The Vikings defense has a few question marks
By: Grant Schwieger
Unlike in years past, the 2021 NFL preseason only has three weeks as opposed to four. This means that the Minnesota Vikings have just one last game to sharpen things up before the games start to count. Through two games, the Vikings have a plethora of things that they need to improve on in each facet of the game. While the defense performed much better against the Colts than they did against the Broncos, the offense has yet to score a touchdown through eight quarters.
The special teams performed much better in week 2 than in week 1 but have yet to perform perfectly. Is preseason performance a guaranteed indication of how the team will perform in the regular season? Absolutely not, but Mike Zimmer and his staff surely want to see their team execute at a much higher level against Kansas City this week. Here are 5 things that the team and fans should hope to see this Friday.
5. Solid LB play from those not named Eric Kendricks
Eric Kendricks is one of the best linebackers in football, hands down. He played 11 snaps this past week but should not need to play any additional snaps until the regular season. Minnesota knows what they have in him. The same cannot be said for the LBs behind him on the depth chart. Anthony Barr appears to be this year’s version of Danielle Hunter last year, where he is missing from practice, the coaching staff downplays his absence, and then his status for the start of the regular season is up in the air.
Whether Barr is ready for Week 1 or not, he will not be playing this Friday. That means the rest of the LBs on the roster need to step up, whether that be for depth positions on the final roster or potentially taking Barr’s spot on the defense should he miss time. Nick Vigil is the most experienced LB of those remaining on the roster and would replace Barr according to Adam Zimmer.
Cameron Smith was in line to potentially get some playing time after missing last season after having open-heart surgery. He sustained a concussion in the first preseason game and decided to retire in a move prioritizing his long-term health. That leaves Troy Dye, Chazz Surratt, Blake Lynch, Ryan Connelly, and Tuf Borland to fight it out for the third LB spot and backup positions. Getting positive play from any of those players would be an encouraging development for a team that was very weak at LB by the end of 2020.
Troy Dye has the only TD for the Vikings so far this preseason, albeit on a pass that was tipped up in the air right to him. He still made the play and owns the biggest highlight for the team thus far. Lynch, Surratt, and Connelly all made good plays last week as well. If the position group can continue on an upward projection that will be good news for the team in 2021.
4. Backup QBs showing something (anything?) positive
Through two preseason games, Jake Browning and Kellen Mond are a combined 23 of 53 (43.4%) for 227 yards. They both have one “Turnover Worthy Play” each per PFF with Browning’s resulting in an ugly pick-six.
During the first week of training camp, Browning found himself as the only QB available to practice and made the most of it. Coaches, players, and fans were all singing his praise after how he kept things afloat. Since he has had to face live competition, however, he has not been as successful.
Browning currently owns the 17th lowest PFF passing grade among preseason QBs with 20% of dropbacks. Kellen Mond has the 11th lowest. With the starting QB Kirk Cousins being unvaccinated, there is a chance that the Vikings’ backup QB position might be more important than it has before. In the third and final preseason game against the Chiefs, the Vikings need to see some positive play from Browning, Mond, or both to get a sense of who is capable of filling in if need be. Leading a touchdown drive would be a good place to start.
3. The Cameron Dantzler we saw to end the 2020 season
Justin Jefferson was easily the crown jewel of the Vikings’ 2020 draft class, but Cameron Dantzler’s performance in his rookie season gave Minnesota reason for optimism as well. Once he came back from a concussion, he was easily the team’s best cornerback and played well enough to rank among the best CBs in the NFL over that time.
What we have seen from him so far in the 2021 preseason, though, has not mirrored his performance down the stretch last year. At times he was splitting reps with Bashaud Breeland as the second outside CB opposite Patrick Peterson in training camp, but just last week saw Kris Boyd start the game against the Colts over Dantzler.
In the opening preseason game against Denver, Dantzler gave up an 80-yard TD to KJ Hamler where Dantzler looked like he did not even stand a chance. His athletic profile is the reason he slipped to the third round in 2020, so it was not pretty to see him get blown by so easily. He has shown he has what it takes to stick with NFL WRs, and the team needs to see more consistency out of him. Peak-performance Dantzler is a huge boost to this Vikings secondary. A good showing from him this week can help him secure the CB4 position, otherwise, he might be seeing most of his snaps on special teams this season.
2. Continuous OL improvement
The Minnesota Vikings offensive line will always be a hot topic for fans, and this year will be no different. So far this preseason, there have been some encouraging signs out of the OL play. The entire offensive line has only allowed 12 QB pressures through two games, with 5 of those coming from Blake Brandel against Indianapolis. Wyatt Davis has been facing mostly third-stringers, but he is PFF’s 6th highest ranked guard so far this preseason. Backup center Mason Cole has been a top-five ranked center in overall grade, pass-blocking, and run-blocking so far.
Last week I outlined how the right guard would be Minnesota’s biggest wildcard on the OL, and on Saturday’s game against the Colts, all three RGs played well. This does not necessarily mean we should expect that to continue, but it is uplifting for fans and coaches alike to see the quality play come from the RG spot.
Garrett Bradbury and Dru Samia, two Vikings offensive linemen who have struggled in pass protection in the past, have yet to allow any QB pressures as well. Their competition might not resemble who they would face in the regular season, but you would much rather see them perform well against backups than poorly. There may not be high expectations for the Minnesota OL group, so any positive signs will be welcomed with open arms. Another quality performance from the Minnesota Moving Company this Friday will give them solid momentum heading into real games. Look specifically to see how they perform against Chiefs DT Chris Jones should he play at all.
1. First-team offense getting some rhythm
The Vikings’ first-team offense (or defense for that matter) did not play at all in their first preseason game. They then played for 15 snaps over 3 drives against the Colts. Those drives resulted in 3 total first downs, 2 punts, and a missed field goal.
The entire starting OL played, as did Irv Smith Jr, but Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson did not play, and Adam Thielen only played four snaps. Judging Kirk Cousins without his top-three weapons would be unfair, but it would be nice to see some more cohesiveness out of the top offensive unit on Friday should they get some run against Kansas City. The absolute number one priority for this team on all sides of the ball should be health, so if the first team ends up staying on the sideline, that would be a smart idea.
It is becoming more and more common across the league for teams to rest their starters throughout the preseason. The Vikings have not fully jumped on that train yet, however. The performance of Minnesota’s first-team offense in the preseason is not an indication of how they will play week one against the Bengals, but as is always the case, you would rather see successful play and execution over the opposite. The word out of training camp has been the starters on offense have not looked exactly sharp there, either. So, Minnesota collectively will let out a sigh of relief should the Vikings trot out Kirk Cousins and company on Friday and execute well, and maybe even lead the offense on a TD drive if we are lucky.