Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
The Vikings came into Sunday’s game knowing they’d have opportunities for downfield strikes against an Eagles team missing two starting cornerbacks. But for that plan to work, the Vikings’ offensive line would have to provide Kirk Cousins with enough time to work against an aggressive Eagles defensive front.
Even though the Vikings played without right guard Josh Kline on Sunday, and lost left tackle Riley Reiff to an ankle injury for parts of the game, they were able to set Cousins up for success in their 38-20 win.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins had an average of 2.59 seconds to throw on Sunday, allowing him to attempt 14 passes that traveled at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His longest throw of the day, which traveled 60.5 yards in the air before Stefon Diggs caught it for a touchdown, was the longest in the NFL so far through Week 6. And Cousins talked after the game about how the offensive line facilitated the Vikings’ big-play attempts.
“I think they did a great job in pass protection,” he said. “We took a few seven-step drops, both in the play action and in the drop-back, and you could feel the front. You could feel them coming. They were. And they did get a sack on us. But we were able to get the ball out and people were open and made great plays. It just kind of came together today.”
Cousins was sacked just once and hit four times on Sunday, while pursuing an approach the Vikings often haven’t tried in the passing game this season. It’s been rare to see the quarterback take seven-step drops and trust he has time to let downfield plays develop, but the Vikings want to add that element to their offense as teams key up to stop Dalvin Cook. It’s an endeavor that requires the offensive line to buy Cousins time, and the quarterback had enough of it on Sunday.
“I thought Rashod Hill came in and did well, and those guys battled,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Their defensive line is a team that’s going to come off the ball and attack you, and like I said during the week, we’re going to have to come out and attack them, and I thought we did that well.”
The Eagles blitzed Cousins just seven times on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and got their only sack on a play where Pat Elflein appeared to pass Brandon Graham off as he was looking for additional rushers on third down, only to find no one else there to deal with Graham as Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook released out of the backfield. The Lions haven’t been a team that blitzes much this season, either, so Cousins could see them opt to devote more resources to coverage against him on Sunday. In any case, he enjoyed his best day of the season while being pressured 35.5 percent of the time, according to PFF. That rate still isn’t great, but it’s well below the 47.7 percent pressure rate Cousins experienced through the first four weeks of the season.
Here are two other trends to watch in the weeks to come after the Vikings’ win over the Eagles on Sunday:
Where Everson Griffen lines up: The Vikings had Griffen rush from a defensive tackle spot on a third down late in the first half on Sunday — bringing back an old wrinkle from early in Griffen’s career, when Jared Allen and Brian Robison were their defensive ends — and had a new wrinkle in a fourth-quarter blitz on Sunday. They stood Griffen up over center Jason Kelce next to Anthony Barr, as a twist on Zimmer’s double-A gap blitz package, and sent Eric Kendricks through the B gap while rushing Mackensie Alexander off the edge on the sack Kendricks and Alexander split. The Vikings have shown more willingness to move Griffen around as they trust Ifeadi Odenigbo (who played 27 snaps on Sunday) and Stephen Weatherly (who played 24). We could see more tweaks to how the Vikings use Griffen as we go forward.
The Vikings’ cornerback rotation: We’ve pointed this out before, but it bears repeating as we continue to get more data: With Mackensie Alexander healthy on Sunday, the Vikings continue to find playing time for Mike Hughes. The second-year cornerback was in for 26 of the Vikings’ 65 defensive snaps on Sunday, stepping in for both Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes at various points against the Eagles. The Eagles went after Waynes 11 times on Sunday (according to Pro Football Focus), targeting him with a number of downfield shots and beating him for a three-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery after Carson Wentz bought enough time for Jeffery to run a pivot route and get past Waynes. The cornerback, though, only gave up four catches for 69 yards on those 11 targets. The Vikings also decided not to have Rhodes shadow Jeffery on Sunday, and haven’t asked him to follow a receiver across the field since Davante Adams got the better of him in Week 2.
Three players who stood out:
Eric Kendricks: The linebacker broke up a pair of passes early in Sunday’s game, nearly picking off Carson Wentz’s second-quarter throw when he peeled toward the quarterback once Wentz left the pocket. “I knew he was kind of looking, and I felt like if I closed the space, he’d have limited options,” Kendricks said. “Rather than sitting back and letting him look me off, I kind of put the pressure on, and it worked out.”
Kendricks finished with 10 combined tackles, and split the aforementioned sack with Alexander on Sunday. He’s now got 49 combined tackles and seven pass breakups for the season. “I always feel like I’m just a little underrated, but that’s just how it’s going to be,” he said Monday. “I would definitely say [my first Pro Bowl] is on the list of things to do, but it doesn’t take over my motivation or anything like that. It doesn’t consume my thoughts.”
Anthony Harris: In addition to six tackles and a pass breakup on Sunday, Harris helped turn the Eagles’ fake field goal into a Griffen interception late in the first half, when he alertly broke to cover Dallas Goedert after Jake Elliott took the snap. “We just try to pride ourselves on not relaxing, not leaving an opportunity for a team to try to sneak back in the game,” Harris said. “We know that’s a team that likes to take chances, so it’s just about playing that play like it’s the last play.”
Stefon Diggs: There’s been plenty of attention directed the receiver’s way in recent weeks, for a variety of reasons, but Diggs’ big day on Sunday served as a reminder of what a difference he can make for the Vikings’ offense. His first two touchdowns came on long throws where he was able to run by Rasul Douglas and take advantage of a busted Eagles coverage, but his third TD showcased Diggs’ route-running ability, with a hard outside angle that got Craig James to commit before Diggs broke back inside, using his body to shield the football from James and tapping both of his feet in bounds before James knocked him down behind the end zone. Diggs had a perplexing drop on Sunday, and Cousins’ interception on Sunday came off a precise sideline throw that went through Diggs’ hands and off his facemask before Andrew Sendejo intercepted it. But Diggs had his first three-touchdown game on Sunday, and as Cousins pointed out, he could have had one more had the quarterback hit him on a deep throw late in the first half. He also gained 18 yards on two rushing attempts, including one where it looked like he was going to throw.
Three areas of concern:
Carson Wentz’s plays outside the pocket: Part of the reason Philadelphia was able to get back into Sunday’s game was because of the things Wentz did to extend plays and avoid pressure by getting out of the pocket. Even though Wentz did some uncommon things on Sunday, the Vikings’ ability to keep quarterbacks hemmed in the pocket and cover receivers for extended periods of time could have a big effect on their season, given the quarterbacks they’ll face in the future. Zimmer has praised Matthew Stafford’s mobility in the past, and the Lions quarterback has given the Vikings trouble in recent years with his throws outside the pocket. Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are still on the schedule, and there might be no tougher test than Patrick Mahomes, whom the Vikings will face in Kansas City on Nov. 3.
The Eagles’ success on wheel routes: Zimmer blamed himself for the Vikings’ call on Wentz’s second-quarter touchdown, which left Kendricks running one-on-one with Miles Sanders after Harrison Smith (who lined up near the line of scrimmage) covered Zach Ertz’s crossing route and Anthony Harris was alone in the deep middle of the field. As for the play, Kendricks said on Monday, “What’s hard about that is, they run that route at the same speed, and they kind of go in or out, usually. Probably 95 percent of the time, they go in or out, so any time they go upfield like that, it kind of catches you off guard. We see that all over the league now: quarterbacks going to running backs a lot more frequently as the primary [receiver].”
The Eagles also used Ertz to run a pick on Anthony Barr in the third quarter, leaving Sanders alone for a 46-yard gain after Barr had to wait to clear Ertz’s vertical route against Xavier Rhodes. But the Vikings had trouble with wheel routes at times last year, and they’re likely to see other teams try and attack them in similar ways after watching film of the Eagles game.
Third downs: The Vikings were just two of 10 on Sunday, after converting 45 percent of their third-down attempts the previous week against the Giants. A pair of penalties, and a three-yard loss for Alexander Mattison after backup left tackle Rashod Hill got beat on the play, put the Vikings in a third-and-33 in the third quarter, and Cousins admitted he put too much air on his throw for Thielen, which could have netted a first-quarter touchdown if it had given the receiver time to get his second foot in bounds. The Vikings didn’t find themselves in many third-down situations on Sunday, but their lone sack and turnover came on two of the third downs they did have.
And one big question:
Can the Vikings’ resurgent offense help them get a division road win? Even though the Vikings surpassed 400 yards in back-to-back games for just the second time in the Mike Zimmer era during their wins over the Giants and Eagles, a number of fans correctly pointed out they did so against defenses that were prone to allowing big plays and missing several key starters. The Lions’ defense ranks 29th in the league against the pass, and Detroit will be coming off a short week following Monday night’s game against the Packers, but the Vikings have often struggled to play complete games at Ford Field, and they’ll see a team that likes to press wide receivers in man coverage, particularly if Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs (who have both dealt with injuries) are able to play on Sunday. Zimmer griped about the frequently-cited statistics following Kirk Cousins — who beat a team with a winning record for the sixth time in 33 career starts on Sunday — after the Vikings’ win over the Eagles, but as Cousins has said, consistent success is the only thing that will cause those numbers to go away. A win over the Lions on the road would put the Vikings at 5-2 and leave them in fine shape before a favorable Thursday night matchup against the Redskins. Being Detroit with another complete offensive performance would continue to make the case the Vikings have moved beyond some of their issues on that side of the ball.