It’s no surprise that Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer have a tense relationship. The differences have been evident in the four seasons that they have been together. However, this season those differences were amplified. From the COVID vaccine dilemma to the offensive philosophy, their disconnect has been amplified. During training camp, we learned that they had just started watching film together.
The quarterback and head coach of a successful football team must have a strong relationship. They are usually the two most important people in the room. Last year, the Minnesota Vikings had a pretty good offense despite having a porous O-line. However, the defense was a trainwreck.
Their defense is much improved this season, but they tend to fall apart late when the Vikings are up in games. There have been multiple collapses already this season. As a result, the offense has frequently had to drive down the field in the final minutes to try to either tie the game or take the lead.
Therefore, there’s a narrative that Cousins is saving Zimmer’s job by leading game-winning drives. Take this how you want. For the most part, the Vikings’ fanbase seems to believe that the Zimmer era is over. They seem to think that the offense is keeping the team in games.
After how the offense left off last year, with most of the pieces returning, the hope was that it would pick up right where they left off. But the lack of continuity with the offensive coordinator, among other issues, hasn’t allowed them to maintain their previous success on that side of the ball.
Instead, the Vikings’ offense has mightily struggled in games, especially as they go on. Specifically, their expected points added per play (EPA/play) decreases considerably as they get further in the game. In the first quarter, their EPA/play ranks seventh. In the second quarter, it ranks 10th. However, the significant drop comes in the second half. In the third quarter, it’s a whopping 25th before dropping to 29th in the final 15 minutes of games.
This can only mean a few things: The Vikings are very good at scripting plays, but they struggle to get much going after those run out. Klint Kubiak struggles to adjust to how his opponents adjust to him; Cousins struggles to find open receivers once the scripted plays run out; or a mix of all of those.
Overall, their EPA/play ranks 21st, which is near where their points per game (18th) rank. Through seven games, the Vikings have three games in which they have managed to muster ONE offensive touchdown. This is bottom-of-the-barrel bad, uncharted territory for a team whose offense hasn’t been bad in a long time.
It’s most likely a collective failure — not just coaching or the offensive line or Cousins or the other skill players. The running game ranks 18th in EPA/play after being top of the league for a while. They also have just two rushing touchdowns, which is last in the NFL by a wide margin.
On the offensive line, the pass blocking has been even worse. While the Vikings might have found bookend tackles for a decade in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill, the interior offensive line seems to be back where it left off last year after a good start. PFF ranks the unit at 31st. Former first-round pick Garrett Bradbury isn’t the answer. He has a 36.0 pass-blocking grade on the season. While the combo of Oli Udoh and Ezra Cleveland has been better than what the team has had previously, that’s a low bar. It’s not good enough for the type of quarterback Cousins is.
Finally, quarterback play has regressed to the mean recently. After a hot start, Cousins is back in the middle of the pack, ranking 17th in EPA/play and 22nd in success rate.
While the Vikings’ offense has been able to get things going when they are trailing, their defense is the one keeping them in games. Currently, the Vikings rank third in three-and-out rate, just below the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The defense is on the field too much because Minnesota struggles to sustain drives. They also struggle to pick up first downs on any down.
Defensively, the unit is 12th in points per game allowed and sixth in EPA/play. They haven’t been particularly dominant in any area, and their separate units within the defense aren’t great. But schematically they are still the NFL’s best third-down defense and can get off the field almost all the time.
Their late-game collapses are alarming. But in an offense-driven league, having a defense that holds up for most of the game is all a team can ask for. The Vikings have that. Meanwhile, for the pieces they have on the offense, their lack of production isn’t acceptable. It’s what’s holding them back.