If you want one reason why Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins struggled in a 20-9 preseason victory over Arizona on Saturday, completing only three of 13 passes for 35 yards, you can look to the absence of wide receiver Adam Thielen, who was a healthy scratch.
And after the game, coach Mike Zimmer said that there’s no doubt this team will have to play with more urgency if it is to succeed this season.
Thielen undoubtedly will play a big part of that. Statistically, his first half last season was one of the best stretches of wide receiver play in NFL history. The undrafted Minnesota State Mankato product recorded over 100 yards receiving in each of the Vikings’ first eight games and totaled 925 yards on 74 receptions to go along with six scores.
The second half of 2018 was a different story. Thielen broke 100 yards in a game only once and finished with 448 yards receiving on 39 receptions.
Oddly, that drop-off didn’t change the Vikings’ record much: They were 4-3-1 in their first eight games and 4-4 in their last eight.
The 29-year-old from Detroit Lakes said that as he prepares for his fifth NFL season, the only numbers he is concerned about are wins and losses.
“It depends on how you define success, if you define it by yards and catches, then yes you’re right [the second half was worse]. But we don’t worry about that,” he said. “We go out there and work our tail off and we’re going to try to get open and we’re going to try to help this team win games. We obviously didn’t do a good enough job of doing that, because we didn’t win those games when they mattered.”
Does Thielen believe the team is making strides on offense? “That is a daily focus, to make sure we’re taking care of the little things, and the little things are what help you late in the season,” he said. “When you’re tired and all of that, you tend to fall back on the little things.”
In limited snaps earlier in the preseason, Thielen caught one pass for 34 yards in the Vikings’ opener at New Orleans and had three receptions for 45 yards vs. Seattle last Sunday.
Thielen didn’t hesitate when saying this is a new Vikings offense. “It has changed completely. It’s just a different style. It’s a different style of offense,” he said. “It’s a different way we attack the defense. I think the biggest difference is the way that the run game and the pass game kind of basically work together.”
Does he believe there’s a big difference in training camp and preseason this year compared to last?
“It has gone smooth. It’s just like any training camp, there are some ups and downs. But I feel like guys are coming out here and working every day,” he said. “We have a really good group of guys that just comes out and grinds, doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t complain about it, just comes out here and works.”
Connecting with Cousins
Thielen and Kirk Cousins had a solid first season, but they also had a dust-up on the sideline during the season finale. Both players have said that was just their competitive nature.
At the end of the year, Thielen was tied for fourth in the NFL with 113 receptions, ninth with 1,373 receiving yards and 10th with nine touchdown receptions. Those were all career highs.
The yards were also a career high for any wide receiver that Cousins has worked with, with the next closest being Pierre Garcon, who had 1,041 for Washington in 2016.
What has Thielen seen from Cousins so far this preseason?
“He is coming out here and competing, he is trying to get better every day and trying to help this team get better,” Thielen said. “His mind-set has been great, to have a leader like that who just comes out here and works and doesn’t complain and just goes and works.”
Implementing game plan
Thielen said the combination of Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator and Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach is working smoothly, adding that Kubiak’s previous success is something that rubs off on players.
“Coach Kubiak has done a great job of stepping in every once in a while to give some insight on some of the teams that have had success that he has been around and why they had success and some of the things we need to do to get to that level,” Thielen said. “It’s such a great mix to have both of those guys, with Kevin leading us but having Coach Kubiak with his insight.”
How does he feel about the system they have put in? “I think they did a great job of collaborating this offseason and putting together the best system for the Minnesota Vikings and for this team,” Thielen said. “I think obviously again, [Stefanski] is leading us and he is installing the plays and it is his deal. It’s great to have every one of those coaches in that room, because you can tell that every one of them has a piece of this offense.”
And Thielen added that the new Vikings offense is really going to improve the line by giving linemen a better system to protect Cousins and run the ball more efficiently. “They have improved for sure,” he said.
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck on which players could surprise heading into the season opener Thursday against South Dakota State: “I would probably say Keonte Schad, one of our 3 techniques [defensive linemen] has really emerged. Noah Hickcox has had a really good camp on the D-line. I think the D-line in general has really improved.”
• Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey on center fielder Byron Buxton’s rehab: “Each and every day that he does a progression in our training room with our doctors and our athletic training folk and strength coaches, they keep saying he’s getting stronger and stronger and not feeling much pain.”
• Washington State football will be featured this season on a new show on HBO, so look for former Gophers coach Tracy Claeys to get a lot of screen time as Cougars defensive coordinator.
• The Gophers men’s basketball team will face Nebraska at home this season, which means former Timberwolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg will be back in the Twin Cities in his first season as Cornhuskers coach. Hoiberg’s 2019 recruiting class ranks fifth in the Big Ten after Nebraska ranked last in 2018. He has three offers out to 2020 players from Minnesota: Dawson Garcia of Prior Lake, Ben Carlson of East Ridge and Kerwin Walton of Hopkins.
• ESPN basketball reporter Kevin Pelton picked the Wolves 10th in the Western Conference writing, “The Timberwolves might be a bit underrated because of the return of forward Robert Covington, who missed the final 45 games of last season.”
• One pitcher to keep an eye on in the Twins farm system is Bailey Ober at Class AA Pensacola. The Twins drafted the 24-year-old righthander in the 12th round in 2017 out of the College of Charleston. In 68⅔ innings this season spanning three levels, he is 7-0 with a 0.79 ERA, 86 strikeouts and only eight walks.