The shared DNA of the Vikings' and Browns' offenses can be traced back to 2019, when then-Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski called Klint Kubiak about being part of a coaching staff that would also feature his father, Gary, as an offensive adviser and two longtime Kubiak assistants, Rick Dennison as offensive line coach and Brian Pariani as tight ends coach.
Stefanski had been a fan of the scheme dating back to Gary Kubiak's time in Houston with running back Arian Foster, and as it spread around the league, it also gave the Vikings an offensive foundation in the months after John DeFilippo's firing. It would put Kirk Cousins back under center, feature Dalvin Cook on wide-zone runs and pair those concepts with play-action passes designed to punish defenses for overcommitting to the run.
Cleveland has remained committed to the scheme with Stefanski as head coach, pairing it with some of offensive line coach Bill Callahan's power runs to build one of the better ground games in the league. Quarterback Baker Mayfield handed off 36 times in Cleveland's 14-7 win over the Vikings on Sunday, and the Browns gained 173 yards with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt running behind a line that featured four players who received All-Pro votes last year.
"Did we get pushed around today? Probably," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "But I'm telling you now, they know how to run the football and those two backs run hard. I'm not discouraged one bit about the lack of stopping the run."
The Vikings' inability to stop the run, though, came on a day where they could do little against the league's third-ranked run defense. The Browns, put simply, beat the Vikings at their own game.
Minnesota ran for only 65 yards on 23 attempts, and 34 of those yards came on three runs; Dalvin Cook gained 11 on the Vikings' opening touchdown drive, K.J. Osborn picked up 10 on a fly sweep and Cook got 13 more on an inside zone shotgun run with 3:45 to play. Setting aside those three plays — and a Cousins kneel-down at the end of the first half — the Vikings ran 19 times for 32 yards, short-circuiting their offense on a day where they did not score after their opening possession.
"I think, typically when you're running the wide zone like we are, you start them one way and you get the back side cut off," Zimmer said. "I don't think we did a good job of getting the back side cut off [Sunday]."
That issue presented itself in several forms, with the Browns sending in defenders from the second level to stop plays from the back side, but the Vikings' primary problem was with defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. Garrett had two tackles for loss — one on Cook in the second quarter, and one on Alexander Mattison in the fourth — and Clowney combined with Troy Hill to stop Mattison for a 2-yard loss in the third quarter after beating right tackle Brian O'Neill on the back side of the play.
Beyond that, the two ends were frequent presences in the Vikings' backfield, spilling runs outside or forcing cutbacks for Browns defenders to clean up. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson did the same, preventing the Vikings from consistently relying on their run game.
"Those two No. 1 draft picks [Clowney and Garrett] were a pain [Sunday] on our guys," Zimmer said. "But they did a good job in the run game, especially, and then that allowed them to rush the passer."
The Vikings also were cautious with Cook, who had only five rushing attempts after their opening touchdown drive. The running back was questionable to play because of a sprained right ankle, and was only on the field for 33 of the Vikings' 67 offensive snaps, limiting some of the team's offensive dynamism against a talented Browns front seven.
"I don't think it was an issue," Zimmer said of Cook's ankle. "He came out of the game one time a little gimpy. We took him out for a while, then he said he was good and he went back in."
This week brings an opportunity for a get-right game when the 0-4 Lions come to town, with their 24th-ranked run defense that allowed 188 yards to the Bears on Sunday. First-round pick Christian Darrisaw was also active for the first time against the Browns; he played only one snap on special teams, but if Rashod Hill continues to struggle, the Vikings could eventually turn to the rookie to see if he can provide an anchor on the left side of the line.
The Browns game, though, underscored how much trouble the Vikings can still encounter against talented defensive fronts like Cleveland's. The Vikings talk frequently about wanting to run the ball and stop the run, to put themselves in advantageous situations in the passing game. On Sunday, they ran into a team with the same philosophy, and the ability to do it better.
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Justin Jefferson: He scored the Vikings' only touchdown with another impressive piece of red-zone route running, beating safety John Johnson with his corner route and breaking it off in a zone with Denzel Ward to his outside shoulder. Jefferson saw bracket coverage from the Browns for a good chunk of the day, but still caught six of his seven targets from Cousins for 84 yards.
Everson Griffen: His role continues to grow every week; his 43 snaps were his most of the season. In addition to the sack he registered after beating Jedrick Willis while Danielle Hunter flushed Mayfield from the pocket, he did a solid job against the run on plays like his back side tackle of Chubb on a two-yard run in the second quarter.
TWO TRENDS TO WATCH
The Vikings' downfield passing attempts: Through the season's first three weeks, Cousins had attempted just six passes of 20 yards or more, completing two of them (a 27-yard connection with Tyler Conklin in Week 1 and a 64-yard TD to K.J. Osborn in Week 2). He attempted six on Sunday, and appeared to be looking for Jefferson deep when the Browns bracketed him and Cousins hit Thielen on an intermediate route for 22 yards instead. Cousins made an impressive throw to give Osborn a chance on the rookie's fantastic leaping sideline grab, and he threw a go ball to Jefferson that went for a 20-yard gain after the receiver came back to the ball. The two also beat Ward for 31 yards in the game's final minutes.
The quarterback's first interception of the year came on an underthrown deep shot to Thielen that Cousins admitted he'd forced in an attempt to spark the Vikings' offense. He's typically been at his best against the Lions, and deep shots against Detroit's man coverage schemes have often been part of the game plan. He'll likely see some of the same concepts against the Lions' new coaching staff, though defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn might use more split-safety looks than Detroit did under Matt Patricia and Paul Pasqualoni. In any case, it's worth watching if the downfield passing game becomes a bigger part of the Vikings' scheme again going forward.
Starting field position: The Vikings began their average drive from their own 22 and are ranked 31st in the league in starting field position, after finishing 32nd last year. Their goal-line stand against the Browns on Sunday might skew the statistic slightly, but they began three of their last five possessions inside their own 20, with a Harrison Hand holding penalty backing them up to the 18 on a drive that otherwise would have started from the Vikings' 30. The poor field position, lack of run game production and pressure on Cousins makes it difficult to sustain drives, and field position is again an area where the Vikings' special teams can help their offense.
ONE BIG QUESTION
Can the Vikings turn it around? After the team's third close loss in four weeks, Zimmer built his case for the Vikings sticking it out — to whoever might have been listening — on his coaching experience. "Like I told the team, I've been doing this 27 years," he said. "I know good teams and I know bad teams. I know this team has a chance to be pretty darn good. We may not look like it right now because we're 1-3, but even like Kevin [Stefanski] said to me before the game, 'you got a really good football team here.' And they do, too. They were just a little bit better than us today."
A victory over the winless Lions would make the Vikings 2-3, with a chance to get to .500 by beating Carolina before the bye week. But the Vikings' next two games against teams that currently have losing records are against the Lions, and ... the Lions, who play host to the Vikings on Dec. 5. In between, there's a pernicious six-game stretch against teams that currently have a combined record of 16-7, highlighted by a November slate that includes two trips to the West Coast and a home matchup with the Packers.
To have reasonable playoff expectations before a stretch of division games in December, the Vikings would likely need to beat the Lions on Sunday and at least split the next six games. That's a tall order when four of the six are on the road and four involve matchups with Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Aaron Rodgers. But if that's where the Vikings put their season back together, Zimmer will be able to stand on his proclamation from Sunday.
If not? It's anyone's guess what happens from there.