It’s been a wild ride for the Minnesota Vikings so far this season. The year started with an embarrassing 12-penalty performance in Cincinnati. And Minnesota’s most recent contest saw a bit too much late-game excitement, followed by an awkward encounter between Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins.
Every single game feels like it takes a full year off your life, but the weirdest thing about it all is that Minnesota is still hanging around for a playoff spot. Amongst all the sloppy play has been plenty of great moments that have the Vikings remaining afloat.
Some of these high points are unsurprising, like Danielle Hunter coming back to wreak havoc in the backfield or Justin Jefferson picking up right where he left off last year. One early-season development I don’t think many saw coming, though, was the emergence of a bona fide third wide receiver.
K.J. Osborn entered his sophomore year having never caught a pass in the NFL, and some began to question Rick Spielman’s choice to use a fifth-round pick on a return specialist. After generating some training camp buzz, Osborn opened up the year looking like a new player, ripping off 12 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown.
It’s a refreshing sight for a fanbase that has never really had success finding that third option out of the receiving corps. The closest they got in recent memory was Jarius Wright, but even he left something to be desired.
Minnesota has been chasing that third threat for a while. Much akin to a wandering soul seeking water in a desert, the mirage of a WR3 kept vanishing whenever they got close.
In his last three games, he’s only reeled in eight catches for 66 yards and has no score to show for it. But he’s not the only Vikings receiver who’s seen a reduced role.
After three touchdowns in the first two games, Adam Thielen has only had 11 receptions and a single score in the last three games. Often a reduction in multiple receivers’ production can be a result of game script, but that’s not the case here. Cousins has averaged 36.6 passing attempts in the last three games, so Klint Kubiak is still drawing up plenty of plays through the air.
Instead, it just goes to show how integral Osborn is to the offense’s success. Especially after Irv Smith was sidelined for the year, Minnesota needs Osborn to be involved to see the full fruits of the offense.
Take the Vikings game against the Arizona Cardinals, which may have been the team’s best performance all season, albeit in a loss.
Osborn’s score is created by blown coverage due to the Cardinals cheating over on Jefferson. This gives Osborn the extra step, resulting in miles of space and an easy throw for Cousins.
This is just one example that showcases how much harder it is to game plan for a team deploying three receivers instead of only two. You can put all your focus on Jefferson and Thielen, but that opens the door to guys like Osborn.
Conversely, if the defense feels like it must shift some focus towards Osborn, this creates opportunities for Thielen. Jefferson will always draw the No. 1 cover corner, but Thielen and Osborn can mutually benefit from each other’s success.
Osborn’s sole touchdown also means that Kubiak needs to get him downfield more often. It’s been a part of his offensive philosophy to take shorter, safer throws rather than air it out. Currently, the Vikings rank 30th in the NFL in air yards per pass attempt (6.6).
This severely limits the production of a guy like Osborn. He isn’t the most refined route runner at this point in his career, but he has a burst of speed that can be used to beat guys downfield. Kubiak needs to dial up some deeper routes for him, especially considering that he could be matched up against a less talented defensive back or even a linebacker, depending on the formation.
Getting consistent production out of Osborn is essential to the Vikings’ passing game. If Kubiak doesn’t get him going again, you’ll continue to see guys like Thielen having a tougher time.
Take this week’s game against the Carolina Panthers, which is essentially a must-win before Minnesota heads into its Week 7 bye. Carolina has juiced up its secondary by trading for both Stephon Gilmore and C.J. Henderson in the last couple of weeks, and it won’t be an easy day on offense.
If I’m Kubiak, I’m getting at least one or two looks for Osborn in the scripted 20 plays or so. This will help him develop that early connection with Cousins and open up the offense.
It’s no coincidence that Osborn’s strongest performance of the year came in Minnesota’s best offensive effort. If the Vikings can get him going early, it could set up the best offense we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. But if they can’t, it could spell a long day against a tough Carolina defense.