Vikings

The Vikings Need to Push the Ball Downfield Against Baltimore

Photo credit: Michael Chow (The Republic)

It’s been a long couple days for anybody who still claims Minnesota Vikings fandom after a disheartening performance on Sunday Night Football. Whether it was that the defense got carved up by Cooper Rush, a career backup who had three previous pass attempts in the NFL, or that C.J. Ham touched the ball more than Justin Jefferson did: The game stunk.

Naturally this created a firestorm of “Fire Zimmer” on Twitter, along with “Kirk struggles again in primetime.” While this is entirely reasonable, it doesn’t change what happened earlier this season. This is still the same Minnesota team that was a missed field goal away from beating an undefeated Arizona Cardinals squad. They’re still only a game out of a wild card spot.

Not only that, but one of the teams ahead of them lost its quarterback for the year (the New Orleans Saints). The other has already lost to the Vikings this season (the Carolina Panthers). As weird as it feels, there’s reason for optimism in the Twin Cities. It’s time to summon the memory of a goldfish and move on to the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens entered their Week 8 bye with a 5-2 record. They have wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers. If you said that at the beginning of the year, it’s safe to say any Baltimore fan would be elated. But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story for John Harbaugh’s squad.

The week before their bye, the Ravens were demolished by the Cincinnati Bengals 41-17, temporarily handing the keys to the AFC North to Joe Burrow and Co. It was a shocking performance for a team that was firing on all cylinders, but one thing really sticks out when you dive into the numbers.

Baltimore’s secondary could not stop Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow went for over 400 yards through the air on the day, and nearly half of them went to Chase. Pretty much every time they connected, it was on some sort of long pass.

In fact, Burrow hit his season high in air yards per pass attempt in that game at 10.4 against what has been a bruised and battered Ravens secondary. This is exactly what Minnesota can and should exploit on Sunday.

There’s no reason they couldn’t replicate that sort of success. Minnesota has two star wideouts and a quarterback who is capable throwing the deep ball. The biggest thing holding Kirk Cousins and the rest of the offense back is play calling.

Against the Dallas Cowboys, Cousins was checking down to Ham behind the line of scrimmage constantly. This made it extremely easy for Micah Parsons and the rest of Dallas’ front seven to contain the Vikings.

It almost seemed like the offense was playing scared, which is mind-boggling when you’re at home against a backup QB. The checkdown mentality led to only one third-down conversion on the night, and Cousins only hitting 4.7 air yards per pass attempt.

The good news for Minnesota? They have nothing to lose now. The team is already coming off a disappointing loss and has a losing record. It’s time to stop playing like they have a lead to protect and let Kirk cook.

Playcalling has prohibited Cousins from getting the ball downfield all season. Instead, they’ve focused on establishing a more methodical running attack. That’s fine and dandy if you’ve got a team that can dominate that way, but that hasn’t been the case for Minnesota. On top of that, Baltimore has allowed the second-lowest rushing total all year long.

Klint Kubiak has established the run at times. But the moment he can’t get Cook going in a game, it’s spelled instant demise for Minnesota. Kubiak must recognize that he has two studs in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on the outside and get the ball in their hands.

This is especially the case when you have a young receiver as gifted as Jefferson. There is no reason that he should ever be limited to four targets in a game. It doesn’t take a football aficionado or statistician to tell you that Minnesota’s best chance to win games is when the ball is in the hands of their best players.

This should have been the approach against Dallas, but it wasn’t. Kubiak needs to learn from the experience and start getting Jefferson and Thielen downfield more. This opens a little more turnover risk, but the reward seems to far outweigh anything else. Besides, this is clearly the type of game that Cousins wants to play on the outside, so why not let him push it?

If Minnesota draws from Cincinnati’s game plan a couple of weeks back, the Vikings could be in a wild card spot a week from now. That seems preposterous considering what last week looked like, but it is possible.

Great teams battle against adversity and prosper from it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the year 7-5 before ripping off seven-straight wins. The Vikings aren’t as good as Tampa, but the point remains. They can turn this ship around.

If they want to do that, though, it starts this week. When Minnesota travels down to Baltimore, Mike Zimmer must treat this as the turning point in the season. It’ll be the game that signals the end, or the beginning of a turnaround.

The Vikings have the playmakers, it’s just a matter of the coaches putting them in a position to succeed through play calling. It’s painfully obvious that Minnesota needs to push the ball downfield against the Ravens, and we’ll find out Sunday whether or not Kubiak is willing to embrace the gameplan.

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