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How the Vikings can reach the Super Bowl next year

Over the past five seasons, the Minnesota Vikings are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for the fifth most wins in the NFL, only trailing Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Kansas City and New England. But despite three shots in the playoffs in those five years, the Vikings have not been able to reach a Super Bowl. How can they build off last year’s 10-win season and Wild Card round victory and find themselves in The Big Game next year? Let’s have a look…

Improve pass protection 

Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws the ball under pressure against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in a NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It may have felt like we were seeing Kirk Cousins get pressured and sacked fewer times in 2019 than the previous season but that wasn’t really the case — the Vikings simply passed the ball less. But on a per-play basis, Cousins was sacked on 6.2% of dropbacks in ’18 and 5.9% in ’19 and pressured 38.9% in ’18 and 36.4% in ’19.

And by PFF’s standards, there was no difference at all. In ’18 the team’s pass blocking graded 28th and only improved by one spot to 27th in ’19. So overall it was only the slightest of improvements in results despite the scheme change designed to give Cousins more time to throw.

The Vikings received decent performances from their tackles as Riley Reiff ranked 26th by PFF standards and Brian O’Neill was 30th of 60 tackles who played regularly but that might not be good enough to protect an immobile quarterback. Whether that means spending a first-round pick at tackle or chasing improvement in free agency, Cousins needs all the help he can get on the edges.

But if the Vikings receive similar play from the tackles next season they can still give Cousins more time to throw by getting a far better performance in the middle. Rookie Garrett Bradbury will need to take a huge leap forward in pass protection, where he ranked as the NFL’s worst center. In the NFC North, players like Kenny Clark and Eddie Goldman will continue to give him trouble if there isn’t a jump in play. The Vikings received poor pass pro at the left guard position, where Pat Elflein the ninth most pressures of any guard in the NFL.

A more dynamic quarterback might be able to scramble his way out of trouble when pressure comes up the middle but with Cousins the Vikings will only have a shot at reaching the Super Bowl with solid-to-great pass blocking from every position on the O-line. That will require change.

Throw to Stefon Diggs more, keep stacking weapons 

After Stefon Diggs skipped practice in Week 4 and was fined $100,000 by the Vikings, they started looking his way more often and were highly successful in doing so. If a tweak in philosophy to make Diggs even more of a target each week is what it takes to keep him from demanding a trade, that’s the route the Vikings should take.

Throwing to Diggs has been one of the best thing any Vikings QB can do over the past five years. Various quarterbacks have combined to register a 108.9 quarterback rating when targeting him, completing 71.3% of passes his way for 12.3 yards per completion, 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Put another way: Diggs has about a full NFL season’s worth of targets in his career which combine for MVP-caliber quarterback numbers yet he was only targeted 96 times this season, tied for 34th.

As a team the Vikings have the sixth highest QB rating in the NFL since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach. That can largely be attributed to Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. Breaking up these king-making weapons would not get the Vikings closer to winning the Super Bowl, especially when you consider the are  where recent Super Bowl teams were strongest is pass efficiency.

The last three Super Bowls have been made up of teams that ranked first, fifth, third, fifth, first and second in passing Expected Points Added. While there has been much talk of the 49ers’ ability to run the ball, they were the second best team in yards per pass attempt.

The Vikings were strong in both categories, finishing ninth in EPA and sixth in yards per attempt. With Gary Kubiak returning, it’s plausible that they could continue to work to Cousins’s strengths and build on what they stared by adding another weapon to the mix.

Both the 49ers and Chiefs have a multitude of players they can target on a given week. Take Kansas City’s Sammy Watkins, for example. The Chiefs overpaid for him in free agency and the former top pick of the Bills has only totaled 92 catches in two years but when the Titans took away other weapons in the AFC Championship, he was given opportunities and ended up catching seven passes for 114 yards.

The Vikings saw Bisi Johnson become a reliable receiver but building a Super Bowl offense will require one more game-changing talent.

Improve cornerback play 

Overall the Vikings were solid against the pass in 2019. They ranked seventh in EPA against the pass and allowed the 10th lowest quarterback rating in the league. But their Achilles heel was that opponents could succeed throwing toward their outside corners. Combined between Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, QBs completed 110 of 154 passes for 1,460 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception, good for a quarterback rating of 117.9, per PFF data.

The 49ers and Chiefs, like most recent Super Bowl teams, were highly effective against the pass. The 49ers ranked No. 2 in EPA and seventh in QB rating against despite a very tough slate of QBs and KC finished eighth in EPA and fifth in rating against.

Naturally cornerback play was at the center of their success. Star CB Richard Sherman held opposing QBs to a 36.4 rating on 56 targets and throws in the direction of KC corners Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland registered ratings a shade under 74.0.

Whether it’s 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes emerging as a star or spending big on a shutdown corner like Byron Jones or top nickel corner Chris Harris or drafting in the first round again, the Vikings will have a very difficult time getting deep into the playoffs with poor play from their top corners.

Repeat performances from Smith, Kendricks, Hunter 

The reason the Vikings were able to survive poor play from outside corners and still thrive is because they received some marvelous performances from other players on defense. Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter all ranked in the top five by PFF grades at their positions (as did Anthony Harris, who is a free agent).

Smith gave up a 35.3 rating when targeted with zero touchdowns and three interceptions, Kendricks had the most pass breakups in the NFL and Hunter was No. 2 in QB pressures. In order to get anywhere next season, they will have to be every bit as excellent.

While we’ve come to expect these types of showings from the Vikings’ star defensive players, they will have to avoid factors that could cause regression. Of course, they were each healthy for the full season. Smith might lose his star partner Harris. Hunter might lose Everson Griffen if he either opts out of his deal or gets released for cap reasons, bringing extra attention on the left side of the defense. And Kendricks had by far the best year of his career, which appears to be sustainable but could also be hard to repeat an MVP-caliber year.

Take some big swings, get some breaks

The 49ers signed Richard Sherman after he tore his Achilles. The Chiefs spent a bundle in free agency on Tyrann Mathieu. They also drafted a quarterback when they already had a proven veteran. The 49ers traded for one. The Cheifs let Kareem Hunt go after an off-field incident. The 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders when mid-season deals don’t often pan out.

It generally takes some risky moves and shots in the dark in order to reach the Super Bowl. Both franchises have been willing to be aggressive in their quest there. The Vikings have a lot of issues that need to be resolved in the offseason with the salary cap and spots on the roster that need to be filled.

Both teams also had some luck. The 49ers stopped Seattle on the final play of the regular season to lock up a No. 1 seed. Kansas City needed Ryan Fitzpatrick to beat the Patriots in order to fall into the No. 2 slot. Nobody ever wins without some breaks. The Vikings haven’t generally been known for getting those in their history but in order to make a Super Bowl appearance, they’ll need them.

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