After losing 24-10 to the Patriots in New England, the Minnesota Vikings are somehow still in the NFC playoff hunt. Have they learned a thing or two from the defeat?
Though this article is titled, ‘Things the Minnesota Vikings can learn from the New England Patriots’, it should be titled: ‘Things the Minnesota Vikings can–and cannot–learn from the New England Patriots’.
Since it is appropriate to accentuate the positive here, we shall start with what they can take from this loss and play winning football in Seattle on Monday night.
Have Confidence That This Is A Talented Football Team
It has been some time since I watched Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick work so hard to game-plan against an opponent as he did in the week leading up last Sunday’s game against the Vikings.
In the press, he spoke glowingly about the Vikings’ receivers, their pass pressure packages and running back Dalvin Cook. On the sideline of the game, Belichick was as animated as I’ve seen him in years, talking to his coaches, his defensive secondary, and his offensive and defensive lines.
He knew the Minnesota Vikings matched up well against his team, much as the Philadelphia Eagles did in last year’s Super Bowl. The Vikings’ were an NFC opponent, one they had little experience with, and Belichick was aware that if New England did not out game-plan as well as out-coach Minnesota, they could lose easily.
They did–and they did not. After the Vikings ran the script of their first possession, most likely three plays that 80% of NFL defensive coordinators would anticipate; quick pass, off-tackle run, wide-receiver screen, they were back to the sideline on their first of many three-and-outs.
Getting their first crack at it, Tom Brady and the Patriot offense ran motion to get Vikings’ linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks off-balance, ran moving slot routes and moved quickly up the sidelines downfield.
Bang-bang. Both offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and head coach Mike Zimmer looked like amateurs playing professionals as the Patriots took an early 7-0 lead.
However, the talent of the Minnesota Vikings that Belichick saw and did his best to game design against quickly showed him some mettle. What looked like a potential blowout turned into a contest tied at 10 deep into the third quarter.
Why it ended up as a Viking loss of two touchdowns leads us to the second lesson Minnesota may (or may not) learn in the defeat.
Execute The Offense
As the idiom suggests, “practice makes perfect.” My question here is direct: Do the Minnesota Vikings have their offensive game playbook down perfectly? Throughout the year, there have been a hundred missed offensive assignments on the Vikings’ side of the ball. Crucial mistakes that have ended or stunted drives and lost important football games.
This is solely the responsibility of John DeFilippo and Mike Zimmer. If you are going to run misdirection, screen plays and vertical play-action passing, all players have to be on the same page of the playbook. This may sound like arm-chair quarterback talk (and in a good sense it is), but watching the Vikings’ offense cough, sputter, and be banged around by a solid, if not overly impressive New England defense was a truly frustrating experience on Sunday.
As was Kirk Cousins relying on a reluctant ‘paper cut’ pass (checkdown) offense that only sliced into the Patriots’ second-level when a first tackle was missed. Is this quarterback so determined to not throw an interception that he refuses to put the ball into 50/50 play?
Against the Patriots, ‘execution’ is aggressive play. Check Super Bowl LLI.
Also, during the game Cousins overthrew an open Thielen on a deep route in the first half, then underthrew Aldrick Robinson on another deep pass in the end zone when the wideout was clearly past two defenders in the fourth quarter. The second ball was intercepted, and essentially clinched the game for New England.
These are miscues and mistakes that turn into dramatic missed opportunities.
Understand Predictability And Unpredictability
Ask yourself, Viking fan–do you see what’s coming as you watch Cousins clapping for the ball? Belichick clearly was double-teaming Adam Thielen in the game. He had ten targets, but only five catches for 28 yards. Stephen Diggs was dinged-up and being played hard (5 for 49), and Belichick kept close tabs on Kyle Rudolph, who was an ineffective 3 for 38.
So who’s the next man up? Laquon Treadwell had 2 catches for 13 yards. The guy is complete junk iron. So why’s he out with the starters–to block on those wide-receiver screens that were getting blown up? Finally, Aldrick Robinson was targeted in the second half. Like an angel above, we saw a couple of first downs, some separation!
Where ya been, Aldrick? Where ya been, Flip?
Cousins threw twelve passes to Vikings’ running backs for 33 total yards. Meanwhile, Dalvin Cook ran nine times for 84 yards, including a dazzling 32-yarder that displayed the physical talent that Bill Belichick attested to during the week.
But the student decided he would fool the master. Flip wasn’t going to run his most gifted player in the second half, despite his nearly nine yard per carry average. In fact, while the Patriots ran 32 times for 160 yards, DeFilippo and the Vikings decided to hand it off only 13 times, even though Cook looked like he did in 2017 before he tore his ACL, a purple turbo-boosted number 33.
This offense is a complicated failure. It has serious talent–talent that a coach like Bill Belichick no doubt feared did his best to defense–as well as a lack of talent that, as we finalize this essay, it cannot do much about in 2018.
Fix An Awful Offensive Line
I’ll give them this. They’re better than the New York Giants. But that’s it. While the Patriots’ stymied the Viking pass rush with quick passes and Brady’s ability to step through a closing pocket, Minnesota was beaten time and again by New England’s inside pressure and defensive ends stunts.
I can’t blame this on this on Flip. The guy got a below-average line and was left with several key injuries and the sudden passing of the only guy who could have made a decent unit out of them, the late Tony Sparano.
Guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers should be backups at best. They didn’t hold up against New England and they haven’t held up all season. Riley Reiff is a serviceable left tackle, but rookie Brian O’Neil, who has shown real talent, has a mile to go before he learns the full NFL game.
Leaving this problem to general manager Rick Spielman is a mistake. If he has failed at anything (and he has) it has been clear in his choices to assemble a Viking offensive line. Hire your line coach early in the off-season and make him part of the college draft and free-agent process. Please.
Hold Everyone Accountable (“Do Your Job”)
Instead of working what was an effective ground game that pitted our one offensive wildcard (Dalvin Cook) which Bill Belichick knew his defense would have to stop without creating an extra-man zone, the Vikings instead played into the hands of the game’s greatest coach by passing throughout the game, finding themselves constantly in third-and-longs, where they ended up 3-12. A mistake on game design and game adjustment among many we saw in New England last week.
There now comes the question of whether this loss of Sunday, like more than one other this season, is a result primarily of the Vikings’ offense, or a combination of the offensive coach’s experience and ability.
After a 2017 season–without Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins–in which the Minnesota Vikings finished 10th in total offense, the Vikings have now fallen into the league’s bottom half for 2018.
We’ve now learned to at least hear arguments for the latter.