The Minnesota Vikings season has only just begun. Yet, after an 0-2 start, it is possible the playoffs are out of sight.
Minnesota fell behind early in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, with Aaron Rodgers picking their secondary apart with ease and maneuvering in the pocket. Kirk Cousins and Co. attempted to fight back, but still lost by nine points in a shootout.
However, Week 2 was an even more demoralizing loss for the Vikings.
Cousins completed just 11 of 26 pass attempts for 95 yards while also taking three sacks and throwing three interceptions. Minnesota’s secondary was practically helpless to stop Philip Rivers from moving the ball in the passing game, and the Colts also pounded the rock and orchestrated long drives with ease.
On the one hand, coach Mike Zimmer and his staff have plenty of time to work out the kinks. On the other, Minnesota’s schedule does not get a whole lot easier, and Football Outsiders gives the Vikings the worst playoff chances of any team in the NFC North.
With Cousins struggling in the passing game and a young secondary having a hard time adjusting to the pro level, the Vikings are in poor shape. But injuries might be the reason Minnesota’s uphill climb seems almost impossible.
Wounded Vikings Stars
The two opening losses were hard enough to swallow, but the injury train growing larger must be brutal for Vikings fans.
Minnesota already began the season without star defensive end Danielle Hunter, arguably the team’s most impactful pass rusher and run-stuffer on the front line. But things have only gotten worse on the injury front.
Hunter is out for at least another week, given he was placed on injured reserve. However, there is no guarantee he will be back after the minimum three weeks is up. His injury is still something of a mystery.
Then, the Vikes lost star linebacker Anthony Barr to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 2.
#Vikings LB Anthony Barr has a torn pec and is out for the season. A difficult loss in a tough start to the season.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 21, 2020
Barr made the Pro Bowl in every season between 2015 and 2018, and he finished the 2019 campaign with 79 combined tackles while still playing an excellent coverage ‘backer.
The 28-year-old’s ability to shadow receivers and backs alike would seemingly have alleviated some of the pressure on Minnesota’s secondary while also allowing Eric Kendricks to play up in the box to stop the run.
But Barr’s absence–paired with Hunter’s injury–has instead placed even more of the onus on Zimmer to have the secondary ready to go for the rest of the year. That is bad news, considering Minnesota’s defense also ranks towards the bottom of the NFL in rushing DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
Yannick Ngakoue should continue to see more snaps and make an impact in the front seven, but it is worth wondering whether Minnesota’s defense will take a big step back due to these injuries.
The passing game is nonexistent
Not everything has been morbid on the offensive side of the football.
Dalvin Cook has gotten off to a strong start after signing an extension prior to the start of the year. The former Florida State star already has three rushing touchdowns while averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Alexander Mattison has offered an interesting change of pace.
But the Vikings have hardly been able to work either player into the game plan. Cook and Mattison have combined for just 35 rushing attempts and eight receptions.
Instead, the Vikings have relied on Cousins to make plays through the air, which has not provided the winning formula.
Cousins threw for 259 yards and averaged nearly 10.4 yards gained per pass attempt in Week 1 before his woeful Week 2 performance. But even in Week 1, Cousins had a blemish on his day, throwing an interception.
Granted, Kirk is not the only one to blame. The Vikings certainly miss Stefon Diggs, as rookie wideout Justin Jefferson has just five receptions through two games.
However, Cousins’ struggles have not been much of a surprise. He ranks towards the bottom of the NFL in expected completion percentage, per Next Gen Stats. This is despite having the third-most time to throw.
In fact, Cousins’ struggles have already sparked some trade rumors. There have even been some suggestions the Vikings should consider trading for New Orleans Saints backup and former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston.
— Phil Mackey (@PhilMackey) September 22, 2020
Is Cousins pressing too hard? He ranks as one of the most “aggressive” throwers in the NFL. Perhaps less deep shots are in order and more intermediate throws are on the menu. What about more check-down throws to Cook?
Regardless, Cousins’ struggles and the absence of Diggs have made the passing game a very underwhelming part of Minnesota’s offensive strategy.
It is very possible the Vikings could be 0-5 at the end of Week 5.
They return home this week, but have to go against one of the more balanced offenses in the league in the Tennessee Titans.
The next two weeks feature road matchups against the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks, two teams that can score points in bunches.
An 0-5 start would almost certainly doom the Vikings, especially considering the Vikings will still have to play the Packers again in addition to two matchups with the Chicago Bears and a pair of NFC South showdowns with the Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Minnesota’s defense has shouldered most of the load in previous seasons, but that defense is weaker with an inexperienced secondary and without Barr.
This means Cousins and the offense have to put up points in steady bunches against high-scoring opponents. That could be challenging for a unit that was one of the most inconsistent in football last year, even when Diggs was still lined up out wide.