An Autopsy of the Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings finished 2020 with a record of 7-9. The result of this record was ending the year 1 game shy of making the playoffs. The bittersweet feeling of narrowly missing the playoffs was made more sour having lost two games by 1 point. So, what exactly went wrong in Minnesota? Looking at the numbers it would not be a outrageous to state Minnesota’s offence one of the better units in football. The Vikings moved the ball with ease in 2020. Their passing and rushing offences each ranked 5th in yards per attempt. The Vikings also scored at an above average rate in 2020, finishing 11th in the league in points for. Looking at the other side of the ball is not as friendly for the Vikings. Minnesota’s defense ranked bottom five in yards against per attempt and allowed the 3rd most points against. From a bird’s eye view, one may credit the blame solely on the defense for the poor results in 2020. That accusation would not be entirely true. A deeper investigation may show other reasons why the Vikings finished outside of the playoffs in 2020.

Looking at the Vikings’ offensive roster it is easy to see why they were in the top third of scoring in the NFL. Loaded with talent this offence had numerous ways to put the ball in the endzone. The bedrock of their offence was running back Dalvin Cook. An explosive talent, Cook helped the Vikings offence consistently move the ball. Finishing the year with 92 first downs, Cook was a key factor in Minnesota continually moving the chains in 2020. Having missed two games Cook still managed to rack up 1557 rushing yards. Of those 1557 yards, 876 came after his first contact with a defender. The only player in the NFL to finished ahead of Cook in both categories was rushing leader Derrick Henry. Gaining yards is a precursor to scoring, but not all yards lead to points. In the case of Dalvin Cook, his yards directly correlated to scoring as he accounted for just under 33% of all Vikings touchdowns in 2020.

Building on the foundation of a strong running game, Minnesota also had a solid aerial attack thanks to rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Jefferson finished his rookie year with 1400 yards, only 135 less than the man he was traded for- Stefon Diggs. Along with being fourth in total receiving yards, Jefferson caught 7 passes for touchdowns. Jefferson paired with veteran receiver Adam Thielen, gave the Vikings one of the better receiving duos in the league. The duo caught a total of 21 touchdowns, just under 40% of total team touchdowns.

So, if Minnesota had so much talent at their skilled positions, how can we place the blame on the offence for the team’s troubles?

The answer to that question is the man under center of the offence. I hate to blame a quarterback. It is the easy way out. Throwing the man who drives the bus under the bus always rubbed me the wrong way. But in the case of Kirk Cousins, he made it easy.

Looking at some heat maps we can get a better look at his true performance. The first graph shows his distribution of targets per zone. Yellow zones indicate a higher number of targets, where purple zones show zones less frequently targeted zones. A trend with better quarterbacks in the NFL is an equally distributed short zone. Top quarterbacks spread the ball across the field on short throws. Kirk Cousins did not. Most of his throws came outside of the hash’s with a preference for the left side, while ignoring the middle of the field. Another common trait among good quarterbacks is their ability to throw the ball deep. Cousins, even with talented receivers, seemed to avoid deep throws in 2020. This point is brought to light in the next graph which shows his expected yards per target. His expected yards per target drop significantly on deep balls especially compared with better quarterbacks in the league. Cousins also favored throwing the ball to the left side of the field, in both short and deep situations. Falling into such patterns makes a quarterback easier to defend.

However, these charts do not tell the whole story. The biggest slight against captain Kirk was how he managed the football. Cousins finished the year with 13 interceptions, tied for second most in the league. Along with 13 interceptions, he added 7 lost fumbles to his turnover column. Cousins fumbled the ball more than Dalvin Cook, the man paid to run the ball in Minnesota. Turnovers in the NFL are detrimental, however not all turnovers are created equal. Losing the ball in the opponent’s end of the field still gives your defense a chance to keep the opponent from scoring. Turnovers in your end of the field are backbreakers as they leave the opponent’s offence with a short field and a high probability of coming away with points.

If there was an award for bad turnovers, Kirk Cousins would be the clear favorite. Five of Cousins’ interceptions occurred when the ball was at or below the Vikings’ 30-yard line. The effect of such poor ball management is almost certain your opponent walks away with points. If his interceptions were not bad enough, Cousins’ made sure to out do himself with his fumbles. Four of Cousins’ seven lost fumbles came on his side of the field. Three of them occurred below his 30-yard line. So, for all the positive numbers accoladed to the Vikings’ offence, their poor ball management really made life tough on their defensive unit in 2020.

Now with the lens of poor ball management on the offensive side, lets see if the Vikings defensive unit still deserves the blame for their poor record in 2020.

Looking at their secondary unit one would conclude the unit performed adequately. As a unit, they finished 2020 with 15 interceptions, good enough for 8th in the NFL. For every time the offence gave away the ball, their secondary tried just as hard to get it back. Loaded with talent from previous years, the Vikings’ secondary showed signs of a unit that has made deep playoff runs in years prior.

And that is about all we can praise for the Vikings defense. Looking beyond the secondary unit we see where the problem lies. Examining the graph below we can see just how little pressure the Vikings were able to put on opposing quarterbacks.

No matter how good your coverage unit is, they can only cover receivers for so long. In the NFL eventually someone gets open. With the Vikings ranking bottom 3 in both quarterback hits and quarterback pressures, opposing QBs were able to buy time and find open men. The front seven of the Vikings showcased a poor performance in the rushing category as well. The Vikings allowed the 6th most rushing yards in the NFL. They also allowed the 6th most yards after first contact, showing their inability to bring down ball carriers.

Despite the poor performance on the defensive side of the ball, it is hard to solely place the blame on the defense. For all the positives the Vikings offence brought to the table, they often put their defensive unit behind the eight ball. Poor starting field position caused by turnovers combined with a minimal presence from a pass rush placed a lot of pressure on a defensive unit not built for the task.

Hopefully, for Vikings fans, their management saw the same problems I did and address them this coming draft. In a draft loaded with offensive talent, it may be wise to grab the defensive talent early while it is still on the board. Building up a pass rush, as well as, better management of the football may bring the Vikings over the hump in 2021 and into the playoffs.

-Shane Hughes