Vikings Mailbag: Special Teams Woes, End-of-Half Aggression & 2020 Redraft

Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

For years the listeners of our Football Machine Vikings podcast have sent in amazing Twitter questions, and far too often we’ve had to leave many of them on the cutting room floor because of time. No longer! Each week we’ll pull some questions that didn’t make the cut and address them in this space.

The Vikings waived Pat Elflein late last week because they, according to Mike Zimmer, “had some better options.” One of those options was presumably Ezra Cleveland, but the rookie hurt his ankle in the first quarter last Monday and could miss Sunday’s game against Dallas. Dru Samia, who’s underperformed in four starts this year, was also placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list shortly after Elflein’s departure. It stands to reason the Vikings could be ruing their decision with Elflein now preparing to play for the New York Jets.

Elflein could’ve taken Cleveland’s place at right guard, provided his surgically-repaired thumb allowed it. At minimum, he could’ve remained available in a pinch. Elflein’s flexibility at center gave him extra value, but without him the Vikings would have to lean on either Brett Jones or Dakota Dozier if Garrett Bradbury went down. According to Gary Kubiak, Jones or Oli Udoh are the candidates to replace Cleveland at right guard — the former has played four snaps since Week 4 of the 2018 season, and the latter has appeared in one game ever.

So why make the move when offensive line injuries are highly probable and COVID-19-related absences are on the rise? Aside from a confidence that Cleveland, Jones, Udoh, Samia, et. al. could carry the load, there’s probably an accounting angle with the modest cap savings that accompanies the move. The Vikings saved $878K by releasing Elflein, which they will likely carry over in 2021 when the cap will decrease.

Keep in mind, too: Elflein only played one game this year. The coaches got to see his work at right guard during training camp, then again once he rejoined practice. There’s not a significant body of work to suggest that Elflein was going to be better than the Vikings’ other options at right guard as a starter. His presence as an insurance piece, though, would be appreciated in a week like this.

I think the correct answer is technique, which falls under personnel. Long snaps have been poor because of Austin Cutting, gunning has been poor largely because of Dan Chisena taking bad angles and whiffing on tackles, punting hasn’t been great because Britton Colquitt has struggled pinning teams deep, and punt return has been poor because of some indecision on K.J. Osborn‘s part. Taking a look back at the Vikings’ two blocked punts against Detroit, Marwan Maalouf described the errors as “technique, nothing mental,” which I think is true of many of the Vikings’ errors in recent weeks. Players like Chisena, Cutting, Osborn, etc., have been in the right place and executed poorly.

Technique is Maalouf’s responsibility just as much as scheme, however. The Vikings are entrusting significant roles to rookies like Chisena and Osborn, therefore it’s on Maalouf to ensure their readiness. And unfortunately, they’ve demonstrated the opposite of progress as the season has gone on. Maalouf said Thursday that they made some changes on their various teams and hinted that Zimmer had asked about using more veterans. We’ll find out quickly on Sunday if any of the rookies got demoted.

If it’s not clear by the tweet, the question refers to the Vikings’ nonexistent effort to score before halftime on Monday.

The Vikings led 7-6, had 49 seconds and two timeouts from their own 25-yard line, ran it once for no gain and then gave up. Considering the Detroit Lions only needed 16 seconds and two timeouts to get in field goal range from their own 25 the day prior, it’s a bad look. Especially when the Chicago Bears returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown.

What changed from Week 9? The Vikings were leading 13-10 against Detroit and had three timeouts with 1:13 left but were even deeper in their own territory, pinned at their own 13. After two short gains, they were at the 26-yard line with two timeouts left and 51 seconds — so essentially an identical circumstance to Monday night. From there, the Vikings needed only four timeouts to score a touchdown without even using a timeout.

It’s not as if the Vikings had been struggling to move the ball on Monday either. A pair of uncharacteristic turnovers cost them points, but their drives had gone for 47, 41, 29 and 52 yards apiece. It’s an odd decision to feel content with a 1-point lead when the opponent was guaranteed the next possession.

The alarming trend is the 1st and 10 run during the two-minute drill, which arbitrarily seems to dictate whether the Vikings try and score. Pro Football Reference’s play finder shows the Vikings are second in the league with seven first-down runs when they have the ball inside of two minutes to go in the first half and they’re still in the own territory (you got all that?). In three of those instances, the Vikings managed to score — a touchdown against Detroit, field goals against the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.

It’s a weird quirk, certainly. But maybe Zimmer and Co. get the last laugh: They are third in the league since he took over in producing scoring drives in the final two minutes of first halves. Strange, but true.

I want to focus on the first of these two questions, and I’d like to put a twist on it. It probably goes without saying that Jefferson becomes the top receiver taken in a redraft, but where would he go overall?

I imagine the three teams who took quarterbacks are all pretty pleased with those selections so far, so the Cincinnati Bengals take Joe Burrow, the Miami Dolphins take Tua Tagovailoa and the Los Angeles Chargers take Justin Herbert. Chase Young can still go second. He’s a beast. Jeffrey Okudah, though? I’m not sure that the Lions would be married to him, and Marvin Jones is in a contract year. You don’t think they’d like to have another weapon for Matthew Stafford right now? With the Giants, Andrew Thomas has given up the most tackle pressures in the league, and Darius Slayton is their only receiver with over 300 yards. That would’ve been a great fit!

You can make a similar argument for any of those high drafting teams whose rookie is currently struggling like Derrick Brown in Carolina or C.J. Henderson in Jacksonville. I mean, who wouldn’t want the potential Rookie of the Year on their team instead?

Jefferson is almost definitely a top 10 pick in a redraft. Maybe even top five. CeeDee Lamb probably gets second billing.

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Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Ekstrom and Tom Schreier react to Sunday’s 31-28 Vikings loss: -The offense deserves some heat, too –Dalvin Cook is taking some serious punishment –CeeDee Lamb and […]

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