EAGAN — In three of Mike Zimmer’s six seasons as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, his team has had a bye week in Week 9 or later. On Wednesday, Zimmer pointed out that a break late in the season gives the team a good opportunity to look itself in the mirror.
“I think with 11 games, you got a pretty good sample size of who you are and what you’ve done and the tips that you might be giving and things like that,” Zimmer said. “If you can make it through those 11 ball games, I think it gave us another chance to sit back and reevaluate and get back to some fundamental things that kind of slip and get away when you’re game planning for somebody each week and next week and on a short week. You’re concentrating so much on the other team you don’t concentrate on your own team quite as much, so I think it gave us an opportunity to do some of those things as well.”
In terms of self criticism, the Vikings shouldn’t have too many things to change as the head into the final five games. They rank eighth in yards and points scored and sport the fourth best rushing attack in the NFL. The defensive side offers more need for reflection. While the Vikings are sixth in points allowed, they have run into some bumps in the road in coverage, ranking 17th in quarterback rating against.
“We spent a lot of time with it,” Zimmer said. “Spent a lot of time in the last couple of days on fundamentals, re-teaching the things that we feel are important going forward in these last five ballgames.”
The improvements will be tested this week as the Vikings face the fourth ranked passing game in yards per attempt and the No. 2 rated passer in the NFL in Russell Wilson.
If you’re going to ask for an extra week to prepare for any QB on the schedule, it might as well be the potential NFL MVP.
“He moves really well, we can’t just rush and stop and peak, we have to rush,” Zimmer said. “We have to be disciplined in our rush lanes and be where we’re supposed to be because he’ll go up, he’ll go back, he’ll go out, he’ll go left, he’ll go right. He goes all the different places. The receivers do a great job of taking off when he starts to scramble. He sees an end come underneath and he’s out.”
“He’s really accurate. They’ve got the quick passing game. They’ve got the RPO’s. They’ve got the shots down the field. When he starts to scramble, he throws such a great deep ball that a lot of bad things can happen.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins will also have more time to get ready for the Seattle defense, which ranks seventh in the NFL in quarterback rating against.
“You pause and look back at what we have done well so far this year, what has enabled us to win football games and what have we struggled at that’s hurt us and how can we right the ship or fix some of those struggles,” Cousins said. “The bye week does give you time to self scout, press pause and make any corrections for the stretch run.”
The Vikings also went into the bye week banged up. Receiver Adam Thielen has (mostly) been out since a Week 7 hamstring injury suffered on a touchdown catch against the Lions. NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport is reporting that Thielen is expected to play vs. Seattle.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Linval Joseph has missed the past two games and both Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris got hurt against Denver.
Joseph is back practicing while Thielen sat out Wednesday’s workout. Smith and Harris were both limited. The bye week and extra day give the Vikings a shot at having all of them back for the Seattle game.
Some good news: Linval Joseph, who had knee surgery before the Dallas game, was back at practice today. Sounds like he may have a good shot to play Sunday. The initial window for his recovery, per sources, was around 4 weeks. So if he can go on MNF, he’s ahead of schedule.
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) November 27, 2019
Learning from being without Thielen
With Thielen trending toward a return, Cousins said he has appreciated the job done to make up for the Pro Bowl receiver’s absence.
“We have relied on some different personnel groupings, I think we’ve asked a little bit more from Irv Smith, Tyler Conklin, even our running backs in the pass game being receivers and they’ve really answered the call and shown what they can do,” Cousins said. “You’d like to think it gives you a little more versatility and more experience to lean on if we have Adam back knowing that there are a few others are battle tested more than they would have been. I think it says a lot about our coaches too. I think that’s a great job by them to say ‘hey we’re missing so-and-so, how do we still move the football, how do we get players in a position to be successful.”
Jadaveon Clowney is a difference maker
The Seahawks were without Jadaveon Clowney last week but when he’s been in the lineup the former No. 1 pick has made a significant impact. By Pro Football Focus grades he ranks as the sixth best edge rusher in the NFL and he’s posted a remarkable pressure rate with 44 pressures in 387 pass rush snaps this season.
“Just added another dynamic player,” Zimmer said. “They’re using him a couple different ways. He’s a get-up-the-field, cause-havoc kind of guy.”
It’s unclear whether he will play on Monday after seeing a specialist last week.
Overall Seattle has not done a great job getting after the passer. By PFF grades they rank 27th and the Seahawks are 28th in total sacks.
The Vikings’ 21-7 loss to Seattle was the final straw for Zimmer with 2018 offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was fired after a loss in which the Vikings defense held Wilson to his career-low quarterback rating. Kevin Stefanski was named offensive coordinator for the final three weeks. Zimmer talked about how far Stefanski has come since he was thrown into the OC role last year.
“I think he’s grown a lot,” Zimmer said. “I think the way the offense has evolved and the way we’re trying to attack defenses, communication with the players. You’re always going to get better when you get opportunities to do things.”
There is a tremendous gap between the ’18 offense and this year’s production. The Vikings are currently fourth in yards per play, fifth in scoring percentage and fourth in Expected Points Added. Last year they ranked 18th, 23rd and 25th in those categories.
Josh Doctson let go
The Vikings waived the former Washington receiver this week but his jersey and locker still remain in tact at TCO Performance Center, which could mean they are playing wait-and-see with Thielen’s hamstring.
“We felt like we were in good shape at receiver and we needed some other guys,” Zimmer said of Doctson being let go.
Bisi Johnson’s success filling in for Thielen made Doctson less needed. Since the former first-rounder doesn’t play special teams, it made more sense to keep Laquon Treadwell.