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:
Had Anthony Barr followed through on his verbal commitment to sign with the Jets this offseason, he would have played his home games at MetLife Stadium as a featured pass rusher in New York’s defense. Instead, Barr chose to remain with the Vikings, in a role that asks him more often than not to do something other than rush the quarterback.
The Vikings, though, have added some nuance to Barr’s role this season, and in his lone trip to MetLife Stadium this year, the linebacker delivered a performance that might have stung a little bit for anybody that had hoped he would make the New York area his home.
Though Barr only had three tackles in the game, his biggest play went for a safety, when he perfectly timed Daniel Jones’ snap and burst through the Giants’ line to stop Jon Hillman in the end zone. It was the Vikings’ first safety since Week 17 of the 2017 season (when Mitchell Trubisky was called for intentional grounding in the end zone) and the first the Vikings had forced via a tackle in the end zone since Danielle Hunter took down Cam Newton in Week 3 of the 2016 season.
Before Sunday, the Vikings had only blitzed Barr 16.8 percent of the time this season, which is within his typical range of 16-21 percent for his career. But as they did in the first four games of the season, they used him as a type of fifth lineman at times on Sunday, lining him up off Danielle Hunter’s left shoulder and running him on several stunts with the defensive end. Barr hit Jones before he slightly overthrew Sterling Shepard in the first quarter, and had a sack off the stunt with Hunter on the following play, before Anthony Harris’ holding penalty wiped it out.
Barr came after Jones on the stunt again in the second quarter, on a play where Mike Hughes nearly picked off the rookie QB, and had several blitzes from the Vikings’ customary double-A gap look. He finished his day with an interception of Jones in the fourth quarter, enabling the Vikings to run out the clock.
The linebacker was picked on in coverage in Green Bay, and got beat by Tarik Cohen for a touchdown against the Bears. Against the Giants on Sunday, though, Barr contributed in a variety of ways — and coach Mike Zimmer hinted after the game there could be more of that coming.
“It was aggressive,” Zimmer said of the Vikings’ pressure package this week, “We probably need to be that way a little more.”
Here is a closer look at the rest of the Vikings’ win over the Giants, and what it means going forward:
Two other players who stood out:
Mike Hughes: He was slated to play nickel corner on Sunday with Mackensie Alexander out because of an elbow injury again, and Hughes had to bump out to right cornerback for part of the first half after Xavier Rhodes collided with Harrison Smith on the Giants’ first drive. Hughes had a fine day in coverage, breaking up three passes and holding up when Jones tested him deep. His first breakup came on a fade route to Cody Lattimer in the first quarter, and Hughes nearly came down with an interception when Jones threw for Golden Tate after being flushed from the pocket in the second quarter.
Danielle Hunter: With a pair of sacks on Sunday, Hunter now has five in as many games. He finished with seven tackles for the day, working stunts effectively with Barr and fighting through two blockers in the second quarter to stop Hillman at the line of scrimmage.
Three areas of concern:
Penalties: The Vikings’ best teams under Mike Zimmer have ordinarily been some of the league’s least-penalized, but after a day where they were called for 112 yards’ worth of penalties on 12 flags, the Vikings rank among the NFL’s most-penalized teams. The 44 penalties accepted against the Vikings is tied for the third-most in the league, and no team has been flagged for more yards than the Vikings’ 426.
Red-zone production: The Vikings punted just once on Sunday, and entered Giants territory on every drive but the only one they had to use Britton Colquitt. So why didn’t their offense generate more than 26 points? Kirk Cousins was sacked in the red zone twice, nearly fumbling a shotgun snap from Garrett Bradbury on the Vikings’ first drive and holding the ball (perhaps wisely) in the second quarter when no one came open on third down. The Vikings kicked field goals on both drives, and while they ran the clock out at the Giants’ 4 on their final red zone possession, they also had drives stall at the New York 30 and 27, in addition to Jabril Peppers’ strip of Dalvin Cook at the Giants’ 2. Cousins’ two red-zone connections with Thielen were his first two red-zone TD passes of the season, and he showed the kind of decisiveness on both throws the Vikings need to see from him. Overall, though, Sunday’s game could have been even more lopsided if the Vikings had been more efficient near the goal line, and they’ll have to be better against stronger opponents than the one they faced Sunday.
Interior line play: Bradbury and Pat Elflein were both flagged for holding on Sunday, and Bradbury had another bad exchange with Kirk Cousins in the second quarter, when it appeared the center might have rushed his snap before getting into his block on Dalvin Tomlinson. Bradbury and Elflein’s mobility has delivered some of the Vikings’ hoped-for gains on zone runs, but the middle of the line is still going through some growing pains.
Three trends to watch:
How often Thielen is the Vikings’ primary downfield threat: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, throws to Thielen accounted for 63.4 percent of Cousins’ targeted air yards on Sunday, which came a week after Thielen claimed a 41.4 percent share of the air yards against the Bears. Thielen is a sublime route runner, and had an outstanding day finding space in the second level of the Giants’ defense on crossing routes off play action on Sunday. It bears watching whether Cousins can restore a similar rapport with Diggs, particularly after the events of the past week and another pedestrian day for the receiver, who had three catches for 44 yards on four targets.
The emergence of Ifeadi Odenigbo: The former seventh-round pick was cut twice by the Vikings, and spent time in Cleveland and Arizona before returning this season. He’s bulked up to the point the Vikings feel comfortable with him at defensive tackle in pass-rushing situations (after contemplating a full-time move to tackle at one point), and Odenigbo had his first career sack when he worked off a stunt with Everson Griffen and shot through the Giants’ line late in the first half. He played 28 snaps on Sunday, and provides a little more bulk inside than Stephen Weatherly. The Vikings began one fourth-quarter drive with Weatherly, Odenigbo and Jaleel Johnson all in the game, alongside Shamar Stephen, and the utility of their second defensive line group can help take some of the load off players like Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter as the season wears on.
Whether the Vikings can keep up their play action success: Before Sunday’s game, Cousins ranked 22nd in the NFL with 30 play action dropbacks, as the Vikings had been unable to exploit what they hoped would be a key element of their offense. By my count on Sunday, though, the Vikings ran play action 13 times, with Cousins going 9 of 11 for 153 yards and one touchdown (his second to Thielen), getting sacked once and having a 14-yard gain to Irv Smith nullified by a penalty. That’s by far his best day of play action this season, though it probably didn’t hurt he was facing a defense playing without all three of its starting linebackers. Still, the Vikings want to make play action a staple of their offense, and it’s their belief they’ll be more effective with it because of their strong running game; analytics suggest one does not set up the other, though it should be noted the Vikings set up Alexander Mattison’s 19-yard run by using Smith on a pivot route to sell a bootleg fake one play after Cousins hit Bisi Johnson for 23 off play action.
In any case, it’s a boon to the Vikings’ passing game if they’re able to sustain success off play action; they used it to roll Cousins out, keep him away from pressure and help Thielen find space in the Giants’ zones to great effect on Sunday.
And one big question:
Is what we saw on Sunday the real Vikings offense? Days with 490 yards of production don’t come around often, and it’d be silly to suggest the Vikings are capable of that output every week. They were facing a Giants defense that ranks 30th in the league in yards allowed, and they’ll have a tougher test this week against the Eagles, who have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Still, Sunday represented the best example of the formula the Vikings would like to use: a potent running game with Cook (and Mattison, who had seven carries for 52 yards), moving pockets for Cousins, an effective screen game and shots downfield off play action. It can be a strong mix if they can get into a groove with it, while finding enough work to keep players like Stefon Diggs (and Kyle Rudolph, who’s dutifully performed his blocking role while catching just six passes for 36 yards this year) happy. Time will tell if their success on Sunday is an anomaly, or the start of a trend they can repeat through the season.