Featured Posts | Vikings

Zulgad: Teachable moment: Vikings coach gets chance to show his former student who’s boss

Mike Zimmer, Kevin Stefanski
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, right, and running backs coach Kevin Stefanski, left, stand on the sideline during a preseason NFL football game, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The Vikings were faced with a must-win situation — if that’s possible three games into a season — entering their home opener last Sunday against Seattle. A loss would have dropped Minnesota to 0-3 and led to a week’s worth of speculation about Mike Zimmer’s job status. But after trailing by 10 points in the second quarter, the Vikings rallied for a 30-17 victory behind Kirk Cousins’ outstanding performance and a dominant second half by the entire team.

On Sunday, the Vikings will get the opportunity to prove that victory was no fluke and that they are a threat to win the NFC North for the first time since 2017. For that to happen, the Vikings are going to have to play their best game of the season against a Cleveland Browns team that looks to be far better than the Seahawks.

There will be no lack of motivation for the guys wearing purple and their coach.

Zimmer will be standing across the sideline from former assistant Kevin Stefanski, who left the Vikings after the 2019 season to become the Browns’ coach. What’s interesting is that if things had played out differently following the 2018 season, Stefanski could be the guy overseeing the Vikings. There was speculation that if Minnesota hadn’t upset the Saints in its 2018 wild card game in New Orleans that the Vikings would have made a coaching change and Stefanski would have been considered the favorite to take over.

The Browns are pleased the Vikings won that day, considering Stefanski guided Cleveland to an 11-5 finish and its first playoff berth since 2002 in his first season. Stefanski earned Associated Press NFL coach of the year honors and has the Browns sitting at 2-1 this season. The 39-year-old’s success doesn’t surprise Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen.

“I think the thing that I really appreciated about him, and (why) I thought he would be a great head coach was because of the way he handled the room,” Thielen said. “You always hear that, right? That’s kind of a cliche thing to say about a guy that gets a head coaching job. I think it was the way he could relate to anybody. He could hold guys accountable in a different way. He would be hard on guys … different people need different types of coaching and he was one of those guys that could do that. When he got the opportunity to be a head coach, I knew that he would have a chance to have a lot of success because of the way he’s able to handle different people.”

While Stefanski has a 13-6 regular-season record in Cleveland, Zimmer is 8-11 during the same time. If that doesn’t provide Zimmer with sufficient motivation, this will: Stefanski is known for his offensive acumen and there are many Vikings fans who felt he would have been a better fit in Minnesota. Zimmer is a defensive guy who takes pride in shutting down (and shutting up) the younger offensive minds that populate the NFL. Stefanski is now included on that list.

What’s interesting is the Vikings are no longer a defense-first team that hopes its offense can do just enough. The Vikings are near the bottom of the NFL in total yards and passing yards allowed through three games and 21st in run defense and 20th in scoring defense (26 points per game). The defense shut out the Seahawks in the second half last week, but that was in part because Cousins and the offense did such a good job controlling the ball.

If the Browns get off to the kind of start Seattle did, they have the ability to put their foot on the home team and quiet a capacity crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium that can (literally) cause headaches for opposing offenses.

While the Vikings are relying on their offense, they will need a complete game from Zimmer’s defense against quarterback Baker Mayfield and a run game that is second in the NFL with an average of 174.7 yards per game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are averaging 5.5 yards and 5.7 yards per carry, respectively, and have combined for five of the Browns’ eight rushing touchdowns. The fact nose tackle Michael Pierce is questionable after suffering an elbow/shoulder injury in practice last week won’t help matters.

The most important thing might be that Cousins continues to play at the level he has through the first three weeks — there are numerous stats to illustrate how well the veteran is performing — and first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak dials up a game plan that can beat a Browns team that is Top 5 in the NFL in passing, rushing and total defense. The Browns are giving up 20 points per game to rank seventh in the league, and Stefanski knows Cousins’ strengths and weaknesses are after serving as his position coach and then coordinator in Minnesota.

The Vikings are third in the NFL in total offense and eighth in points (29 per game). Their sixth-ranked run game could get a boost if running back Dalvin Cook can return after he sat out last week because of a sprained ankle. Cook was listed as questionable on Friday.

The Vikings will have two games remaining before their bye after this one, including next Sunday against Detroit and the following week at Carolina. A 2-2 record heading into the Lions game would put the Vikings in an excellent position to get over .500 and put any discussion of Zimmer’s job status in the rearview mirror. A loss to the Browns, however, would put a quick end to the enthusiasm of a week ago and cause some to wonder if the Vikings should have turned to Stefanski when they had the opportunity.