The Vikings’ offensive improvement this season cannot be overstated. Following their 30-23 victory at Detroit on Thursday in which they outgained the Lions 408-289 in total yards, they are fourth in the NFL in total offense at 375.7 yards per game. Last season, they were 28th in the league at 315.1.
And if you want the real reason for optimism about the Vikings’ postseason chances, consider that they are the only team in the NFL in the top five in both total offense and total defense. They rank No. 5 in defense at 290.4 yards per game.
The offense, of course, has been the bigger surprise. One of the main reasons for its success has been third-down conversions. After going 6-for-13 on third downs Thursday, the Vikings lead the NFL with 68 completed third downs and are fourth in in third-down completion percentage at 45.6 percent.
Vikings receiver Adam Thielen is second in the NFL in first-down receptions on third down, according to the Washington Post, with 20, trailing only the 24 of the Chargers’ Keenan Allen.
“Obviously we know as an offense that third downs are huge, for every team,” Thielen said. “It’s something we talked about in the offseason that we needed to get better at third-down conversions. Coaches have done a really good job all season of putting us in really good positions, and our quarterback Case [Keenum] has done such a good job of giving the receivers a chance and letting us make a play.
“That is kind of just what happened on Thursday against the Lions was he trusted us to get open and threw the ball and gave us a chance. We were able to convert some big third downs.”
Yes, the combination of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s play-calling and the efficiency of this offense has been the best surprise of the Vikings’ 9-2 start. Thielen said that the coaches have been putting the players in the right position all season.
“All of the coaches have given me the opportunity and put me in a great situation each week, along with all of our guys,” he said. “We have a lot of playmakers and we have a lot of faith and trust in our coaching staff to put us in good positions. It’s the same thing with Case. He has trust that a good play is going to be called and he’s going to make the most of it. We’re very fortunate. I’m very fortunate to have great coaches and great players around me.”
Thielen had eight receptions Thursday, continuing his season-long streak of having at least five receptions in every game. He’s the only NFL receiver who can say that. He also became the first Vikings player to reach 1,000 receiving yards since Sidney Rice in 2009.
“Just as long as our team is having success and winning games, that is the most important thing,” he said. “Having a bunch of catches doesn’t mean anything unless you’re winning games and you’re helping your team win. For me I’m just trying to get better every week and help this team and do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
The Vikings have tied their fifth-longest single-season winning streak at seven. The 1969 Vikings won 12 in a row, the 1975 team 10, the ’73 team nine and the ’98 team had streaks of eight and seven.
“I think each game you kind of gain confidence throughout the season. But each game is a big game,” Thielen said. “It seems like each week feels like a must-win situation. Last week was that way and it almost feels like that going into the next game [at Atlanta next Sunday], feels like a must-win. That’s kind of the way we take it is take it one week at a time and don’t look too far ahead.”
Thielen said the whole team is buying into the next-game-up mentality, even if they all feel there is a larger goal at the end of the season.
“I think that is the end goal [to reach the Super Bowl],” he said. “But we can’t look too far ahead. There is so much football to be played before then. We have to keep coming to work, keep getting better, and let everything play itself out. We have to take care of our individual battle each day.”
And while it may be surprising, so far Thielen and the Vikings offense have done just that.
Zimmer looks to improve
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said there was a number of things to be happy about Thursday, even if there remains room for improvement.
“I didn’t like the special teams, we didn’t play very well there. We missed some opportunities to score more points and gave up field position on a couple of occasions,” Zimmer said. “But I liked the physicality that we played with. I thought defensively we were solid for most of the game. They made a couple of great catches. Offensively the same way, we moved the ball, we scored points. When the game gets into crunch time I like how this team responds.”
Does he feel like the division is wrapped up? “Not yet. We still have a few more to go,” Zimmer said. “But we’re going to try to continue to get some more wins and stack them up.”
While Zimmer can’t say it, most of the experts already have. Footballoutsiders.com, which does playoff predictions, has the Vikings’ odds of winning the division at 83.4 percent, and their chance of making the playoffs at 95.4 percent. Yes, an incredible stretch of offensive football has opened up all kinds of possibilities for this squad.
• It’s a well-known fact that Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst was Joel Maturi’s first choice for Gophers coach before the athletic director hired Tim Brewster in 2007, and Maturi interviewed Chryst in Dallas for the job. But because of his personal relationships with the Chryst family, Maturi knew both he and Chryst would be under a lot of scrutiny if he was hired here.
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on how the team settled on free-agent offensive linemen Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff: “A lot of it is about mentality, brought in a couple of guys with the mentality that we’re looking for. Smart guys. Tough guys.”
• The Gophers will enter next season still needing a long-term solution at quarterback, and coach P.J. Fleck said they’re working on that. “We are looking at all quarterbacks right now for 2018. I would like to be able to take more than one. … If it is a junior college quarterback, I usually don’t like to take guys who only have two years.”
• Twins President Dave St. Peter said that manager Paul Molitor is a key decision-maker on their coaching hires. “I think Garvin Alston as a pitching coach, we’re hopeful he’ll do the same thing on the pitching side that James Rowson has done on the hitting side,” said St. Peter, noting how improved the offense was under Rowson.
• Kyle Shurmur, the son of Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, is having a standout junior season for Vanderbilt. He has thrown for 2,823 yards, including 283 in Saturday’s 42-24 victory at Tennessee.
• Former Gophers offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, in his first season as UCLA offensive coordinator, served as Bruins interim coach for their 30-27 victory over Cal on Friday following the firing of Jim Mora. Fisch, who was on Brewster’s staff in 2009, figures to stay in the role for UCLA’s bowl game before Chip Kelly takes over. Fisch also promoted former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber to QB coach after serving as an offensive analyst.