‘Twas the Sunday before Thanksgiving when all through the Vikings’ house, the Cowboys’ offense was clicking while things were quiet as a mouse. With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, this heavily altered opening line from his classic holiday poem feels appropriate right about now.
After decades of enjoying a significant home-field advantage — thanks at first to the elements (1961-81) and later due to crowd noise (1982-2013, 2016-19) — the Minnesota Vikings find themselves with one win in five home games at the cavernous and empty U.S. Bank Stadium in 2020. And with two of their final three home games of the season coming up the next two weeks against the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, what seemed like pretty winnable games now carry a heavy air of uncertainty.
It was just a few weeks ago that head coach Mike Zimmer complained that Minnesota Governor Walz did his team no favors by not allowing more fans to attend games.
Zimmer’s complaint was at once spot on and completely tone-deaf.
Make no mistake, saying such a thing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s absolutely crushing Minnesota (among many other parts of the country) was nothing short of dumb and selfish. At the same time, he wasn’t entirely wrong – at least in the narrow scope of his football team needing some of the help they’re accustomed to receiving from their fans. The cacophony of screaming, obscenities and Skol Chants from 60,000, purple-clad, not entirely sober fans is a helpful weapon when the Vikings’ defense is on the field.
They won’t have that advantage for the final three home games either, so it’s time to start dealing with it. They could start by – hear me out here — playing better on defense. Yep, the focus should be defense. The special teams have been problematic regardless of venue. And the overall issues have not been on the offensive side of the ball. Be it game plan, execution or a combination of the two, something needs to change because, at 1-4, the Vikings are on pace to have one the worst home records in franchise history.
Only three times in their history have they won just one home game:
- 2011: 1-7
- 1962: 1-5-1
- 1967: 1-4-2
Heck, only three times in their history have they won just two home games:
- 1984: 2-6
- 1966: 2-5
- 1965: 2-5
But the three remaining home games, against the Panthers, Jaguars and Bears, are all against bad teams, the thought process goes. Surely, the Vikings can win one, if not all three, of those games!
To which, it should be pointed out that the Vikings just lost to a 2-7 Cowboys team at home and earlier this season lost to a 0-5 Falcons team at home. It’s not about quality of opponent or else the Vikings would be at least 3-2 at home.
Instead of playing some kind of “lack of crowd noise” blame game, Zimmer would do well to focus on what’s been amiss with the actual on-field product at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings are averaging 29.8 points per home game as opposed to 23.0 points per road game – so, roughly a touchdown more per game. On the other hand, they are allowing 33.0 points per home game as opposed to 22.6 points allowed per road game, a whopping 10-point difference on average. For context, that would be the worst points-allowed-per-home-game average in Vikings history. They have only permitted more than 30 points per home game twice before: In 1965 (32.4) and 1963 (30.9). Only the Cowboys are allowing more points per game at home this season (36.8). On that basis, the Vikes would have been better off playing this past Sunday’s game down in Jerry World.
Maybe the lack of crowd noise does have a little something to do with it. However, that doesn’t explain why they are playing better defense on the road – where there aren’t any crowds either.
Pinpointing the exact problems is a difficult endeavor because the defensive lapses at home have been across the board. They are allowing more rushing yards per attempt (4.3 to 4.2) and more passing yards per attempt (7.9 to 7.1) at home. Quarterbacks have a 104.4 passer rating against them at U.S. Bank Stadium as opposed to 94.8 on the road. In five home games, they’ve allowed more touchdowns (17 to 11) and more first downs (123 to 88) than in five road games. Um, they’ve allowed 35 more first downs at home than on the road? That feels like an issue.
Anyway, all the ugly statistical splits add up to one thing: It’s time for Zimmer to tap into the defensive wizardry for which he’s so well-known to end the general malaise that’s befallen them at home. Over the next two weeks, the Vikings need to pull out all the defensive tricks from their purple playbook or the home losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Cowboys won’t be the last of the embarrassing defeats in front of the silent cardboard fan cutouts this season.