EAGAN, Minn. — The first quarter of Kevin Stefanski’s debut as a play caller couldn’t have gone any better.
Last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Minnesota Vikings raced to three touchdowns on his first three drives as interim offensive coordinator.
That easy, huh?
“Once I got through that first series and figured out you press a button to talk to the quarterback, it was, I don’t want to say easy…I told Zimmer if I can’t figure that out we have some problems,” Stefanski joked on Thursday. “After the first drive I felt pretty comfortable.”
The Vikings made quick work of the Dolphins, producing 41 points, rushing for more than 200 yards while quarterback Kirk Cousins went 14-for-21 with two touchdowns, one interception and a 112.2 quarterback rating.
Prior to the explosive win against the Dolphins, the Vikings’ offense ranked 20th in scoring. They jumped up three spots to 17th in points with the victory.
Stefanski’s changes were clear. Cousins went 8-for-9 when under center and numerous outside zone runs created big plays for running back Dalvin Cook.
This Sunday, Stefanski will take his second go-’round at calling the shots, this time against the Detroit Lions.
“Will there be some carryover? Sure, but I hope it’s not exactly the same,” Stefanski said.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer praised Detroit’s defense throughout the week, pointing out that the Lions have played well recently against the run.
“They’re big and physical up front, and they sit on some routes on the back end,” Zimmer said. “Safeties are physical, the physicality that they play with up front.”
But statistically speaking, Detroit’s pass defense presents even less of a challenge than the Dolphins.
The Lions are 31st in quarterback rating allowed. They have given up 26 touchdowns, six interceptions and 8.1 yards per pass attempt, good for a 105.5 rating. Opponents are gaining 12.3 yards per completion against Detroit, which is 30th in the NFL.
Basically opposing quarterbacks are playing like Drew Brees when they face the Lions.
Cousins has put together his best games this year against some of the league’s poorest pass defenses. In two games against the Packers, he threw for 767 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. The statistics website Football Outsiders ranks the Pack 24th against the pass. Cousins completed 81 percent of his passes for over 300 yards against Philadelphia, who rank 20th.
Football Outsiders ranks Detroit’s pass defense 32nd.
“We just have to go out and play, and if we’re reading our keys and doing the things that we’re supposed to do, we should be good,” Zimmer said. “It could be a bunch of zero blitzes, who knows. It’s important that we’re on point with everything. Typically that gets back to focusing on your key and where you go from there.”
If the Vikings head to Ford Field and repeat last Sunday’s outburst, we still won’t have a true idea of whether the offensive issues of weeks 11-14 are fixed or if the schedule dealt Stefanski a friendly hand. Combined in the games against Bears, Packers, Patriots and Seahawks, Cousins managed just an 89.9 rating and 6.3 yards per pass attempt.
Would those numbers have been better with Stefanski in charge? Possibly. The Vikings used a better process on offense last week than during those four games. But can we be sure based on games against two of the league’s worst passing defenses?
Of course, we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here. The Vikings have to take care of business against the Lions to put themselves in prime position to make the playoffs. They currently have a 58 percent chance according to the analytics site FiveThirtyEight. A victory on Sunday pushes those odds to higher than 80 percent.
But beyond rooting for a win, Vikings fans will be looking for signs that their chances to go deep in the playoffs are higher now with a new offensive philosophy.
No matter how strong Minnesota’s defense has been, getting a win on the road in the postseason will require similar efficiency as the Vikings were able to achieve against the Dolphins. Over the last two years, the teams that have reached the Super Bowl have ranked first, eighth, first and second by Football Outsiders’ metrics.
Whether that type of improvement has actually been made won’t be certain until they prove it against a quality defense. Depending on results, there’s even a possibility that Week 17 against Chicago, the NFL’s best defense, may not have meaning. In that case, we will have to wait until the postseason to get a true idea if the Vikings’ offense can elevate enough under Stefanski to advance.
There’s only one outcome in which clear conclusions about the offense can be made: A loss.