3 good and 3 bad things for the Vikings team in 2021

Is the Vikings team competitive in 2021?

By: Grant Schwieger

The 2021 Minnesota Vikings were a team many said needed to get off to a hot start as their schedule got more difficult as the season went on. Naturally, the team responded by starting the season 0-2. Of course, many Vikings fans will point out that the team is a Dalvin Cook fumble and Greg Joseph 37-yard field goal away from being 2-0.

Minnesota writer Will Ragatz found this statistic that given Minnesota’s win probability before those two events, there was just a 1.3% chance the Vikings started the season 0-2. There is nothing that defines the Vikings more than their love to lose in the worst way possible, so not many fans are astonished by those outcomes. Now Minnesota gets the ironic title of “Best 0-2 Team in the NFL,” a crown too many Vikings fans are proud to don. With a winless two weeks, there are plenty of negatives to go around TCO Performance Center. However, given that the team was so close to victory in both contests, there are still positives as well. Let’s take a look at some of the good and some of the bad for Minnesota through two weeks.

Good: KJ Osborn!

A WR3! The Vikings did it! KJ Osborn’s emergence is easily the best story so far this season. Osborn has caught all 12 of his targets so far, for 167 yards and his first career TD.

He is the only WR in the NFL with 10+ targets to catch every pass thrown his way. The leap Osborn has taken is simply incredible, given he was on the roster all of last year and did not register a single offensive snap. In fact, before training camp, Osborn was left off of many Minnesota roster projections. That begs the question, why was he not on the field over Chad Beebe last season? The Vikings’ staff does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, as Justin Jefferson was not unleashed until Week 3 last season. However, Sam Ekstrom of Purple Insider detailed Osborn’s offseason training, and KJ spent a lot of time training with Jefferson, Jarvis Landry, and Stefon Diggs. That is some solid company, and he appears to have learned quite a bit from those wideouts.

Justin Jefferson said this week he has noticed more safeties on his side of the field this year and defenses are scared to press him. This leaves more opportunities for Osborn, and Adam Thielen who is off to a hot start, to take advantage of. Here’s to Osborn keeping up this pace for 15 more games and solving the ever-revolving door that has been Minnesota’s WR3 for years.

Bad: The Cornerbacks

2020 saw the Vikings put forth one of the weakest secondaries in Mike Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota, held together by duct tape and Elmer’s glue by Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris. Minnesota swapped out almost the entire cornerback room this offseason, yet through two games, Smith and now Xavier Woods are the ones keeping this secondary from embarrassment. Patrick Peterson was the crown jewel of the secondary additions, and while he has not been awful, he has not been worth the $8 million guaranteed Minnesota gave him to wear purple and gold again. One thing that almost an entirely new secondary leads to is miscommunications.

Breakdowns like this should never happen, and Zimmer was probably blowing steam out of his ears afterward.

Then there is the mess that has been Bashaud Breeland so far. He is not only the lowest-graded Viking per PFF but also the lowest-graded CB in the entire National Football League. The good news is that coverage is volatile. The best CBs will have bad games, and the bad ones will find ways to bounce back here and there. All is not lost with Breeland, and he should not be written off yet.

However, there are plays like this against AJ Green that should not be happening. Green was a liability when on the field last season and Breeland should be expected to handle WRs like him. He has been the definition of volatile when it comes to PFF grades in his career, so do not be surprised if he comes back with a lockdown game sometime this season.

Mackensie Alexander was brought back to be the Vikings’ slot CB this season and has allowed 9 catches on 10 targets for 119 yards so far. Those 9 catches allowed are tied with Breeland for the most on the team. Kris Boyd has been on the field for 4 coverage snaps and allowed 2 catches for 19 yards on 3 targets, with the third target being a play where he got absolutely toasted but luckily the pass fell incomplete. Cameron Dantzler was inactive Week 1 and played well in 16 snaps Week 2, so at least there is that. But as a collective group, the Minnesota CBs share a large responsibility in the team being 0-2.

Good: Danielle Hunter is BACK!

The Vikings’ star pass-rusher has returned to the field and looks oh so good. Hunter just brings an element to the defense no one else on this team can come close to touching. He started a little slow in Cincinnati but was making his presence known all day against Arizona.

He is currently tied with Michael Pierce as Minnesota’s second highest-graded defender, tied for 11th in the NFL in pressures with 9, and third in the NFL with 4 sacks (all among edge defenders). Last season this Minnesota squad lacked someone who could single-handedly wreck an opposing play from the defensive line. Hunter has already done that on multiple occasions in his 113 snaps thus far, including this one narrated beautifully by the GOAT Gus Johnson.

As Hunter gets back into his groove, he will likely get better and better and make even more of an impact on a play-by-play basis. There should be plenty of excitement surrounding Hunter as the season goes on.

Bad: Tackling

The Minnesota Vikings have had a top-4 PFF tackling grade in 5 of 7 years under Mike Zimmer, in 2014 (1st), 2015 (4th), 2017 (3rd), 2018 (1st), and 2019 (1st). Having consistency in a metric like that is an incredibly impressive feat. However, they were 26th in 2020 and are 30th so far in 2021. They have missed 24 tackles in 2 games, tied for the most in the NFL.

As a disclaimer, the weapons the Cardinals have on offense are missed tackle machines, starting with Kyler Murray and now sweet-footed rookie Rondale Moore. However, the Vikings missed more tackles against the Bengals (14) than the Cardinals (10). Eric Kendricks and Bashaud Breeland both have 6 missed tackles apiece. Breeland has missed 33% of his tackle opportunities, a big contributor to his previously discussed atrocious PFF grade. Kendricks is much more of a surprise, currently owning the worst missed tackle percentage of his career through two games (17.6%). No one else on the Vikings’ defense has more than 3 missed tackles.

Missed tackles can change in a hurry, so this does not mean this trend will continue throughout the season. The quad injury Kendricks has been dealing with could be a factor, but his play has still been impressive outside of that. The more concerning statistic here is Zimmer’s defenses have largely been one of the best in the league in terms of tackling, and this downward trend does not reflect positively for him. Plays like allowing Rondale Moore to keep running along the sideline to get Arizona into field goal range at the end of the first half in Week 2 are unacceptable and need to be fixed for Minnesota’s season to turn around.

Good: Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins’ first two weeks in 2021 have marked the first time since he has been in Minnesota that he has been consistently good in both games. His 2018 Week 2 performance in Green Bay, the infamous Daniel Carlson Tie Game, takes the cake in terms of the best game in the first two weeks, however. He is currently a top-4 graded QB in the NFL and the Vikings’ highest-graded player.

He has always been a good QB when his offensive line can keep him clean, and 2021 has been no different, as he owns the highest PFF grade in the NFL when kept clean. The main qualm most have with Cousins has always been the intangibles, however. A lot of criticism he faces involves a lack of leadership, lack of mobility, and lack of a clutch gene, the inability to come through when his team needs him most. Cousins has delivered on the latter so far in 2021. The “wins are a QB stat” crowd will quickly point to the Vikings’ 0-2 record to disprove that, but frankly, Kirk has not been to blame for most of Minnesota’s issues.

Plays such as the one above are ones that Vikings fans have clamored for over and over again during Cousins’ time in Minnesota. He also had a 29-yard scramble that was another example of plays he rarely makes.

Not only does he own the longest streak in the NFL of attempts without an INT, but he has also just one Turnover Worthy Play through 2 games. Given Cousins’ knack for starting seasons off on the slower side, this start has been encouraging. He still owns a cap hit of $45 million for 2022, so Minnesota needs to see a full season before deciding on that front. The best-case scenario might just be Kirk performs well enough to entice a team to trade for him next offseason. If that is the case, he is off to the perfect start.

Bad: Luck

Sometimes things happen when there is no one to blame, you just have to shrug your shoulders and say to yourself “what do ya do?” That is exactly how Minnesota fans felt after former Gophers TE Maxx Williams caught a pass deflected THREE times by Minnesota defenders, in stride, for 34 yards against Arizona.

Somehow, someway, plays like that happen to the Vikings seemingly every week. Plays like that can be huge swings in a game, and there is nothing anyone could have done about it!

Dalvin Cook’s fumble in overtime against Cincinnati is another form of this. Minnesota gets unlucky that there are no camera angles available that clearly show Cook is down before the ball comes out, so the refs are forced to go with the original call on the field. Had the officials called Cook down originally, they surely would have decided to keep that call as well. The same goes for what looked to be a Justin Jefferson TD against the Bengals. This play had no impact on the game because Cook ran it in after they marked Jefferson down at the one anyways, but Jefferson (and his fantasy owners) wants that one to count for his stats.

Even Greg Joseph’s missed 37-yard kick at the end of the Arizona game is just plain unlucky. It’s not like he shanked it, he just ever so slightly pushed it wide-right. Vikings fans have been conditioned to expect it at this point.

Since 2017, kickers facing the Vikings have the best EPA/play in the NFL and the Vikings own the 4th worst EPA/play when kicking themselves. That results in Minnesota proudly representing the worst net EPA/play in the kicking game over that period. Kicking year-to-year is so unstable that it is truly incredible how consistently poor Minnesota has been in that department. Will the luck ever turn around? Maybe. Will we be alive to see it? Probably not. Will Matt Prater still be nailing 60+ yard kicks against the Vikings in 2050 at age 66? Most definitely.

Vikings at Cardinals Week 2 Preview

Who will win: Vikings at Cardinals?

By: Grant Schwieger

Is it crazy to say a game in Week 2 of the NFL season, before Minnesota has even played at home, feels like a must-win already? The Vikings entered Cincinnati last week as road favorites and quickly alerted their fans and the league why being confident or optimistic about them is a terrible idea. There were more than 8 months between Minnesota’s last two games, yet Week 1 seemed as if the team picked up right where they left off at the end of the 2020 season. This team is too good to be blown out every game, but they also are not good enough to put away the teams that they should. This results in a lot of gut-wrenching endings like the game against the Bengals was in every sense of the word.

No one wants to start 0-2, but the season is 17 games long now. The season would not be over. However, games against the Seahawks and Browns loom on the horizon and the Vikings might be underdogs in both of those as well. There is also this statistic that team reporter Courtney Cronin dug up:

There is no reason to ignore the obvious. If the Vikings start 0-2, Minnesota might be in for a looooong season. The Vikings face the tall task of taking on a Cardinals team that dropped 38 points on the road in Tennessee. Let’s take a look at what the Vikings need to do in Week 2.

Slowing down Kyler Murray and Company

If Mike Zimmer gets double-digit hours of sleep this week while trying to gameplan for Kyler Murray, I think we would all be surprised. There is simply no way to truly prepare for someone who can do this.

Zimmer intelligently said earlier this week that he knows the Vikings’ defense will not be able to keep Murray in the pocket all day, and of course, he is right. That does not mean they can’t slow him down, though. The entire defense has to stay disciplined and trust their assignments and their teammates. For Minnesota to do that, though, they would need their defense, specifically their linebackers, to be healthy. That doesn’t look to be the case with Anthony Barr out and Eric Kendricks questionable as well. If the Vikings are trotting out a full backup LB core on Sunday, this could be one of those times Minnesota gets blown out.

After looking past Kyler Murray’s insane athletic ability, there are Arizona’s receiving weapons. They have future Hall of Famer DeAndre Hopkins as a headliner, but he and Christian Kirk, AJ Green, and Rondale Moore all received 5+ targets in Week 1. Running back Chase Edmonds also caught all 4 of his targets and is joined by James Connor in the backfield. The Cardinals’ offensive line is also not a big weakness. Either the Vikings’ pass-rush needs to overtake the game (Arizona RT Kelvin Beachum will be a game-time decision, looking at you, Danielle Hunter), or the secondary needs to have the game of their lives and fly towards the ball. Murray led the NFL in Big Time Throws (per PFF) with 6 in Week 1, but he is also good for about one Turnover Worthy Play a game over the last 2 seasons as well. This Minnesota coverage unit needs to take advantage of when that play pops up. There can be no mistakes like this one from Kris Boyd Week 1.

Containing Chandler Jones

As good as Murray and the offense were for the Cardinals last week, Chandler Jones single-handedly made their game a blowout. He had 7 pressures, 5 sacks, including 2 forced fumbles in just 33 pass-rushing snaps. The Titans mistakenly kept their LT Taylor Lewan isolated on Jones all game and it resulted in Lewan’s worst pass-blocking game in what is his 8th season. Bad news for Vikings fans, Taylor Lewan is MUCH better than Rashod Hill. The good news is, though, that Tennessee outlined exactly what NOT to do when facing Chandler Jones. Expect a lot of chips from TEs and RBs and double teams sent Jones’ way. That may open the way for JJ Watt and the rest of Arizona’s pass-rushers to make an impact, but Minnesota just cannot afford to replicate plays like this from last week.

That was one of the best games that Jones has ever played as a pass-rusher, so Minnesota might just be hoping for some regression on his part in Week 2. He is, however, wanting a new contract, so his motivation seems to be at an all-time high. If the Vikings are unable to contain Chandler Jones and Kirk Cousins sustains some of the hits Ryan Tannehill did last week, this game might end with Sean Mannion or Kellen Mond under center. Expect a lot to be thrown Jones’ way by Klint Kubiak.

Exploiting the Arizona Secondary

If there is one area of this Cardinals team the Vikings should be able to take advantage of, it is their secondary. They brought Malcolm Butler over in the offseason to be their #1 CB, and he has since retired. Budda Baker is an underrated safety who has been solid his entire career, but his safety partner Jalen Thompson is mostly unproven. Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, and rookie Marco Wilson make up Arizona’s top three CBs. Murphy is in his third season and has had an up and down career thus far. Alford played Week 1 for the first time since 2018, and Wilson is a 4th round rookie.

This Cardinals secondary performed pretty well last week, but that was mostly due to Chandler Jones and the Titans self-destructing. Tennessee owns what is easily the NFL’s top WR duo in AJ Brown Jr and Julio Jones, yet the two received only 13 combined targets, the first of which being an incompletion to Brown with 10:59 to go in the second quarter. If Minnesota waits that long to target Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, Kirk Cousins and/or Klint Kubiak may find fans with pitchforks at the Minneapolis airport when the team gets home.

If the Vikings want to expose this Cardinals secondary, they need to make life easier on themselves with play-action, something the Titans did not do last week. Former Tennessee Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith led such great offenses the last few years that he is now the head coach in Atlanta. Ryan Tannehill had the highest percentage of play-action dropbacks in the NFL last year. Last week, Tannehill had the second-lowest percentage. The blame for that complete 180 on offense for Tennessee falls on new OC Todd Downing. Is it difficult to run play-action when you are down by 25 points? Yes, but it also might be the reason why you are down 25 points. Play-action has been a staple of Kubiak-led offenses for years, so this should not be an issue for Minnesota.

The Vikings also might finally have themselves a solid third WR in KJ Osborn. He caught all of his 7 targets for 76 yards, forcing one missed tackle, and converting 3 first downs, the biggest of which being on 4th and 4 on Minnesota’s game-tying drive in regulation. The Vikings do not need Osborn to be a star, they just need him to be capable of taking advantage of the opportunities left by defenses focusing on Jefferson and Thielen. Through one week, he seems up to the task. Osborn could prove to be an important piece to this offense moving forward.

Prediction

It is hard to be optimistic entering Week 2 for Minnesota after Arizona’s beatdown of Tennessee and the Vikings’ loss in Cincinnati. However, games like this are why the NFL is so unpredictable. Minnesota could easily come out and look impressive on the road, similarly to how they did in Seattle last season. That game, of course, ended in heartbreak for the Vikings, which is how I envision this one going as well. The Cardinals try to throw the ball too much to AJ Green instead of their three superior receiver options, allowing Minnesota to keep it close. Arizona’s rushing game will prevent the Vikings from getting the ball back at the end of the game, though, with the final score being Arizona 27, Minnesota 20.

Danielle Hunter will return the Vikings to stardom

Danielle Hunter will make a major impact

By: Conner Wickland

  1. The Return of Danielle Hunter

Yes, Danielle Hunter stormed to the quarterback with an impressive sack on third down midway into the 4th quarter, giving the ball back to a Minnesota offense that was trailing by three points. But before that point, the Vikings’ defensive superstar was largely unseen. In fact, apart from this play resulting from a blown protection call, Hunter did not register a single QB pressure during the entire game. Despite playing 87% of the snaps on Sunday, Hunter’s former teammate Riley Reiff was able to take him out of the game. 

While it’s unclear if Reiff was extra motivated to win in his revenge game against the team that released him, it was a rough start for Hunter. However, you can expect him to shake off the rust soon. This was Hunter’s first game back since missing the entire 2020 season with a neck injury. Still, the Minnesota Vikings were confident enough in his ability to give him a reworked deal this offseason, paying the defensive end a $5.6m signing bonus and the ability to make $20m next year to ward off a potential hold-out.

One game won’t tell the story of the Minnesota Vikings, and it definitely isn’t the end of Danielle Hunter’s career.

  1. Newfound Special Teams’ Dominance

One of the surprise storylines coming out of week one was the Vikings dominance on special teams. Surely, this would’ve been the main talking point had NFL officials overturned a Dalvin Cook fumble and allowed third-year kicker Greg Joseph to hit a game-winning field goal. Joseph came into the season with questions after not finding a long-term home with either the Cleveland Browns in 2018 or the Tennessee Titans in 2019. He put that all to rest after nailing a career-long 53 yarder at the end of regulation and then hitting it again after being iced by Cincinnati Bengal Head Coach Zac Taylor.

But Greg Joseph wasn’t the only success story to positively shock Vikings fans on special teams. The newly signed punter Jordan Berry impressed with long, arching punts – six of them going for 45 yards or more – often pinning the Bengals offense back out of scoring range. This included an overtime launch of 63 yards that stuck the Bengals at their own 10 yard-line. Despite only being signed nine days before kickoff, the 30-year old Jordan Berry is already solidifying his spot as the long-term punting option for the Vikings.

  1. The Emergence of K.J. Osborn

For years, the Minnesota Vikings have struggled to fill the wide receiver positing past their front two stars. In 2018, The Vikings leading wide receiver behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs was Laquon Treadwell, with 302 yards. In 2019, it was Olabisi Johnson with 294 yards. Last year, they swapped out Stefon Diggs for Justin Jefferson, but their third wide receiver Chad Beebe only fit into the mix with 201 yards.

The Vikings have used their tight ends to pick up the pace in years past, but they were dealt a huge blow when Irv Smith Jr was sidelined with a huge preseason injury that ended his breakout season before it began. The team responded with a high-priced trade for Jet’s Tight End Chris Herdon, but entered Sunday looking like the same old offense that would rely on Thielen and Jefferson to handle the load.

Instead, we watched K.J. Osborn make the most of his opportunities in this offense. He made a great drive-saving play on 3rd and 24 that set up the Vikings for an early Touchdown in the second quarter, and ended the day with 76. While it’s way too early to extrapolate from one game, Osborn would be on pace to end the year with 1,292 yards, a far cry from the sub-400 yard performances of Minnesota Wide Receivers in the past.

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