Vikings

INMAN: Week 17 Film Notes & Season Perspective

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

As you jot down your 2018 resolutions, remember to think big, and realize just how much change can be accomplished with the right mindset during a full calendar year.

Just ask the Minnesota Vikings, who last year at this time were knocked out of the playoffs and finished with a mediocre 8-8 record, despite starting out a league best 5-0. However, one year later the Vikings sit atop the NFC North division and own one of the best records in football at 13-3.

Led by a Mike Zimmer defense that ended the regular season ranked first in fewest points allowed per game (15.8) and yards allowed per contest (275.9). The defense also set the all-time record for lowest third-down conversion rate with just 25.2 percent, the lowest since the NFL started keeping track in 1991.

They will head into their bye week red hot, giving up just one defensive touchdown in their last three matches after giving up a combined 17 points to the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and, most recently, the Chicago Bears. What’s even more impressive is the one touchdown they did give up was in garbage time against the Bengals in Week 15 with the second-team defense on the field. The Vikings starting defensive unit itself has not allowed a touchdown since Week 14, when playing in Charlotte versus the Panthers.

The biggest difference from 2016 to now. however, isn’t the defensive performance but instead the ability for the offense to keep up and become equally as efficient. That all started in the offseason when the front office made it a priority to rebuild the offensive line, so they were able to run the ball more effectively. Now that they have, the Vikings appear to own one of the most balanced rosters in football and are able to lean on any of the three phases when needed.

That includes special teams, which had many fans sweating bullets heading into the season after last year’s Blair Walsh disaster. The team even moved on from Jeff Locke, who they had drafted just three years prior, putting them in a vulnerable situation at vital positions for a low scoring team.

This year, however, Kai Forbath has been relatively consistent in his field goal attempts, while punter Ryan Quigley has been on fire to close out the season with multiple punts pinned inside the 5-yard line. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Quigley has not had a punt go for a touchback in his last 44 attempts — something a defensive-minded coach like Zimmer loves as he preaches winning the field position battle.

With all three phases clicking, the Vikings enter a clutch week of rest as they sit back and prepare for battle on Sunday, Jan. 14 in their home stadium, a place they’ve been flat out dominant in all but one game this season (Week 4 vs the Detroit Lions, losing 14-7).

Who they will play is still up for grabs and will be determined during next weekend’s Wild-Card weekend. They will play the top seed remaining, which could be the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers.

Vikings Notebook

The Ghost of Jimmy K

The Vikings 2016 draft class has left a lot to be desired given Rick Spielman’s successful history. However, it’s clear the team found a gritty, versatile role player in the sixth-round with tight end David Morgan.

The small schooler from the University of Texas-San Antonio was Pro Football Focus’s number one blocking tight end and was drafted to help replace former Viking Rhett Ellison. Morgan has started to exceed expectations while developing into a legitimate pass-catching threat. Soaking up the hobbled Kyle Rudolph’s valuable reps and playing time during the final stretch of the season has had a lot to do with it.

Morgan had just five receptions up until Week 15 but watched those stats double versus the Packers and Bears. More importantly, Morgan filled in for long snapper Kevin McDermott in the middle of a prime time game and looked smooth snapping on punts and field goals, earning high praise from his coaches and teammates, even earning the game ball from Coach Zimmer in the locker room.

Morgan may never be the next Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce, but his ability to line up in multiple positions on offense and be a valuable piece on special teams has already proven to be far more worthy than his sixth-round pick label. With another offseason under his belt, look for Morgan to continue his development and take another big leap forward in his third season, becoming everything Rhett Ellison once was for the Vikings, and more.

Don’t look now, but with Morgan, Vikings fans may have finally found their Jim Kleinsasser replacement two decades later.

Battle of the Backups

Coach Zimmer told the media he expects Sam Bradford to start practicing but was still unsure how far along he is in his comeback from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1.

“I just want to see where he’s at and how he’s moving, things like that,” Zimmer said.

When asked about the possibility of using Bradford in the playoffs if needed, Zimmer was unsure.

“We could win a game and somebody could get hurt, and you never know, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Fans haven’t forgotten the Sam Bradford that showed up on Monday Night Football to open the season up against the Saints. Bradford had a career game, exploding for 346 yards and three touchdowns, with zero interceptions and an insane 84.4 completion percentage.

The long-term plans for the Vikings quarterback position are already a heated discussion amongst many experts and fans alike, and will be on the forefront of everyone’s minds the moment the season comes to an end. With three starting-caliber signal callers on the roster right now, the front office seems to be in a great position compared to many other teams. However, tough decisions will need to be made in the upcoming months that will make or break the long-term success of the franchise.

Purple Wave

You’re a running back, used on third down mainly due to your quick but undersized stature at just 180 pounds. You look across from you to see one of the league’s best linebackers Eric Kendricks staring back into your soul.

‘Hut Hut!’

Quick slant through heavy traffic is the play call, so you scoot underneath the coverage knowing full well there is a hard-hitting safety by the name of Harrison Smith crashing down somewhere near the line who is begging to lay the hammer down on you before trying to reach over the goal line. As if the bone-crunching hits of Smith weren’t enough as Kendricks has you locked into position holding your legs, here comes a 340-pound bowling bowl named Linval Joseph ready to do the cannonball onto your face before you can even say ‘Mercy!”

Despite catching the tough pass in traffic, your body and hands couldn’t absorb that hit by all three at once, and your team is already walking off the field, lining up for a field goal before you can even adjust your helmet and buckle you chin strap.

That’s the story of rookie Tarik Cohen on Sunday, and although the tailback has had an outstanding first season, he learned the hard way just how fast and physical the Vikings defense really is.

That punching play could be felt from your couch at home. After FOX showed the bang-bang play over and over again., it was obvious this defense plays with its heart on its sleeve, making sure every yard given up is earned the hard way.

Now, as the team moves through the playoffs, guys like Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey, Devonta Freeman and Alvin Kamara will all study the tape, see plays like the one described above and think twice when they try and go over the middle of the field on a route, or try and plunge a 1-yard halfback smash up the middle.

When you play with such aggression and pride like the Vikings defense has all year long, a reputation is built, and over time that reputation starts to spread throughout the league into other teams’ film rooms and gets inside the minds of the coaches and players.

It took four years, but Mike Zimmer has created a monster on defense, and the results are clear. When you line up across from them on Sundays, every inch will have to be earned, the hard way.

Just ask Tarik Cohen, Mike Wallace, Cameron Brate and more.

Back to the Future

The Vikings seem primed to play either the Rams or Saints coming out of their bye, two teams they’ve already played this season and have had great success against. Both teams win with different schemes and game plans. However, both have also had a huge impact from their rookie class, too.

The Rams nabbed one of my favorite prospects in the entire draft in Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp. The small school wideout owns close to every EWU receiving record in the book, quite literally, thanks to his razor-sharp route running and flawless hands. During the Week 10 victory over the Rams, Kupp was shadowed by nickel cornerback Mack Alexander, who didn’t allow him to produce any big plays. Yet, at the end of the day, Kupp still converted six of his seven targets for 67 yards, proving yet again how dangerously sneaky he is at all times with his high football IQ (dad and grandpa played in NFL).

Meanwhile, the Saints had one of the best drafts of the entire league and could become the first franchise in history to produce both the offensive and defensive rookies of the year thanks to Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara.

Despite the 29-19 win at U.S. Bank Stadium, when the Vikings faced off against the Saints in Week 1, neither player had found their groove yet. The Saints sat at 0-2 earlier in the year before getting rid of Adrian Peterson and rediscovering the offense’s old ways with Sean Payton and Drew Brees. Kamara has taken the most advantage of the extra opportunities, becoming the focal point of the Saints’ short passing game, having caught a ridiculous 81 of his 100 targets.

Should the Vikings square off against the Saints, it will be Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr who will be asked to go stride-for-stride with the rookie speedster. While the Vikings defense has dominated up until this point, this league is all about finding mismatches in the regular season, and is amplified even moreso come playoff time. Whoever can create more mismatches between these two teams could very well determine which team is representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

WE CAN BUILD THIS DREAM TOGETHER

Perhaps the most memorable part of Mike Zimmer’s press conference Sunday came when a reporter asked him his thoughts on “the curse” that’s seemingly surrounded the Vikings since their franchise’s inception.

Zimmer seemed irked while preparing his thoughts for his response. A bit of time went by, and by the time he was ready to squash this fantasy notion he had a smile that reached ear-to-ear.

“I’ve got a crystal ball and a wooden spirit in my office, so there’s no damn curse!”

Despite the franchise’s string of bad luck in key moments late in the playoffs throughout its history, it’s clear that Zimmer wants no part of that excuse and is clear on separating the past from the present.

Sending that message to his players inside the locker room makes it apparent why this team, fan base and organization can truly “build this dream together.”

One game at a time.

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Photo Credit: Brian Curski

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