When the Minnesota Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins, they hoped to be able to repeat — and possibly improve on — the success of the 2017 offense. Through seven weeks, they have some work to do in order to reach that goal.
Last season the Vikings finished 10th in points, eighth in percentage of drives ending in points, eighth in net yards per pass attempt, seventh in rushing yards, 12th in red zone touchdown percentage and No. 1 in third down percentage.
In the same categories this year, Minnesota’s offense sits ninth in points, 26th in percentage of drives ending in points, 16th in net yards per pass attempt, 25th in rushing yards, 19th in red zone touchdown percentage and 22nd in third down percentage
Considering that seven games is a small sample — and the Vikings’ offense was not one of the best in the league through seven weeks last year — there’s plenty of time to maximize the talents of quarterback Kirk Cousins and skills of his weapons. An improving offensive line and the return of Dalvin Cook would likely go a long way toward the Vikings producing points on a higher percentage of their drives.
The question is which numbers are likely to improve and which should be cause for concern?
Among the areas where the Vikings’ offense is likely to see their ranking improve is in the total rushing yards. Over the last two weeks — albeit against weaker opponents — the Vikings have produced multiple explosive runs. At the center of those — literally — has been center Pat Elflein, who missed the first three weeks of the season and then was forced to match up against Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox on consecutive weeks.
In terms of yards per attempt, the Vikings’ run game is actually 0.1 yards per attempt higher than last year. The difference is that they ran effectively when playing from ahead in games. Minnesota had the second most run attempts in 2017. This year they are 23rd in attempts.
Head coach Mike Zimmer mentioned in his postgame comments that he would like to see more running on second down. They have run 56 times on second down this year, which ranks 14th in terms of total plays, but makes up only 36.1 percent of total second down plays. They are also 25th in yards per attempt on second down.
But those numbers could change if the Vikings’ defense continues to have success. Falling behind against Buffalo and getting into a shootout against the Rams likely skewed those stats from what they would normally be.
In terms of yards per pass attempt, it is clear that the offense relies on moving the ball with short passes and hitting on the occasional bomb. Kirk Cousins is fourth in the fewest air yards per attempt and has the NFL’s second lowest “Aggressiveness Percentage,” which is a NextGen stat tracking the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage.
If the Vikings’ pass protection continues to show positive signs as it (mostly) did over the past two weeks, Cousins may work the ball downfield at a higher rate and see a jump in yards per attempt going forward. But this week against a dangerous pair of defensive ends with New Orleans, it’s likely that the Vikings will have to continue to rely on quick passes and every-once-in-awhile deep shots.
The third down and red zone numbers are difficult to predict.
Last season the Vikings rarely found themselves in third-and-long whereas this season Cousins has the third most third-and-long attempts in the NFL. On those throws he has just an 80.2 quarterback rating and averages 5.4 yards per attempt. On third downs with less than six yards to go, he averages 6.8 YPA and has a 99.5 rating. It would appear third down success will be dictated by the team’s ability to create third-and-short.
Coming into this season, Cousins’ red zone play in the past was not overly impressive. His numbers are mid-pack with a 60.0 percent completion percentage, eight touchdown and zero turnovers. Success in the red zone may ultimately come down to the Vikings’ ability to pound the ball into the end zone with the run game. They clearly have not trusted the run in the red zone with 34 pass plays and just 14 runs inside the opponent’s 20.
Opponent quality always matters in conversations about numbers. The Vikings have matched up with a mixed bag of defenses so far. In order by week, opponents rank 30th, 15th, 16th, 4th, 6th, 24th and 17th in points allowed per game.
On the upcoming schedule, there will be some opportunities to put up points as they match up with the 27th, 23rd, 11th, 15th and 20th ranked defenses in points allowed per game over the next five weeks.
At the moment, we can conclude that the Vikings have been a very good offense at times, but have also gone through stretches where they were not one of the more effective teams in the league. The picture overall is still unclear with the offense still being a work in progress.