The Vikings are a good football team...on paper. Just looking at their roster, you’d think this team was a perennial playoff team with Super Bowl aspirations, if they could only get past those pesky Packers. They haven’t been that though. They haven’t won their division since 2017 and have reached the playoffs only once in that span as well.
A lot of the blame for this team’s lack of production over those years has been pinned on quarterback Kirk Cousins. Everyone, whether you be a casual NFL fan, diehard Vikings fan, or writer for Deadspin, has taken a shot at Cousins at some point or another. Hell, even NFL players can’t help but underrate the guy. How do you rank him below Mac Jones?
While I don’t believe he’s a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback, contrary to what most people seem to believe, Cousins is not the reason his team has missed the playoffs each of the last two years. His defense is. While I’ve defended the Vikings’ defense as it pertains to Cousins’ ability to win a Super Bowl in the past, there’s no defending how horrendous the Vikings’ defense was in 2021. Not only did they allow the fifth-most passing yard and seventh-most rushing yards, but they were arguably the least clutch defense in the NFL this century. Don’t believe me?
Since 2000, the 2021 Minnesota Vikings allowed more points in the final two minutes of the 2nd and 4th quarters than any other team. In Week 1 alone last year, the Vikings surrendered 14 points after the two-minute warning in the first half, then allowed a game-tying field goal late at the clock in the fourth. That’s 17 points in a four-minute span, arguably the most important four minutes of an entire game. In their second game, it was ten points. Game No. 4, 11 points. Then it was 11 points, eight points, seven points, seven points, seven points, seven points, seven points, 12 points, zero points (somehow), nine points, three points, seven points, and eight points to end the season. That’s a total of 131 points in 68 minutes over the course of the entire 2021 season. That’s almost two points per minute played. That’s embarrassing.
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There were only two weeks all of last year where the Vikings’ defense managed to hold their opponents to zero points in the final two minutes of the first and second half — Week 3 versus Seattle and Week 14 on Thursday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I don’t know what it was that enabled such horrendous play toward the end of each half for the Vikes, but that’s probably a big reason why both head coach Mike Zimmer and one of the team’s co-defensive coordinators, Adam Zimmer, were fired this offseason.
While I know former co-head coach and defensive coordinator Andre Patterson was well-respected within the Vikings’ organization, I actually think it’s good that he’s no longer with the team. Patterson was attached to Zimmer and scattered after Zimmer was fired. Now, new head coach Kevin O’Connell gets to bring in all of his own guys and implement his system right away without any remnants of Zimmer.
New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has always been well-respected by opposing staffs and quarterbacks alike. He’s got two Super Bowl rings, and his Broncos’ ranked third in points per game allowed (18.9) and second in opponent red zone scoring percentage (50 percent) in 2021. If Minnesota’s defense had those numbers last year...they might’ve been a Super Bowl contender. We shouldn’t expect them to put up those numbers in 2022, but even if they improve slightly, they’ll be vying for a playoff spot. Oh, the Broncos also only allowed 48 points in the final two minutes of either half in 2021. That’s 36.6 percent of the points that Minnesota allowed.
Of course, you could argue that is because Denver played an easier schedule. Sure, Minnesota did have some tough games, but at least they don’t play in the AFC West. You could argue that Denver’s defense is just more talented. I’d whole-heartedly agree with that, but you don’t see the kind of disparity between point totals like I just explained with the Vikings and Broncos based on just talent. The coaching almost assuredly played a role.
Kirk Cousins isn’t going to be an elite quarterback anytime soon. He’ll improve with Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips calling the plays, but I highly doubt we’ll see him take a similar leap to what Stafford did in 2021. That said, even if Cousins doesn’t improve at all, the Vikings’ offense is not the issue. Cousins can only carry the team so far, and he often does more than enough to get a win. Hopefully, with the additions of Donatell, Za’Darius Smith, and Jordan Hicks, as well as the absence of Anthony Barr, the Vikes can improve their defense and thus, reach the playoffs once again. I wouldn’t be shocked if they competed for the NFC title until late in the season. Don’t expect a Super Bowl run, though.