Back to reality after a humbling lesson from the Dallas Cowboys – is the sentiment in Eagan, MN. Twice this season the Vikings have hosted underperforming teams at U.S. Bank Stadium and been defeated. The first time was just before the bye week when the lowly Atlanta Falcons hung a beatdown on the Vikings that was unforeseen.
The Falcons were 0-5 and on the precipice of blowing up the organization in favor of a rebuild. Respected skipper Dan Quinn was fired a few days before the game while Matt Ryan’s future with the team was the topic of whispers. As luck would have it, Atlanta was not that bad and subsequently punished Minnesota in all facets of the game.
That Vikings loss was not quite akin to the Week 11 one against the Cowboys. Although Minnesota depressingly lost last weekend’s game, it was not a full-scale portrayal of ineptitude.
Mike Zimmer’s offensive unit was marvelous to the tune of 28 points scored. Kirk Cousins had his best game since Week 11 of 2019, a game that the Michigan State alumnus triumphantly dragged his team back from a 20-point deficit against the Denver Broncos. Halfback Dalvin Cook also crossed the 100-yard threshold and chipped a touchdown as a gratuity against Dallas.
But then there’s the story of the defense. A bunch that made evolutionary strides in Weeks 8-10 is now seemingly back to the drawing board. And, it’s the defense that propels these 2020 Pandemic Vikings to the “average” namesake.
Mixed Bag of Performances
It is flummoxing that the Vikings can decisively topple the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field but resemble amateurs versus Andy Dalton. Sure, it’s the nature of football and the “any given Sunday” mantra. But that doesn’t alleviate the frustration.
As another example, Minnesota could foster no offensive momentum in Week 2 at Indianapolis against a team that remains one of the best defenses in the NFL. Guess who else has a heralded defense? The Chicago Bears. Assuredly the Vikings did not shred Chicago, but they did make enough big plays in order to win. Such was not the case – at all – versus Colts.
So far in 2020, the Vikings are riding a seesaw of aptitude. No longer can the logic of “they went toe-to-toe with Seahawks so they can beat the winless Falcons” be applied. The Vikings peaks and valleys are defined in real-time on an erratic, weekly basis.
The Numbers are Inconsistent, too
The eye test echoes average and inconsistent play. The numbers do, too.
The Vikings rank No. 1 in the NFL with offensive yards per play, 6.5. That’s a larger number than all the biggies – the Chiefs, Seahawks, Saints, Packers, etc. The offense is hitting on all cylinders (minus the Colts and Falcons contests) whereas the defense is competent only some of the time.
In yards per play allowed, Minnesota ranks 20th in the business (5.8). The variance of first in offense and 20th in defense acts like a telescope to the team’s 4-6 record. Normally with Mike Zimmer, this inequality is the other way around. His defense is usually the breadwinner while the offense does just enough to close out ballgames. For 2020, this deviation is on-brand. Why would anything go according to plan?
There are other statistical oddities. The Vikings defensive third-down percentage is near the top of the NFL. They prevent opposing teams from converting on third down about 64% of the time, fourth-best leaguewide. The thrill of the third-down is supremacy is waterlogged by the fourth-down numbers.
Minnesota ranks 25th in the league in defensive fourth-down percentage. Opponents convert fourth downs two-thirds of the time. The numerical contradiction of these stats is another symptom of an average football team.
What should one do with this information? Sit on the couch this Sunday afternoon knowing you may seem a thunderous 34-3 shellacking of the Panthers or an embarrassing 27-20 lifeless loss. The last three months show either outcome is conceivable.
This is what average football teams do. Think of the mid-2010s New Orleans Saints. Sean Payton’s bunch encountered a three-year stretch when they finished 7-9 every year (2014 to 2016). That’s with Drew Brees, the Superdome homefield advantage, and Mark Ingram in his prime.
Like clockwork, New Orleans was 7-9. On certain Sundays, they could smack elite teams in the mouth. Then, they would lose to the Deshaun Watson-less Texans for no good reason.
Average teams are unpredictable on a weekly basis. The predictable part is that they typically barrel toward a record around 8-8. That is where the Vikings seem to be headed – mainly because of defensive instability. And yes – injuries have a lot do with it.