Mike Zimmer wants you to believe everything will be fine. More importantly, he wants to convince himself of the same thing. So coming off a 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams last Thursday, the Vikings coach attempted to calm the masses after his team fell to 1-2-1.
“Everybody forgets we were 2-2 last year at this time,” Zimme said. “We’ll just keep fighting and playing. Just because everybody expected us to be 4-0 at this time or whatever doesn’t mean that’s realistic. We’re just going to keep fighting, and we’re going to shore up some things, continue to get better and go from there.”
Zimmer has a partial point.
The Vikings beat the Saints in their opener last year but essentially lost Sam Bradford for the remainder of the season after that game. Backup Case Keenum replaced Bradford and the Vikings lost the following week in Pittsburgh. A victory over Tampa Bay was followed by a surprise loss at home to Detroit in which rookie running back Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending knee injury.
There was plenty of skepticism about the Vikings entering their Week 5 game in Chicago, but Minnesota came away with a 20-17 victory on a Monday night in Soldier Field. That was the start of an eight-game winning streak and the Vikings lost only one more game in the regular season.
Coming off that 13-3 finish, in which the Vikings lost to Philadelphia in the NFC title game, Zimmer’s club was given a tough test to open 2018. A victory over up-and-coming San Francisco (at least before it lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury) was followed by a tie in Green Bay and then that loss to the high-flying Rams.
We skipped one game on purpose. The Vikings’ loss to Buffalo in Week 3 was disturbing on many levels. The Bills aren’t a good team and yet they came into U.S. Bank with a rookie quarterback (Josh Allen) and embarrassed the no-show Vikings, 27-6. Last week, the Bills went to Lambeau Field and lost 22-0.
The Buffalo loss should have caused plenty of concern at TCO Performance Center. And that’s not the only thing that should worry Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman as they prepare for Sunday’s crucial game against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.
As much as Zimmer might want to compare this year’s start to last year, there are some notable differences. It starts with expectations, both internal and external. The Vikings’ 2-2 start last season was followed by curiosity of how things would go thereafter. They had gotten off to a 5-0 start in 2016 only to fall apart. No one expected much from Keenum when he stepped in and his standout performance was an unexpected surprise.
Expectations were enormous heading into this season and the addition of the top free-agent quarterback on the market, Kirk Cousins, only increased them. Cousins was signed to a three-year, $84 million contract in March as the Vikings made a move that screamed of being all in.
What was curious was the Vikings went to great lengths to improve what had been a poor offensive line after 2016 — they added free-agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers and drafted center Pat Elflein — but failed to address issues on the line this offseason.
Remmers is now playing right guard and when left guard Nick Easton was lost for the season in training camp the answer was to have veteran journeyman Tom Compton step into his spot. Elflein made his first start of the season against the Rams after being sidelined following offseason shoulder and ankle surgeries.
Nonetheless, the Vikings’ line has now surrendered 81 total pressures in four games, according to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus. How bad is that? The average offensive line gives up 160 over a season, and the Vikings are on pace to give up 324. That would be the most in a decade by around 70, according to PFF.
The Vikings’ failure to pay more attention to their line was baffling considering they knew full well that Cousins isn’t a Keenum-like scrambler and needs to be kept comfortable in the pocket. The fact Cousins also has an issues with fumbles — he already has lost three of four this season — is another reason keeping him clean is so important.
If there was one consistent in 2017 it was the defense. The Vikings finished atop the NFL in both scoring and total defense, giving up 15.8 points and 275.9 yards per game. After being taken apart by Jared Goff and the Rams offense last week, the Vikings are 21st in total defense (381.5 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (27.5 points per game).
Zimmer has been known as one of the top defensive minds in the game, but this group hasn’t been the same since the Saints rallied for 24 points in the second half of their playoff loss to the Vikings last January at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The absence of defensive end Everson Griffen, who had a career-high 13 sacks last season, is a big blow to the team and it’s unknown when, or if, Griffen will return as he deals with mental-health issues. It’s also become clear that the Vikings miss the presence of veteran Terence Newman, who did a fantastic job moving into the nickel role last season but decided to retire and take a coaching job just before the regular season.
The nickel role is one of the most important in today’s game and the Vikings have no answer right now at that spot. Mackensie Alexander, in his third season, struggles on a weekly basis and rookie first-round pick Mike Hughes is still trying to learn a spot that is far different than playing the outside corner.
It doesn’t help that linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks seem to have taken a step back. Quarterbacks are picking on these deficiencies by getting the ball to their running backs and tight ends for big gains.
Still, the Vikings could be 2-2 if they had been able to make a field goal in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. That would have called for rookie kicker Daniel Carlson to hit one of three attempts, including one at the end of overtime.
Carlson, whom Spielman actually traded up to draft last April, missed all of them and was released the next day. Kai Forbath might have struggled at times on extra points, but was far more reliable when it came to hitting the ones that counted for three. It will remain a mystery why Spielman thought bringing in a rookie kicker was a good idea, as will the failure to pay more attention to the offensive line.
Can these Vikings rebound?
Zimmer hopes the answer is yes and for now he’s trying to convince anyone who will listen that a repeat of 2017 is possible. But for anyone who has watched the 2018 Vikings through four games, it’s difficult not to be dubious.