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.
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.
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.