Second Thoughts: Can the Vikings repeat Sunday’s success against the Packers — and beyond?

Heading into Sunday’s game against a Chargers defense ranked third in the league against the pass, the Vikings made what wide receiver Justin Jefferson called a “big adjustment,” emphasizing a desire to get the ball to him and Adam Thielen with a more aggressive approach.

On Sunday, at least, that approach still didn’t take the form of many deep strikes. During the Vikings’ 27-20 win, Kirk Cousins’ biggest completions of the day — a pair of 27-yard sideline connections with Jefferson — were two of the only three passes he attempted of 20 yards or more. But he exploited an area of the passing game he hasn’t used much this season: the middle of the field.

According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins attempted seven passes between 10 and 19 yards downfield on Sunday, connecting on four of them for 78 yards and helping the Vikings solve a defensive scheme they’re going to see again in some of their most important games the rest of the way. He had one pass nearly intercepted by Tevaughn Campbell after Thielen fell down, but made some of his biggest throws by exploiting seams in the Chargers’ zone coverages, fitting throws in behind their linebackers and in front of their safeties.

He hit Jefferson for a 12-yard third-down pickup that had Chris Harris furious with teammates because of a coverage breakdown, and beat a blitz with a 16-yard throw to Thielen later on the same drive. His final completion of the day — an 18-yard shot over the middle to Thielen on third-and-20 — put the Vikings in position to go for it on fourth down and seal the game with a toss play to Dalvin Cook.

“I think the one to Adam on third down was pressure, so I was hot and used my hot throw and they voided the middle of the field [on the blitz],” Cousins said. “On the deeper one to Adam on the last third down of the game, it was just a two-deep shell and that was where the void was. They did play a fair amount of split safety and I guess that was just kind of where my reads took me.”

The Chargers hired coach Brandon Staley after his work as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, where his iteration of Vic Fangio’s defense used lighter boxes with split-safety looks to take away big plays downfield. The thesis of Staley’s defense, which has become popular around the league, is a willingness to give up yardage on the ground while forcing offenses to work methodically and squeeze throws into traffic.

That Cousins was able to beat the scheme Sunday is significant first of all because it helped the Vikings win a game they badly needed. But if it carries forward through the season — starting with a Packers defense that’s adopted a similar scheme to Staley’s under defensive coordinator Joe Barry — it could help the Vikings remain productive against teams intent on slowing Thielen and Jefferson down.

Cousins has the second-highest passer rating in the league on intermediate throws this season, per PFF, but he has attempted the third-lowest percentage of those throws in the NFL this season (only Jared Goff and Joe Burrow have done it less). As the Vikings have reduced the frequency with which they use play action, and as they’ve taken fewer deep shots, their passing game had often been reduced to short throws or checkdowns, particularly after the first drive of the game.

“One time he came off [the field], and I said, ‘What did you see on that play?'” coach Mike Zimmer said of Cousins. “I said, ‘I think Adam had that guy beat,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t see him quick enough.’ And so, I think just the reinforcement of some of those kinds of those things. But then second-and-18 or whatever it is, he’s gotta – we’ve gotta get the ball down the field. We can’t throw 5-yard throws. Some of those are dictated by the game situation and, unfortunately, penalties.”

The Vikings had plenty of those on Sunday, putting themselves in situations where they needed deeper throws from Cousins just to keep drives alive. But much like he did with Teddy Bridgewater in 2015, Zimmer seems to be encouraging a little more assertiveness from a quarterback given to caution in a scheme that’s also had plenty of it.

“I do think that sometimes he needs to be aggressive with the football, and I thought he was today, especially in the second half,” Zimmer said. “He’s gotta trust everybody, and if he has to hum a couple in there and they get tipped or something, so be it. That’s why we’re a team.”

The Vikings offense works best when the ball is in the hands of Jefferson, Thielen or Cook. Those three players touched the ball on 42 of the Vikings’ 72 plays on Sunday, as they devised an approach to beat the Chargers. With two games left against the Packers, and one against a Rams defense that’s retained many of Staley’s principles, it could come in handy again.

“They were playing a lot of two-high [safeties] and leaving the middle open, so some great play calling of getting us the ball in open space and letting us work,” Jefferson said.

TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT

Eric Kendricks: His sack on the Chargers’ first passing play was one of two the Vikings had — Zimmer said after the game the play led the Chargers to change their pass protection calls — but it was Kendricks’ leaping interception on a deep crossing route against Keenan Allen that distilled so much of what makes him one of the game’s best middle linebackers. We’ll let him explain.

“Actually, I was supposed to come off [Allen’s route] a little earlier, and kind of turn around the other way,” he said. “I saw him bending, and I decided that if I kind of speed-turn it, I’ll have the opportunity to not only play the person who was coming underneath, but also kind of shelter that route he was running. So I kind of speed-turned it, and it worked out. I saw the ball pretty late, and got out there.”

The coverage recognition skills, ability to take a calculated risk in a split-second and athleticism Kendricks showed on the play are of a rare sort.

Camryn Bynum: The rookie safety filled in for Harrison Smith again and has played well enough in the past two weeks the Vikings could continue to use him in a big nickel package once Smith is back from the COVID-19 list. Bynum had the Vikings’ other sack Sunday, holding his disguise from a safety alignment until Nick Vigil dropped into coverage and Kendricks occupied two blockers. Bynum’s 9-yard sack came on the series after the Chargers scored to take the lead in the third quarter; it ended a drive where the Vikings badly needed a stop, and was one of the big plays that catalyzed their comeback.

TWO AREAS OF CONCERN

Offensive line penalties: This has been a constant this season, but it was the biggest issue again for the Vikings on Sunday. Oli Udoh was flagged twice for holding, bringing his total to a NFL-high 11 this season, and Brian O’Neill’s holding call on the Vikings’ final drive put them in a first-and-20 situation. Then, after Cousins found Jefferson for 27 yards to convert a third down, blocking tight end Luke Stocker was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty that made it first-and-25, requiring the Vikings to go for it on fourth down to end the game after Cousins hit Thielen for 18 yards on the third-and-20. And Christian Darrisaw’s holding penalty wiped out a touchdown pass to C.J. Ham, pushing the Vikings back from the Chargers’ 1 on a third down that turned into a Greg Joseph field goal. The line penalties could have cost the Vikings the game Sunday, when they were flagged 10 times for 118 yards overall.

Third-and-longs: The Vikings went 5-for-14 on third downs, but that figure actually improved thanks to Cousins’ late connections with Jefferson; at one point, they were 2-for-9. Against the Chargers, the third-down struggles had as much as anything to do with the positions in which they’d put themselves: they faced 10 third downs where they needed seven or more yards for a first down, and converted three of those (on an 18-yard Cousins-to-Jefferson connection in the second quarter, a Chris Harris pass interference on Jefferson and a 16-yard Cousins-to-Thielen completion to beat a Chargers blitz in the fourth quarter). It’s hard to consistently convert third downs of that length, and the Vikings’ third-and-longs were a product of several early-down issues, like penalties, first-down handoffs to Jefferson and Cook that lost yardage, a first-down sack where Alexander Mattison released out of the backfield and Amen Ogbongbemiga raced through untouched. The Vikings’ third-down issues aren’t new, but they’re not just about third downs; they can make things easier on themselves if they’re able to be more consistently productive on first and second downs.

ONE BIG QUESTION

Does Sunday’s win — and a more aggressive offense — mean the Vikings are back in the playoff mix? As we discussed above, the Vikings’ season is likely to be decided against teams that employ similar coverage principles to the Chargers: if they lose twice to the Packers and once to the Rams, they’d likely need to win their other five games and hope a 9-8 record is enough to get them the NFC’s seventh seed. But if the Vikings’ commitment to Jefferson and Thielen continues, and they’re able to execute against the better teams they’ll see, there’s no reason they can’t land a wild-card spot.

They are currently tied for eighth in the NFC, a half-game back of the Panthers (who haven’t had a bye week yet) for the conference’s final spot. Their main competition at the moment, though, is a Carolina team they’ve already beaten and an Atlanta team playing without Calvin Ridley after trading Julio Jones. The other thing the Vikings have working for them is the fact the three teams closest to them in the standings are in the NFC South; the Saints (5-4) are the No. 6 seed, the Panthers are No. 7 and the Falcons are tied with the Vikings. Those three teams all play each other once more, ensuring at least one of them will emerge with some damage to their final record.

Compared to the teams they are battling for a wild-card spot, the Vikings have arguably the best trio of skill position players (in Cook, Jefferson and Thielen) and the most stable quarterback situation. They could get Patrick Peterson, Smith and maybe even Anthony Barr back against the Packers, after a depleted group turned in one of its best defensive performances of the past two years.

Perhaps that’s what’s most perplexing about the 2021 Vikings: There’s nothing to suggest they shouldn’t be a playoff team. The fact they’re scraping for a wild-card spot while 3 1/2 games behind the Packers is due to issues of their own making: penalties, inconsistent offensive line play, blown late-game leads and a nagging tendency to give up points before halftime (the Chargers’ TD on Sunday raised the Vikings’ total to a league-worst 52 points allowed in the final two minutes of the first half).

But if the Vikings can beat the Packers and Bears once each, win on the road against the 49ers and Lions and find a victory at home against the Steelers or Rams, they’ll be at nine wins, with either seven or eight of those coming in the conference. That seems like a reasonable path to put themselves in strong playoff position, especially if what they did Sunday is repeatable.

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