Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
Asked on Sunday if the Vikings’ offensive performance over the past three weeks was what he had in mind when the team overhauled its scheme at the beginning of the year, coach Mike Zimmer needed only one word to answer a question he’s been trying to solve for six years.
“Yes,” Zimmer replied.
What else needed to be said? The Vikings have the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense, which accounted for another 166 yards on Sunday and has posted 1,120 through seven games after totaling just 1,493 all of last season. The offensive line — still an issue in pass protection early this season — has been one of the NFL’s best pass-blocking units in recent weeks, according to Pro Football Focus, and had just its second game without allowing a sack since 2017 on Sunday.
And after years of subsisting on short, safe throws, the Vikings have morphed into one of the NFL’s most prolific downfield passing attacks largely because of deep shots off play action.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Kirk Cousins averaged 9.3 air yards per completion on Sunday, trailing only Lamar Jackson among passers in Week 7. He completed three of his seven passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, hitting Adam Thielen for an early 25-yard touchdown and finding Stefon Diggs for 66 yards off play action to effectively put the game away.
Through six weeks, only Russell Wilson had a better passer rating among starting QBs than Cousins on throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. For the season, six of Cousins’ 13 TD passes are on deep shots.
So what’s happened? There are several factors at play here: First, it’s worth pointing out that while Cousins has never played in offenses with large numbers of downfield throws, he’s always been one of the NFL’s more proficient passers when he’s been able to fire deep. According to PFF, Cousins has posted a passer rating of more than 100 on throws of 20-plus yards each of the past three seasons, ranking fourth, fifth and 10th in the league during those years. He’s got a big enough arm to stretch the field, and enough accuracy to put the ball where he wants it.
He’s also benefitted from a wealth of time to throw: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins had an average of 3.38 seconds to pass on Sunday, in a game where he wasn’t sacked and was hit just four times. Given that kind of time to let things develop, any quarterback is going to have opportunities to test defenders, especially when faced with some of the single-coverage matchups Cousins has enjoyed in recent weeks.
Which brings us to the final point on this matter: The Vikings redesigned their offense with hopes of feasting off the play action opportunities they believed they’d get from a strong running game. Analytics dispute the idea that teams need to run the ball to set up play action, but the real benefit of the Vikings’ running game to Cousins here might be its ability to set up manageable down-and-distance situations and lure extra defenders near the line of scrimmage. Cousins is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt off play action (the fourth-highest mark in the NFL), and hit three of his four TDs off play action on Sunday.
“It’s a big deal,” he said of the running game. “Not only the play-action game, but you’re calling a first-and-10 run and the next thing you know it’s second-and-three, that just keeps your whole playbook available to you. If you get a second-and-10, now their defense can call more prevent coverages that if you do want to take a shot, then it’s not going to be there. The key is staying ahead of the chains where they have to call defenses that load the box, so that we can take shots and be successful. It’s so key over and over again to even stay out of third downs. We’re not having to convert five or six on a drive because we’re going first, second down, first, second down, first, second down – that’s a big deal.”
Here’s a look at two other trends to watch going forward from the Vikings’ win over the Lions:
The offensive line’s success rate: Even as the Vikings’ revamped offensive line paved the way for Dalvin Cook to rush for 410 yards in the first four weeks of the season, the group’s ability to protect Kirk Cousins was still a big problem. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings’ line was the league’s second-worst at protecting its quarterback through the first four weeks of the year, allowing a total of 42 pressures through 111 passing snaps in those games. During the past three weeks, however, the group’s notable turnaround has been one of the keys to the Vikings’ win streak. And on Sunday, the Vikings achieved a feat that’s remarkable somewhat because of how rare it’s been in recent team history.
The team’s 42-30 win over the Lions on Sunday was just the second time since 2017 where its quarterback hasn’t been sacked. The first one came in Week 3 against the Raiders, a game where Cousins attempted just 21 passes (and was still pressured on eight of his 23 dropbacks). On Sunday, when Cousins attempted 34 passes, he wasn’t sacked and was hit just three times. The Vikings were one of just five teams in the NFL that didn’t go a single game without allowing a sack last year. They had five such games in 2017 — due in part to Case Keenum’s ability to keep frequent pressure from turning into sacks — and had four in 2016, as Sam Bradford directed a quick-strike offense to compensate for an injury-ravaged line in front of him. That the Vikings have been able to keep Cousins clean in recent weeks, though, owes as much to the improvement of the line as the ability of a quarterback to mitigate pressure. PFF’s pass blocking efficiency metric rated the Vikings the fifth-best line in the league through the past three weeks, and Cousins had time to look downfield off play action on Sunday, when he fired nine passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings’ passing game plan if they’re without Adam Thielen: The receiver will have a MRI on Monday, though he said after the game he was optimistic about his chances of playing against the Redskins on Thursday night and I heard after the game he was close to going back in on Sunday. The injury, as it was described to me, was one Thielen had dealt with before, and the concern level after the game didn’t seem particularly alarming. Still, the Vikings could decide to give Thielen time to rest, particularly after their decision to put Cook back in the lineup prolonged a hamstring issue last season. Should the Vikings keep Thielen out, Diggs will get more attention (as he did on Sunday), and the Vikings will have to be as resourceful as they were against the Lions, when they put Irv Smith in the slot at times, motioned C.J. Ham out of the backfield and employed some two- and three-tight end sets, to take advantage of Smith and Tyler Conklin’s agility. Bisi Johnson, who had four catches for 40 yards and a touchdown on eight targets, continues to impress with his route-running skills, and he could step in as a starter if Thielen rests or is limited on Thursday. But when the Vikings have been remarkably healthy, they could be forced to adapt if they opt for caution with Thielen.
Three players who stood out:
Riley Reiff: Matched up for much of the day against Trey Flowers, Reiff held his own in pass protection after coming back from an ankle injury in time to play against his former team. The Vikings also had plenty of success running outside left tackle, where Cook gained 90 of his 142 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Reiff had a key block on Cook’s first of two TD runs, clearing a lane by moving Mike Daniels before working up to Jarrad Davis.
Cook: He’s featured here just about every week, but there’s usually reason to do so. Cook’s footwork and strength were on display once again Sunday; he channeled Barry Sanders on a first-quarter run where he gained 15 yards after being stood up at the line of scrimmage, keeping his feet as Tracy Walker drove him back and spinning off a tackle attempt from A’Shawn Robinson.
Eric Kendricks: In addition to 12 tackles, the linebacker registered a pair of pass breakups: one on the Lions’ first offensive play, and the second on a fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter, when Kendricks read Matthew Stafford’s rollout and flew in to break up a throw to J.D. McKissic.
Three areas of concern:
The Vikings’ cornerback play: There’s perhaps no area of the team that’s received a bigger draft investment than this group, which has three first-round picks and a second-rounder on the roster, but it’s getting harder to ignore the Vikings’ issues in pass coverage, particularly as they relate to Xavier Rhodes. His 31-yard pass interference penalty in the first quarter came on a sideline throw where Rhodes was in step with Marvin Jones and Stafford would have had a hard time completing the pass if Rhodes had played with his feet and refrained from grabbing Jones. The Lions declined a holding call on Trae Waynes a play before Jones broke his tackle attempt on a 16-yard first-quarter touchdown. Zimmer wasn’t happy with how loosely the Vikings covered receivers in the first half, in general, and put some of the issues on himself for not being ready for the Lions’ passing game. But the Vikings have had enough issues in coverage that the trend isn’t isolated to what happened Sunday.
Stefon Diggs’ fumbles: The Lions have excelled at punching footballs away from ballcarriers this year, and Justin Coleman stripped the ball away from Diggs after the receiver beat him with an inside move in the second quarter. The play actually worked out in the Vikings’ favor ; Alexander Mattison pounced on the loose ball, giving Minnesota a first down, and the Vikings hurried to the line of scrimmage to prevent the Lions from challenging that the pass had actually been incomplete. But Diggs has now fumbled three times this season, and the trend, if it continues, could become costly.
Defensive line penalties: Calls on the back end of the Vikings’ defense got plenty of attention Sunday, but the flags on the team’s defensive front were just as costly. Shamar Stephen was called for holding in the first quarter and Danielle Hunter’s holding penalty gave the Lions a first-and-goal before their second touchdown. Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr were called for roughing-the-passer penalties on the same drive — once when Griffen’s arm hit Stafford’s head, and three plays later when Barr’s roughing call offset a holding penalty the Vikings could have used to push Detroit back or declined to force a field goal attempt. As it was, the penalties offset, and Stafford hit Jones for a touchdown on the next play.
And one big question:
Where do the Vikings stack up in a crowded NFC? At 5-2, the Vikings are tied with Seattle for the fourth-best record in the NFC, a half-game ahead of the Panthers (who’ve already had a bye week) and a game ahead of the Rams. They’ve got little margin for error in a conference where three teams (the 49ers, Saints and Packers) already have six wins, and their best route to the playoffs will be trying to pick up a game on the Packers in hopes of leveraging their Dec. 23 home game against Green Bay into a way to take the division. Both teams have some tough road tests in the second half of the season; each travels to Kansas City, while the Vikings go to Dallas and Seattle and the Packers go to San Francisco. Green Bay also has a game with Carolina on its schedule, and has just three remaining home games (whereas the Vikings have five). Both teams have three division games in December, which should provide plenty of fireworks in what’s shaping up to be one of the better NFC North races in recent years.