Is Minnesota a legitimate NFC contender?
With No. 1 seed Carolina the lone undefeated in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings assumed the position of the conference’s second seed and a bye on Sunday afternoon after their win in Oakland. Unfortunately for the Vikings it was short-lived, as just a few hours later Arizona took over their spot with a win in Seattle on Sunday Night Football.
It wasn’t all disappointment for the Vikings, as their win over the Raiders did move them into the lead in the NFC North after the Packers lost to Detroit, which places them third overall in the NFC at 7-2.
The Vikings have the look of one of the NFC’s best teams and are now starting to earn the type of wins that will have them taken seriously as a true Super Bowl contender.
The Rams and Raiders – their last two victims – represented two litmus-test games which they passed with flying colors, and next week they have a chance to lay down another marker by defeating the Packers in Minnesota.
So, how good is this Vikings team?
Minnesota’s strength starts on defense, which is quickly becoming an extremely good unit. DT Linval Joseph, LB Anthony Barr and S Harrison Smith represent three of the best-performing players on defense in the NFL and provide the Vikings with a stud at each level of the defense. That trio is far from alone though, and players like DT Sharrif Floyd and DE Everson Griffen have been major positives up-front, while corners Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman have graded well on the back end, too.
The team has been getting thin at linebacker, though, with injuries sending them deep down the bench, and they have seen curious downturns in the form of players like CB Xavier Rhodes, but they are making up for that with an impressive scheme that has been able to generate a huge amount of pressure with its blitz.
Minnesota blitzes this season almost exactly as often as the NFL average (30.8 percent for the Vikings compared to 30.7 percent league-wide), but they have dialed it up over 40 perccent on more than one occasion and also under 20 percent on others, depending on the opponent. This variance in game plans has meant that when they blitz they generate pressure on 59.3 percent of plays in which they send five rushers. When they send only four, they are still pressuring the quarterback on 34.5 percent of passing plays.
Eight different defenders have double-digit total pressures on the season and LB Eric Kendricks isn’t far from becoming a ninth, with eight total pressures to his name. The Vikings defense is quickly becoming one of the league’s best, and you need look no further than the job they did derailing Raiders QB Derek Carr yesterday, who came into that game playing as well as any quarterback in the league on a run of six straight impressive games.
On offense, the team is more inconsistent, but there are certainly still reasons to be optimistic. QB Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t taken the step forward he appeared he was taking at the end of his rookie season, but he continues to make just enough plays to keep things moving, and RB Adrian Peterson continues to look ageless as he leads the league in rushing at 30 years old. He was the highest-graded running back in the NFL this week. Add in rookie WR Stefon Diggs, and the Vikings finally look to have found their top wideout they’ve been searching for over the past several years.
If there is an Achilles heel to this unit, it’s the offensive line, which can’t nail down a consistent performance from all five starters in a given game. Each of the five starters has been solid at times, but they have never done it all at the same time, and in particular OG Brandon Fusco and OT T.J. Clemmings have seen more bad than good.
No quarterback in the league is pressured on more of his dropbacks than Bridgewater (45.9 percent), and while much of that is Norv Turner’s scheme and his league-high average time-to-throw number (2.83 seconds), it is something likely to catch up with them. Bridgewater’s passer rating when kept clean this season is 103.8 and he is completing 74.7 percent of his passes on those plays. When pressured his rating tumbles to 55.0, while completing just 48.0 percent of those passes.
The Vikings have the talent on both sides of the ball to be contenders come January, but they need to iron out their weaknesses down the stretch if they’re to hang with the best the league has to offer.