It’s been an odd season for the Minnesota Vikings.
They began the year with a win over the 49ers before a tie against the Packers, a confounding loss to the Bills and a touchdown defeat against the still-undefeated Los Angeles Rams. Then came a 23-21 win on Sunday over the reigning champion Philadelphia Eagles.
After signing with Minnesota this offseason, quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t to blame for much. He’s second in the NFL with 1,688 passing yards through Week 5 and is completing 71 percent of his passes.
Cousins has thrown 11 touchdowns to two interceptions, though he has been bit by five fumbles.
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Meanwhile, the Vikings’ run game (65.8 yards per game) is at the forefront of their concerns, as they rank just ahead of the league-worst Cardinals (64.6 yards per game), who they host in Week 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
To get to know Minnesota heading into Arizona’s visit, let’s go Behind Enemy Lines.
Tuesday, October 9
• Creative playcalling allows Vikings to show pulse in run game (ESPN)
Philadelphia allowed a season-high 77 yards rushing to a team still trying to find its footing in the ground game.
That rushing total won’t cause many heads to turn, but given that Minnesota’s running backs gained a league-low 182 yards from scrimmage in the first four weeks, including just 14 rushing yards against Buffalo, the type of performance the run game turned in against Philadelphia is noteworthy, not for its immense production but the strategy behind it.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to just come in here and run the football,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “In some cases you have to be smart and not play into their hand by running the ball. I do think when we picked our spots, we were pretty efficient and had the runs when we needed them.”
DeFilippo decided that the best way to mitigate the Eagles’ pass rush was by getting around it, forcing runs outside designed to attack the perimeter and utilizing quick screens to generate early production.
• Stephen Weatherly answers the call for Vikings (Star Tribune)
While Everson Griffen remains away from the team while dealing with mental health issues, the Vikings have turned to Weatherly, installing him as their starting left end while moving Danielle Hunter to Griffen’s normal spot on the right side.
He had played just 91 career snaps on defense before this season, working mainly on special teams while studying under Vikings veterans and defensive line coach Andre Patterson. He had primarily been known to fans for his unique background off the field: Weatherly plays nine musical instruments, was the captain of his high school robotics team, spent time in Germany in high school, and has a grandmother, Dianna Johnson, who studied at MIT and Harvard.
• Film review: Top weapons, scheme mean Vikings can, again, outlast O-line woes (Star Tribune)
Meanwhile, Cousins is overcoming the biggest question mark he faced when coming to Minnesota — playing under pressure. The Vikings’ top-5 passing attack has thrived in spite of the quarterback feeling heat on more than 42 percent of his throws, according to Pro Football Focus. That pressure rate trails only Houston’s Deshaun Watson (45.7 percent) through five weeks of the NFL season.
Cousins impressed again in Philadelphia, completing a remarkable 81 percent of his passes while getting hit (not hurried, actually hit) on 10 of 37 throws. His few “unbelievable” throws, as head coach Mike Zimmer described them, came with multiple Eagles in his face.
• Kirk Cousins has more than lived up to expectations so far (Star Tribune)
Five games into the season is not the biggest sample size, but so far it is clear the Cousins is at least meeting — and perhaps exceeding — expectations as a Tier 2 quarterback. His fumbles have been a source of concern, but everything else about his game has been on point.
Pro Football Focus has him as a top-10 quarterback overall, with sterling numbers on deep ball accuracy and passing under pressure — two things that were combined in one critical play Sunday when Cousins found Adam Thielen on a 68-yard connection. Cousins also ranks No. 7 in ESPN’s Total QBR metric.
Aside from numbers, Cousins has made a handful of seemingly impossible throws every game.
• Should the Vikings stop trying to run the ball? (1500 ESPN)
The Vikings would hardly be the first team in history to succeed while abandoning the run. Last year the Detroit Lions ran just 363 times for a league-worst 1,221 yards and still finished seventh in the NFL in total points. In 2015, the New England Patriots were third worst in total rushing yards and yards per carry and scored the third most points.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer talked on Monday about how defenses are impacting rushing throughout the league.
“The thing that I think is the defenses now, there’s so many defense now that are playing single-high,” Zimmer said. “That makes it much more difficult to run the football into usually. These teams that are checking the ball and throwing it. They’re taking a five-yard throw as opposed to a two-yard run. I think that’s just kind of how it is. I do think it’ll get more balanced as the season continues to progress a little bit. I could be wrong but I think it’ll get more balanced.”