The Minnesota Vikings are off to a red-hot start at 3-1. And although they are a double doink and a Jared Goff pass away from potentially being 1-3, the team is much improved in many areas over last year’s squad. You just might have to look a little closer to see them.
Coming into Sunday’s contest against the Chicago Bears, the Vikings are first in the NFL in penalty yards with only 95. For those keeping score at home, that’s only 23.75 yards per game. The New Orleans Saints are the most penalized team, losing almost 80 yards per game from penalties. That 56-yard difference can make a meaningful impact on the outcome of a game. Some Saints fans may maintain that they did last week.
The Vikings are unsurprisingly also tied for second in the NFL in total penalties with 16. That’s a stark contrast from last season when flags flew more than Delta Airlines, and they ranked 29th in penalty yards and 23rd in total penalties. How, then, were they so undisciplined under Mike “Ironfist” Zimmer, yet the team runs like a well-oiled machine under happy-go-lucky Kevin O’Connell?
O’Connell comes from the Los Angeles Rams, a highly disciplined team that ranked second last year in penalty yards. He knows what it takes to keep the penalties to a minimum.
The lack of offensive holding calls has been one vast improvement. Last season, the Vikings were 31st in the league with 26. Through four games this year, they are the only team left not to be flagged for a single one. That’s kind of amazing considering most fans agree there could probably be a holding call made on nearly every down in the NFL. Four of the five starting linemen from last season are back, so the guys in the trenches deserve a lot of credit for the rapid improvement. And, yes, the one starter not back — Oli Udoh, bless his heart — accounted for 35% of the offensive holding calls last year. Still, no one can argue the unit as a whole hasn’t improved by leaps and bounds.
The Vikings are averaging the same number of offensive plays per game as last year, so it isn’t like there have been fewer opportunities to be flagged. Minnesota is running much more play-action, and any time you have slow-developing, drawn-out, quick-change-of-direction plays, the chances for a hold go up. Chris Kuper, the Vikings’ offensive line coach, deserves a lot of credit for the line’s success.
The Vikings are members of another zero-penalty club this year, and it’s defensive pass interference. Only six other teams haven’t committed one, either. With only three defensive holds to boot, Minnesota is on track to at least halve last season’s combined total of 23 holding or pass-interference penalties.
Before we take a closer look, let’s get all the jokes out of the way first. Ahem, “It’s hard to commit DPI when you’re eight yards from the receiver every play.” Or, “You can’t hold a guy after he burned you for a touchdown.”
Now that we have that out of our system, we can see if the secondary is actually improved. On the one hand, it’s incredible that the Vikings haven’t committed a single defensive pass-interference penalty all year. On the other hand, there may be a not-so-incredible reason why. Minnesota is allowing a pretty terrible 70% completion rate this year, good for 30th in the NFL. They are also 25th in yards after the catch allowed.
While those numbers may annoy a lot of fans, the Ed Donatell defense has its advantages. Obviously, penalties are way down with less man coverage and more zone. Also, big plays are reduced with the safety shell the Vikings employ. There’s a lot of give-and-take with the new scheme. The drastic reduction in defensive penalties highlights that, but Minnesota has also allowed an uptick in completions and yards after the catch. As long as the Vikings can continue to mitigate those bad penalties on defense, there seems to be a world where this defense works and allows the team to win close games. That’s nothing to scoff at and hasn’t been the case the last few seasons.
Going from 29th in penalty yards to first is a welcome surprise to the start of the 2022 season. Penalties are mostly a result of a lack of focus or discipline, and Kevin O’Connell has shown that he has what it takes to get the best out of this team when it comes to their mental preparation. And although the offense and defense haven’t been as dominating as most had hoped, the little details of the game seem to be what have separated the Vikings from the pack.