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:
Ten weeks ago, when Stefon Diggs missed two days’ worth of meetings and practice following the Vikings’ second loss of the season, rumblings surfaced through a variety of reports about the receiver’s dissatisfaction in Minnesota. That dissatisfaction, sources told the Star Tribune at the time, had brewed through the offseason and centered around several factors — the direction of the Vikings’ offense, Diggs’ place behind Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen in the pecking order and the passing game’s lack of production among them.
Diggs had 13 catches for 209 yards at that point of the season; he’s caught 43 passes for 687 yards since then. And on his way to his second straight 1,000-yard season, he’s quelled many of his issues (at least for the time being) by excelling in a manner not seen by a Vikings receiver since Randy Moss.
Diggs, who now has 56 catches for 996 yards this season, is on pace to become just the 15th player since the AFL-NFL merger to surpass 1,200 receiving yards while catching fewer than 70 passes in a season. His average of 17.8 yards per catch would be the highest by a Vikings 1,000-yard receiver since Moss averaged 18.7 yards per catch in 2000, and the fifth-highest ever by a Vikings receiver in a 1,000-yard season.
While Diggs had shown occasional flashes as a deep target earlier in his career, he’d subsisted in a Vikings offense that relied more on quick passes, averaging 11.6 yards per catch in his first four seasons. In a Vikings loss to the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, Diggs caught 13 passes for 80 yards, effectively working as a running back for a team that had to substitute short passes for its lack of a ground game.
Diggs had nine career catches of 40 yards or more before this season, never posting more than three in a year. This season, his seven catches of 40-plus yards have already matched Bernard Berrian’s 2008 output for the most in a season since Moss. Diggs has also surpassed all but two of Moss’s totals in Minnesota: his iconic rookie season, when he caught 14 passes of 40-plus yards in 1998, and 2000, when he caught nine passes of 40-plus yards.
This season, Diggs has blossomed as one of the NFL’s top downfield threats as the Vikings have used play action to resurrect a downfield passing game that hadn’t produced more than nine passes of 40-plus yards as a team since 2009. He’s averaging 14.6 air yards per target this season (the 10th-highest figure in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats). And only one player — Denver’s Courtland Sutton — has accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s air yards than Diggs, who’s been targeted with 42.11 percent of Kirk Cousins’ air yards this season.
He’s been able to maintain his production with Thielen out because of a hamstring injury and teams keying on Diggs more often. But as the Vikings often work with multiple tight ends, using Irv Smith as their slot receiver on passing downs next to Diggs and Bisi Johnson, Diggs has asserted himself as the Vikings’ top weapon. He’s all but a lock to lead the team in receiving yards for the first time since his rookie year, and if the workload shift in Thielen’s absence has served to ease some of Diggs’ concerns, that’s perhaps a silver lining to Thielen’s ongoing injury.
The Vikings will continue to hope for Thielen’s return on Sunday in Los Angeles, and they could have to recalibrate their offense, at least to some degree, when he does come back. But on Sunday, as Cousins threaded a tight sideline throw to Diggs for a 44-yard completion behind tight coverage from Darius Slay, it was striking to witness the chemistry in a relationship that looked earlier this season like it might not have much.
“Diggs did a great job running it down, holding on, keeping his feet in bounds,” Cousins said. “No surprise that he did that. You trust him in those moments to go down the field and make the play, and he did.”
Here are two other players who stood out in the Vikings’ 20-7 win over the Lions on Sunday:
Harrison Smith: The safety had one of his busier days of the season on Sunday, starting from the Vikings’ first defensive snap when he batted down a David Blough pass while rushing off the left edge of the Vikings’ defense. He disguised a blitz on the Lions’ third drive before rushing off the same edge and tackling Bo Scarbrough for a one-yard loss after Linval Joseph forced Scarbrough to cut back, and Smith registered his second interception of the season in the third quarter. He was flagged for a holding penalty after breaking up a Blough pass that might have gone for a touchdown had the quarterback not put so much air under it, but the five-yard flag might have been the lesser of two evils after Smith grabbed Amendola following what appeared to be a coverage mix-up between Xavier Rhodes and him.
Bisi Johnson: His one catch of the day was a big one — a nine-yard pass from Cousins that represented the Vikings’ lone passing touchdown of the day and showcased the rookie’s impressive route-running skills. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Johnson had 2.19 yards of separation from cornerback Amari Oruwariye when Cousins threw the ball. “You usually don’t expect someone to
be so open in the red zone, but I was aware of that undercut by the defensive back who was in trail position getting underneath him,” Cousins said. “So the ball was a little higher than I would have liked, but it also prevented the DB from being able to cut it. And great job by Bisi climbing the ladder and getting it and a great job getting that open where I was able to just work him number one because he was so open.”
Said Johnson on his leaping catch; “You just have to have a little dawg in you. That’s just our job to catch everything that comes your way, so when I see the ball up in the air, that’s mine.”
Three areas of concern:
Penalties: The Vikings had eight called against them, which was their most since they were flagged 12 times in their Week 4 win against the Giants. Among the infractions: An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Joseph; holding and false start penalties on punt plays from Stephen Weatherly and Ameer Abdullah, respectively; a false start penalty that wiped out a fourth-and-1 conversion from the Lions’ 4 and came when all 11 players were not set.
Third-down production: They have the league’s 10th-best offense on third downs, but the Vikings weren’t able to score more against the Lions on Sunday in part because of their struggles to extend drives. They converted just five of 14 third downs,
Slow second half: The Vikings punted on their first three drives of the second half, and their most productive drive ended with a Dan Bailey field goal after Alexander Mattison was stuffed for a five-yard loss on second-and-9. The Vikings held the ball for 10:39 in the third quarter, but a better team than the Lions might have forced the issue and made a more competitive game out of it than Detroit did after falling behind 17-0 at halftime.
Three trends to watch:
The Vikings’ use of play action: Their two games against the Lions this season have afforded Cousins opportunities to throw off play action more often than at virtually any other point this season. He did it on 18 of his 34 dropbacks at Ford Field in Week 7, and used it on 17 of his 31 dropbacks yesterday. According to Pro Football Focus, no QB used play action more often than Cousins in Week 14. The quarterback said the Lions (typically a heavy man-coverage team) mixed up their coverage concepts more often yesterday than they did in in Week 7, and the use of more zones might have given the Vikings even more favorable matchups for play action. Cousins hit 15 of his 17 throws for 133 yards and a TD off play action on Sunday. He’s thrown off play action more than all but two QBs in the league this season, but even by his standards, the Lions games have been outliers.
The cornerback rotation: Zimmer said after the game he’d planned to rotate Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes, even before Rhodes injured his ankle on Smith’s interception. Waynes played 54 of the Vikings’ 71 defensive snaps, while Rhodes and Hughes played 29 apiece. Holton Hill played 27 snaps, largely after Rhodes was injured; Zimmer said after the game the second-year corner remains “a work in progress.” Rhodes’ health this week bears watching, as does the way the Vikings play their corners heading into the postseason.
Red zone run success: It’s become clear that the Vikings’ go-to call around the goal line is the toss play they’ve used for Dalvin Cook touchdowns in three of their last four games (against the Cowboys, Seahawks and now the Lions). They ran it out of “11” personnel on Sunday, using Bisi Johnson and Laquon Treadwell as blockers rather than putting C.J. Ham on the field, and when they need a score, it’s clear they’re confident in their ability to get Cook to the right edge of the field (he bounced a direct handoff from Cousins to the right for a touchdown against the Broncos, too). But the Vikings got stuffed on a pair of red-zone handoffs to Alexander Mattison and Ham on Sunday before their false start that wiped out a fourth-down conversion. It’s worth noting when the Vikings, according to Sharp Football Stats, run the ball in the red zone on 61 percent of their plays (more than any team in the league).
And one big question:
How good should the Vikings feel about their playoff chances with the Rams getting on a roll? As things stand now, the Vikings have a one-game lead on the surging Rams for the NFC’s final wild-card spot, and remain a game behind the Packers in the NFC North with three to go. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Vikings still have a 72 percent chance of claiming a wild-card spot, with a 24 percent chance to win the NFC North. But if they’re unable to win out west against the Chargers on Sunday, things could change dramatically. A loss to the Chargers, coupled with a Rams win against the Cowboys, would drop the Vikings’ playoff chances to just 34 percent, since the Rams would hold the tiebreaker in wins over common opponents. Furthermore, losing on Sunday would require the Vikings to win their final two games against the Packers and Bears, while hoping for a Green Bay loss at home to Chicago this week or on the road in Detroit in Week 17. The Rams’ surge isn’t a cause for alarm just yet, since they still have a Week 16 trip to San Francisco on their schedule, but the Vikings’ playoff prospects get dicey if they can’t win on the West Coast (here’s where you Vikings fans should thank NBC for moving this game out of the Sunday night time slot).
(Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores)