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:
Three years ago today, when I was still covering the Vikings for ESPN, I wrote a piece on defensive line coach Andre Patterson’s impact on the Vikings’ defensive front. In an interview for that story, Patterson said something about Danielle Hunter — then 22 years old — that popped back into my head on Sunday.
With Hunter in the midst of a breakout season, during which he posted 12 1/2 sacks in 2016, Patterson said there were a number of areas where the defensive end could still improve. How so?
“The thing you’d be able to see is more tackles for loss for him in the running game,” Patterson said then. “That part of his run play hasn’t showed up yet. He plays his blocking schemes well. He can stretch and make tackles on the other side of the field. But he’ll get to a point where he’ll read the scheme so fast that he’ll be able to get off it and get the back before he gets close to the line of scrimmage.”
This season, as Hunter puts himself in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation with his 13 1/2 sacks, he’s continued to close in on Patterson’s vision of what he can be as a run defender. On a day where the Vikings recorded seven takeaways in a game for the first time in 24 years, Hunter started things off with the kind of play we’ve seen him make with increasing frequency this year: He shed wide receiver Keenan Allen’s block, ranged to his left to catch up to Melvin Gordon and pried the ball loose after Mike Hughes’ initial hit. It was the first of Hunter’s two forced fumbles on a day where he also recovered one and posted a sack, and it underscored what a complete player he’s become on the defensive line.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hunter entered Sunday tied for 11th in the league among edge defenders with 18 run stops this season. He finished tied for sixth a year ago, with 26 run stops, and he’s now set a career high with three forced fumbles this season.
Hunter was the NFC’s defensive player of the week after notching 2 1/2 sacks against the Lions, and he might keep the award again after what he did on Sunday — fulfilling Patterson’s words by showing he can wreck opposing offenses in more ways than one.
Here are two other players who stood out in the Vikings’ 39-10 win over the Chargers on Sunday:
Riley Reiff: The Vikings talked for much of the week about how stiff of a challenge they faced against the Chargers’ defensive front, and with good reason; Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two of the league’s more talented pass rushers, and Bosa in particular was a force against the Packers’ accomplished offensive line last month. On Sunday, Bosa didn’t register a sack, and had just one quarterback hit, while Ingram’s only impactful play came when he disengaged with Reiff and peeled back into coverage to intercept a Cousins screen pass. On Sunday, when Cousins wasn’t sacked, Reiff deserves credit for helping keep him clean.
Harrison Smith: Philip Rivers went out of his way to compliment Smith after the game, saying he thinks the safety “does a heck of a job.” It was another impactful day for Smith on Sunday, as he ranged back into coverage to pick Rivers off before recovering a fumble. “Harrison is a great competitor,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He was giving me some suggestions of what to call. I was going to give him the headset and have him do it. He’s a heck of a competitor and good football player.”
Three areas of concern:
Big plays in the secondary: It seems to come up every week in this space, but the Vikings continue to struggle to find ways to stop quarterbacks from hitting big throws downfield against them. On Sunday, it was Philip Rivers burning their cornerbacks on hitch routes that went for 12-15 yards at a time. Those plays aren’t the end of the world, but it was striking how comfortable Rivers seemed to be (especially in the first half) with the idea of throwing at the Vikings’ corners (particularly Mike Hughes) and assuming his receivers would win the matchup. Zimmer has long said turnovers are a nice bonus on defense, but the main priority is for defenders not to let their man catch the ball. At least in the first half — and before the game got out of control — it was worth wondering how effective the Vikings’ pass defense would have been if not for the gifts Rivers gave them at times.
Running game consistency: The Vikings ran for 140 yards on Sunday (not including kneel-downs), but they needed 34 carries to do it, and they’re finding it harder to produce big plays with any regularity. Some of that is because Dalvin Cook has missed time because of injury, but the Vikings are also struggling to win at the line of scrimmage when they need to run the ball up the middle. Their longest run on Sunday was Kirk Cousins’ 14-yarder on what appeared to be a designed keeper, and they’ve had just four runs of 15 yards or more in their past five games, after producing 21 in their first nine. The Vikings have lived on their outside toss plays — they’re 11 percent more successful than the league average when running outside to the right, according to Sharp Football Stats — but they haven’t enjoyed that same kind of success up the middle (Sharp Football rates them 42 percent below league average when running behind the right guard, 1 percent below average when running behind center, and 3 percent above average when running behind left guard). It will be interesting to see how the Packers attack the Vikings on Monday night; they resolved to take away Cousins’ bootlegs in Week 2, and seemed content to let Cook run. With Cook and Alexander Mattison hurting, the Vikings will have to hope their top two backs can return or lean on Mike Boone and their creativity on Monday night.
QB/center exchanges: They didn’t come back to hurt the Vikings on Sunday, but Cousins had a pair of bad exchanges with center Garrett Bradbury that resulted in fumbles. The quarterback fell on both balls, but lost two yards on one play and a yard on the other.
Three trends to watch:
How the Vikings use their receivers down the stretch: Adam Thielen played 33 of the Vikings’ 65 offensive snaps snaps in his first game back from a hamstring injury on Sunday, and said afterward he felt fine. The Vikings gave some playing time to Bisi Johnson and Alexander Hollins on Sunday, and still gave Irv Smith some work as a slot receiver. It’s worth noting they only used Laquon Treadwell for 11 snaps on Sunday; the 2016 first-round pick has had some brighter moments in his second stint with the team, but it’s worth wondering if his playing time will dwindle as the Vikings make decisions about which receivers are in their future.
Where Ifeadi Odenigbo lines up: The Vikings had used Odenigbo primarily as an interior rusher on third downs earlier this season, but they’re starting to give him more work at defensive end, particularly on the right side, as the season goes on. He played 18 of his 30 snaps at right end on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and got 27 of his 42 there last week. He’s earned a bigger role, and more of the Vikings’ trust, as he’s improved markedly this season, and his presence has combined with Stephen Weatherly’s to give the Vikings perhaps their best defensive end depth of the Zimmer era. In a pair of comfortable wins in the past two weeks, they’ve been able to give more playing time to the two younger players and manage the workloads of Hunter and Everson Griffen. That could prove especially important come playoff time; Zimmer talked after the Vikings’ NFC Championship Game loss two years ago about how the team didn’t rush the passer as well down the stretch as he would have liked, and a deeper complement of defensive ends can only help as the Vikings try to keep players fresh.
How the Vikings use play action against the Packers and Bears: It’s become a staple of their offense as the season has gone on, and the Vikings are undoubtedly more proficient with it than they were in September’s losses to Green Bay and Chicago, but those two games were two of Cousins’ worst of the season on play action. According to Pro Football Focus, he hit just eight of his 14 throws on play action in those two games, throwing an interception without a touchdown. The Packers, in particular, sold out to stop Cousins on boot action, and both the Packers and Bears have edge rushers that could impact what the Vikings do in play action. It’s worth keeping an eye on one of the central planks of their scheme to see how effective it is in their two most important division games of the season.
And one big question:
How worried should the Vikings be about Dalvin Cook’s health: The only piece of information Zimmer was willing to give on Sunday, in a series of clipped answers about Cook’s injury status, was that the shoulder injury the running back sustained Sunday was not the same as the bruise to his chest and shoulder area that knocked him out of the Dec. 2 loss to Seattle. Cook stayed on the sideline in the second half, rather than heading to the locker room for additional tests, but declined an interview request after the game (he talked in Seattle to say he’d be fine and play the following week). Beyond his status for the Packers game, though, Cook’s injuries are bound to reignite old questions about his durability, especially as the Vikings move into an offseason where they’ll begin to decide whether they want to give him a long-term contract. He hasn’t posted more than 75 yards from scrimmage since Nov. 10, and again appeared to be in quite a bit of pain when he was initially hurt on Sunday. Mike Boone filled in capably with Cook and Alexander Mattison out, but as much as the Vikings have centered their offense around Cook this season, they need to know they can count on him if they have designs on a deep playoff run.
(Photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune)