Minnesota Vikings 2021 Team Study

Part 15 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 14 here: Green Bay Packers. Part 16 now available: Chicago Bears.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (purple and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

Despite rotating offensive coordinators seemingly every year, the Vikings have consistently implemented a well-designed offense that maximizes the talent of its players. Cousins can get the ball to his playmakers when they are schemed open and he has time to throw. So they have implemented a ton of play action, including bootlegs, setting up layered routes where he can pick his poison. This works because the run game has been extremely solid with Dalvin Cook, one of the best running backs in the league when he is healthy.

The strong ground game sets up better play action opportunities. Data shows that play action notably increases the efficiency of a team’s passing game, especially with a quarterback like Cousins, who cannot create plays with his legs. And the Vikings were in the top-6 in passing yards gained on play action in both 2019 and 2020. This declined a little in 2021 to 11th with a parallel decline in rushing efficiency, but they were still above average. Having arguably the best RB/WR combo in the league with Jefferson and Cook certainly helps. And Adam Thielen is also an absolute stud, although he’s not getting any younger.

But Cousins has never been able to put the team on his back and take over a game. It’s a great system, and he puts up a ton of stats with his incredible weapons. But year after year he fails to deliver in the biggest moments. There always seem to be excuses. The Vikings supposedly have a bad offense line year in and year out. They allowed the 6th-highest pressure rate in 2021 after allowing the highest pressure rate in 2020. Yet they have a ground game that consistently picks up good yards before contact. They also have had a great offensive scheme that gives Cousins time. I think the pressure rate results directly from his holding the ball too long.

The Vikings also lost a lot of close games (again), and it’s easy to point at things that were not Cousins’ fault. They lost in overtime to the Bengals on a Dalvin Cook fumble. They lost to the Cardinals on a missed field goal (that Cousins helped set up). They gave up a game-winning touchdown to Jared Goff and the Lions on 4th down. You can easily pin these on things outside of Cousins’ control.

But they also found themselves in those spots because Cousins could not capitalize on opportunities to win. They had two possessions in overtime against Cincinnati. The first was wasted when Cousins threw short of the sticks on third down and they had to punt the ball away. He got a 7-yard completion on the play but needed 11 yards. Against Arizona they actually had three opportunities to take the lead at the end. The first two were three-and-outs on third down incompletions. They never really buried opponents, even teams with bad defenses like the Lions.

These results obviously contain a ton of variance and he has had moments where he has delivered in the clutch. But when the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer and brought in a new coaching staff, I’m not sure they addressed the core of the problem. I think this offense has been the best version of itself and just caught some bad breaks. The scheme benefitted them so it’s possible they won’t keep it up with a new sheriff in town.

It’s a difficult offense to project. At its best, they can be top 10 with the talent they have. But they are not a deep offense, and I fear we have seen the best Cousins has to offer. He’s never really been in a bad situation since he came to Minnesota, and I worry that Mike Zimmer was the scapegoat when he actually helped this team reach its potential. I think they’ll need to keep up with the play action and keep Cousins in good spots. If they do, they could have a playoff-caliber offense. But one or two injuries and it could go downhill.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (purple and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The Vikings once again disappointed on defense due primarily to injury and Covid. They may not have been great to begin with, but they had the talent to be competitive. The problem was Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce all missed significant time. And several other starters missed at least one game. They lacked rhythm and cohesiveness early and never really established themselves. Their lack of depth on defense cost them.

I actually thought their scheme was pretty effective when the players were healthy. They managed to pressure opposing quarterbacks at the 6th-highest rate despite blitzing at only the 12th-highest rate. This natural pressure helped them limit opponents to the 8th-lowest passing EPA/play on the season. They didn’t have many impressive performances but they were effective against a good quarterback in a 27-20 win against the Chargers. Outside of that they pretty much played to the level of their competition.

They consistently got torched by good run games. They allowed the 4th-highest EPA/play on running plays for the season and played their best games on defense against teams that couldn’t run the ball. Chart A shows the Vikings’ Adj. Eff. Rating in each game (which measures overall effectiveness relative to opponent offensive strength) ranking each team by its yards per carry on the year. Outside of a good defensive performance against Cleveland (in a 14-7 loss), they struggled against good run games and played better against poor run games.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent rushing efficiency in yards per carry on the season.
*Omitted Week 8 v. DAL because the Cowboys played without Dak Prescott.

They gave up big games to a lot of running backs, and not all of them would be considered cream of the crop. This included Eli Mitchell (27/133), Sony Michel (27/131), and Joe Mixon (29/127). They also struggled with Lamar Jackson on the ground in an overtime loss (21/120). Being weak against the run is not a death knell to a good pass defense, but it meant that all kinds of offenses were effective against Minnesota.

They could shake it up moving forward. They poached Za’Darius Smith from the rival Packers, which gives them another edge rusher if he can stay healthy. They also are switching away from Zimmer’s famous defensive schemes and heading in a completely new direction. It’s unclear how this will go for them but if they can build cohesiveness over the off-season and stay healthy, we could see some improvement on this side of the ball.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Vikings: I don’t have a strong read on the Vikings. They are theoretically built to punish bad teams with a strong ground game and a passing game that feeds off that rushing attack. But they simply did not do that in 2021. Was it poor coaching? I’m not sure – but with so much in flux I’m in wait-and-see mode with this team.

When to fade the Vikings: That also means I’m not looking to fade the Vikings. They have talent all across the roster if they can put it together under the new coaching regime. I tend to think that firing Mike Zimmer and co. was a misguided scapegoat move, so I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic. But they have potentially a good team in a weak conference and could certainly be better than expected.

What to look for in the offseason: My eyes are on the defense, both in terms of personnel and scheme. The offense is built to be at its best with the lead, so defense – and passing defense in particular – is key. I will also have an eye on them in the pre-season and early season to try to get a handle on their new identity.

Enjoyed the content?

For all my analysis and NFL bets as I make them (including ten NFL futures), become a SharpClarke Member for the 2022 season here:

One thought on “Minnesota Vikings 2021 Team Study”

Leave a Reply