The entire first half of the Minnesota Vikings 2020 season was butchered by poor performance. Green Bay was too formidable during Week 1 as the Vikings defense allowed Aaron Rodgers to pass the football at will. There were no human obstacles to his destruction. The team traveled to Indianapolis to get back on track, but that was too good to be true. The Colts toyed with the Vikings in a game that was equally as embarrassing as Minnesota’s 2016 game versus Indianapolis.
It took four weeks to get a speck of optimism into the win column. Dalvin Cook was the singularly positive spot of the Vikings roster, although Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith played admirably. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was mediocre, the special teams were flimsy, and the defense was flat-out crusty.
So, the team took a week off. The bye week snuggled into the schedule at a delicious time as the outlook for the remainder of 2020 was bleak. Yannick Ngakoue was sent to Baltimore, but that was it for trades. There was no fire sale. No persons in the position of leadership were fired. Nobody tanked. The Vikings stayed the course.
It worked. The Vikings nipped the Packers at Lambeau Field, and a junior winning streak sprouted. Since the Week 7 bye, Mike Zimmer’s team has won four out of five games. Even the loss probably should have been a win.
The Vikings are one game away from the No.7 seed in the NFC’s playoff invitational. The notion that Minnesota would be in contention with an army of winning teams was comedic about six weeks ago. A win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13 will make a playoff berth a very real possibility. They will need the universe to be kind – particularly the state of Arizona – but the Vikings have a gutshot straight draw to the postseason.
How did we get here? Why did a 1-5 team transform overnight? Here are the numbers to explain it.
Offensive Yards Per Play
Mike Tice coached the Vikings from 2002 to 2005. His teams were offense-first regiments while his defenses lagged significantly behind. During the span of four seasons, the Viking ranked 29th in points allowed. The defense was putrid. No other nouns or adjectives are available to change that reality.
And that’s how the 2020 early-season Vikings looked. Ravaged by injuries, the defense was a ragbag mostly comprised of youngsters and replacement players. It took several weeks to jell. When it did, the schedule opened up to some teams that were not tyrants offensively – the Lions, Bears, Cowboys, and Panthers. A mature-on-the-fly defense encountered an easy stretch and correspondingly improved.
While the defense was blundering, the offense was not – for the most part. Like a Tice team, the Vikings offense prevented the boat from capsizing. Through Week 12, Minnesota ranks second in the NFL in offensive yards per play (6.4). The Chiefs – shockingly (yes, sarcasm) – are the only team that gains more yards per play.
Balance is paramount for the 2020 Vikings offense. They rank second in yards per pass and sixth in yards per rush. Per Mike Zimmer’s modus operandi, the team is running the ball to set up the pass. It’s working. Minnesota ranks seventh in yards per game.
This is the life vest for this weird season. The Vikings score touchdowns 78% of the time when they enter the redzone. No team in the business is more efficient than that. The worst team in the league, the New York Jets, score touchdowns in 33% of redzone situations. That’s a 45% variance. Cousins has thrown 25 completions inside the 20-yardline. No interceptions have beset the Vikings in the redzone. 17 of the completions have been touchdowns. When Cousins accurately tosses the ball inside the redzone, a referee hoist his arms 68% of the time.
Mentioned above was the mostly-bad defense. The unit is lackluster in many areas, but defensive redzone prowess is not one of them. The Vikings surrender touchdowns to opponents inside the 20-yardline on 51% of occasions. This ranks third in the NFL.
Minnesota scores when they penetrate the redzone. Comparatively, they do not let other teams score inside their own.
Penalty Yards per Game
Cynical readers will think this is bogus. But it is not.
The Vikings are the sixth-least penalized franchise in 2020 when adjudicated by total yards. Per game, yellow flags set Minnesota back by 43.5 yards altogether. That may sound like a lot on paper, but examine the context. The most penalized team leaguewide is the Buffalo Bills. They are called for 66 yards worth of infractions per contest. Not ideal.
Although bad calls stand out in your head, the Vikings are a disciplined team. Overall, most of their penalties are nugatory.
Teams that limit penalties and thrive in the redzone – make the playoffs. If the Vikings can avoid mass giveaways (turnovers) in the month of December, they will be one of those teams.