The Minnesota Vikings went into their Week Eight bye with a 1-5 record and, if the trade of Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore during that break was a reliable indicator, perhaps the notion that the playoffs were not in their 2020 future.
The Vikings came out of that break with their biggest win of the season, beating heated division-rival Green Bay, 28-22, at Lambeau Field. Including that contest, Minnesota has won five times since their break; the only team with more victories in that span is the current NFC number-one seed New Orleans Saints, who haven't lost since September.
Now the Buccaneers come out of their own bye week following a two-game losing streak, with a 7-5 record that has them very much in playoff contention but with a lot of work still to do. And the team they find waiting for them upon their return: Those streaking Vikings, who are not just fringe contenders but the current owners of the seventh seed in the NFC, just one game behind the Buccaneers.
So what kind of contender do the Bucs have to deal with in Week 13. Their two recent pre-bye losses, both 27-24 decisions, came against a Rams team with an aggressive defense and a quick-play passing attack plus a speedy Chiefs team built to make big plays. The Vikings, long known for their defense, have been winning more with their offense during their current run, and in particular have proved they know how to make big plays with the game on the line.
As good as quarterback Kirk Cousins has been this season, with a sparkling 103.9 passer rating, Minnesota's offense starts on the ground with Dalvin Cook, one of the few legitimate non-QB MVP candidates in the league. The Vikings have run the ball on 48.1% of their plays, the sixth-highest rate in the league and Cook is second in the NFL with 1,250 rushing yards while averaging 5.0 yards per tote. Cook has also scored an NFL-leading 14 touchdowns (tied with Tyreek Hill), 13 on the ground.
Cousins' play has perfectly complemented that ground game, as he is completing 67.8% of his passes and averaging 8.5 yards per attempt. That's an unusual and impressive combination; of all the quarterbacks in the NFL with a completion rate of at least 65% (and there are 21 of those), the only one with a higher yards per attempt or yards per completion rate (12.5) than Cousins is Houston's DeShaun Watson. Fourteen of those 20 other QBs aren't even throwing for 8.0 yards per attempt.
The Vikings traded away one of Cousins' best weapons in the offseason when they sent Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for a package of draft picks led by a 2020 first-rounder, then turned around and used that exact pick on wide receiver Justin Jefferson. That proved to be a good strategy, as the former LSU star has completely replaced Diggs' production with 61 catches for 1,039 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 17.0 yards per catch. Meanwhile, Adam Thielen has more touchdown catches (12) than everybody not named Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams.
While the Vikings' offense has improved from 16th last year to fourth this year, the team's defense has been trending in the other direction for a few seasons now. Mike Zimmer's group led the league in defense in 2017 and was fourth in 2018 but then slid to 14th last year and 24th in 2020. That last drop is understandable as the Vikings bid farewell to a number of prominent veterans in the offseason and are relying on quite a few rookies and unheralded players on the front line and at cornerback.
First-round cornerback Jeff Gladney, third-round cornerback Cameron Dantzler and fourth-round linebacker Troy Dye are all in the starting lineup and fourth-round defensive end D.J. Wonnum is third on the team with 3.0 sacks. The Minnesota front no longer features Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph or Danielle Hunter (on injured reserve), instead relying on the likes of Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Those three had a combined four NFL starts prior to this season, though Odenigbo has been impressive with 3.5 sacks and 15 QB hits.
As a result Minnesota has allowed 27.4 points per game, sixth-most in the NFL. The Vikings are 24th in overall defense and tied for 26th against the pass with a low sack rate of 4.79%. However, Minnesota has excelled in the red zone (3rd) in goal-to-go situations (2nd) and on third down (5th). Good results in those key situations can make up for a lot of yardage issues.
The Minnesota Vikings came into 2020 with high expectations after winning 10 games in 2019 and making the playoffs for the third time in a five-year span. Their season seemed to fall apart early but the Vikings have rewritten their story more than any other team in the league since midseason. Now the Vikings come to Tampa on a roll, with a clear jump in the playoff race to be gained with another win. Here are some specific challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will face when they take on Minnesota on Sunday afternoon:
Kirk Cousins is on pace to finish with a triple-digit passer rating for the second year in a row and has a 26-12 TD-INT ratio. The Vikings' offensive line – featuring emerging-star center Garrett Bradbury and yet another rookie, Ezra Cleveland, at right guard – has blocked for a run game that averages 4.9 yards per carry while allowing just 25 sacks. Eric Kendricks is one of the NFL's leading tacklers despite missing the last game with a calf injury and safety Anthony Harris is having another strong year after getting the franchise tag in the offseason. In addition to those players, here are four Vikings who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. RB Dalvin Cook. Cook, who missed 19 games due to injury in his first three seasons, is definitely enjoying better health fortune in 2020, but he has also taken his game to another level. The former Florida State star, a second-round pick in 2017, is the NFL's leader or co-leader in rushing yards per game (113.6), yards from scrimmage (1,565), rushing touchdowns (13) and total touchdowns (14). Cook's per-game average prior to this season was 72.6 rushing yards, so his 2020 production represents a big jump. He's getting more work, which is obviously part of the reason, but he is also averaging 5.0 yards per tote, well above his career average of 4.6 coming into the season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook has created a lot of extra yardage on his own; after Week 10, he was not only first in the NFL in rushing yards over expected but he had more than double the total of any other back in the league. The 5-10, 210-pound back is adept at both bouncing off tacklers and evading them completely, and he's a home run hitter when he hits the open field. He has already scored on a 70-yard run and a 50-yard reception this year. Tampa Bay's defense has not allowed a single individual opponent to rush for 100 yards this season, but Cook has already done it six times in his 11 games played, so this will be one of the NFL's marquee battles in Week 14.
2. S Harrison Smith. The Vikings have invested heavily in their safety position – which makes their extremely young cornerback group a good financial balance – and might have the best starting duo in the league. Anthony Harris was good enough in 2020 to get the franchise tag after he tied for the league lead in interceptions, but it was Smith who made it to the Pro Bowl. In fact, the former Notre Dame star has been to five straight all-star games and was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro in 2018. He has turned into one of the NFL's most reliable turnover producers, as his team-leading four interceptions this season mark the fourth straight year he's had at least three picks. In that same four-year span he's had four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and six sacks. During that same four-season run, Smith has also been one of the NFL's best cover safeties. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, from the start of 2017 through the first 10 weeks of this season, quarterbacks have a 39.3 passer rating when throwing to targets with Smith as the nearest defenders. That's second only to Kansas City's Juan Thornhill among NFL safeties in that span, and Thornhill is only in his second season.
3. WR Justin Jefferson. Talk about instant impact. The 2020 class of receivers was considered one of the deepest and most talented ever heading into this year's draft, and while the group as a whole has lived up to expectations, Jefferson is at the top of the list. He leads all rookies in receptions (61) and yards (1,039) and no other NFL newcomer is within 300 yards of his total. Overall, Jefferson ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards, behind only D.K. Metcalf and the Kansas City duo of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Jefferson runs a lot of in-breaking routes and picks up a good amount of his yards across the middle of the field, and he's picked up 316 yards of his total after the catch. Among players with at least 50 catches, Jefferson is third in the NFL with his 17.0 yards per catch. It's not particularly surprising that Jefferson has hit the ground running in his first season, as he came into the league with strong route-running skills and a well-rounded skill set. He's adept at getting open but he can also win on contested catches and has outstanding hands. Jefferson is deceptively fast and while he put up huge numbers at LSU in 2019 working largely out of the slot he has excelled both inside and outside so far for the Vikings.
4. LB Eric Wilson. The Vikings' defense suffered a big loss early in the season when linebacker Anthony Barr was lost for the year to a pectoral injury but Wilson's surprising emergence has made Barr's absence sting a lot less than expected. Wilson, originally an undrafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati, only had 10 starts in his first three seasons, though he showed some pass-rushing potential with 5.0 sacks in 2018-19 combined. Given a chance to play every down this year (he's been on the field for every defensive snap since Barr went down in Week Two), Wilson has shown he can contribute in a wide variety of ways. In addition to 3.0 more sacks, he has racked up 89 tackles, five tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, three interceptions, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Through 12 weeks, Wilson is the only player in the NFL who has at least three sacks and at least three fumbles. Wilson is a bit undersized and has had some tackling issues but he has shown great range and obviously has a knack for the big play.
Minnesota's offense is putting up 389.8 yards per game, fourth-best in the league, including 145.7 per game on the ground and 4.9 yards per carry. The Vikings are also converting 43.6% of its third downs, which is the eighth-best mark in the NFL. Minnesota has been very good in the red zone on both sides of the ball, ranking third on offense with a 75.0% touchdown efficiency and also third on defense with a rate of 51.2% allowed. The Vikings are only allowing a 36.4% conversion rate on third downs, which in today's NFL is actually the fifth-best mark in the NFL. Here are some more specific areas in which the Vikings have excelled in 2020:
· For some reason, perhaps because star rookie wideout Justin Jefferson has spent the majority of his team lined up left, the Vikings' passing attack has been particularly effective when Cousins throws in that direction. Cousins is completing 78.0% of his passes and averaging 6.92 yards per play when throwing short to the left, which rank fourth and third in the NFL, respectively. When he throws deep on the left side, he's completing 56.3% of his passes and averaging 16.7 yards per play. Those both rank fifth in the league.
· The Vikings only have four defenders with an interception, and only one interception from all of their cornerbacks, yet they're still tied for ninth in the league with 11 interceptions and are 11th in interception percentage at 2.51%. That's because they get a lot of picks from their middle-of-the-field defenders, with safety Harrison Smith leading the way with four and linebackers Eric Wilson and Eric Kendricks contributing three each.
· Minnesota has run the ball well in 2020 and has converted three-quarters of its red zone possessions into touchdowns. These things are related. On rushing plays snapped from inside the 20 this season, the Vikings have averaged 3.48 yards per carry, which is fourth-best in the NFL, and that's on far more attempts than the three teams ranked above them (71 to 47, 37 and 36). Overall, the Vikings have 247 red zone rushing yards this year, third in the league behind New Orleans and New England.
· The Vikings have not been a highly-penalized team, coming 69 infractions for 519 yards, the latter figure being the eighth-lowest in the NFL. Despite playing some very young cornerbacks, the Minnesota defense has mostly avoided damaging pass-interference penalties. In fact, the Vikings have only been flagged for three DPI penalties all season, which is the lowest number in the league.
Minnesota's defense has allowed the seventh-most points in the league, which is obviously a top-level concern. Opposing teams have thrown for 261.7 yards per game against the Vikings, tied for the 26th-most in the NFL, and part of that has to do with a 4.79% sack rate, only 25th-best. As good as Kirk Cousins has been in almost every category, he does have 12 interceptions in 363 attempts and the Vikings have the fourth-worst interception rate in the league. In addition:
· In addition to Cousin's 12 picks, the Vikings have also lost nine of their 15 fumbles, leading to 21 giveaways overall. That's the fourth-highest turnover total in the league and it has led to four non-offensive touchdowns scored against the Vikings. Overall, Minnesota has allowed 28 non-offensive points this season, the most by any team.
· Minnesota, once the home of return man extraordinaire Cordarelle Patterson, has not gotten much help from its return game in 2020. The Vikings have a total of 34 punt return yards this year and their average of 2.8 yards per runback is dead last in the NFL. Minnesota is a little better on kickoff returns, but their 20.9-yard average is still just 19th in the league.
· As good as the Vikings have been in most penalty departments this season, as noted above, their offensive line has had a high number of holding penalties, particularly considering that the Vikings have a much lower pass percentage than most teams. The Vikings have been flagged for offensive holding 17 times, with two others declined, and that is the seventh-most in the league. Those penalties have negated 106 yards of offense and stalled seven drives.
· The Minnesota defense has not been particularly effective with the blitz in 2020, as defined as five or more defenders rushing the quarterback, and they haven't deployed the strategy at a high rate, either. The Vikings have just 10 sacks off blitzes this year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats; as a point of comparison, the Buccaneers have 22. The Vikings have blitzed 23 times in their last three games but those plays have only produced three pressures and one sack.
NEW FACES IN 2020
The Vikings didn't have a lot of room to maneuver in the 2020 offseason and mostly reloaded with an enormous draft class. Their biggest free agent signing, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, opted out of the season due to COVID and their big trade for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue was later nullified by a trade out to Baltimore. Minnesota is relying heavily on a number of rookies, though.
1. WR Justin Jefferson. Jefferson's impact is broken down above but it's worth noting that he was the fifth receiver taken, grabbed one spot after Philadelphia settled on TCU's Jalen Reagor. Jefferson is just the sixth player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards through the first 12 games of his rookie campaign.
2. CBs Jeff Gladney/Cameron Dantzler. The Vikings completely retooled their cornerback depth chart in the offseason, letting three veterans go (as noted above) and using three draft picks on the spot. The Vikings intended to bring Dantzler on a little more slowly but Mike Hughes has struggled with injuries so both their first and third-round picks have been starters for almost the entire season.
3. G Ezra Cleveland. Boise State's Cleveland was considered a tackle in the draft and the Vikings took him in the second round, 58th overall. The rookie replaced Dru Samia in the starting lineup at right guard in Week Six, then later missed two games with an ankle injury before returning last week against the Jaguars.
1. DE Danielle Hunter. One of the best edge rushers in the NFL, Hunter was coming off back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons heading into 2020 but a confounding neck injury suffered in a training camp practice has kept him off the field. Hunter finally went in for surgery on his neck in late October, ending any chance of his return in 2020.
2. LB Anthony Barr. In just the second game of his NFL career, Barr picked up an Austin Seferian-Jenkins fumble on the first play of overtime at Raymond James Stadium and returned it 37 yards for a game-winning touchdown. Barr's career blossomed from there and he started the season as one of the Vikings most important defenders. However, he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week Two and is now on injured reserve.
3. LB Eric Kendricks. Kendricks stepped as the Vikings' middle-of-the-field leader in the absence of Barr and is having a fine season, but he missed last week's game with a calf injury that made him a last-minute scratch against the Jaguars. It's not yet certain if he'll be able to return against the Buccaneers in Week 14.