Following a tough loss against the Saints, the Vikings came out and dismantled the Lions’ offense and head into the bye confident and just a tick behind the Bears in the division.
Here are three positives and negatives to take away from Sunday and from Minnesota heading into their off week.
Defensive Line Showing 2017 Levels
Last year, the Vikings had one of the better lines in football, but ran into a buzz saw as their starters tired down the stretch. They had the talent, but lacked the depth. This year, with Everson Griffen back in and Danielle Hunter playing the best football of his life, the Vikings have both the talent and depth to make huge strides up front.
After a fruitless effort against the Saints in which the Vikings hit only Drew Brees twice without sacking him, Minnesota put in arguably the greatest pass rush performance in franchise history on Sunday. They recorded 10 sacks and 17 hits as a team, with Hunter and Tom Johnson recording 3.5 and 2.5 sacks, respectively. Six different plays recorded at least half a sack. Four–Griffen, Hunter, Johnson and Sheldon Richardson–had at least five pressures. And per Pro Football Focus, Matthew Stafford faced pressure on 46.9 percent of his dropbacks. If the Vikings can maintain pressure even remotely close to this while going six deep, it could be the extra nudge they need to get themselves to Super Bowl level.
Linebacker Coverage on the Upswing
Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr have faced a lot of skepticism about their coverage abilities this year. While the ire with Barr has been especially overblown, there is no doubt that teams have been targeting Kendricks with one-on-one looks against running backs. But on Sunday, against two fine receivers out of the backfield in Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick, Kendricks and the other linebackers were excellent. Riddick and Johnson got their receptions–10 between them–but those catches amounted to only 43 yards. There were no big plays out of the backfield against the Vikings’ linebackers. What is more, Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon showed exceptional discipline in coverage, despite the fact that neither has gotten much time in coverage in their two years in the league. Gedeon broke up a pass in the end zone on Johnson and Wilson played well when called upon, playing on 90 percent of the snaps.
Next Man Up Philosophy is Still Working, but Health is Also Slowly Returning
Two steps forward and one step back is better than the alternative. While Andrew Sendejo, Barr and Tom Compton remained out and Stefon Diggs missed for the first time Sunday, Dalvin Cook and Riley Reiff returned to the lineup and showed no signs of injury. Cook even set the high speed mark for a ball carrier on his 70-yard run, going over 22 miles per hour.
So the Vikings are slowly but surely getting healthy again. That said, as more young players are getting time in others’ absence, the more excitement one has to have about the Vikings’ depth. Wilson continues to play solid football in place of Barr. Holton Hill looks like a future starter at corner as Xavier Rhodes recovers from a foot injury. Brian O’Neill is now a starter at right tackle and has played well all season. Chad Beebe, just activated this past week off the practice squad, made an immediate impact with three catches for 21 yards, two of which converted first downs.
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No team wants to have starters go down, but few have been able to recover from those injuries as well as the Vikings have. That is a testament to Rick Spielman’s ability to find depth talent.
Passing Offense Slowing a Bit?
In the past, a four-game run averaging around 250 yards would be a solid stretch. However, the Vikings established early this season that they are going to be largely dependent on Kirk Cousins and the passing game to carry the offensive load. Over those four weeks, while yardage-wise production may seem solid, far more drives are ending without points than one would like. Even against the Jets, a game in which the Vikings scored 37, they punted eight times, six of which came in the first half. Against Arizona, the Vikings thrived with a strong running game. The Saints game had two drives end in debilitating turnovers when the game was close. And this week in Detroit, they scored just 17, punted four times and turned it over twice.
This week, they get a pass. Diggs was out, which meant the Lions could lock in when covering Adam Thielen. However, the general trend of the passing game has been either down or stagnant since good performances against the Rams and Eagles in weeks four and five.
Thielen’s Steak Stamped Out
It always seemed unsustainable, but without running mate Diggs at his side, Thielen was in a difficult situation in his pursuit of NFL history. He had already tied Calvin Johnson with eight-straight 100-yard games. On Sunday, he was going for sole possession of the record. However, the Lions did everything to blanket Thielen, putting Darius Slay over top while keeping other defensive backs underneath. Cousins had to spread the ball around far more than usual, and ultimately, no Viking receiver finished with more than four catches and Laquon Treadwell led with 37 yards. Thielen’s four for 22 fell a hair short of 100, but he still leads the league in yards, targets and receptions. Plus, he scored another touchdown to tie him for second in the NFL with seven.
Cousins Finally Pays for a Ludicrously Bad Throw
For the myriad of doubts and criticism Cousins will have thrown his way throughout his Vikings career, he has been overall excellent in his inaugural season in purple. He has 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, 71.4 percent completion and is on pace for almost 4,800 yards. What is more, he has generally avoided making catastrophically poor throws that have resulted in interceptions. Sure, he has thrown some picks due to miscommunication or receiver drops and sure, he fumbles like a gumball machine. But the decision-making has largely been good, and when it’s been bad, Cousins has gotten away with it.
Not on Sunday. Facing pressure on a naked boot, Cousins threw a desperate pass for Thielen on the right sideline. Thielen was already well-covered by Tavon Wilson, but also, Slay was perched in zone right over top. He jumped the pass for the easy interception. It has been a nice perk of the offense that Cousins’ occasionally risky mindset has largely gone without consequence. On this throw, however, there was no chance of getting away unscathed.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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