With the Jets getting set to take on the Vikings this Sunday, I was able to ask Christopher Gates of Daily Norseman a few questions on the state of the Vikings heading into this key mid-October matchup in New Jersey.
1. Let’s start off by discussing the most talked-about man in football between the months of February and March 2018, Kirk Cousins. He was one of the best free agent quarterbacks to hit the open market in a long time and he attracted interest from a lot of teams, including the Jets, who spent a lot of time considered the front runners for him. Ultimately the Vikings swooped in out of nowhere and sold him on a shot at a title. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of getting Cousins in purple and gold was like? What was the reaction to the signing like from the fanbase, and from your point of view, was this a move that you thought the Vikings were smart to make?
It was kind of strange to see the Vikings make a play for Cousins to be their quarterback and to, ultimately, pay him the money that they did. By the time the Cousins signing took place, both Bradford and Keenum had already signed deals with other teams, so if they Vikings hadn’t wound up with Cousins, I have no idea which direction they would have gone in at quarterback. Of course, given that Bradford is now the third-string quarterback in Arizona and Keenum isn’t exactly lighting it up in Denver, it would appear that they made the right decision.
For most of the time that I’ve been a Vikings’ fan, the team has settled for short-term answers at quarterback. They tried to find long-term answers in guys like Daunte Culpepper and Teddy Bridgewater, but injuries derailed both of them in the prime of their careers. The Vikings bringing in Cousins gives them a real opportunity for long-term stability at the game’s most important position. When the team brought in John DeFilippo to be the offensive coordinator, they said he was going to have a big say in which direction they were going to go in at quarterback, and apparently he looked at all the options and decided he wanted Cousins. The fanbase, for the most part, seemed to be on board with the decision, and I was, too. While I would have also loved to see the team try to give Teddy Bridgewater an opportunity to come back, as soon as it became clear that was no longer a realistic option I was on the Cousins train.
2. Bouncing off of that, how well has Cousins played so far? Statistically he’s looked great, he’s 4th in the league in total passing, 3rd in completion percentage, 10th in quarterback rating, and he has a very solid 12 to 3 TD-INT ratio, though he has lost a league-high 5 fumbles. Does Cousins feel like an upgrade over the lights-out Case Keenum the Vikings got last year - and more importantly, do you think he’s been better than Keenum would have been had he re-signed and tried to duplicate his outlier of a 2017?
Overall, Cousins has been pretty outstanding thus far. As you’ve said, he’s put up plenty of solid numbers, and he’s spent a lot of time under pressure due to a combination of the Vikings not generating much in the run game and the offensive line not being very good. Despite being one of the NFL’s most pressured quarterbacks, he’s stood in and made the sorts of plays that we haven’t seen a Vikings’ quarterback make since the Zombie Favre year of 2009. He’s had some fumble issues, but that was a known problem for him coming in. Aside from that, however, he’s done an outstanding job, and it’s hard to imagine that he could have been much better over these first six games.
3. The run game hasn’t gotten going for the Vikings yet as they rank 28th in total rushing and 20th in yards per rush attempt while their running backs have only scored 1 touchdown on the ground. Can you tell us about the offensive line’s role in those struggles, as well as the health and performance thus far of Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray?
This is the third year in a row that the offensive line has been the weak link on the Vikings’ roster, and that’s had quite a large effect on the run game. While Dalvin Cook’s injuries have been a problem, the bigger issue has been the play of the line, in my opinion. They’ve had some injury issues, such as not having center Pat Elflein early in the season and left tackle Riley Reiff dealing with an ongoing foot issue, but the Vikings will have to continue building the talent level on the offensive line in the upcoming draft.
Latavius Murray is more than capable of stepping in and moving the ball when he gets a little bit of blocking. We saw that last week against Arizona. Murray is a pretty solid all-around back. He runs well, he blocks well, and he can contribute as a receiver in the pass game. It would be nice to have Dalvin Cook available, given how explosive he was as a rookie prior to tearing his ACL. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to get a handle on this hamstring issue that he’s been dealing with. He’s had a couple of full participation practices over the past couple of weeks, but hasn’t actually played since the Week 4 game against the Rams. If Cook can’t go this week, the Vikings’ run game should be in good hands with Murray.
4. What’s gone wrong with the Vikings defense? So far they’ve been a far cry from what they were last year, currently ranked only 19th in scoring defense after leading the league in 2017. In particular, they’ve struggled on the back end. They’re allowing a 103.1 quarterback rating to their opponents this year which is 27th in the league, after they were 3rd in that category last season, and they are also 29th in yards per attempt allowed at 8.9. What have the biggest issues been against the pass?
A lot of it had to do with some communication issues over the first few weeks of the year. There were guys running open all over the place, particularly in the debacle against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and seeing Anthony Barr somehow being matched up with wide receivers in Week 4 against the Rams. Things have started to swing back the other way over the past couple of weeks, and I’m not sure if it’s the fact that the defense has actually started to focus a bit more or what was causing the issues early on. The defense, for the most part, has looked very good over the past two weeks, but now they’ll have to weather the loss of rookie Mike Hughes. Hughes, who the Vikings made a first-round pick this past April, had carved out a solid role for himself as the #3 corner, which isn’t something you often see in a Mike Zimmer defense. Generally, rookies take a bit longer to adjust to this system, but Hughes came in and took over right away. However, despite that, it would appear that the Vikings’ defense is starting to trend in the right direction after a rough start, and hopefully that trend will continue against a Jets team that’s put up 38 points/game over the past two weeks.
5. The Vikings are top ten in fewest rushing touchdowns, yards per carry, and total yards allowed, and own the league’s 5th best sack rate defensively. They’ve done all of that with Everson Griffen playing only 2 games. Is it safe to say that the Vikings defensive front has still been dominant?
The defensive line might be the deepest position group that the Vikings have, and what they’ve done despite the absence of Everson Griffen sort of underscores that. The past couple of games have seen them relegated to just two “natural” defensive ends because of injuries, and Stephen Weatherly has acquitted himself quite well in Griffen’s place. Danielle Hunter, who got a long-term contract extension this offseason, has been phenomenal this season so far, having notched a sack in each of the first six games. In the middle, Linval Joseph continues to be outstanding, and Sheldon Richardson has been a nice addition as well. The Vikings like to rotate their defensive linemen frequently, but because of the injury issues and what Griffen has been dealing with, they haven’t really been able to do that this season. However, the guys that they have been able to rotate in have been getting the job done, which is a testament to both their depth and the coaching prowess of Mike Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
6. Tell us about the Vikings as if you were an opposing coach preparing to play against them. How would you look to exploit them on each side of the ball, and which players, units, or concepts would you pay extra attention to in order to ensure your team wouldn’t get beaten by them on gameday?
On defense, the Vikings have been largely susceptible to getting beaten by athletic tight ends. We’ve seen guys like George Kittle and Zach Ertz put together very good games against the defense, largely because of some of the communications issues I mentioned earlier on. If you can hold the pass rush off a little bit, there have been guys getting open in the Minnesota secondary, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the Vikings defense attempts to scheme against Sam Darnold to make him uncomfortable and hopefully not be able to get the ball to those open guys.
On offense, teams have been trying to blitz Cousins, but he’s actually had a much better QBR this season against the blitz that he does when teams just rush four. So, if you can get pressure with your guys up front and drop enough guys in coverage, that might be your best bet as far as slowing down the Minnesota offense. It also helps if you can stop the run early, as Cousins is one of the better play-action passers in the league, and that becomes much less effective when the threat of the run isn’t there. It might be easier said than done, but that’s the best way of combating the Vikings’ offense, in my opinion.