Coller: Is the Vikings' offense strong enough to get them on a roll?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Adam Thielen

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Are the Minnesota Vikings good now?

The Vikings’ win over the Green Bay Packers last week gave them plenty of reasons to think that there are better days around the corner.

In the 28-22 victory at Lambeau, the Vikings controlled the ball with running back Dalvin Cook, threw it efficiently despite high winds and blocked as well as they have up front in years. In fact, all of the Vikings’ offensive linemen were graded above average for the day by Pro Football Focus.

Whether they can carry over the offensive showing to this week against Detroit and beyond will ultimately determine whether they make a charge in the second half of the season and get themselves on “in the hunt” graphics or not.

Considering the Vikings’ defense is still banged up and ranks fourth worst in the NFL in points per game allowed, the only path to any semblance of postseason contention is through a dynamite offensive showing the rest of the way.

Is it possible that they can rise to the challenge and get on a run? Let’s have a look at the cases for and against it…

The case for the offense carrying the Vikings into contention

While last week’s game was unusual and the Vikings can’t exactly count on four Cook touchdowns every week, having their star running back in the lineup is a game changer in a “run-first” offense.

Cook is currently averaging a career high 5.7 yards per touch and is posting nearly 30 yards per game more than his Pro Bowl 2019 season. If the Vikings’ O-line plays even remotely as well as they did in Green Bay, he will have an opportunity to continue that level of dominance.

Rookie Ezra Cleveland played a key role in a 21-yard touchdown run to open the game while center Garrett Bradbury and tackle Brian O’Neill layed key blocks for Cook on a 50-yard screen for touchdown. They were built over a number of years to run block and get out in space on screens and that strategy can be much more effective with Cleveland in the lineup.

With Cook healthy, the Vikings have the third highest graded running back by PFF, the No. 2 graded receiver in Justin Jefferson and the No. 5 graded receiver in Adam Thielen. That trio along (with an O-line that is now better with the second-round pick from Boise State in the mix) will match up against a number of defenses that have struggled mightily this year.

Out of their next five opponents, none rank in the top 10 by Pro-Football Reference’s “Expected Points Added” statistic against the run and all of them except the Chicago Bears are outside the top 10 against the pass.

The EPA stat weighs performance versus game situation to give a more accurate depiction of efficiency but if you like more traditional stats, the Lions rank 22nd in QB rating allowed, Dallas is 25th and Jacksonville 27th. Chicago ranks fifth and Carolina 12th but the Panthers are downright allergic to pressuring the quarterback with only eight sacks this year.

Schedule, running and improve blocking all play in Kirk Cousins’s favor. Even in a down year, he has a 101.1 quarterback rating when throwing from a clean pocket. And some of his poor numbers are bound to return to average. Last year he posted a 118.1 rating from a clean pocket.

A major part of Cousins’s struggles have been with interceptions but throughout his career, the Vikings’ quarterback hasn’t been particularly prone to a high total of picks. He’s thrown an INT on 2.4% of career passes -- which is on par with Drew Brees and ahead of Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers -- but this year he’s been picked off on 5.3% of his throws. That number is bound to go down, especially against poor defenses.

Having Jefferson as a full-fledged part of the offense makes them so much different that it’s almost worth tossing out the first two games when analyzing this group. When targeting Jefferson, Cousins averages 14.0 yards per pass attempt and since Jefferson took over as the starting outside receiver, the Vikings’ QB has a 103.0 rating, 68% completion percentage and averages 9.2 yards per attempt.

An offense with the capability to run and throw short with Cook or use play-action to hit on deep passes to Jefferson and Thielen combined with more competent offensive line play and a favorable slate is a perfect storm to repeat what the Vikings did in 2019 when Cousins won October Player of the Month and bounced back from a rocky start.

The case against the offense carrying the Vikings into contention

The trouble with any comparison to 2019 is that the Vikings’ 2020 defense isn’t in the stratosphere of last season. They finished fifth in points allowed last year. They currently sit 28th in points allowed per game.

Favorable situations in which the Vikings can ride Cook won’t always be available, even if they match up with suspect quarterbacks in several upcoming games. In spots where the Vikings have been forced to rely heavily on their passing game, they have struggled. On plays without a play-action fake this year, Cousins has just an 85.1 quarterback rating. When he is using play-action, that number jumps to 109.6.

The offensive line is also a very different unit when asked to pass block on obvious passing downs.

“If you’re a straight dropback pass and your quarterback is operating from that set point in the pocket 30-35 times a game, you know, it’s hard to protect him,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “I think everybody does what they can to move their guys around and find some ways to max people up on first and second down to give your quarterback more time to throw because this game defensively is built on, ‘How do I get to the quarterback?’”

The Vikings’ loss against Atlanta -- a bottom tier defense -- was evidence of that. After getting behind early, Cousins threw 28 passes without the help of play-action and only eight with a play-fake. Not coincidentally, he was under pressure on 40% of throws and had a 68.5 rating when under pressure.

Even with last week’s strong showing, the Vikings’ O-line is still graded 28th by Pro Football Focus.

Because of their weaknesses in certain situations, the Vikings’ offense on the whole has numbers that scream “mid-pack” much more than “elite.” They rank 21st on the percentage of drives in which they produce points, 14th in Expected Points Added and 17th in yards per pass attempt when adjusted for sacks and interceptions.

And from a roster perspective, they are one receiver or Cook injury away from being limited in their explosive potential.

No team is without weaknesses but the Vikings have a very thin margin for error to get back in the playoff race. They would likely need to get to nine wins, which means carrying the team even against good defenses like Chicago and Tampa and having a near spotless record against the poor teams.

The bottom line

The Vikings’ offense has a chance to prove in the second half of the season that they are not who we thought they were.

They can put together exciting performances that give us a look into the future with a fairly young offensive line and multiple dynamic skill position players who are either up-and-coming or in their prime. And Kirk Cousins has a chance to redeem himself for his early-season struggles.

But the odds of the Vikings playing well enough on offense to drag one of the league’s worst defenses into the playoffs are still severely against them.

And some folks still hoping for a higher draft position next year might not be too upset about that. 

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