The strength of the Vikings in recent years has been the offense. Since the peak of Mike Zimmer’s tenure in 2017, the offense has carried most of the weight. This year, the pendulum may be swinging back the other way. The defense has been solid but Kirk and the boys have left plenty to be desired on the other end. What has been keeping this unit from playing to its full potential?
Good Enough To Win, Bad Enough To Disappoint
When Kevin O’Connell was brought in on the heels of a season in which he led the Rams’ offense to a Super Bowl Victory under his mentor, Sean McVay, expectations were high. O’Connell’s 2021 offense led the league in explosive plays of 40+ yards with 18, and were third in the league in plays of 20+ yards with 65 such plays. With the Vikings offense ranking in the bottom third of the league in both of these categories heading at the bye week, a LOT of questions are being posed about the legitimacy of the team; but are they warranted?
Winning silences most doubters and with a record of 5-1, of course this team’s offense has been very good at times. So, let’s focus on the good first.
A staple of McVay-style offenses, particularly in recent years, has been pre-snap motion. On top of being deceptive to the defense, these actions can also give the offense some hints as to what the defense is running. For example, when a receiver motions across the formation, the defense will adjust (or not) to best combat the new look. If that receiver’s initial defender follows him across the formation, it’s a good bet that you’ll see man coverage at the snap.
All of the receivers play this game within the offense. Here the Vikings use the Justin Jefferson motion in the redzone and it tells Kirk they’ll see zone. The Mike linebacker cheats ever so slightly to the strong side of the box, and safety Adrian Amos shades that way as well with inside leverage on Jefferson. The “flood” concept (most if not all routes working to one side of the field, at multiple depths) works to perfection as Cook and Irv Smith Jr. occupy the underneath zones and create a 1 on 1 for Jefferson.
Motioning Jefferson into the backfield is another new wrinkle we’ve seen for the Purple this season. This allows the Vikings to take advantage of the defensive alignment, often forcing a linebacker, safety or edge player to check JJ which is all but hopeless. See this clip from the London game where this action victimizes young linebacker, Pete Werner (#20).
Vikings fans have learned to approach the premium draft selection of offensive linemen with cautious optimism. The selection of Christian Darrisaw at #23 overall after trading down from #14, was no different. He entered camp dealing with injury in did not start his rookie season on the field. After returning to the field healthy to finish the season, Darrisaw showed some promise.
So far, in what will hopefully be his first full season as a pro, all of that aforementioned caution has been doused. Per PFF, Darrisaw has allowed just one sack in his last 356 pass-blocking snaps. Stringing together brilliant reps against good pass-rushers like Robert Quinn (check this out), he has dominated entire games on the blindside.
The Walking Decoy
Something that hasn’t yet paid huge dividends in the form of big plays, but is something I expect the coaching staff to exploit going forward is the threat of Justin Jefferson. Defenses without an elite cornerback are often left with no choice but to “bracket” the third-year superstar, devoting the attention of a safety and a cornerback to JJ. There have been plays when, lined up as the only as the only receiving threat to the weak side of the formation, Jefferson has been able to clear out an entire side of the field.
Here his gravity holds the safety at depth and has the corner turn his back to the play and chase, leaving the field side open for an easy gain. This could be something to test teams with more often, as it may force the trail-technique corner to play the flat instead of Jefferson on these types of plays. Perhaps a trade for another playmaker could help to expose defensive inattention more often.
Terrible At Times
When the offense has been bad, it’s been stale, predictable, and conservative.
Kevin O’Connell has been known to say he wants to “pass to set-up the pass”, replacing pedantic run plays with short-gainer passes. This facet of his philosophy has mostly materialized with TE screens (almost always terrible), or isolated Passing 101 concepts like Slant Flat.
All too often, Kevin O’Connell drives his Ferrari in the right lane. With weapons like Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen on the offense, conservatism can be reductive.
Where Is Dalvin?
Dalvin Cook has looked good when he’s touched the ball this season, as expected; but there has been little-to-no creativity to how he’s been utilized. Seemingly an afterthought in the offense. I’m all for lightening the workload of a top-end back, but I think more importantly, his workload needs to be diversified. We heard things in training camp and preseason about Dalvin becoming a bigger part of the passing game and it’s not something we’ve seen to a sufficient degree.
Rather, he’s seen many of his touches on mid zone carries out of the backfield. He and Mattison spearhead a group that ranks 20th in YPA (Yards Per Attempt) on run plays which of course leaves some to be desired but isn’t a terrible mark. Dalvin in particular could be much more effective operating outside of the backfield in the slot or tight “H-Back” style position. At the very least, let’s swap out a couple of Johnny Mundt screens for Dalvin Cook screens in the coming weeks.
The Offensive Line Puzzle Isn’t Quite Solved
Garrett Bradbury has enjoyed a bounce-back season at center, and in a contract year. Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw look like a Top-Five Tackle duo for years to come, and Ezra Cleveland has continued to be solid and consistent. Bradbury’s improvement has been a pleasant surprise to most and many fans were confident in O’Neill, Darrisaw and Cleveland already.
Last season the unit was plagued by poor play at right guard and that, although to a lesser extent, is still the case this year. Rookie Ed Ingram has shown some promise this season and has certainly helped Garrett Bradbury handle interior pressure. He’s a strong run blocker who always “looks for work” in pass protection. With these positives still in mind, some of Ingram’s blunders have absolutely wrecked plays. His worst performance by far came last week against Miami in the sweltering heat.
Just Slam The Door Sometimes
Just as they have the ability to gain a lead, this offense has the firepower to keep its foot on the gas and put teams away; but it doesn’t. Time and time again they allow teams to stick around and crawl back into games. It doesn’t matter the level of competition either. The Bears came all the way back from 21-3 to take a 22-21 lead in the fourth quarter in Week Five before a game-winning drive from the Vikings.
The Vikings have not won a football game by 17 points or more since 2019 despite winning 20 games since. For some perspective, the 15-1 1998 Vikings won seven such games.
Does It.. Matter?
It’s easy to criticize all of these things from our couches but the reality is this team is 5-1, leading the division, and in an excellent position to make a deep playoff run. The culture is great and we’ve seen a striking difference in the way the team finishes games, juxtaposed to the late-Zimmer era. They’re winning the close games so does it matter if the games are close?
At what point, if any, should results stop over-shadowing process? The fear is that these things will come back to bite Minnesota late in the season and in the playoffs against the best teams. To many of the Vikings faithful, this team is a paper tiger but who are we to say, when the team keeps winning?
Don’t Miss The Forest For The Trees
The facts of the matter are:
This is the best start the team has had with Kirk Cousins as quarterback
This is the biggest division lead they’ve held since 2017
A first-year Head Coach is 5-1 in his first six games and will only get better with experience
Both sides of the ball are doing enough
So, let’s enjoy it. Wear your purple, cheer your team on, and don’t lose sight of the big picture when some of the specifics seem less than perfect.