The Vikings offense featured the NFL’s best trio of skill players in Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson. I don’t think any running back hits the hole harder than Cook, whose elite speed and elusiveness led to 33 broken tackles, second only to Derrick Henry’s 34 (and Henry played two and a half more games than Cook). With Thielen and Jefferson both able to create consistent separation, the offensive line just needed to hold off immediate pressure and allow Cousins to get the ball to his playmakers without making any big mistakes. When Cousins was sharp, this offense was potent.
But a highly concentrated offense can mean a big drop off when only one piece is missing. The Vikings ranked 19th on the season but this raw number was brought down by some early struggles before rookie Jefferson got up to NFL speed and a few games that either Cook or Thielen missed due to injury or Covid. Omitting those five games in which only two of the three contributed, they would have been the 10th-ranked offense. Still, relying on three players to stay healthy can be a dangerous game.
The Vikings put up top-tier offensive numbers in terms of yards per play, both passing and rushing. Based only on these numbers, it was a thoroughly impressive season. But these gaudy numbers cloaked a few glaring weaknesses. First, for such an efficient offense, they turned the ball over far too frequently. And although they were solid most of the time, they were at their worst in key moments.
MIN Offensive Statistics, 2020
|Yards Per Play||6.2||5th|
|Net Yards Per Pass||7.2||7th|
|Yards Per Carry||4.9||4th|
Frankly, the offense choked away too many games. Against the Titans, one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL, the Vikings had the ball down 1 with 1:44 left. All they needed was a field goal, and they could not even get a first down. Cousins threw an interception on 4th down after fumbling a snap on 2nd down. Against the Cowboys, another bad defense, they had the ball down 3 with 1:37 left. After a first down run, Cousins threw three straight incompletions to turn the ball over on downs and lose the game. They lost to Indianapolis in a game where Cousins went 11 for 25 for 113 yards and 3 interceptions. And finally, with the late lead against Seattle, they did not trust Cousins to convert a first down and instead ran 8 straight times, turning the ball over on downs when they failed to convert a 4th and 1. Seattle went on to score and win.
Cousins was noticeably more comfortable with the lead. He thrived when the running back was a true threat but struggled when teams knew the pass was coming. The Vikings only erased a 4th quarter deficit to win once in 2020, against Carolina. This matched their 2019 total, including the playoffs. Only one of their 2019 wins involved a 4th quarter comeback.
I don’t want to paint the picture that Cousins is a bad quarterback or can’t come through in the clutch. He did come up huge against the Saints last year in the playoffs. But the Saints never held a second-half lead in that game. The run game was always in play, including (perhaps particularly) in their overtime touchdown drive. His issues arise when the opposing defense knows the pass is coming.
The Vikings fit the archetype of a team that built a successful passing game on the strength of their run game. They were a better offense all around when they ran the ball a lot.
This chart shows the Vikings’ offensive Adjusted Rating in each game ranked by its ratio of runs to passes in that game. While there is obviously some compounding effect that they ran more when they were winning (and thus likely played better offensively), this trend was more pronounced for the Vikings than for most teams. When they passed a lot, they had their worst offensive games, even in victories. For example, they ran a pass-heavy offense in wins against Carolina (-0.29 Adj. Rating), Detroit (-0.28), and Jacksonville (-1.11). But they played lights out in games where they ran significantly more than they passed, against Green Bay (+0.69), Houston (+0.53), and Detroit (+0.35). Cousins was much more efficient as a passer when the defense had to account for Cook, and as a result the Vikings generated the 6th-highest amount of play-action passing yards.
My biggest concern with Cousins is that he holds the ball too long. Despite playing only two games against defenses in the top 10 in pressure rate and only four games against teams in the top half, the Vikings allowed the NFL’s highest pressure rate. Read that sentence again, because it’s extremely surprising. They got away with it for the most part, but it highlights the potential issue that could be exacerbated if they face a schedule of defenses that are better at exerting pressure or if they are forced to play from behind more frequently.
The offense was built for success when their defense kept them ahead, because they were far better at maintaining a lead than coming back from behind. When their key parts were all healthy, this was a potent offense. If they improve their defense in 2021 (which seems likely), they could be better on offense as a result. But with the concentration of talent in three players and potential liability at quarterback, a handful of injuries could knock the team off course (like it did in 2020).
The 24th-ranked Vikings defense really struggled in 2020 but they had plenty of excuses. Two of their best pass rushers missed the entire season, as Michael Pierce opted out for Covid and Danielle Hunter suffered a neck injury. Their cornerbacks were also in and out of the lineup with injuries and did not play well overall. With no pass rush and poor secondary play, you will not succeed in today’s NFL.
As a result, better quarterbacks absolutely abused the Minnesota secondary by featuring their go-to players.
Big Receiving Games v. MIN
Playing with these key injuries, the Vikings were up-and-down for the first 11 weeks of the season. They probably could be called an average defense during this time. But in pre-game warmups against Jacksonville, their defensive leader and play-caller Eric Kendricks hurt his calf and it all went downhill. They could stumble along without their pass rush and corners but they fell apart without Kendricks. They ended the season on a defensive skid as Kendricks missed the rest of the season.
This chart shows the Vikings’ defensive Adjusted Rating by game over the course of the season. Outside of two games in which Rodgers and Ryan destroyed the Vikings, they played respectably throughout the first part of the season. But after the Jacksonville game they suffered a decline without Kendricks, and put up bad games against TB (-0.23), CHI (-0.72), NO (-1.72), and DET (-0.64) to end the year. Kendricks’ absence was particularly felt against the Saints and Alvin Kamara, who scored 6 touchdowns in that game.
Given how many injuries they suffered, their 2020 defensive performance likely does not accurately predict their 2021 performance. They have already addressed their need at cornerback with veteran Patrick Peterson providing much-needed leadership in the secondary, and they hope to return their pass rush and Kendricks. Mike Zimmer has traditionally put together good defenses and I anticipate the Vikings will get back on track.
And as noted above, a good defense will help the offense. So seeing how this defense looks early in 2021 will be key in projecting this team.
Putting it All Together
- The Vikings are underrated heading into the offseason. The impact of defensive injuries is often overlooked, and an improved defense will put the offense in successful situations. However, potential injuries make this team particularly vulnerable to a major drop off, especially in a long season.
- As a result, have confidence in the Vikings early in the season if they have no health issues at the outset, but look to fade them if they suffer injuries.
- Expect the Vikings to outperform on offense with all their key weapons healthy, particularly when they are projected to have a lead in the game.
- Avoid money line bets on Minnesota, as they tend to underperform in clutch moments relative to how good they are on offense.
- If the re-tooled defense holds up early in the season, look to capitalize on the compounding effect on the offense by betting on the Vikings early.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Dalvin Cook is extremely talented and the focal point of the offense. He’s a no-brainer early pick. Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson should also be highly productive, and Thielen in particular could present great value as an underrated player who remains a big part of this offense.
- With an offense concentrated on these players and reliant on their ability, don’t expect replacement players to fill the gap in production.
- Cousins is a matchup-dependent quarterback who makes an excellent streaming candidate against good matchups. Plan ahead for his good weeks if you have the roster space.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 6, the Falcons were 4-point underdogs against Minnesota. The teams were fairly even in a vacuum, but the Falcons were playing with Julio Jones and the Vikings were playing without Dalvin Cook. I don’t often make huge adjustments for skill position players, but these two offenses both rely on those two players in particular and take a huge step back without them. In addition, the Falcons were better at stopping the run than the pass, which meant a bad matchup for Minnesota. Without Cook and against a tough run defense, I projected Cousins would have a bad game and bet ATL +4. Sure enough, there was too much pressure on Cousins and the Falcons dominated as underdogs, 40-23.
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