After a dominant victory in week one against the Packers, the Vikings looked like a team ready to take the NFC North crown for the first time in 5 years. The offseason additions of new head coach Kevin O’Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah seemed to have an early positive impact on the Vikings’ success.
Suddenly, fans had confidence in an overhauled offensive scheme similar to the one that had propelled the Rams to last year’s Super Bowl under O’Connell and a defense that looked different from the mental lapses of the late Zimmer era. Unfortunately, the Vikings got dismantled in primetime against the Eagles in week 2. Kirk Cousins and the offense struggled to get the ball moving on the ground and he often stared down Justin Jefferson resulting in 3 interceptions. The narrative that Cousins shrinks under the spotlight was exemplified by the media. New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell’s shell defense was exposed by Jalen Hurts rushing/passing ability and the game left more questions than answers.
Cousins and the offense bounced back in the following weeks with multiple close, unconvincing victories that were all won in the 4th quarter. A late K.J. Osborn touchdown, Will Lutz double doink, and Cam Dantzler strip of former Viking Ihmir Smith-Marsette lead the Vikings to sneak into their week 7 bye at 5-1.
Let’s start with Kirk Cousins and his performance. He has got off to a strong start but the numbers don’t tell the full story. On one hand, Cousins has been brilliant leading multiple 4th quarter comeback victories. When Jefferson has single coverage, he has been the best receiver in the league and Kirk has fed him the ball. The issue has been finding a reliable option while Jefferson is being double teamed. Cousins needs to rely more on Thielen and Osborn to be successful pushing the ball down the field. The offense also needs to erase the slow starts that have occurred during the Dolphins, Eagles, and Lions games. Another issue for Kirk has been his road and primetime performances. He fell to 2-10 on Monday night and continues to look less comfortable on the road. For the Vikings to contend, they need Cousins to trust his weapons and have success against quality teams like the Bills and Cowboys coming up on the schedule.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings have been underwhelming. The run-defense is ranked 2nd to last and the pass defense sits at 20th. Donatell has tried to confuse passers with the new 3-4 defense but the secondary has had collapses and sometimes looked lost against some weak quarterback competition. The addition of Za’Darius Smith had paid off and he has been brilliant wreaking havoc and the continued leadership of Harrison Smith has kept the Vikings afloat just enough. With a quarterback in Kyler Murray that has similar tendencies to Hurts, and Josh Allen who has torn through defenses with his arm and legs, the next couple weeks will be important tests for this group.
The Vikings have put themselves in a good spot with the hot start but have much to prove. The week 1 victory has become less convincing following the Packers struggles against the Giants, Jets, and Commanders. The Vikings have yet to win against a team with a winning record besides the Dolphins without Tua Tagovailoa. Cousins has a dreadful 10-40 record against teams that finish with a winning record and that will be something to keep in mind as they travel to Buffalo in 3 weeks. They have all the pieces to make a deep playoff run but it will be at least another month before we see the Vikings as true contenders or pretenders.