Photo credit: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
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:
In two losses to the Bears last year — arguably the two games that most defined their disappointing season — the Vikings’ frustrations mounted particularly around their inability to run the ball against Vic Fangio’s defense. Fangio is now the Broncos’ head coach, where he presides over a defense ranked fourth in the NFL. And though the Broncos were ranked just 17th against the run, the Vikings talked all week about how tough their challenge would be to move the ball against Denver.
Their furious comeback, which saw them erase a 20-0 deficit on the way to a 27-23 win, was their biggest since 1992 and tied the fourth-biggest rally in franchise history. It also helped the Vikings win without the ground game that’s become the centerpiece of their offense.
The Vikings, who had just 37 yards on 18 attempts on Sunday, became just the fifth team in the NFL this season to win without rushing for 40 yards in a game (the 49ers also did it Sunday). Those teams are 5-24 this season.
The obvious retort here is, “Well, of course teams lose when they can’t run the ball,” since many teams in the pass-first NFL log most of their rushing attempts when they have leads.
But the Vikings are unique in the sense they’ve made a point to stick with their run game in most contexts this season; they ran for 198 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Packers where they fell behind 21-0, and before Sunday, they’d run almost as often as they’d thrown on first and second when trailing this season (73 passes to 71 runs). Even when trailing by seven points or more this season, the Vikings have run the ball 45 percent of the time on first and second down; only the 49ers (who’d run just 23 plays on offense while trailing by more than seven this season) had run on a larger percentage of plays when they were behind.
So it was striking to see the game the Vikings played in the second half on Sunday, when they went almost exclusively into a hurry-up offense and ran Dalvin Cook on just seven of their 35 plays in the final two quarters. Listening to what Mike Zimmer said after the game, it sounded as though the Vikings made the switch more to create a spark than to respond to the game circumstances.
“We needed to do that,” he said. “We had to try to tire them down a little bit. We were so lethargic in the first half. Things weren’t going our way. We had to speed it up.”
It’s the kind of game the Vikings have almost tried not to play, even if analytics would suggest they should throw more frequently than they do, and it’s the kind of approach offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has been careful to avoid after taking over following John DeFilippo’s ouster last December.
On Sunday, though, they changed their stripes almost out of necessity, and made it work.
“To stay in our base offense clearly wasn’t working,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “So I wonder, if it had been a closer game, if you still want to jump in at two-minute [offense], just because they were defending us so well in the first half to what we were doing. We just weren’t running the football, and they were taking away a lot in the pass game.”
Here are two other trends to watch from the Vikings’ 27-23 win over the Broncos:
Whether the Vikings will incorporate more hurry-up offense: According to Sharp Football Stats, the Vikings were in a no-huddle offense for 12 plays in the third quarter on Sunday (more than any team in the league) and eight in the fourth quarter (the third-most in the NFL during Week 11). It sparked the offense on Sunday, but as Cousins has said repeatedly throughout the season, the players’ job is to play the game that’s called. Before Sunday, the Vikings had run the 18th-most no-huddle plays in the league — partly as a result of the fact they’ve been ahead in the fourth quarter for much of the year — and had dabbled with it only sparingly outside of two-minute drills or late-game comeback situations. But as Kyle Rudolph told our Andrew Krammer after the game, former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur used no-huddle sets to great effect at times in 2017. It’s worth watching if Stefanski — Shurmur’s former quarterbacks coach — tries to employ it a little more often going forward.
The Vikings’ health coming out of the bye week: Their injury report last week was longer than normal, and Mike Zimmer is letting players leave for the bye week after meetings today (rather than keeping them for practices on Tuesday and/or Wednesday, as he often has). The groin injury that kept Anthony Harris out yesterday seemed to have occurred in practice on Wednesday, and linebacker Ben Gedeon sustained his second concussion in a month yesterday. With a week off and an extra day before a Monday night matchup against Seattle, the bye week falls at a good time for the Vikings; we’ll see how much they can use it to their benefit.
Three players who stood out:
Danielle Hunter: He didn’t post a sack on Sunday, but he was a regular presence in the Broncos’ backfield, applying frequent pressure to flush Brandon Allen out of the pocket or force him to get rid of the ball quickly.
Trae Waynes: On a day where the Broncos had success throwing at Xavier Rhodes, Waynes came up with a number of the Vikings’ biggest plays in pass coverage. He gave up Courtland Sutton’s 31-yard throw to Tim Patrick when he missed his attempt to bat the ball down, and coach Mike Zimmer has talked about his corners’ need to make plays on the ball when they’re in position to do so. But Waynes stuffed a Noah Fant run for a five-yard loss, had a breakup as the Broncos tried to win the game in the final seconds and finished with five tackles.
Stefon Diggs: After a first half without an official target (not including the 34-yard pass that was called back because of a Riley Reiff holding penalty), Diggs was an inferno as he paced up and down the sideline in the second half. Once the Vikings finally got him going, he continued his emergence as one of the NFL’s pre-eminent deep threats. According to Pro Football Focus, he was tied for third in the league with 10 catches of 20 yards or more before yesterday, and he added catches of 44 and 54 yards on Sunday. The latter went for a touchdown on a play where Diggs was Cousins’ fourth read. “He was pretty open,” Cousins said. “You go through your progression, one, two, three, four. Was he [number] four? Yeah, he was four, but he’s still part of the progression, and you look at the tape, you’ll see that I had time to set up. I had time to get to number four. I had a coach in Washington that would say, ‘You hit that route once a decade,’ and we’ve hit it twice this year. So it’s a little bit of an anomaly, but you go through your progression and take what they give you.”
Three areas of concern:
Special teams play: The Vikings have struggled to find reliable return men in the years after Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs and Marcus Sherels on punts, and they were burned a couple times on special teams Sunday. Ameer Abdullah’s fumbled kickoff — on a ball Zimmer said Abdullah shouldn’t have brought out of the end zone — would likely have cost the Vikings points if Brandon Allen hadn’t thrown into double coverage for an interception, and Mike Hughes muffed a punt in the fourth quarter before Cousins’ touchdown to Diggs. The Vikings also had an Eric Wilson neutral zone infraction penalty on a punt, giving Denver a first down and extending a drive that resulted in a field goal and ran 7:06 off the clock.
Offensive line penalties: We mentioned Reiff’s holding penalty that wiped out what would have been the Vikings’ only big play of the first half, and Pat Elflein was also flagged for a false start in the first quarter, two plays after he was knocked down as the Broncos stuffed Dalvin Cook on a run.
Pass coverage in the secondary: It’s become a weekly theme, but it must be mentioned again after the Vikings put themselves in a 20-point hole largely because of the big plays they gave up (or created with their own penalties). Xavier Rhodes had tight coverage on Sutton’s 48-yard reception in the first quarter, but was hit for a 24-yard pass interference penalty two plays later, and had a holding penalty offset in the second quarter. Sutton — the first receiver Rhodes has been asked to shadow since Week 2 — also beat Rhodes for 43 yards on a double move in the fourth quarter, when Rhodes was only able to grab Sutton’s towel as he went by him. The Broncos targeted Mike Hughes on a back-shoulder throw to Tim Patrick that went for 29 yards in the third quarter, and Rhodes got caught off-balance on a 14-yard completion to Royce Freeman that helped Denver pick up a 3rd-and-13 on its final drive.
And one big question:
Is Cousins playing well enough to take the Vikings on a playoff run? Given the fact the Vikings were playing the Broncos yesterday — where Joe Flacco sat on the bench — it was awfully tempting to phrase this question as, “Is Kirk Cousins elite?” but we resisted. At any rate, the quarterback has taken a big bite out of two of the long-standing narratives about him — his inability to beat good teams on the road or play well in the clutch — over the past two weeks, and it’s tough to imagine the Vikings could ask for much more out of him right now. He’s fifth in the NFL with 2,756 passing yards, despite ranking just 14th in attempts, and is fourth in the NFL with 7.64 net yards per attempt. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns against just three interceptions, has been precise in the red zone (another area of his game where he’s historically struggled) and has completed 70.6 percent of his passes. His 114.8 passer rating is second in the NFL, a tenth of a point behind Russell Wilson and seven-tenths of a point ahead of Patrick Mahomes. If Cousins isn’t in the MVP conversation yet, a victory over Wilson and the Seahawks in two weeks would have to vault him into the center of it.
Now, whether it will translate to the playoffs remains to be seen, especially if the Vikings run into a defense that can take away some of the downfield shots that have become such a central plank of their passing offense. We also haven’t seen the kinds of backbreaking turnovers that have dogged Cousins at times in his career; he lost a fumble on a strip sack yesterday, but hasn’t thrown an interception since the Week 5 pass that Diggs batted back into traffic. Cousins has been the first to say he needs to build the kind of resume that will allow him to answer critics, and he’ll eventually need playoff victories to do that. But right now, he’s doing everything the Vikings could want.
“You guys can be as hard on me as you want,” he said. “I’m living a dream. I’m well compensated. I’ve got to take the good with the bad. I’ve got a lot of good with my job. If that means there’s pressure and weight and expectations that sometimes are unfair, that comes with the territory. Welcome to maybe living life at a higher altitude than I used to. That’s okay. Sure, I would love to have all the credit and none of the blame, like Michael Scott says in ‘The Office.’ It doesn’t work that way. If anything, I’d like to, when the blame gets there, I’d like to be able to set an example for my teammates of what it should look like to take blame and point the finger at yourself and to own up. I think, when you do that, you can send a message to people about how you should handle it.”