The Vikings’ path to an 8-3 record and second place in the NFC North at the bye week has come with some bumps in the road. A less than spectacular start by quarterback Kirk Cousins, a failed rally in Week 2 at Green Bay, a terrible showing in Week 4 in Chicago.
The Vikings nearly added to that list Sunday by falling behind 20-0 against Denver at halftime before putting together a furious rally to beat the Broncos, 27-23, at U.S. Bank Stadium. That will enable players to enjoy their off week and make coach Mike Zimmer a much happier man as he spends the week doing a self-scout of his team.
What will Zimmer like and what won’t he like? Here are five players who are either worthy of praise for their performance so far or need to take a significant step in the final five games.
Cousins seemed lost as the Vikings departed Chicago following a 16-6 loss on Sept. 29. The veteran quarterback’s confidence appeared to be shot and he looked like a guy who was having zero fun playing football. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was so upset that he stayed away from the team for two days. Diggs was more upset about how the offense was being run than anything Cousins was doing wrong, but his absence from Monday meetings and a Wednesday practice was a clear indication that things were going in the wrong direction.
Cousins had thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions with a 64.7 completion percentage, 88.6 passer rating and two fumbles lost in those opening four games. The Vikings rebounded in their next game as Cousins completed 22 of 27 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-10 victory over the Giants in New Jersey. But could Cousins continue to play like that? The answer has been yes.
He has been excellent ever since, going 6-1 and passing for 2,020 yards with 18 touchdowns, one interception, one lost fumble, a 73.3 completion percentage and a 126.5 passer rating. Cousins leads the NFL with 177 pass attempts since his last interception. This success has come despite the fact that star wide receiver Adam Thielen has missed most of the past five games because of a hamstring injury.
Cousins’ success is what the Vikings envisioned when they hired Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach — this is his offensive system — to work with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who is calling plays. Their work has helped put Cousins in a position to succeed.
Cousins’ losing record in prime-time games (7-13) hasn’t been an issue as he has beaten Washington and Dallas in night games. He will get a chance to earn his first victory in a Monday night game (0-7) on Dec. 2 in Seattle when the Vikings return from their bye. If that happens, prepare to hear Cousins’ name enter the MVP discussion in a serious manner.
No one questioned Cook’s talent level, but after his first two NFL seasons it was fair to question whether the running back could remain healthy. He played in four games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury and then played in 11 games in his second year. The Vikings knew that in order to be successful this season they needed to keep Cook on the field.
So far, they have been able to do that, enabling Cook to establish himself as one of the NFL’s best running backs. He enters the Vikings’ off week second in the league in rushing with 1,017 yards on 214 attempts, putting him 42 yards behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Cook has rushed for 11 touchdowns and has caught 45 passes for 455 yards, giving him 1,472 yards from scrimmage.
While Vikings followers know what Cook means to the team, the rest of the country got to find out two weeks ago when he rushed for 97 yards on 26 carries and a touchdown and caught seven passes for 86 yards in a 28-24 victory at Dallas on Sunday night football.
Cook was held to a season-low 26 yards on the ground against Denver on Sunday, but don’t look for that trend to continue.
Kendricks’ 86 tackles not only lead the Vikings — 25 more than safety Harrison Smith, who is second on the team — he also has broken up an NFL-high 12 passes, contributed 3.5 tackles for a loss and is the No. 1 graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus.
Anthony Barr has been the Vikings linebacker who gets the most attention in Zimmer’s defense, but it’s the 27-year-old Kendricks who has stood out time and time again in his fifth NFL season.
The Vikings’ defense has not been as dominant as it once was under Zimmer — although it’s still fifth in scoring defense (18.6 points per game) — but Kendricks is having an outstanding year.
One of the top cornerbacks in the NFL only a few years ago, Rhodes has had a poor season and is part of a pass defense that has given up far too many big plays in 2019. The Vikings’ pass defense is 19th in the league, giving up an average of 244.5 yards per game.
Rhodes, 29, who is in his seventh season has clearly lost a step and that speed isn’t coming back. Rhodes is drawing penalties in part because he can’t keep up with many speedy wide receivers and, watching him from the press box on Sunday, he did not look like he was close to 100 percent.
How bad has it gotten? Rhodes is ranked 66th of 75 corners by PFF, giving up a 124.1 rating against. That is sixth worst in the league.
The question is what will Zimmer do during the bye week to try to fix the issues in the pass defense and with Rhodes in particular? Ideally, 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes would take over the starting job from Rhodes, but Zimmer is likely worried that Hughes isn’t ready for that responsibility. Especially after Dallas’ Dak Prescott went after Hughes multiple times in Week 10.
Zimmer could attempt to get cornerback Holton Hill more playing time or use a package that includes safety Jayron Kearse in some situations, but continuing to play Rhodes as much as he did in the first 11 weeks isn’t working.
Elflein’s move from center to left guard hasn’t gone as well as the Vikings hoped when they drafted center Garrett Bradbury with the 18th pick in the first round last April. The Vikings’ line got off to a rough start but has appeared to make strides as the season’s progressed. Elflein, however, is 53rd out of 63 guards in pass blocking and has given up the 11th-most pressures allowed among guards, according to PFF.