Three unheralded Vikings

You know by now about the stars of the Vikings’ third-ranked defense and a running game that kept churning even after the loss of rookie Dalvin Cook. Jerick McKinnon is racking up yards and receiver Adam Thielen has brought the long-ball threat back. But what could you have missed? Below we’ve pinpointed three relatively unheralded reasons for the Vikings’ 6-2 start:

 

Riley Reiff has been huge upgrade: Quarterback Case Keenum grabbed the steering wheel midair and kept the Vikings’ plane from crashing, in large part because Reiff has protected the blind side of Vikings quarterbacks for 455 out of a possible 480 snaps this season. Reiff has yet to allow a sack, according to Pro Football Focus, joining Cleveland’s Joe Thomas (now out for the year after triceps surgery) and Washington’s Trent Williams (battling severe knee problems) as the only left tackles who can say that. Reiff has also been an upgrade over his predecessor with officials. He’s had only three penalties for 20 yards in eight games.

 

Eric Kendricks is playing like Pro Bowler: Unlike many of his defensive teammates, Kendricks can’t yet affirm his status in the league with a Pro Bowl. That could soon change. Kendricks is growing into one of the NFL’s better cover linebackers, providing a sideline-to-sideline service for a defense that has helped limit running backs from New Orleans’ Mark Ingram to Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. He has defended 40 passes thrown into his area, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranks third among all inside linebackers. Yet those throws have netted opponents just 183 yards, ranking 21st. He has led the Vikings in tackles each of his first two NFL seasons and leads them again with 61 combined tackles, four for a loss, through eight games.

 

Offensive coaching staff making it work: The Vikings have plenty of room to grow on offense. They’re still one of the league’s worst red-zone producers, ranking 22nd in points per trip and 27th in touchdowns per trip, according to Football Outsiders. Focus on the only numbers that matter — six wins and two losses — and credit should rightfully go to coordinator Pat Shurmur and his offensive coaching staff. They have navigated the loss of their top quarterback, running back and, for a couple games, top receiver.

Three second-half questions

Even after a hot start, the Vikings have some things to figure out in the second half. Here’s a quick look at three needed areas of focus:

Who’s the QB? Even with Case Keenum playing capably and the Vikings winning games, this question is going to linger, as Sam Bradford continues to rehab his knee and Teddy Bridgewater bids to come off the physically-unable-to-perform list. Coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday the decision about whether to play Bridgewater would come down to “where he is at, where the team is at, how Case is doing, the whole deal; Sam, how he is doing.” Bradford, Zimmer said, is “getting better,” though he didn’t say when the quarterback might be able to return.

 

Can the line go the distance? The Vikings’ offensive line made major improvements in the first half, but it will be tested right after the bye week. According to Football Outsiders, the first two teams the Vikings play — the Redskins and Rams — generate the second- and fourth-most QB pressure in the league. The bye week comes at a good time for the Vikings’ line, too; rookie Danny Isidora started at left guard Sunday with Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles out, and right tackle Mike Remmers left because of a concussion.

 

Second-half swoon? This year’s Vikings team is in first place at the bye. Last year’s team was, too; it lost eight of 11 after heading into the bye 5-0. The Vikings have said all the right things about learning from last year’s slide, and they aren’t beset with the number of offensive line injuries they faced last year. But four of their next five games are on the road, and as Zimmer said Tuesday, it’s hard to know at this point how the 2017 Vikings will handle things.

The road ahead

A look at three potentially pivotal games in the second half of the Vikings season:

Nov. 23 at Detroit: Losers of three straight games to the Lions, the Vikings need to redirect this rivalry and stake a claim in the NFC North. That starts in earnest two weeks after the bye on Thanksgiving in Detroit, where last Thanksgiving Lions kicker Matt Prater sank Vikings hopes with a game-winning field goal after a Sam Bradford interception. The Vikings and Lions consistently have played close games, with only one score separating the two in the past three meetings.

Dec. 3 at Atlanta: The Vikings are set up to face three current above-.500 NFC playoff contenders outside the division in 2017’s second half: the Rams (5-2), Panthers (5-3) and Falcons (4-3). So why highlight the Falcons? Because they’re the reigning NFC champions, and hold a 3-0 conference record, which is a potential playoff tiebreaker. The game comes at the midway point of five Vikings second-half road trips. The last time the Vikings made the playoffs, in 2015, they won a midseason road game in Atlanta along the way.

Dec. 23 at Green Bay: Will Aaron Rodgers return this season? Early reports indicate Rodgers could return by mid-December. Regardless of who quarterbacks the Packers, the Vikings could do something they have not yet done against Green Bay since Mike Zimmer was hired — record a season sweep. That will require a typical defensive performance, not like last year’s Christmas Eve debacle in which the Vikings were blown out by halftime.