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Week 3 Tennessee at Minnesota Preview: Remember The Vikings?

As the 2-0 Titans come to town, the hapless and hobbled Vikings must reclaim a modicum of what made them a playoff team last year.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Indianapolis Colts
Kirk Cousins must play better for the Vikings to succeed. But can he elevate those around him? Or will he simply reflect his surroundings again?
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

As I did my usual weekly research for Sunday’s game, a line from Office Space kept running through my head. Every time I looked into the numbers and film on the first two weeks of the 2020 Vikings season, I was reminded of the classic line where “The Bobs” are interviewing Tom Smykowski about his job duties:

Seriously. What would you say...they do here? Outside of two opening drives and a few late scores while desperately playing catch-up, the offense has vanished in the middle quarters while the games were still in the balance. The defense can’t seem to get off the field; their lone effective strategy has been opponents dropping open deep balls.

Through two weeks, the Vikings are dead last in the league in average offensive (2:01) and defensive (3:59) drive time. The offense has allowed two sacks for safeties while the defense has two sacks total. The early grades from Pro Football Focus rank them 17th on offense, 31st on defense, and 31st overall. The initial DVOA ranks are just as bad: 25th on offense, 20th on defense, and 25th overall. Their departed wide receiver has comparable stats to the entire receiving corps he left behind. Both the offensive and defensive lines have been shoved around for most of the first two games. No matter which statistic, metric, or eye test you use on each side of the ball, you arrive at the same conclusion: the Vikings have been bad thus far.

And to top things off, their handsomely compensated quarterback is coming off what might be the worst game of his professional career! Kirk Cousins had a negative adjusted yards per attempt against the Colts in Week 2. His passer rating actually improved to 15.8 in the fourth quarter after sitting at 0.0 for a good chunk of the second half. Even if you conjure up excuses for the three interceptions—one was a Hail Mary at the end of the half, one was basically an arm punt on third down, and one went off Olabisi Johnson’s hands before being picked—there were other throws that still left you scratching your head. Everything about Cousins’ performance looked off.

The offensive line certainly didn’t do Cousins many favors; DeForest Buckner went full Reggie White on first-time starter Dru Samia a few times last Sunday. The play calling has left a lot to be desired as well. There have already been a few drives that ended with “white flag” runs or screens on third down, which doesn’t display much confidence in your charges. Play action percentage is way down as well, from 31.4% of dropbacks in 2019 to only 16.7% early in 2020. Game scripts obviously have something to do with the decline in play action through two games, especially when Green Bay stopped it so well last season. But why not do the thing that has helped your quarterback perform better throughout his career? The motion at the snap and tempo are lacking as well.

We shouldn’t read too much into a two-game sample size and make sweeping declarations about Cousins and the offense on the whole. Both games were getting away from the Vikings by halftime and they have about a 2-to-1 time of possession deficit. However, we have probably seen enough over 90 career starts to declare that Cousins kind of is who he is overall.

If he plays through the 2022 season on his current contract—something that seems extremely likely barring a trade and the cap ramifications of cutting him before then—the team will have shelled out around $150 million for five seasons of service. In the NFL’s hyper-expensive quarterback market, the total salary isn’t that exorbitant for a quarterback that can certainly win some games with the right pieces around him. But that’s the maddening quandary the Vikings are mired in with their quarterback—he’s better than most of the available alternatives, yet he struggles when conditions aren’t ideal. Throughout his career, Cousins has done little to elevate the play of his teammates. Instead, he usually becomes a reflection of his surroundings, both good and bad. The Vikings have effectively purchased a $150 million mirror.

So how can the Vikings like what they see in the mirror going forward? Reflecting the 2019 offense would be a lot easier if Cousins seemed to have a rapport with anyone other than Adam Thielen. It looks like Johnson might be a bit out of his depth as WR2. Justin Jefferson is on his third NFL game with next to nothing for a preseason. He certainly needs to be a bigger part of the passing offense, but that’s probably going to take some time. They’re certainly trying to get Irv Smith Jr. more involved, but it just isn’t clicking yet. Smith caught only one of his four targets for 3 yards, had an offensive pass interference penalty, and was the lowest graded skill position player by PFF in the Colts game.

If Cousins and company can create increased cohesiveness, there may be some opportunities to move the ball on the Titans. The Jaguars racked up 480 yards of offense last week, continuously getting yards in big chunks on some of the same concepts that the Vikings had success with last year. This play action deep crosser to D.J. Chark looks just like one of Thielen’s go-to routes.

Jadeveon Clowney was the big addition to the Titans pass rush, and he leads the team in pressures with eight. The rest of their defensive front has been fairly lackluster though. It sounds like Vic Beasley is in line to make his season debut on Sunday, which could be a boost on the edge for the Titans. But they may not be able to exploit Minnesota’s pass blocking as much as other opponents, especially in the middle where the Vikings are weakest. The Titans secondary is highlighted by Malcolm Butler and Kevin Byard, the latter of which is quietly one of the better safeties in the league. After going through Tennessee’s first two games, it looks like going after seventh round rookie Chris Jackson in the slot could be a sound strategy for Minnesota. Jackson has already been targeted twelve times through the first two games. Sunday could be a great opportunity for a breakout game by Jefferson.

While we’re hoping that things get better for Jefferson and the Vikings offense, there is one question Vikings fans should never ask themselves: “how could it possibly get any worse?” Most of the time, that query is quickly answered. The defense has already been rotten and now the injuries are starting to pile up. Cameron Dantzler is still nursing a rib injury that kept him out of last week’s contest. Mike Hughes is currently sitting out with a neck injury. He missed the playoffs last year after sustaining a neck injury in the meaningless Week 17 game against the Bears. As we have already seen with Danielle Hunter, you never want to hear about the neck or the back on the injury report. In fact, the only time you want to hear about necks and backs is in a Khia song.

For the cherry on top of the injury sundae, Anthony Barr is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Barr certainly hasn’t been earning accolades like teammate Eric Kendricks, and signing veteran Todd Davis to a one-year deal could prove to be a nice signing to help fill the void. But the absence of Barr will certainly be felt. Sam Ekstrom of Zone Coverage had an excellent breakdown of why the Vikings will miss Barr more than some might think. Namely, Eric Wilson is a solid pass defender but has been a big liability in the run game. Rookie Troy Dye saw his first major action after Barr went down, but now he’s on Injured Reserve as well.

The raw stats weren’t terrible for the run defense for the Vikings last Sunday. The Colts did run for 151 yards, but only at a 3.8 yard per carry clip. The Vikings actually did a pretty good job on most of the stretch plays and sweeps that Indianapolis tried with Jonathan Taylor, but they were absolutely manhandled between the tackles. Matt Fries put together a nice film summary of the Vikings getting bullied at the point of attack over and over, complete with Benny Hill music and Kobe Bryant cut-ins.

Of all the things you don’t want to be when facing the Tennessee Titans, being weak against the run would probably rank very high. Human anvil Derrick Henry is a handful for even the stoutest of defenses. The bell cow back has had a somewhat pedestrian start to the 2020 season, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry with a long run of only 14 yards on 56 rushes. His Elusive Rating, a PFF metric that measures forced missed tackles and yards after contact per touch, is way down from what it was a year ago. But if the first two weeks were any indication, the Vikings defense might be just what Henry needs to return to form.

Even on the off chance that Henry is contained, Ryan Tannehill can make you pay. That still feels a little weird to write, but the Titans quarterback still hasn’t turned back into a pumpkin after his Cinderella run last year. Whatever switch Tannehill flipped after replacing Marcus Mariota as the starter midway through the 2019 season has certainly remained on. His quarterback rating, QBR, and adjusted net yards per attempt are actually higher in 2020 than the seemingly unsustainable career highs he just set. Tannehill was extremely efficient against Jacksonville and has yet to throw an interception. With top receiver A.J. Brown out last week, Tannehill repeatedly found tight end Jonnu Smith for big gains. After considering what Mo Alie-Cox did to the Vikings defense last week, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Tannehill and Smith to have a lot of success on Sunday.

Could the Vikings shock the world and steal a win as home underdogs on Sunday? Stranger things have happened. The Titans haven’t exactly looked like world beaters while sweating out two victories against teams that don’t look like playoff contenders. If the Vikings can actually possess the ball for more time than they’re trailing by double digits, perhaps the offense can get into a rhythm and some of the defensive warts can be covered up. Maybe they’ll even be able to utilize that running back they just gave a big extension to. Even the 2013 team—the iteration of the Vikings that reminds me the most the current version, down to the bland “we need to look at the tape” excuses after losses—had that home win over the playoff-bound Eagles. (Who could forget Matt Asiata’s legendary 30 rush/51 yard/3 TD stat line?)

At this point, picking the Vikings to win would be purely speculative. There just isn’t enough evidence that this team can compete with the Titans. If Henry doesn’t pulverize the defensive front into a fine pulp, Tannehill will lead an air strike on the depleted and green Minnesota secondary. The worst part about this putrid 0-2 start is that there isn’t a whole lot to be hopeful about going forward. Maybe the team gets a bit better with some experience, and the potential return of Hunter will certainly help. But other than that, this team seems broken right now.

Get those Trevor Lawrence photoshops out—it’s looking like a rough season ahead.

Prediction

Titans 27, Vikings 16


And now for the rest of my Week 3 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

JAGUARS over Dolphins

Picking a bad team on the road last Thursday didn’t work out, so I’ll pick the home team this time around. I love what Gardner Minshew II is doing with Jacksonville’s offense, even if their defense is still incredibly suspect. I’ll take the dirt stache over the mountain man beard of Ryan Fitzpatrick in the battle for facial hair supremacy.

FALCONS over Bears

Which would you rather have—an embarrassing loss where you’re dominated wire-to-wire like the Vikings, or an embarrassing loss where you blow a(nother) huge late lead capped off by a stunningly bone-headed special teams play like the Falcons? Personally, I think I’ll take the Atlanta loss. At least they have shown they can score enough points to steal a few games in their 0-2 start.

Rams over BILLS

Everyone’s just a little too excited about the new and improved Josh Allen after he tore up two pretty pathetic division opponents. Plus Jared Goff and Sean McVay are looking a lot more like their 2018 iterations than the 2019 versions through two games. I’ll pick the mild upset.

EAGLES over Bengals

Joe Burrow is looking a hell of a lot more promising than Carson Wentz these days, but the supporting cast just isn’t there for Cincinnati. I’ll take the Eagles, even if nothing is a “layup” for them right now.

BROWNS over Football Team

Cleveland needs to rattle off a couple more wins against struggling teams before they can truly let their fans down again.

PATRIOTS over Raiders

Are any Bears fans in your life getting a little too cocky about their 2-0 start? If reminding them that they could have drafted Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson is starting to get a bit stale, remind them that they could have Cam Newton on a cheaper contract than Mitchell Trubisky right now.

49ers over GIANTS

Are we 100% sure that these two teams are going to be able to field enough healthy players by the time Sunday afternoon rolls around? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Super Bowl hangover from hell continues for the Niners, but I can’t pick a Giants team that’s nearly as beat up.

STEELERS over Texans

Houston might actually be decent and we just don’t know it yet because they played the best two teams in the AFC to start the season. Unfortunately for them, there’s a decent chance that Pittsburgh is the third or fourth best team in the AFC.

COLTS over Jets

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 2-0 on the season because I picked against these same Jets in the pool the first two weeks. If it ain’t broke...

CHARGERS over Panthers

Chargers team doctor accidentlly puncturing Tyrod Taylor’s lung right before kickoff” is an early clubhouse leader for the wildest football story of the year. But there’s still a lot of 2020 left!

SEAHAWKS over Cowboys

Do I put more credence into how Dallas stormed back after their disastrous start last week? Or should I pay more attention to how they should probably be staring 0-3 in the face this week if not for the Falcons suffering a collective 404 error on the onside kick? Wait—I know how to decide! I’ll bet on Russell Wilson. Because he looks nearly unstoppable through the first two weeks of the season.

Buccaneers over BRONCOS

I don’t completely trust Tompa Bay yet, but too many Broncos have already been sent to the proverbial glue factory.

CARDINALS over Lions

I’m extremely jealous of Cardinals fans right now. That team seems like so. much. fun. to root for. You know the feeling of seeing your next door neighbor getting the best takeout in town delivered while you stare at a leftover bologna sandwich in your fridge? That’s the feeling I get when I watch Kyler Murray highlights and then remember the quarterback of my favorite team.

Packers over SAINTS

Don’t look now, but Drew Brees might be turning into 2015 Peyton Manning without the all-world defense to save his ass. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers’ prime is going to last forever, beating the Vikings year after year after year until the Earth is ultimately enveloped by the sun, finally giving me the sweet release I have begged for since Brett Favre arrived in Green Bay in 1992.

RAVENS over Chiefs

Wait, what? The NFL actually gave ESPN the game of the week on Monday Night Football? I have absolutely no idea which team will win this game; I’m just excited to watch it play out. (And watch it decide nearly every fantasy football matchup in America.) I do have a drinking game for you though: drink every time someone says the phrase “AFC Championship preview” during the broadcast. You’ll be lucky to make it to halftime.

Last week: 12-4
Season so far: 22-10