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Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers

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The Vikings got worse this offseason, especially against the Packers’ strengths

Every advantage the Packers enjoyed in 2019 should be amplified in 2020.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook enters the last year of his contract in a familiar space for highly drafted running backs. He’s a favorite among fantasy players for his receiving chops, and when healthy he’s one of the better backs in the league, but he’s had trouble staying healthy, having played only 29 games in three seasons, and averaging fewer yards per carry than the Green Bay Packers’ 5th rounder of the same year, Aaron Jones.

Cook was an odd choice in the 2nd round for what is widely regarded as one of the more sophisticated front offices in the league, but it’s also emblematic of the issues that consistently undermine the Vikings and keep them in limbo as a perpetual good, but not great team. The Faustian bargain has, on one side, Mike Zimmer, one of the league’s premiere defensive minds, but an old-school drag on an offense that is frequently good, never great, and always in flux. On the opposing side is the front office headed up by Rick Spielman.

Spielman put together one of the most advanced and analytics-focused front offices in football, frequently mentioned with the Eagles and Ravens as the most analytically driven in the league. You can see it in their ability to turn quarterbacks like Case Keenum into the most efficient passer in football for a season and in their ability to get a top 10 season from Kirk Cousins. The Vikings are also one of the few teams to use play action on over 30% of passes, joining the Ravens, Rams, 49ers, Chiefs, Titans, Colts, Eagles, and surprisingly, the Panthers.

2019 Offensive DVOA Breakdown

Team Offensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd PA % Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Team Offensive DVOA First Down Second Down Third Down Average of 1 and 2 Difference of A and 3rd PA % Passing DVOA Rushing DVOA Red Zone
Kansas City Chiefs 22.80% 23.90% 7.90% 46.10% 15.90% -30.20% 32% 44.10% -1.70% -3.40%
Baltimore Ravens 27.70% 17.60% 32.80% 40.80% 25.20% -15.60% 33% 47.20% 21.50% 45.10%
Dallas Cowboys 24.20% 13.80% 29% 37.60% 21.40% -16.20% 25% 39.40% 8.90% 34.70%
Minnesota Vikings 4.60% -10.90% 9.90% 26.60% -0.50% -27.10% 30% 19.30% -3.10% 9.90%
Las Vegas Raiders 5.60% 3.20% -5% 25.90% -0.90% -26.80% 22% 25.40% -7.90% -7.70%
Atlanta Falcons 2% -3.60% -2.80% 21.80% -3.20% -25.00% 22% 16.30% -10.40% 0.10%
Philadeplphia Eagles 2.60% 6.10% -11.60% 18.40% -2.75% -21.15% 31% 11.80% -0.70% 27.50%
Houston Texans 0% -5.70% -1.80% 15.90% -3.75% -19.65% 24% 13.70% -0.10% 6%
Seattle Seahawks 17.10% 13.30% 23.10% 14.10% 18.20% 4.10% 29% 42.90% 2.70% 34.40%
San Francisco 49ers 7.20% 14.70% -3.50% 8.40% 5.60% -2.80% 32% 24.20% -0.30% 1.30%
Detroit Lions -2.80% -14% 4.30% 7.20% -5% -12% 24% 13.90% -13.60% -13.80%
Indianapolis Colts -3.10% -7.10% -5.20% 7.10% -6.15% -13.25% 30% -2.30% 1.50% 2.60%
Green Bay Packers 6.50% -1.60% 15.80% 5.80% 7.10% 1.30% 27% 17.30% 8.20% 16.10%
New Orleans Saints 21.40% 30.60% 19.10% 5.80% 24.85% 19.05% 20% 43.80% 0.10% 26.70%
Los Angeles Chargers 3.80% 12.80% -7.80% 3.90% 2.50% -1.40% 21% 22% -11% -15.20%
Arizona Cardinals 3.80% 4.30% 4.40% 1.60% 4.35% 2.75% 28% 1.80% 14.70% 6.20%
Los Angeles Rams 0.30% -3.70% 5.30% 0.30% 0.80% 0.50% 32% 15% -7.30% 22.20%
New York Giants -7.30% -5.60% -14% -0.30% -9.80% -9.50% 22% -4.70% -5% 4.30%
New England Patriots 4.10% 4.50% 6.80% -1% 5.65% 6.65% 24% 14.80% -2.70% -2.30%
Chicago Bears -10.10% -3.90% -19.60% -5.80% -11.75% -5.95% 21% 2.80% -17.60% -4%
Tennessee Titans 12.60% 18% 18% -9.10% 18% 27% 31% 29.70% 7.30% 31.20%
Jacksonville Jaguars -9.50% -8% -9.70% -12% -9% 3% 14% 0.10% -14.50% -27%
Cincinnati Bengals -16.50% -19.90% -13.40% -14.60% -16.65% -2.05% 22% -12.20% -10.60% -35.70%
Buffalo Bills -7.20% -0.20% -11.10% -15.10% -5.65% 9.45% 24% -0.60% -3.10% -13.90%
Cleveland Browns -4.50% 2.40% -4.20% -19.30% -0.90% 18.40% 28% 1.30% 1.40% -25.50%
Miami Dolphins -13.90% -24.20% -3% -19.80% -13.60% 6.20% 18% -2.50% -26.80% 3%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -7.30% -3.40% -3.60% -21.50% -3.50% 18.00% 18% 5.10% -13.40% 0.50%
Denver Broncos -10.80% 1.70% -17.40% -23.60% -7.85% 15.75% 23% -8.20% -6.40% -6.70%
Pittsburgh Steelers -25.30% -22.70% -21.70% -36.60% -22.20% 14.40% 14% -18.30% -22.30% -48.30%
Carolina Panthers -14.30% -0.50% -17.40% -38.50% -8.95% 29.55% 31% -19.80% 0.70% -15.30%
New York Jets -24.80% -17% -23% -42.70% -20% 23% 25% -21.60% -23.50% -30.10%
Washington Football Team -20.40% -27% 8.60% -55.30% -9% 46% 22% -17.20% -12.70% -20.20%

It’s unquestionably true that Zimmer knows what he’s doing on defense, and he’s had a top 10 unit by DVOA for four straight seasons. It’s unquestionably true that the front office has a vision for their offense, and it’s very likely that they know what they’re doing. But the head coach also controls the offense, and Zimmer’s vision involves more running that you would expect from a sophisticated team, as well as a revolving door of offensive coordinators culminating in the hiring of Gary Kubiak from the Broncos after Kevan Stefanski left for greener pastures. Stefanski replaced John DeFilippo in 2018, who replaced Pat Shurmur in 2017, who took over for Norv Turner in 2016.

Vikings Offensive Results

Year OC Offense Rank Defense Rank Rush Pass
Year OC Offense Rank Defense Rank Rush Pass
2020 Gary Kubiak ? ? ? ?
2019 Kevin Stefanski 10 4 10th 11th
2018 John DeFilippo 18 3 24th 17th
2017 Pat Shurmur 5 1 17th 3rd
2016 Norv Turner/Shurmur 26 7 29th 19th

Kubiak is an old-school guy himself, and has in the past favored a zone-blocking running attack. However, Kubiak is also one of the early modern advocates of heavy play-action use. While he would probably tell you that you need to establish the run for play-action to be effective, his penchant for play-action should mesh well with the front office. Kubiak is also perfectly capable of shepherding an efficient West Coast-style passing offense, which is good given the fact that Stefon Diggs has moved on.

Diggs finished 7th in DVOA last season, and is among the league’s best deep receivers. In addition, he’s a near-perfect fit for Kirk Cousins, who excels with the deep ball but can struggle on shorter and intermediate throws. The Vikings will replace Diggs with rookie Justin Jefferson, who was among the most productive and athletic receivers available in a historically great class. There’s no reason to think that Jefferson won’t be effective, but he’s more similar to Adam Thielen than to Diggs, and Minnesota may struggle to hit the deep balls that were such a staple of the offense in the recent past. Jefferson may be a good fit for a horizontal passing game, but there’s a good chance a horizontal passing game isn’t a great fit for Cousins.

The big risk on offense for the Vikings is that Kubiak tries to rely too heavily on Cook and Alexander Mattison in the run game while simultaneously becoming less efficient on fewer pass attempts. Zimmer has tried, and failed, to produce a good ground game year over year because the Vikings’ offensive line just isn’t up to the task of blocking for it. Despite the addition of rookie Ezra Cleveland, that is likely still true. No one should be surprised if Minnesota takes a step back on offense. The question is whether the defense can still carry them.

The Defense

The Lovie Smith Bears were sort of like the 2020 Vikings. Smith was an outstanding defensive coach, but with the power he built within the organization, the defense also took most of the resources both in draft capital and cap spend. The Vikings have been pretty balanced generally speaking, but that balance shifted with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville and the departure of Diggs to Buffalo. Minnesota is right up against the cap, and with the limited resources available, they’ve gone defense. The Vikings chose to deal with the loss of Everson Griffen by shelling out for Ngakoue and replaced the departed Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes (and Mackensie Alexander) with first rounder Jeff Gladney and 3rd rounder Cameron Dantzler, though 2018 first rounder Mike Hughes and former UDFA Holton Hill will get first crack as starters.

This is interesting for several reasons. While the Vikings have kept their pass rush intact (when Danielle Hunter is healthy, which is currently not the case), their secondary is in rough shape. While you won’t find better safeties than Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, they are going to be doing a lot of safety-ing. Recent research by Pro Football Focus suggests that it is corners who are the linchpins of the defense, even more so than edge rushers. While it’s undeniable that they are symbiotic, this is new territory for Minnesota.

We saw some of what happens to a good defense when corners go bad last season when Xavier Rhodes just collapsed into one of the league’s worst cover men, and this may very well be an entire season of that. When forced to play him due to injury, they never really recovered. Rhodes is gone, but so is everyone else, and young corners often get themselves burned and out of position. There will be growing pains here.

Also, there’s this:

Hopefully these two have some advanced technique/instinct, because you generally hope to get better athletes with picks this high.

The Packers are expected to use more heavy personnel this season, which also complicates life for Mike Zimmer. Everson Griffen was an outstanding two-way player, and added some athletic bulk. Without him, the Vikings will probably use more sub-packages, and sub-packages can be exploited by teams willing to throw with heavy personnel.

In short, the Packers should be able to run without issue. As long as they can protect Rodgers competently, they should be able to exploit a young, unathletic cornerback group. Even if they can’t protect Rodgers, he sometimes plays better under some duress, and should be able to get the ball out quickly given the mismatches he’s likely to see.

Green Bay did a nice job against Minnesota last season, and if anything, the changes the Vikings made should make them an even easier matchup. They still have no answer for Kenny Clark, they’re lighter where they need to be heavier, their corners have virtually no experience, and their old men managers are likely to run the ball too much, while taking away Kirk Cousins’ most efficient play.

I suspect Sunday will be a fun one.

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