The Vikings Achilles heel is…
By: Grant Schwieger
When Minnesota Vikings’ fans hear the term “Achilles heel” regarding the team, regrettably there are a plethora of options that come to mind. The offensive line, Kirk Cousins’ contract, cornerbacks, even just bad luck are all viable Achilles heels for this team. That bad luck might stem from being “cursed,” which many fans have claimed the team has been over the years. That might have some juice to it now that the Zodiac Killer has supposedly been identified and that he was a Vikings fan.
If that all is true, and the FBI claims the Zodiac Killer case is still open and unsolved, then at least Vikings’ fans know the reason that they are cursed. When it comes to the play on the field, though, Minnesota has its own weakness that was not listed above. That would be the team’s ineptitude, on both offense and defense, in two-minute drill situations. This is not a new issue to the Vikings, and it is time for it to be addressed.
The Vikings’ offense has been better than the defense this year, but they are not without their problems. When it comes to 2-minute drill situations, both in the second and fourth quarters, they begin to get exposed. Let’s just face it. This offense is not designed to be a drop-back passing team for an entire drive. Klint Kubiak and Mike Zimmer want to be an outside zone, run-first team. While so far in 2021 the Vikings rank 13th in first-down passing percentage according to teamrankings.com, that has mostly to do with the team spending a lot of time in their four games trailing. They were in the bottom ten in the league in that metric last year, despite regularly having success in the passing game.
This Minnesota offense is designed to thrive when opposing defenses are unsure of whether a run or a pass is coming. That was a big part of the Vikings’ success against Seattle in Week 3. That element of surprise goes out the window when it comes to 2-minute drills, as teams would love for them to run in those situations and are expecting the pass. Minnesota’s regular offense does not include a high amount of drop-back passing, either, as a lot of their passes come from screens, play-action (not as much this year as last, 20.4% to 28.7%), or quick game, which has been a bigger part of the offense this year. These elements just are not as effective in these hurry-up situations.
A big reason for this is because Zimmer and Kubiak want to protect a vulnerable offensive line. Life is much more difficult for offensive linemen when the defense and the pass-rush know a pass is coming and can pin their ears back and get after the QB. The result of those situations for Minnesota often look like this:
The lack of trust in the offensive line also has a direct impact on Kirk Cousins. He is a much better QB when free from pressure, as most are, but the difference for him has always been substantial. Two-minute drills result in more opportunities for Cousins to be under pressure, which means more chances for him to panic and bail on a play even if he has wide-open receivers downfield.
Zimmer has been afraid of Cousins making silly interceptions and getting strip-sacked ever since his first year in 2018, which is how we got to this offensive scheme in Minnesota. This inability to put full trust in his offense leaves Zimmer coaching scared when it comes to end-of-half cases. Look no further for an example of this than last week’s game against Cleveland. Minnesota got the ball back with 3:45 left, down by 7 on their own 12-yard line. The Vikings’ first three plays were all runs, totaling 17 yards while taking a minute and a half off the clock. All of a sudden there was only 2:15 left, and Minnesota still had to go 71 yards to score. In no scenario should a team needing to drive 88 yards for a touchdown be running the football, and simultaneously the clock. After a 31 yard pass to Justin Jefferson on third down, the Vikings followed it up with yet another run for an incredible 2 yards, bringing it to the 2-minute warning.
Sadly, the Cleveland game was not the first example of this, either. Looking back to the end of the first half of the Arizona game, Minnesota did this not once, but twice. Getting the ball with 3:15 to go in the second quarter, the Vikings ran the ball on 2nd and 13 and 3rd and 1, went 3 and out, and Dalvin Cook got hurt to top it all off. After a quick 77-yard TD to Rondale Moore, Minnesota got the ball back with 1:33 to go at their own 25 and still managed to sneak 2 runs in for 10 total yards on their way to stalling out for a 52-yard Greg Joseph field goal.
There may be another reason Minnesota tends to be inefficient at times when operating their offense during end-of-half opportunities. Not only is Zimmer scared of putting full trust in his drop-back passing offense, but he is also uneasy about giving the ball back to the opposing offense with too much time on the clock. That was obvious against Arizona, as their explosive offense had just scored in one play and Zimmer wanted nothing to do with giving Kyler Murray another opportunity to score before the half. The problem with that being, even with the Vikings mixing in a couple of runs on their drive, Arizona still got the ball back with 21 seconds left and got two plays off before a 62-yard FG to end the half.
The problem with that mindset is that if you are too worried about how much time the other offense will have, you are not operating your offense fully focused on scoring and being at your best. If you end a drive with a touchdown, however much time is left is much less important. The perfect world scenario for Mike Zimmer at the end of a half happened in the first half of the Seattle game. Minnesota got the ball on their 34 with 3:14 to go in the second quarter, and ran a 12 play, 66-yard drive, scoring a TD with only 20 seconds to go in the half. Unfortunately for the Vikings, it is incredibly rare for the team to successfully manufacture drives like that. It has been much more common to see the team go 3 and out and give the opposing team the ball back with time to score, which it did in both the Bengals and the Browns games. This issue goes both ways, and the defense shares a fair amount of blame with these concerns as well.
While the offense has managed to only score 10 points inside of two minutes in the second quarter through four games, the defense has given up 35 points during that same timeframe. Getting outscored by 25 points in 8 total minutes in 4 games is unforgivable.
While 14 of those points allowed came from when the opposing team was on the goal line when the two-minute warning hit (Cincinnati and Cleveland), that still leaves a sizeable negative point differential. With how the defense has performed when under the pressure of hurry-up situations, it is not hard to understand why Zimmer is so worried about giving the ball back to opposing offenses.
This has been a mess since Week 1 when the Bengals went 75 yards for a TD in only 36 seconds after the Vikings went 3 and out before that. It peaked when the Browns were backed up with a 3rd and 20 with 35 seconds left in the second quarter on their own 26 and broke off a 33-yard run. That run, when Cleveland had all but given up on scoring to end the half, allowed the Browns to sneak in a last-second field goal to go up 11-7.
These types of embarrassments from the Minnesota defense just suck the life out of the team. In situations where opposing defenses know Minnesota will be throwing it on offense, the Vikings struggle to move the ball. When the roles are reversed and Minnesota is on defense and knows their opponent is passing, they cannot seem to get out of their own way. In just four games, Bashaud Breeland got burnt for a 50-yard TD against Ja’Marr Chase, Rondale Moore was left wide open with no one within 10 yards of him and scored 77 yards later, and the aforementioned 3rd and 20 conversion. Heck, even in the Seattle game, which is the only game the Vikings have outscored their opponent inside of two minutes to go in the first half, Seattle managed to get in Hail Mary territory in only 16 seconds.
The Vikings’ defense has allowed 92 total points this year. That means that in those final two minutes before halftime, Minnesota has allowed 38% of their total points on the season. 38% in only 3% of their total minutes played. Who would want to put their defense on the field when they are getting torn apart time and time again?
The biggest reason for concern and why these struggles are Minnesota’s Achilles heel is because there is not a clear solution. Don’t want your defense to give up a lot of points so you try and run the clock out? Then your offense will struggle to score. If you try and be aggressive on offense and score, you run the risk of stalling out and giving the ball right back. The Vikings’ best way to avoid this conundrum is for the offense to be much more efficient so that there is not as much pressure on the defense to prevent any scores. If it were that easy, though, they would have done that already. Minnesota has an Achilles heel that has crippled them through four games and shows no signs of fixing itself soon.