With the first four games in the books, the Minnesota Vikings stand at 1-2-1 and third place in the NFC North.
The Full Press Coverage Vikings staff provide their individual analyses on the team’s first four weeks and where things stand.
What’s Gone Right?
Clayton Brooks: Kirk Cousins has provided the Vikings’ passing game the boost it has been missing for nearly a decade. Through four weeks, Cousins is among the league leaders in yards (third, 1,387), completion percentage (sixth, 69.3), touchdowns (tied for sixth, 10), passer rating (eighth, 103.7) and passer rating (seventh, 70.6). The receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs continue to build upon their past two seasons, while Laquon Treadwell is finally becoming more involved in the passing game.
Defensively, Danielle Hunter has put together a strong opening quarter with four sacks. New addition Sheldon Richardson has also been as good as advertised, providing interior pressure against the pass.
Sam Smith: The passing game is good. Like, really good. Aside from the Buffalo game, Cousins has been on point in virtually all aspects of passing, and Diggs and Thielen are both the beneficiaries and the catalysts of it. Cousins ability to push the ball down the field with accuracy is the biggest difference between this year and last year, and a big reason why he is currently third in the league in yards. He is proving to be worth the money the Vikings paid him. And not because he has suddenly become an elite quarterback. Rather, when the Vikings’ supposed strength has failed them, Cousins has shown he has the ability and mentality to take the weight of the game on his shoulders.
The other side of the ball is tougher to sift through to find positives. Most of the Viking defenders have started off on a down note. There are two exceptions, however. Danielle Hunter is looking like a star in the making and Sheldon Richardson is playing much more like his early Jets version. Those two alone have kept the Minnesota defensive line formidable, even as the pass coverage slips far too often.
Roger Dier: When you’ve gone one-for-four at the quarter pole, nothing else matters much, and that includes some writer in Oshkosh mixing up his metaphors. True, Cousins put up gaudy passing yardage, but why has that happened? I’ll answer my own question: they can’t run the ball, the pass blocking is iffy and they’ve developed a bad habit of playing from behind. I refuse to jinx the new kicker by pointing out that he hasn’t missed a kick yet.
What’s Gone Wrong?
Clayton: Everything else outside of the quarterback and receiver positions. The defense as a whole has played well below the standards they’ve set the past three years. This team has been carved through the air in each of their four games, leaving them 23rd in the league. Aside from the defensive line, neither the linebacker unit nor the secondary have played particularly well, especially in pass coverage. Anthony Barr, who’s in a contract year, has arguably been the worst defender on the team during this stretch. Xavier Rhodes has not looked like the guy who’s been in the argument for being the leagues best shutdown cornerback.
The offensive line has been the focal point of the offense’s problems. They’ve surrendered the sixth-most sacks and are largely responsible for the Vikings carrying the league’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack.
Of the five turnovers that Cousins has this season, he’s arguably responsible for only two of them. Both of his interceptions came on passes that were mishandled by his receivers, and one of his fumbles was mostly due to a badly missed block on his blind side and getting hit just as he finished his drop-back.
Sam: The defense, particularly the pass coverage, has been awful. Much of the chunk yardage they have surrendered are due to scheming issues; leak concepts, bootlegs, play action, misdirection, these have all led to mismatches and receivers wide open in space. While that is frustrating, one would imagine Mike Zimmer has enough guile to fix many of those gaps. And theoretically, the Vikings’ defensive talent has not suddenly dissipated from a year ago. Things should shore up on that end, even if the first four games have been a dumpster fire.
To me, the offensive line is the far greater concern. That is a talent issue, not a scheme issue or a matter of a few guys slumping. Cousins has faced a barrage in just about every game. The rushing attack has been anything but an attack. No space, no room, no margin for error. And the line was average at best last year, so it is not as if they have a past of solid performance to draw on when attempting to quell fears. What is especially concerning is that the two veterans with dozens of starts, Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, have perhaps been the worst of the bunch. This is a situation that very well could get worse before it gets better. And if that happens, changes will have to be made, and quickly.
Roger: Cousins is a turnover machine; we knew that before he came here, so I’m not surprised by his fumbles. More are coming. The Vikings defense is, borrowing from Herb Brooks, playing worse every week and right now they are playing like it’s next month. The esprit de corps of the unit is absent. Why is that? Is Barr pouting because the Vikings haven’t re-upped his contract and his negative attitude stains his teammates? Is it the absence of Everson Griffen? Does the secondary miss the in-game quarterbacking of Terence Newman? Has Zimmer been too critical of his defense behind closed doors and his players have gone fetal? Without the defense’s return to normalcy, borrowing from Warren G. Harding’s 1920 campaign, the Vikings may be irrelevant by Thanksgiving.
Clayton: I feel this team has the talent and coaching staff to turn the season around quickly, but it needs to start this Sunday in Philadelphia against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.
The NFC Championship game against this Eagles is where things really started going down hill for the Vikings. If they can go into the stadium where they were humiliated and come out with a convincing win, it could be exactly what they need to get back on track.
If Mike Zimmer can at least fix the defense (very doable), Cousins and the passing game can be enough to right the ship. However, if this team wants to get back into realistic contention for the Lombardi trophy, they’re going to need the running game to get on track as well.
Sam: The Buffalo loss has put the Vikings in a bit of a hole. Losing to the Rams was not out of character, nor was tying Green Bay. The Buffalo loss, however, has them behind the eight ball a bit. Over the next five games, Minnesota really has to win four to keep their playoff hopes optimistic, because the schedule toughens up again after this brief respite. If Minnesota takes four out of five before the bye, they will be two games over .500 heading into the final seven. That means they would more than likely need to take five out of seven to make the postseason. Daunting, but certainly not at all impossible, as we saw last year.
The weaknesses in this team could be fatal. But the strengths may also be enough to lift the team out of their slump. A lot will come down to coaching adjustments and veteran players returning to their former selves. If those things happen, the Vikings should still be the class of the division. If they do not, well, the Bears have looked awfully good thus far…
Roger: Here’s the next half-dozen games: At Philadelphia; home vs. Cardinals; at the Jets; home vs. the Saints; home vs. the Lions; at the Bears. If they win four of the next six the Vikings will be 5-4-1 with six to play. If they take five-of-six, they’ll be 6-3-1 with six to play. Win all six and they’re 7-2-1 and in the hunt for home field.
If the Vikings lose three of the next six, they are done.
This is why we watch the games. The turnaround starts Sunday in Philadelphia. I like the Vikings to win at Philly and be atop the NFC North with a 6-3-1 record with six games to play.