Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
The Vikings started the season in disappointing fashion, losing two close road games by a total of four points, with blown chances to win each game in the final drive. They were one of just four teams to start the season with two games on the road, which is a tough way to start a season where fans have been absent for over a year, but were able to rebound at home with a convincing win over their long-time nemesis Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks.
The Vikings 1-2 record in September leaves them tied for 2nd in the division with the Bears, behind the 2-1 Packers, but with everything on the table and everything to play for.
Overall, the offense looks much better than the defense. Part of that may have to do with continuity from last year- every starter was with the team last year – while the defense had only Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, DJ Wonnum, and Danielle Hunter as returning starters that were on the team last season. Hunter didn’t play last season, and while on the team officially, Michael Pierce hadn’t played a snap until this season.
In any case, I’ll take a look at both side of the ball after the first few games, beginning with the offense in this article.
Overall the offense has picked up where it left off last season as basically a top ten unit, and even looks to have improved over last season. Currently the Vikings offense ranks 7th in points scored with 87, and 4th in yards gained with 1,275.
In terms of efficiency metrics, the offense ranks 12th in 3rd down conversions (42.5%), 1st in 4th down conversions (100%), and 14th in red zone TD conversions (63.6%). Yards per play ranks 11th at 6.1, with net yards per attempt passing ranking 12th at 7.1 and net yard per attempt rushing 8th at 4.6. The offense also ranks 2nd in giveaways, with just one.
The Vikings under Klint Kubiak are passing the ball a bit more- 60% this year vs. 54% last year after 3 games. They’re also getting the ball out faster on pass plays. So far this year, 76% of pass attempts had a time to throw of 2.5 seconds or less. Last year that number was only 49%.
Part of the reason for the quicker time to throw (TTT) may be the depth of target mix, particularly the drop in deep (20+ yards downfield) targets this year (5%) compared to last year (12.6%), although Cousins also has the quickest TTT in the league on deep throws (2.45s) – a half second quicker than last season. They’ve also cut back on the number of play-action passes (20% vs. 29%) so far this year, which typically result in a longer TTT.
The result of the quicker TTT has been a drop in both pressure rate (from 38.6% to 27%) and sack rate (4% vs. 7% last year). The drop in pressure rate is significant. Last year the allowed pressure rate was 3rd highest. So far this year it is the 7th lowest. Sack rate has gone from 23rd to 7th best this year.
In the running game, they’re running fewer gap-scheme runs so far this year (20%) compared to last year (26%), and have at least a few new run play designs.
Perhaps the biggest change over last season, however, is the personnel formations used so far this year. Last year, the Vikings used 11 Personnel (3WR) sets a league low 29% of all snaps – less than half the league average. Instead, they ran more 2RB sets (21 personnel) than all but 2 teams in the league, at 26%. This year, however, the Vikings have ran 3WR sets (11 personnel) on 51% of their snaps, more in-line with league averages. They are still running about the same percentage of 2RB sets, although in different ways. They had 2 RBs on the field a total of 29% of the time so far this year, but in addition to 21 personnel (13% of plays), they’ve also used more 20 personnel (no TE, 3 WR) sets too (8% of plays). Overall their most successful personnel group by play success rate (40% of yards needed on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, 100% on 3rd/4th down) is still a 2TE set, which they’ve used 13% of the time.
Sharp Football Stats
For the Vikings, 2 RB sets pretty much always mean a RB like Cook or Mattison and FB C.J. Ham.
You’ll notice that while 11 Personnel (first column) is the Vikings most popular personnel group (51% of plays), it’s also the least successful one, with a 49% success rate. The other most popular personnel groups have success rates of 56-63%, with 12 Personnel (2TEs) being the most successful personnel group for the Vikings so far.
Kirk Cousins is building off of a strong 2020 season, and after 3 games, is one of the best quarterbacks in the league by most major metrics. After three games, Cousins ranks 3rd in overall PFF grade, 2nd in ESPN’s QBR, 5th in passer rating, and 6th in adjusted net yards/attempt (ANY/A). He is also PFF’s highest graded QB from a clean pocket, and when passing to intermediate (10-19 yard) depth. He is also the highest graded player on the team.
Cousins has been getting the ball out faster than last season (2.40 second TTT vs. 2.76 seconds last season), giving him the 4th quickest TTT this season. That has helped ease the amount of pressures he’s faced so far this year, along with some improvement along the offensive line in pass protection.
Cousins isn’t all that much better either from a clean pocket or when under pressure compared to last year (although a bit better in each case), but he’s been under pressure on just 27% of pass attempts compared to 38.6% last season. And given that its not unusual for a QB to have a 40 point higher passer rating when clean compared to under pressure (Cousins’ is nearly 50 points better), that difference has really accounted for most of the difference in his performance this year.
Those of you who remember the Great QB Fallacy articles I did earlier this year, will remember the correlation I did between QB passer ratings and pressure rates, on a per game basis, and see that Cousins’ improved performance with lower pressure rates was very predictable, and his trendline was equal to, or better than, the top quarterbacks in the league. Now we are seeing that realized as Cousins’ pressure rate drops lower than Mahomes’, equal to Rodgers’, and just over Brady’s, he is outperforming all of them in passer rating, ESPN’s QBR, ANY/A, and all but Brady in PFF grade.
Dalvin Cook has seemingly picked up where he left off last season, in the two games he played, but he’s actually trending a bit lower in two games compared to last season. 4.5 yards per carry vs. 5.0 last season, for example. His overall and run PFF grades are also quite a bit lower too. Not having C.J. Ham in there as much as a lead blocker may have something to do with it, but his 191 rushing yards in two games still ranks very high, as does his PFF elusive rating (7th), and he still leads the league in 10+ yard runs (9) despite having played in only two games.
Alexander Mattison was able to put in a Dalvin Cook-like performance against the Seahawks, although all his key rushing efficiency metrics were just a bit lower than Cook’s, including yards per carry at 4.2. Where Mattison did do relatively well was in the passing game. Not only is he a higher graded pass blocker than Cook, he also has a higher yards/route run (YRR) than Cook. In fact, at 2.35 YRR, Mattison leads all Vikings’ receivers in that key receiving metric.
Mattison’s performance against the Seahawks is a reminder that he’s a pretty good back, and not that much of a drop-off overall from Cook. He’s also an asset in the passing game. That, along with Cook’s injury history- major and minor- suggests that the Vikings may take another look at Mattison’s reps once Cook is healthy again. Mattison could take 20-25% of snaps per game in an effort to keep Cook fresh and prevent his getting banged up as much.
Both Cook and Mattison have their highest yards per carry running off right tackle, although both have had success running both inside the tackles and outside, although inside has been more mixed, depending on the gap.
Heading into the season, the hope and expectation for the offensive line was for an overall slight improvement, given Oli Udoh replacing Dakota Dozier at right guard, but Rashod Hill at left tackle, and the others with another year of experience under their belt, particularly Ezra Cleveland.
So far that has been the case overall, and depending on the particular measurement, even significant improvement when it comes to pass blocking efficiency rankings.
Here are the QB pressures allowed by each member of the offensive line after 3 games, with sacks/QB hits/QB hurries/pass blocking efficiency following:
Rashod Hill: 8. 1/3/4/96.4%
Ezra Cleveland: 5. 1/1/3/97.6%
Garrett Bradbury: 7. 1/2/4/96.8%
Oli Udoh: 4. 0/0/4/98.4%
Brian O’Neill: 0. 0/0/0/100%.
Overall OL pass blocking efficiency is 89.3%, which is ranked 5th best in the NFL. The average pressures per game stands at 8, with an average of 42 drop-backs, leading to an average pressure rate of just 19% so far from the offensive line, which is excellent. Overall pressure rate, when including pressures allowed from non-OL, is 27% which is still really good and under league-average. Typically league average is around 30% or so. Last year that rate was 38.6%.
It may be that Rashod Hill isn’t ideal at left tackle, but against tougher competition, and with Brian O’Neill outstanding at right tackle, a TE or RB/FB can be positioned to help him against tougher matchups. It’s a situation that can, and has been, mitigated as need be. That really leaves just Garrett Bradbury as the other weak spot, and even he hasn’t been terrible. It’s tougher for a defense to focus on the center with a tough one-on-one matchup as typically one of the guards can help with a double team. The only way for a defense to prevent that is by going with a Bear Front- 5 defensive linemen, or having three interior rushers, but even then the OL can pinch down to counter that. And having 5 defensive linemen necessarily commits them to one less linebacker typically, and that creates opportunities in the passing game, and for outside runs as well.
The big thing right now is that none of the offensive linemen are giving up quick pressures, which really blow-up plays as they are usually unexpected by the quarterback and can lead to strip sacks.
In the run game, it’s interesting that all the Vikings offensive linemen are currently graded higher in gap-scheme run blocking compared to zone-scheme blocking. The Vikings starting linemen were almost all selected for their ability as zone-scheme blockers. The Vikings run mostly zone-scheme (75-80%) runs, but perhaps they could mix in more gap-scheme runs if they prove more effective. It may be that teams expect zone-scheme from the Vikings, so mixing in an occasional gap scheme run catches them off-guard, leading to better blocking grades.
Oli Udoh pancaked J.J. Watt. That’s a real sentence pic.twitter.com/qkdoeo6Nyi
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) September 21, 2021
Look at RG Oli Udoh pulling and blocking two guys to free Dalvin Cook for another chunk gain. pic.twitter.com/ZUY0lKwhFU
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) September 19, 2021
So far new starter Oli Udoh has been very good, and is the highest graded offensive lineman overall for the Vikings, according to PFF.
We’ve come to be pretty spoiled as Vikings fans when it comes to receiver grades and performance, so by those standards, it’s been a bit of slow start for Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. We’re used to having a couple of top ten starting wide receivers, and after three games Justin Jefferson has climbed up to the 10th spot, while Adam Thielen ranks 31st, according to overall PFF grades. Both have been productive- Justin Jefferson has 20 catches on 29 targets for 254 yards and 2 TDs and Thielen has 21 catches on 24 targets for 181 yards and 4 TDs.
The pleasant surprise this season after three games is how well K.J. Osborn has done in the WR3 spot. He got a lot of positive buzz during the off-season and training camp, but we didn’t see much in pre-season action, so who might emerge as WR3, if anyone, was still an open question. But Osborn answered that question early on, and has caught all 14 targets for 193 yards and 1 TD. His YAC ability at the sideline has been particularly impressive, and his passer rating when targeted of 142.6 leads all Vikings receivers. He’s played just 20 snaps less than Jefferson and Thielen, suggesting the Vikings like having him on the field.
Having a legitimate WR3 that can get open and make plays, along with JJ and Thielen, makes it all the more likely Kirk Cousins is going to have an open receiver to throw to. It’s rare for a opposing defense to have three good cornerbacks, so having 3 WRs that can challenge them is a key advantage in the passing game. Osborn can play slot or outside as well, allowing the Vikings to position their receivers for the best matchups. And, to the extent a team wants to focus on stopping JJ and/or Thielen, that opens things up more for Osborn, most likely underneath, who has good YAC ability to turn short passes into longer gains. The Vikings are going with more 3WR sets now that Irv Smith Jr. is out, so it’s likely that Osborn will have more snaps than typical for a Kubiak offense.
With the injury to Irv Smith Jr., Tyler Conklin has stepped-up into the starting role at tight end and has been pretty solid. He started slow, but has been targeted more each game and is starting to put up some good numbers. After 3 games he has 13 receptions on 16 targets for 126 yards and a TD (9.7 yards/catch). He’s now 4th on the team in targets.
A couple of outstanding blocks from TE Tyler Conklin here. Awesome effort and technique to do this against DEs. pic.twitter.com/3MErTSBapy
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 17, 2021
The other two tight ends, Chris Herndon and Ben Ellefson, each have around 40 snaps in 3 games. Only Herndon has been targeted – twice – but neither attempt was completed. Ellefson is mainly a blocking TE at this point, as that’s been his assignment on 80% of his snaps, while Herndon has been a blocker just over 40% of the time.
While 2 TE sets have been the most successful personnel grouping for the Vikings so far, they haven’t been much more successful than 2 RB sets, or RB/FB in the Vikings case. Given that, and that C.J. Ham is generally both a better blocker and even receiver than Herndon or Ellefson at this point, and he can lead block, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Vikings used those formations more to get their best players on the field.
Bottom Line and Klint Kubiak
We’re seeing the weaker or more questionable parts of the Vikings offense going into the season improving so far this season, which bodes very well for the rest of the season. Oli Udoh is proving to be a significant upgrade at right guard. Ezra Cleveland is better than last year so far at left guard. Rashod Hill has at least been serviceable at left tackle, and getting Darrisaw, who is now healthy, out there quickly isn’t an urgent priority like getting Ezra Cleveland out there at right guard was last year.
Beyond that, K.J. Osborn has filled the void at WR3, while Tyler Conklin is stepping up as a solid all-around TE, answering questions at these positions. In the meantime, the improved OL performance, and Kirk Cousins getting the ball out a bit quicker, has led to his being under pressure less often and an overall improvement in his performance. These are all encouraging signs.
Additionally, new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who’s play-calling was something of a wildcard for the Vikings offense prior to the season-opener, has proven pretty adept in that role so far. He had a setback early against the Bengals with all the penalties which undoubtedly took him out of his initial pre-scripted plays (most OCs script the first 15 or so plays prior to each game), but in the last two games he’s done a good job of mixing it up and keeping the defense guessing.
Week Two Opening Two Drives vs. the Cardinals
What’s interesting here is that unlike week one against the Bengals, and last season, Kubiak ran mostly power-scheme runs initially against the Cardinals, mixing in one outside zone, rather than mostly the outside zone-scheme the Vikings are known for, which threw the Cardinals defense for a loop- and resulted in a few long runs for Dalvin Cook. The varied run concepts, inside and outside runs and passes, had the Cardinals defense guessing and led to two pretty sharp touchdown drives to open the game.
Klint Kubiak was in his bag during the Vikings’ first drive:
1. Belly Counter Toss vs. Bear
2. Play action screen vs. Bear
3. Motion to boot action off of outside zone
4. Quick throw to Jefferson vs. off
5. Motion in to force off coverage and quick out
7. TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/rIgzFgx2WN
— Matt Fries (@FriesFootball) September 29, 2021
Against the Seahawks, Kubiak had a good mix to spread out the Seahawks defense: first up the gut, then out wide, screen, bootleg, bubble screen, out route, power-run up the gut, then skinny post for the TD. He challenged them to defend a number of concepts, though not new to his scheme, the mix kept them off-balance and led to a very successful drive and fairly quick touchdown.
The success with the initial play-script suggests an OC that is good at game-planning and likes to put a certain amount out there early on to both see how the defense responds and to keep them off-balance. The key for Kubiak to develop later on in the game is how to use the initial play script, which defenses will later identify and adjust as needed, to setup other, similar plays later in the game that can once again catch them off-guard. And being able to respond to surprises the defense may throw out there.
So far he did a good job responding to the heavy fronts the Bengals were using early week one later in the game, but might have done a little better keeping the play-calling fresh later in the game against the Cardinals and Seahawks, which led to some stalled drives or failure to convert in the red zone. The last drive against the Cardinals leading up to the missed field goal to end the game was pretty well called, however.
Overall, Klint Kubiak looks to be an asset rather than the liability new, rookie offensive coordinators can be on occasion. His background both working with his father and with the Vikings the past couple years gives him a great background to step up into the OC position, and with continuity in scheme. He looks to be adding his own stamp on the Kubiak variation of the Mike Shanahan scheme, just as other young proteges like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay have done. We’ll see how far he goes with it, but the early results look encouraging.
Next up is the Vikings defense.