The Vikings broke out of the gates slowly in 2020, dropping their first three games before finally finding the right side of the ledger in Week 4. The 1-3 start is far from ideal, but the team looked better even in a Week 3 loss to Tennessee and then the offense was firing on all cylinders in Week 4, so you can excuse Vikings Nation for feeling a little wind at their back.
Next Sunday night in Seattle will be a barometer, though, for whether the Vikings are getting things on track. Another win, and those positive vibes will be justified. In that scenario, the Vikings would take a 2-3 record back home with only a winless Atlanta Falcons group standing between them and a .500 record heading into the bye week.
Time will tell on all of that. For now, let’s quickly review what we’ve seen on the field from the Vikings in the first quarter of the season. Here are five observations from the Vikings first four games of 2020.
1. Dalvin Cook is the engine of the offense
A lot of times teams can stuff the stat sheet with rushing yards after they build a big lead through the air and spend most of the second half milking the clock. That’s not typically what happens when Dalvin Cook’s stat line is fat. Last week in Houston is a good example.
The Vikings built a 17-6 lead by halftime and it was largely because of Cook’s efforts on the ground. He was handed the ball 15 times and ran for 60 yards and two scores. Two weeks ago at home against Tennessee, the Vikings led 17-9 at halftime and Cook at that stage had 76 rushing yards and a score on 10 carries.
Yes, the NFL is a QB league. Yes, the NFL is a passing league. But, no, the Vikings under Mike Zimmer (intentionally) don’t fit this contemporary mold. As Cook and the running game goes, so go the Vikings.
2. Another go-round for Zimmer and the Vikings defense
Zimmer arrived in Minnesota in 2014 and took control of a defense that was coming off statistically the worst season in team history. His presence alone likely would’ve generated some improvement, but in concert with some player acquisition and player development, the 2014 Vikings defense jumped up significantly and it wasn’t long before the Vikings boasted one of the best groups in the League year in and year out.
That group which grew and developed into an elite defense had its time. Much of it has been disassembled. The good news is some key pieces remain, most notably Danielle Hunter (although he’s on IR), Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith. Oh, and Zimmer, of course. Long story longer, trust Zimmer and his process.
Trust his staff and their ability to develop players. Zimmer built a great defense almost from scratch back in 2014 and 2015. After that group had its run, the defense was torn down and Zimmer is rebuilding. You’re witnessing the ground level of that rebuild. There will be some growing pains in the present, but there will also be some flashes. Enjoy the ride, again.
3. Justin Jefferson found a good spot
There is a lot working against rookie WRs at the NFL level. The speed and complexity of the game. Veteran receivers on the depth chart. Timing with a new QB. It’s just tough to get things going for rookies. Every now and then you’ll see a rookie WR really stand out. That might be happening with Jefferson in Minnesota.
There are a few things to really love about Jefferson’s spot in Minnesota. First, he has Adam Thielen in his room. Thielen is everything you can want in a football player and a teammate. The consummate pro. Outstanding route runner. Tireless work ethic. Tenacious competitor. A young player with Jefferson’s mindset can’t help but absorb that from Thielen and become better. Secondly, opportunity.
After Thielen, the cupboard was essentially bare at receiver with the departure of Stefon Diggs and the absence of anyone else stealing the show. Thirdly, an accurate passer. It’s hard enough to run the right route, create separation and break open. Now, you need the QB to find you and throw accurately to you. Jefferson has a QB who can do that in Kirk Cousins. For all of Cousins’ misgivings, we can say with certainty that he knows where the bones are buried in this offense and he is an accurate passer.
There are a lot of 1st-round WRs who come into the League with promise and who even show flashes early on, but who never pan out. Jefferson has done the first part – entered the League with promise and shown flashes early. It won’t surprise if he keeps up the pace and becomes one of the 2020’s breakout rookies.
4. Injuries have already hit hard
The Vikings shouldn’t and don’t expect anyone to feel bad for them because of their injuries. Just look across the League so far this year and you’ll find basically every team has lost key players. It’s just that the Vikings are no exception.
They’re already down a starting offensive lineman and, more notably, they’ve lost Anthony Barr for the season and are still without Hunter. Next man up. Injuries are part of the game. True, true. But there’s no mistaking, the Barr and Hunter injuries…hurt.
5. Still looking for Cousins to elevate
The Vikings are now into their third season with Cousins. And Cousins is in his ninth season in the NFL. He is what he is at this point. Cousins is an incredibly accurate passer with excellent arm strength, high intelligence and mobility. He can get the job done when others are getting their jobs done.
What has not been demonstrated is the ability to get everyone out of the building when it’s burning down. To this point, Cousins has been someone who needs to be rescued. He’s not doing the rescuing. And to go to the next level, the Vikings need Cousins to be the one who escapes the fire, sees others need help, runs back into the burning building and emerges with people on his back.