defender with over 25 snaps so far. He has a 72.0 over PFF grade with an 85.4 coverage grade- second highest in the league among linebackers with over 50 snaps.
A month ago, the Vikings’ defensive secondary was perhaps the biggest concern going into the regular season. A lot of inexperienced young players, some with a worrisome injury history, were being asked to take larger roles. So far, they’ve done pretty well in executing the scheme. I discussed the scheme above in relation to the high completion rate, but that’s not really on the defensive backs. You can’t expect defensive backs to break-up quick five-yard passes given their assignment within the scheme to play 8 yards deep, read the quarterback and react. But you can expect them to make tackles to limit yards-after-catch, and they’ve done that pretty well for the most part. It hasn’t been enough, but that gets more to scheme than individual players not doing a good job. There have been a few big plays allowed, and one dropped INT by Evans that proved costly last Sunday, but also an INT by Theo Jackson and a couple forced fumbles- one of them recovered by the Vikings as well.
At safety, Cam Bynum, Theo Jackson (25 snaps), and Josh Metellus are three of the four highest graded defenders for the Vikings so far. Bynum has been excellent, reversing his sophomore slump of a year ago. Jackson ranks 3rd overall among safeties in the league according to PFF (albeit just 25 snaps), while Bynum ranks 7th. Josh Metellus isn’t too far behind at 21st. Harrison Smith still ranks high in coverage at 18th overall, but hasn’t been as effective in run defense, tackling, or as a pass rusher so far this season. Bynum, Metellus, and Smith are all getting a lot of snaps as Brian Flores often uses three safeties- which has paid off to some degree in limiting yards-after-catch.
So Far, So Good - But Flores Needs to Ask For More
The overriding issue for the Vikings’ defensive secondary, which has been both assignment sound for the most part and ineffective, is that Brian Flores needs to ask more of them. Specifically, he needs to have defensive backs play press coverage. This is the counter to the quick passing game that has made both the Vikings’ blitz-heavy pass rush and pass defense overall ineffective. By playing press coverage- while continuing to blitz- the Vikings can take away the quick passing game. Pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage, causing them to re-route and alter timing routes, will give the Vikings’ pass rush more time to get home- forcing sacks, throwaways, incompletions, and interceptions.
The risk in doing so is it opens up the secondary to the deep ball if defensive backs can’t stick with their receivers and the pass rush can’t get home soon enough. But it’s a risk Flores has to take if he wants to break from allowing an 82% completion rate. The other option is to not blitz as much, while playing press coverage, but with some help over the top. The answer may be in some combination of the above, which also helps keep the quarterback guessing and can delay his release as he needs more time to read the defense.
When Flores was in Miami, he didn’t seem particularly concerned about giving up the deep ball- although they did so on occasion- largely because his pass rush was able to get home on longer route patterns making it difficult to execute the long ball- even if receivers were open. Pressuring the quarterback led to inaccurate throws and missed opportunities as quarterbacks were forced out of the pocket or sacked and unable to get the ball to open receivers downfield.
But the question is why hasn’t Flores adjusted to more press coverage? Clearly opposing offenses have been very successful countering his pass defensive scheme for over two games now with a quick passing game, but he hasn’t made any adjustments. I would imagine he’s continuing to practice press coverage with his defensive backs each week, but perhaps he doesn’t feel they can be effective? Or maybe he’s not willing to take that risk? Or maybe he wasn’t comfortable with the matchups - Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, AJ Brown, Devanta Smith, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams - the Vikings have faced a pair of good receivers each week so far that may have been too much for the Vikings’ young, largely inexperienced defensive backs to handle.
Whatever the reason, Flores needs to make changes in order for his scheme to be effective. At this point, the Vikings have given up only 93 fewer yards than the 1,240 yards Ed Donatell’s defense gave up after three games last season- which was near the bottom of the league. That’s not gonna cut it. This defense ranks 26th in points allowed, 27th in yards allowed, and 25th yards per play allowed. Yes, the Vikings have been the unluckiest team in the league so far, lead the league in turnovers, and would probably be 3-0 right now if they had three fewer turnovers, but nevertheless these defensive metrics need to improve.
Brian Flores needs to coach up his young defensive backs and mix in more press coverage for his blitz-heavy scheme to be successful. It won’t matter how often the Vikings blitz or how many they send if they continue to allow their opponent’s quick passing game to move the chains. The Vikings are 22nd in first downs allowed, 19th in third down conversion percentage allowed, 25th in yards per play allowed, and 26th in EPA/play allowed.
So far, special teams have been largely uneventful for the Vikings- and that’s a good thing. Greg Joseph has made all his kicks, there haven’t been any big plays allowed- or made- on special teams so far, and the Vikings special teams PFF grade ranks sixth overall. The Vikings have been a bit unlucky in that opponents have been more successful than expected on longer field goal attempts, and also unlucky to not have recovered a forced fumble on a punt against the Eagles deep in their territory, but other than that, the Vikings have executed well on special teams for the most part.
Turnovers. It’s frustratingly simple and painfully obvious what has led the Vikings to an 0-3 record instead of a 3-0 record thus far.
The Vikings’ offense is good and could get better with the addition of Dalton Risner at right guard, the return of a healthy Christian Darrisaw and Garrett Bradbury, and an expanded role for Jordan Addison. The addition of Cam Akers may also lead to some improvement. The main downfall offensively has been their league-leading turnovers. Eliminate the turnovers and this could be a top five offense going forward. All the pieces and talent is there.
Defensively, more work needs to be done for the Vikings to be successful. The talent is not there as it is on offense so far, but perhaps growing roles for Marcus Davenport, Andre Carter II, and Jaquelin Roy could help narrow the talent deficit on defense. But beyond that, the Vikings need to make some scheme changes as well to put players in a better position to make plays. Moving to more press coverage will not only allow the Vikings’ pass rush a better chance to get home, it will also allow defensive backs a better chance to make plays- pass break-ups and interceptions. Doing so entails some risk, but not doing so will allow opposing offenses to continue what has been very effective so far- the high percentage quick passing game. At some point Brian Flores needs to give the Vikings’ defensive secondary the opportunity to get off the field by mixing in more press coverage. Allowing an 82% completion percentage- which is what has happened since opposing offenses have figured out Flores’ scheme isn’t going to do that.
What grade would you give Brian Flores so far as defensive coordinator?
This poll is closed