EAGAN. — Minnesota Vikings star defenders Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr ran to the end zone at TCO Performance Center to celebrate with Ben Gedeon on Thursday following a 60-yard pick-six by the third-year linebacker.
Quarterback Jake Browning, the last man chasing after Gedeon, looked defeated. It was hardly the first celebration by the defense during the Vikings three-day minicamp and Browning was one of four quarterbacks who showed frustration at times. By the time everyone walked off the field for a five-week break before training camp, the phrase “the defense is ahead of the offense” was uttered numerous times.
It’s to be expected that a defense that has most of the same players from 2017’s squad that finished No. 1 in points allowed and No. 1 in yards allowed would have a field day with offensive players who are learning their fourth offense in the last four years but there will be extra pressure when training camp arrives for the offense to make quick progress considering they finished 19th in scoring and 20th in yards. Not to mention that the Vikings’ offseason splash on the offensive side this year was bringing in legendary offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as an offensive assistant to help fix what ailed the offense in 2018.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think our work has been really good,” Kubiak said on Thursday. “We’ve taken some steps forward as a group and all, in all areas, in my opinion. I think the key now is that, that we come back, we pick up where we left off. We make sure we don’t have to start again, let’s pick up where we left off and go from there. But the work’s been good, it’s been a really good offseason.”
While we’re checking off minicamp cliches, Kubiak came very close to dropping an “iron sharpens iron” reference when referring to the Vikings uber-talented defense making them work harder for every minicamp yard. But when training camp comes along the question is whether the offense will have a hard time making progress when the defense is so far ahead. Head coach Mike Zimmer said he’s been trying to mix in things that defenses used against quarterback Kirk Cousins last year to help the offense prepare for what’s to come.
“There’s been some times we put some coverage periods in that other teams are running so he can get a look, so the receivers can get a look in,” Zimmer said. “So, it’s a little bit of both, probably a little more for them. But it’s good for us too. These guys have been running the same stuff for five years coverage-wise, so it’s good for them. It’s good for me to look at some other aspects of coverages and things like that.”
The Vikings offense is banking on scheme more than anything to be the source of improvement. They elected to allot cap space to free agent linebacker Anthony Barr rather than score free agents on the offensive side. Veteran guard Josh Kline and receiver Jordan Taylor were the only additions aside from the team’s first four draft picks, which went to a center, tight end, running back and guard. It won’t be clear until camp which of those players can make an impact in 2019. So it’s on the Kubiak scheme and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s scheme to right the wrongs of last season and create a “balanced” offense (per Zimmer) that will highlight the strengths of its expensive quarterback.
“The thing that jumps out to me with Kirk is that he’s very accurate, extremely accurate player, and plays the game on the move really, really well,” Kubiak said. “We got a lot of young kids around him right now. He has some guys out, so he’s been really challenged to help these kids get lined up and that. And that’s good for a quarterback, with some of these guys missing some time. I’m very impressed, and like I said, I just want to do everything I can to get him in the best possible position for our football team to be successful.”
The assumption heading into OTAs and minicamp was that Kubiak’s offense would be much more reflective of the Mike Shanahan/Sean McVay offense that Cousins had success with during his years in D.C. But following a tough day on Wednesday, Cousins said that he wasn’t exactly rolling out of bed with an institutional knowledge of Kubiak’s 2019 version.
“There’s changes, there’s similarities,” Cousins said. “I’ll put it this way, I couldn’t just go out to practice without looking at the play book without looking at notes. I wouldn’t have been able to do much. It’s new enough that I’ve got to go over things and make sure that I understand it in terms of the route depths, the snap counts and the concepts because it is different.”
Translation: They have a long way to go.
“I have a good feel of we who we can be offensively and the strengths that we have with the personnel and also some of the weaknesses that we may end up having to try to avoid,” Zimmer said. “So, I think that has helped, kind of figure out exactly where we are on the offense.”
On the personnel side, Kubiak mentioned Chad Beebe having a strong spring. He’s likely the front runner for the No. 3 receiver job after working his way up from a tryout to the active roster last season. The backup running back job is up for grabs. Zimmer remarked “we’ve got some work to do” while adding that fullback CJ Ham looked good. And along the offensive line, there will be plenty of battles for depth spots.
Following a year in which the Vikings ranked 23rd in percentage of drives that came away with points, just ahead of the New York Jets, there might be no place to go but up from the offense’s 2018 showing. But as we approach a pivotal season in the Zimmer era, the heat will be on when camp begins for Kubiak, Stefanski and Cousins to show they are putting together an offense that can drive them to reach the expectations set from the top of the organization to return to the playoffs.
“That’s one of the first things that [Cousins] said to me when we talked back a few months ago when I got here, he said, ‘Coach, I’ve had some good things happen in my career, and had some good numbers, but I want to win’ and that’s what we all want to do,” Kubiak said.