Before the Vikings season started, no one would have believed you if you said that through eight weeks, the offense would be outperforming the defense. But that is the case: The Vikings rank third in the NFL in total offense (396.5 yards per game) compared to fifth in total defense (313.9) going into Sunday’s game at Kansas City.
They are the only NFL team to rank in the top five in both categories.
This is the balance that has eluded coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman during their tenure, but they finally have it.
One big reason the offense is performing so well has been the work of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.
The 37-year-old said that at this point, the Vikings have the blueprint for how this offense should look the rest of the season.
“We’re eight games into the season, so I think we have a pretty good sample size of what we look like,” Stefanski said. “I think what we have done well is we have found ways to be explosive in the run and the pass game. I think in this day and age you have to be able to do that, because you need some big plays to move the ball on these defenses because there is some pretty salty fronts out there.”
The relationship between Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak has also worked out well, and the offensive coordinator said quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak has really helped prepare this offense.
“Gary is doing great,” Stefanski said. “He has been a great influence on me as a coach and as a person. And then Klint as our quarterbacks coach, I think, is as thorough as they come. He is really preparing guys to play.”
The Vikings rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game (160.1) and 16th in passing yards per game (236.4). But since Week 5, when the passing game really took off and helped lead this four-game winning streak, the Vikings rank third with 1,214 passing yards, trailing only the Falcons and Texans.
Cousins rolling out
Stefanski said getting quarterback Kirk Cousins out of the pocket more has really changed the offense.
“A strong suit of [Cousins’] game is getting him on the move and making plays from the perimeter and making plays outside the pocket,” Stefanski said. “It’s going to continue to be a part of who we are. What allows us to do that is the threat of the run game.”
The run game has been spectacular. The Vikings’ 1,281 rushing yards through eight games are the third most in franchise history — trailing only the 1965 and 1973 clubs.
Stefanski had praise for Dalvin Cook, who is leading the NFL with 823 rushing yards and also has 293 receiving yards.
“Pretty special player,” Stefanski said. “He is making plays with the ball in his hands, whether as a runner or as a pass receiver. We ask a lot of him and nobody prepares harder than that kid.”
Another offensive standout has been Stefon Diggs, who is fourth in the NFL with 706 receiving yards.
Stefanski said Diggs’ effectiveness attracts more defenders, which opens up plays for his teammates.
“He has made some really big plays in this offense and I think moving forward, we’re going to ask that of him each game,” Stefanski said. “At times there are big plays to be had and other times, defenses are going to try and take him away and the ball is going to go to another player that hopefully can again be explosive.”
Because the Vikings had such a tight salary cap coming into this season, they needed their rookies to contribute. But still, no one could have expected center Garrett Bradbury, tight end Irv Smith Jr., running back Alexander Mattison and wide receiver Bisi Johnson playing this much.
“We mentioned that rookie class ... all giving us meaningful snaps this season,” Stefanski said. “The rookies are doing a nice job and that’s a testament to their [position] coaches and their work ethic as players. Eight games into it they may not be rookies anymore, and I think you see some guys that are performing well and we’re asking a lot of them. I think they’re doing a nice job.”
The Vikings’ schedule gets much more difficult in the second half of the season and Stefanski said that all starts this week at Kansas City. One plus for the Vikings offense is that the Chiefs rank 24th in total defense in the NFL.
A negative is playing at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Going into Arrowhead is never, ever easy,” Stefanski said. “It’s a loud environment that we’re going to have to do our best to communicate. They’re a playoff contender and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.
“They have players at every level of the defense and in their building, it is so loud that their pass rush really gets off the ball and is trying to disrupt you. We’re really going to have to be about our business.”
Fleck talks bye week
The No. 13 Gophers’ bye week couldn’t come at a better time, giving the team two weeks to prepare for their biggest football game of the season when No. 5 Penn State comes to TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 9.
Coach P.J. Fleck explained how the team will use the bye week to get players ready for that game.
“We really have had it set for quite a while,” he said. “We will give the players a little bit of time off. They definitely need it as we get into our four-game stretch to end the year — three rivalry games, numerous ranked opponents. We need to get our guys healthy. I thought they played really hard [against Maryland].”
Fleck said they will also work to make sure the players are mentally strong as they prepare for the final four regular-season games.
“We’ll get them healthy and have a health and wellness-type week, which will happen Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, something we’re doing very new and different for our players mentally, physically and emotionally to get them ready in all three of those areas for the rest of the season and the four-game stretch.”
And while the Gophers are focused on this season, Fleck said they aren’t done building. They currently have 24 commitments for the Class of 2020 and 247 Sports has them ranked No. 33 overall in the country, but that mark ranks only No. 9 in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to go out recruiting Thursday, Friday and Saturday and our players will have a little bit more time off, and then we’ll get into a normal game week on Sunday,” he said.