1-2-1 and in the bottom half of the NFC North is not where Vikings fans wanted to be. Social media is abuzz with people calling for players’ heads, wanting changes to personnel, anything to get to the bottom of what is ailing the Vikings thus far.
The answer to the question “what are their biggest problems” is obvious: offensive line and pass coverage. The more important question is: are we at a point where Minnesota has to consider drastic measures?
On Thursday, the Vikings offense looked about as crisp from start to finish as it has in years. Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen all put up huge numbers, going step-for-step with arguably the NFL’s best offense. And that was, once again, at the expense of the offensive line. It has become a pattern at this point; a dearth of a running game and consistent pressure force Cousins and his receivers to essentially win games all on their own. And they probably would have pulled out two of those games, had the defense played up to standards (we will get to that in a minute).
To put some numbers to it, the Vikings’ line surrendered 19 hurries and eight knockdowns in pass protection on Thursday, per STATS. That was a season-high for them. Granted, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are All-Pros who played their best games of the year. But the problems were up and down the offensive line. All five starters surrendered at least four hurries/knockdowns, with the “steady veterans” Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers leading the way with eight and six, respectively. Most of Reiff’s came against Donald, so some leeway can be given to him. Remmers, on the other hand, has been probably the Vikings’ worst pass-protector since moving to guard late last season.
That brings us to the run blocking. The Vikings’ yards per attempt this year are, by week: 3.6, 3.8, 2.3, 3.2. And that is including Cousins scrambles. They have yet to eclipse 120 yards rushing in a game, and have only surpassed 70 yards once. Perhaps most importantly, the Vikings have not carried the ball more than 20 times since week one. The reason why is simple: Minnesota’s line has struggled to create space for their backs and the defense is surrendering substantial leads. So as the Vikings fight to keep up, they have to abandon the running game in order to maintain offensive fire power.
That is the most glaring absence from the Minnesota offense, and the biggest reason to panic as the Vikings continue to make a playoff push. They are resembling the one-dimensional offenses that have plagued other NFC North teams for a better part of a decade. The Vikings were supposed to have constructed an offense that could rise above a single person. But alas, three out of four games this year have been 100 percent dependent on how Cousins is carrying the offense, with the help of his receivers.
So while the season is only one quarter of the way done, and the Vikings’ schedule eventually lightens up a bit, I believe it is fair to panic with regards to the offensive line. Not in the sense of jumping ship or placing the Vikings in a box labeled “Bust.” Panicking results in change, and the Vikings need to make changes up front. Maybe give Danny Isidora a start and kick Remmers out to tackle. Perhaps the rookie Brian O’Neill can get some more run. Something. Anything different. Because the status quo may very well be the anchor weighing down what could be an elite offense.
Back to the defense. Mike Zimmer in his post-game press conference Thursday effectively called this Vikings team’s pass coverage the worst he has ever had as an NFL coach. Everyone, star players especially, have been burned at various points throughout the season. Even Harrison Smith, the steadiest of steady, surrendered a long touchdown in week one and had another touchdown dropped that would have gone on him. And then of course, there is Anthony Barr, who has been the subject of every Vikings fan’s ire the last few days.
What has changed from last year’s number one defense? The defensive line looks better, there is theoretically more depth at corner and safety. Why are they suddenly so vulnerable?
Here is where I pump the breaks a little bit. Yes, the defense looked miserable on Thursday. But the Rams are playing at a 1999 Rams level of explosion. Their quarterback gave them maybe the greatest single regular season quarterbacking performance of all time. They go three deep with legitimate NFL receivers. They have the best running back and offensive line in football. So yes, in this era of football, a talented offense will beat a talented defense more often than not.
But what about previous weeks? Well, look at the circumstances. The Packer game saw the Vikings surrender only 22 points to Rodgers, who finished with fewer than seven yards per attempt. Only nine points came after halftime. Against Buffalo, the defense gave up touchdowns when facing a very short field (largely due to the aforementioned offensive line). Granted, penalties cost them, especially on the opening drive. But overall, the defense was hardly shredded by Josh Allen. Embarrassed a time or two by his athleticism, yes. But not shredded.
Which brings us to Barr. He has been shaky in coverage, no question about it. A linebacker is frequently tasked with running with backs out of the backfield, and Todd Gurley simply burned Barr for the Rams’ first touchdown. But on the other two, the problem was in scheme. A breakdown stuck Barr on Cooper Kupp, even though the Vikings were in nickel. And while Barr is a pretty good athlete, no linebacker should have to run downfield with an NFL receiver.
The last touchdown to Robert Woods was even worse. The Vikings were not in nickel, despite the Rams going three wide on that side. As such, the Rams stuck Barr with one of the fastest players on the field. And surprise, Woods burned him up the seam. That cannot go on Barr anymore than one could blame a defensive lineman for failing to contain a receiver. If a coach schemes a player to cover someone who is too slow to cover them, and you have far better options on top of that, that is on the coach, not the player.
Other players screwed up coverage as well, so Zimmer’s comment on poor pass coverage is certainly fair game. Xavier Rhodes has been off. Trae Waynes lost his deep third on the second Kupp touchdown. Mackensie Alexander has been beaten virtually every target. The Vikings certainly have some issues. But none of them would lead to believe they are headed for a season-long dive into mediocrity. Knowing Zimmer and his playcalling pedigree, Thursday’s game should be a blip. There are too many proven stars. It seems more like a matter of all of them hitting a small slump at the same time than a true reason for panic. So with regards to the defense, I would say it is OK to question, but not to do anything drastic. Personnel changes are not necessary. Yet.