What O’Connell Is Thinking about During Bye Week + Week 7 NFL Preview
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
It should be a relaxing bye week for Kevin O’Connell. His Vikings are flying high at 5-1 with a two-game lead on the disjointed Packers in the NFC North. The bye week offers the head coach a chance to catch his breath and get his players much-needed rest before the remaining 11 regular season games plus—the coach hopes—an extended playoff run.
Well, NFL head coaches are not wired to chill out during a bye week. Sure, O’Connell will spend more time with his family over this football-free weekend. He doesn’t even have to watch the next opponent—the Cardinals—this weekend since they hosted the Saints on Thursday night unless he decides to start breaking down the Cards vs. Saints game tape before Monday.
O’Connell has surely been spending his working hours this week poring through game tape and reports from the Vikings first six games, self-scouting his team’s performance in all three phases with a particular emphasis on his own performance as a first-time offensive play caller.
Here are some things that have likely grabbed his attention:
1. Third down efficiency: the offense converted 2 of 12 against Miami, which was disappointing after it appeared they turned the corner with 12 of 15 against the Bears. For the season, the Vikings offense ranks 17th in the league with a 38.7% rate, but they are only at a 28% success rate for the five games other than Chicago. It will help if Kirk Cousins throws more to Justin Jefferson early in games as he did against the Bears and didn’t do in Miami (one target on the first three series that all went three-and-out).
2. Stopping the third quarter lulls on offense and defense: the team has been great in the fourth quarter with 51 points scored (vs. 27 allowed), but they have only scored six points in the third quarter while allowing 33 and that has enabled opponents to make the games too close for comfort. The coach knows he can’t always count on late-game rescues as have occurred the past four games.
3. Managing the workload/snaps for several of his star players with an injury history, most notably Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter, and Za’Darius Smith. In the Miami heat, Cook played 87% of the snaps, Hunter 82%, and Smith 77%. Cook has been dealing with his shoulder issues, while Smith’s knee has caused him to miss some practice time (after his back problems in 2021). And we know Hunter’s issues in the past two seasons. All three are playing well, and Hunter should be more productive than his three sacks through six games as he continues his adjustment to playing as a standup outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Having a few games that are not one-score in the fourth quarter will help to give these three key players, plus other vets, more breaks to keep them fresh for late in the season and probably the postseason.
4. O-line run game consistency: the Vikings rank 9th in passing yards but only 23rd in rushing yards, so the coaches will emphasize the improvement needed by the offensive line to open holes for Cook and Alexander Mattison. Rookie guard Ed Ingram made a key block on Cook’s game-clinching 53-yard TD run in Miami, but Ingram is a work in progress, more so in pass protection. And O’Connell will want to stay on center Garrett Bradbury, who has played better this season but had some rough moments against the aggressive Dolphins interior defenders.
5. On defense, tighten the intermediate zone coverage: the Vikings rank 29th in passing yards allowed, with Tyreek Hill the latest receiver to hurt them underneath (177 receiving yards on 12 receptions last Sunday). They’ve made up for it by forcing key turnovers, such as Cam Dantzler’s late forced fumble/steal of the ball in the Chicago game and Harrison Smith’s huge forced fumble late against Miami. O’Connell knows that the team’s plus-4 turnover ratio is a key to their success (with their 10 takeaways ranking 5th in the league). But he wants to see better coverage by the linebackers and secondary.
6. Improve red zone D: the Vikings have allowed touchdowns on the last 10 trips by opposing teams into the red zone. That must improve with teams such as Buffalo and Dallas coming up on the November schedule along with a top running QB in the Cards’ Kyler Murray next up, and the Vikings have had trouble with running QBs in Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields.
7. Special teams have been excellent, but Greg Joseph can’t miss extra points (two in the last three games), and his 50 yards plus field goal kicking needs to improve (he’s 1 of 5 this season).
Overall, O’Connell is looking for more consistency in all areas. “We’re in a really good place as a team with a lot of room to continue to grow,” he said. “We’ve got a tough, resilient group that doesn’t always play the most consistent, but they have each others’ backs in all three phases. The team has great leadership, is tough, and has the ability to win football games a lot of different ways, which we’ll need with the tough schedule we have.”
One thing is certain during this bye week—the coach can feel great about a 5-1 start that few people predicted, and he knows that having a two-game lead plus a head-to-head win over the Packers is huge at this point in the season.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. It’s kind of a lackluster Week 7 in the NFL with three division leaders on byes—the Vikings, Bills (also 5-1), and the still unbeaten Eagles—plus the NFC West co-leading Rams (at 3-3) have the weekend off.
2. The only matchup of both teams with a winning record is 3-2-1 Indianapolis at 3-2 Tennessee. The Titans have beaten the Colts four straight times, and I think they’ll make it five behind Derrick Henry, who rushed for 114 yards against the Colts earlier this month (and why would the NFL schedule the two best teams in the AFC South to meet twice in the first half of the season?).
3. Can the struggling Packers make it to 4-3 with a win in Washington against the franchise whose owner, Daniel Snyder, is deservedly under fire (now including by Colts owner Jim Irsay)? The Commanders’ defensive line, led by Jonathan Allen, should put the heat on Aaron Rodgers, who is now whining about the offense being too complicated, which Coach Matt LaFleur can’t be thrilled to hear. I still see the Packers as the better team, and they should win this game, but an upset wouldn’t be shocking after the Jets whipped the Pack last Sunday.
4. Upset alert—5-1 Giants at 2-4 Jaguars, but how can the G-Men be a three-point underdog? Their Coach Brian Daboll will tell his team this is a sign of major disrespect for a 5-1 team. I think the Giants strong defense and running game will lead the way to a win, as they’ve been doing the past three weeks.
5. Intriguing game of the week—Chiefs at 49ers: both teams come off tough losses, the Chiefs at home against the Bills and the 49ers at Atlanta. San Fran has been missing so many key starters, but it sounds like they’ll be in better shape this week. However, I don’t see Patrick Mahomes losing two straight games, so I’ll go with K.C.
Vikings Territory Also Read: Bears Say ‘No More’ to Ex-Vikings Playmaker
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl