Even though the Cleveland Browns are 0-7, the Vikings have a monitor at their Winter Park practice facility displaying a message: The Browns are outstanding against the run. They are fifth in the NFL, allowing only 83.7 rushing yards per game.
The forewarning is clear: The team needs to take them seriously, especially on the ground. The Vikings are tied for ninth in the NFL at 124.6 rushing yards per game.
Fortunately, offensive help appears on the way for the Vikings. Coach Mike Zimmer says there’s a good chance the team could get some injured starters back in time for kickoff in London on Sunday morning.
“I think we have a chance to get quite a few of them back,” he said. “I think Stefon Diggs [groin/ankle] has a chance, I think [Michael] Floyd [hamstring] has a chance, [Nick] Easton [calf] has a chance, Riley Reiff [knee] has a chance. I think most of those guys have an opportunity to get back. They may not, but if they do, that would be great.”
The Vikings are 5-2, the same record as last season at this point, but there’s no question that this is a much better team. The stats bear that out.
The biggest challenge for this team was improving the offense, and the Vikings have made great leaps. Perhaps the most important number is their sacks allowed. Last year they finished 23rd in the league with 38 sacks allowed. So far this year they are third, allowing only nine.
In 2016, after seven games, the Vikings were 15th out of 16 teams in the NFC in total offense. They were averaging 293.3 yards per game, with 221.4 coming via the pass and 71.9 coming via the run.
This year they rank eighth out of 16 teams in the NFC. They’re averaging 356.1 yards per game, 231.6 yards in the air and 124.6 yards on the ground. That change of 62.8 yards of total offense per game can’t be overstated.
When it comes to the defense, nothing has changed, and that’s a positive.
Last season the Vikings were second in the NFC after seven games in total defense, allowing 297.1 yards per game, with 204.6 passing yards and 92.6 rushing yards.
They remain in second place in defense in the NFC this year, but again they have improved their numbers. They’re currently allowing 283.0 yards per game, with 76.6 yards allowed via the run and a slight uptick to 206.4 yards via the pass.
Overall that makes for an improvement of 76.9 total yards on offense and defense over last season.
Different feel at 5-2
Zimmer said roster depth has made for a much better feeling at this point in the season than a year ago.
“Last year at this time we lost two games in a row, and we started out 5-0, this year we started out 2-2 and we’ve won three [in a row] now,” he said. “In some positions we’re much more healthy. I think the defense is playing really well still. I think we’re much better offensively than we were.
“We’re moving the ball, scoring points, we’re better on third down, better running the ball … so I think all of those things add to it. We’ve had less penalties. There are still things we have to work on. I really like this team. I like the way they work.”
Yes, it’s hard to imagine that through seven games this team has played multiple games without starting quarterback Sam Bradford, top running back Dalvin Cook and No. 1 wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and actually improved offensively over last season, but here we are.
“We have a lot of young guys, and they are contributing quite a bit,” Zimmer said. “The special teams played great last week. We’re basically playing with the second quarterback, second and third running back, played with some young offensive linemen. All of this depth has really helped.”
Injuries part of the game
Zimmer was asked if he’s ever had a season where he’s lost such key offensive players.
“It is hard, but every team deals with injuries,” he said. “Losing Cook was big, that was a big, big loss. Our offensive line has done so much better this year as far as protecting the quarterback and the quarterbacks are doing a good job of helping them. The runners have done a good job.
“We have to manufacture a little bit more than we did, but I think with the combination of that and the defense — and last year we got a bunch of turnovers and won a lot of games on defense — and this year we’re just kind of in the middle of the pack with turnovers. I’m hoping we add some turnovers as we continue down the stretch.”
The big question remaining for this team is whether or not Case Keenum will remain the starting QB while Teddy Bridgewater and Bradford continue to try to make comebacks from knee injuries.
Zimmer gave an update on Bridgewater.
“Good, he’s doing really well,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way he has progressed. He’s getting a lot more work now, and he’ll get a lot more work next week and we’ll figure out what to do with him.”
So Zimmer remains optimistic?
“I am optimistic about him. I am optimistic about Bradford. I’m optimistic,” he said.
• The Wilf family, owners of the Vikings, is in the process of completing its big development in Eagan. But look for Zygi Wilf and company to make an equally big development at Winter Park, after they make the move.
• The Browns, the Vikings’ opponent on Sunday, really made a great contribution to the Vikings when they traded Jim Marshall and five other players to them for two draft choices. Marshall played 18 years with the Vikings, including 270 consecutive starts, and appeared in all four Vikings Super Bowls.
• If the Gophers are looking for a freshman quarterback to play next year, they might have one in Brennan Armstrong, whom coach P.J. Fleck originally recruited out of Ohio when Fleck was at Western Michigan. Armstrong’s Shelby High School team is 9-0 and won 59-10 over Oak Harbor last week, Armstrong completed eight of 14 passes for 153 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed 11 times for 151 yards and two TDs.
• Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will be looking for some redemption in London, after he threw four interceptions there last year in a 30-19 loss to the Bills when he was playing with the Rams. Keenum has been a much better quarterback this year and should have a good chance against the Browns secondary. Cleveland ranks 22nd in the NFL in pass defense at 250.8 yards per game.
• Through seven games last season Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen had 25 receptions for 364 yards compared to 43 receptions for 529 yards this season. Thielen is fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and the only wideout with at least five receptions in every game.
• Baseball America recently had three Twins prospects in its top 10 hitters this season in the Appalachian League — shortstop Wander Javier (No. 2), outfielder Brent Rooker (No. 5) and outfielder Akil Baddoo (No. 7).
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org