EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings opener was over before the end of lunchtime on Sunday afternoon, which can make it challenging to be certain that Week 1 trends will continue.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday that he reminded his team that their 28-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons isn’t an indicator that this season will be a pleasure cruise.
“I talked to them yesterday about it after the game, it’s overreaction Monday,” he said. “Everybody is going to tell you how great you are today and we have to get back to work. There’s still a lot of things we need to clean up. The penalties, I thought we got sloppy in the second half in coverage. We got a little bit tired there so we got sloppy in that. Had way too many little dumb penalties, really they were dumb penalties, so there’s a lot of things we can clean up.”
With that said, there are a number of early conclusions that can be drawn about players, position groups, schemes etc.
Let’s have a look…
Everson Griffen looked like his old self
Following an absence from the team due to a mental health issue, Griffen did not have the same jump over the final nine weeks of the 2018 season as we had seen during his career-best 2017. He averaged just 2.5 QB pressures per game after his Week 8 return, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s quite a drop from 4.1 pressures/game in ’17. Against Atlanta he posted four pressures and registered a solid 70.6 PFF grade (up from 61.4 last year) .
“I thought Everson (Griffen) played really, really well,” Zimmer said. “Violent, aggressive, ran to the ball well, so that was good to see and the other guys did a good job, too.”
“I felt pretty good about it. He looked a lot like when he was at the Pro Bowl,” the Vikings head coach added.
Griffen is a key cog in the Vikings pass rush. When they are both at their best, opponents struggle to deal with both him and Danielle Hunter, who posted an outstanding 10 QB pressures. If Griffen continues to dominate the way he did Sunday, the Vikings have a chance to be even better than they were defensively last season.
Next week he will face a true test in Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari.
The Vikings knew what they were doing bringing back Anthony Harris
Over the past few years there have been plenty of people who suggested the Vikings should look to the future of the safety position in free agency and the draft but it seems that Zimmer knew that they had Andrew Sendejo’s replacement in Anthony Harris. The team developed him from a practice squad body to special teamer to depth DB to starter since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015. This offseason they re-signed him as a Restricted Free Agent to a one-year, $3.1 million deal.
Harris showed on Sunday with his two interceptions that the playmaking skill he flashed last year wasn’t a fluke. Zimmer said that Harris and star safety Harrison Smith have natural chemistry together.
“With him and Harrison (Smith), it’s a good combination back there because he sees Harrison doing one thing, and then he’s trying to disguise to do something to let them think that,” Zimmer said. “So they’ve got a good little, I don’t know, aura about them that they can kind of you show this time, I show that time, whatever.”
Since the start of 2018, opposing QBs have targeted Harris 14 times. They have gone 7-for-14 with five interceptions and zero touchdowns. Over his career, QBs have a 57.1 rating when targeting him (per PFF).
The pass protection will be worth watching
The Vikings only dropped back to pass 11 total times so it’s difficult to draw conclusions about how they will play the remainder of the season but if the O-line gives up pressure like they did against the Falcons it’s going to be a long season for Kirk Cousins. Per PFF, Cousins was pressured on five of 11 drop backs. The Vikings ranked as the worst pass blocking team in the NFL by PFF. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury was graded a 0.0 out of 100 and left guard Pat Elflein scored a 43.6 and gave up one sack and one QB hit.
“We had a couple tough matchups in the passing game with some of their guys, some of the things that they were doing that we have to clean up technically and our footwork,” Zimmer said. “They fought and they scratched and we got some guys cut on the backside. I thought Kyle (Rudolph) blocked pretty well yesterday, which was good to see. Garrett (Bradbury) had a couple times where he was going one way and they back doored him a few times, but those are all clean up things that’ll get fixed.”
It’s a tiny sample size but any sign of the Vikings struggling in pass protection is going to bring flashbacks of the 2018 line that had major issues protecting Cousins. In two of the next three weeks the Vikings will face off with stacked NFC North D-lines in Green Bay and Chicago, which will act as the true test.
The run game won’t only include zone scheme
The Gary Kubiak offensive run scheme has focused on zone runs for basically his entire career as an offensive coordinator and head coach. Considering that Dalvin Cook played in a zone scheme in college and shined in four games running zone with Pat Shurmur, it made complete sense for the Vikings to use outside zone runs this year.
But Kevin Stefanski said at one point in training camp that Cook is capable of succeeding in any type of play design. Sunday was proof that not only can the star runner excel with power runs but his offensive line can too.
ESPN’s Matt Bowen tweeted several examples, including the one below of the Vikings using two tight ends, a fullback and Josh Kline as the pulling guard. Cook finds a huge role for a big gain.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) September 9, 2019
If the Vikings are multiple in their schemes and personnel in the run game that gives them more chances to use play-actions off similar looks and create big pass plays downfield. The fact that only a few throws were required on Sunday may end up being an advantage as the Vikings put plenty of run looks on tape but not the passes that are “married” to them.
CJ Ham and Irv Smith are going to play a lot
Certainly the fullback and backup tight end see more action when their squad is running out the clock but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kubiak and Stefanski continue to use fullback CJ Ham and tight end Irv Smith often in all situations. Ham played 22 snaps and Smith 26. Both players scored high PFF grades for their blocking skills on Sunday (Smith was the driving force in front of Cook’s second touchdown).
While neither had a reception, Ham and Smith both possess the ability to be options in the passing game. It’s likely that they are used with the intent of creating personnel matchups. After watching Ham as a lead blocker, opponents are likely to use bigger, less pass-adept defenders out of fear that Cook will run all over them like he did Atlanta.
Alexander Mattison can spell Dalvin Cook
We did not see much from third-round pick Alexander Mattison during preseason games as he rushed for just 89 yards but in training camp practices he wowed the coaching staff. Zimmer at one point said he has a chance to be a “special” player. When he went in the game on Sunday there wasn’t much — if any — drop off from Cook. The former Boise State star got nine touches and picked up 49 yards, including a 23-yard carry.
“It has been a long time coming with the offseason, OTAs, and training camp,” Cook said after the game. “Alexander (Mattison) and I are two different kinds of backs. We both bring a change of pace that helps us. You never know what you are going to get and people underestimate how fast Alexander really is. He is a great compliment to me. Our offense did a great job of bringing him in.”
While the Vikings want to use Cook as much as possible, his workload should also be a consideration. Having a reliable No. 2 back will work as an advantage as the season goes along.
Xavier Rhodes played well but…
Since Zimmer said at the NFL Owners’ meetings that Rhodes needed to earn his paycheck, the spotlight has been on the veteran cornerback, who has largely been considered an elite shutdown DB over the past three years. Injuries and penalties were problematic for Rhodes last season and he entered Sunday’s opener with plenty of questions surrounding whether he could find his 2017 form. Per PFF, he was targeted five times and gave up just three completions for 27 yards. He was often lined up against Julio Jones.
The downside is that Rhodes limped off twice and rookie seventh-round pick Kris Boyd was forced to play 15 snaps. When healthy the Pro Bowl corner can shut down the best of the best. But his health will still be a story after Sunday.
Jayron Kearse can handle many roles
The 2016 seventh-round pick played 43 snaps on Sunday, many of which (36) came after Mackensie Alexander suffered a dislocated elbow. Kearse was initially slotted for a “big nickel” position in which he would play a hybrid linebacker when opposing teams used personnel with multiple tight ends or a fullback. But he has proven that he can handle any role (including special teams where he is a captain).
“Jayron’s been doing a nice job, and hopefully we can continue to keep getting him more looks and more plays in there,” Zimmer said.