When the Vikings moved back downtown after two seasons as guests at TCF Bank Stadium, they sought to blend modern comforts at U.S. Bank Stadium with the kind of jarring environment they’d created for opponents at the Metrodome.
Eighteen games into their tenure at their new facility, they appear to be succeeding.
The Vikings, who play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, are 14-4 at U.S. Bank Stadium, counting last January’s playoff win over the Saints. Their .778 winning percentage at home is the third-best in the NFL during that time, behind the Eagles (.842) and Patriots (.810). Since the start of 2017, only the Eagles have been better at home. And the Vikings, who have won seven in a row at home, are tied wit the Jaguars for the longest current streak in the league.
It should be noted, of course, that the teams in the Vikings’ company are some of the best in the league: the Eagles and Patriots played in the Super Bowl last season, and the Jaguars, like the Vikings, reached their conference title game. But a big part of NFL success is the ability to consistently close out home games; None of the NFL’s 12 playoff teams in 2017 had a losing record at home, and only two (the Falcons and Rams) were worse than 6-2. The Vikings’ ability to take care of business at home set them up for a deep playoff run last year, and before they embark on a tough two-game road trip against the Rams and Eagles, they’ll try to run their home win streak to seven games on Sunday.
Here are some other notes and observations as the Vikings get ready for Week 3 against the Bills:
2. The Vikings kept only three defensive ends active for last Sunday’s game in Green Bay, and weren’t able to develop as much of a rotation on their defensive line as they’d like, due to the Packers’ ability to go to a hurry-up offense once Aaron Rodgers sees an opportunity to make a team pay for changing personnel. Stephen Weatherly played 18 snaps with Tashawn Bower inactive, filling in for Danielle Hunter 10 times and Everson Griffen eight. With Griffen out for Sunday’s game and Weatherly set to make his first NFL start, it will be interesting to see how much the Vikings employ a rotation at defensive end, especially facing a mobile quarterback like Josh Allen.
3. Through his first two games as the Vikings’ starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins has been at his best when he’s had a chance to pick apart the second level of a defense. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins has completed 11 of his 15 passes that traveled between 10 and 20 yards, posting 179 yards and a touchdown on those throws.
4. Cousins has also shown he can push the ball downfield; he’s got a 135.4 passer rating on attempts of 20 yards or more this season, having completed 5 of his 10 throws for 155 yards and four TDs. His 75-yarder to Stefon Diggs last week came off a play-action look in the shotgun, where Cousins was able to hold safety Kentrell Brice in the middle of the field while lofting a 62-yard pass to Diggs behind cornerback Davon House.
5. The 16-yard completion Cousins had to Adam Thielen, on a 3rd-and-7 late in the second quarter on Sunday, showcased his ability to thread a throw to his receiver with two defenders bearing down on him. “[It was] on what we call a ‘circus’ route, which is basically a two-step inside release, up vertical to 15 [yards], roll it out to 18,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “It was against 22-man [coverage]. He just had two guys just bearing down on his face. He stood in there, stepped and threw. Knew he was going to get hit. I think that shows everybody, not only our team but a football world, how tough a guy Kirk is. That is not easy to do. Not every starter in the NFL can do what he did on that play. I think you recognize that. I think you show that. I think that it obviously earns him respect as a legitimate tough guy. That is what you need to have success to play this position.”
6. One more on Cousins and the passing game: After Brian O’Neill replaced the injured Rashod Hill in the third quarter last Sunday, the Packers blitzed Clay Matthews off the right side of the line. The Vikings had three receivers in a bunch formation to the right side, creating a bit of a legal pick for Kyle Rudolph when the tight end slipped behind in-breaking routes from Thielen and Diggs. Cousins rolled out and found Rudolph for 23 yards with Matthews bearing down on him.
“That play was game planned,” DeFilippo said. “We knew in that situation that more than likely we were getting man coverage. I don't want to talk too much scheme in here because we have to play these guys again. I think NFL film is so readily available nowadays that if you really, really watched it and saw what we were trying to do, I think it got executed to perfection. I'll tell you Adam Thielen did an excellent job on that play and he wasn't even in the progression. I'll leave it at that. That play is designed to leave the end man on the line of scrimmage free for the quarterback. You're hoping, it doesn't always happen, but you're hoping that he crashes down on the line of scrimmage. Crashes down with the run fake. Clay [Matthews] did a great job of getting up the field in Kirk's face. Obviously, Kirk did a great job executing that play, throwing off balance. Rudy [Kyle Rudolph] did a nice job of finishing.”
7. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said this week the team is happy with rookie Mike Hughes as its kickoff returner. But as Hughes gets more work in the Vikings’ defense, Priefer is lining up other options. Cornerback Holton Hill brought back one kickoff for 28 yards last week, and new receiver Aldrick Robinson also has experience as a return man. With punt returner Marcus Sherels out on Sunday because of a chest injury, the Vikings will have to marshal their resources on both return units.
8. It will be interesting to see what kind of work Pat Elflein plays in his season debut on Sunday, after returning from offseason shoulder and ankle surgery. Coach Mike Zimmer said Elflein won’t start, but that the team has a role in mind for Elflein. It’s possible the Vikings would use Elflein as an extra lineman in a heavy package, to get him some contact in his first game action of the season before thinking about making him the starting center again. The Vikings’ interior line has had its share of struggles with tough tackles like San Francisco’s DeForest Buckner and Green Bay’s Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark so far this season, and Buffalo will present a challenge with the likes of Kyle Williams and Star Lotulelei on Sunday.
9. As the Bills come to town, they’ll have something of a defensive wrinkle involving their play-calling. Coach Sean McDermott took play-calling duties away from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier during last week’s loss to the Chargers, and as Frazier returns to Minneapolis for his first regular-season game since the Vikings fired him after the 2013 season, he’ll be “collaborating” with McDermott on the Bills’ defensive game plan, as the coach put it this week. DeFilippo, though, isn’t expecting major changes from the Bills.
“There's only so much wholesale change you can do in one week,” he said. “That doesn't mean that their pressure numbers aren’t going to change; instead of pressuring 14 percent of the time on third down, it may go up to 25 percent. There's only so much you can do when you've had OTAs, training camp, two games of the season so far, you can't just wholesale a change and say, "Hey, we're going to go from a 4-3 to a 3-4." Obviously we're expecting their best shot, we're ready for anything. I talked to the players about just following our base rules in protection, be ready for the unscouted look. I'm sure they're going to have something for us that we haven't seen, there's no doubt. Coach McDermott has got the reputation he has for a reason, and he's a darn good coach. Hopefully we'll be ready for whatever he throws at us.”
10. This will only be the 14th time the Vikings and Bills have faced each other in the regular season; there are only 10 teams in the NFL the Vikings have faced less than Buffalo. In the first matchup between the teams, on Oct. 3, 1971, the Vikings held O.J. Simpson to 45 yards in a 19-0 win at Met Stadium. The most recent matchup, on Oct. 19, 2014, saw veteran quarterback Kyle Orton lead a late Bills comeback that involved a 4th-and-20 completion to tight end Scott Chandler and a two-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins over Xavier Rhodes with one second left. The Bills won the game 17-16, dropping the Vikings to 2-5 in their first season under Zimmer before they won five of their final nine games.