The New England Patriots have not played against the Minnesota Vikings since the 2014 season, when they defeated the team led by former Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel 30-7. Since then, a lot has happened in both New England and Minnesota. One of the biggest changes, at least when it comes to the Vikings, has been at quarterback: Cassel is a thing of the past, as are Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Kennum.
The team’s new starting quarterback is Kirk Cousins, who signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million free agency contract this offseason. Eleven games into his first season donning the purple and gold, it appears as if the investment has had a positive impact on the team. “Given the Vikings’ other potential alternatives at the position, they clearly made the right choice with the signing of Cousins,” Christopher Gates told Pats Pulpit.
Christopher covers the team for our sister site Daily Norseman and took some time this week to speak about Cousins and the team’s offense as a whole. “He’s been pretty outstanding for the most part through his first 11 games in purple, and he’s made the kind of throws that we haven’t seen a Minnesota quarterback make in a long time,” Christopher said about the quarterback, who spent the first four years of his career in Washington.
With Cousins at the helm, the Vikings’ passing offense has been efficient this season and currently ranks in the league’s top-10 in yards and touchdowns. “Granted, it does help him that he’s been given one of the better wide receiver tandems in the NFL in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, but even they’re reaching heights this season with Cousins running the offense,” Christopher continued. “That likely wouldn’t have been possible with the other quarterbacks Minnesota could have pursued.”
“As far as his strengths, his ability to handle pressure has been outstanding to this point,” Christopher said. “Pro Football Focus says that he’s been under pressure on about 40% of his dropbacks this season, but he’s also got one of the highest passer ratings in the league when he’s pressured. If teams bring pressure and it doesn’t get home, he’s been outstanding at finding the open man and making big things happen.”
Not all has been positive, however, as Cousins also struggled with his decision making at times. “His big weakness is that every once in a while he makes a throw that just has you staring at the screen and saying, ‘Where the heck was he looking?’” said Christopher. “Throws like the two interceptions he had against Chicago are inexplicable, but we still get them every once in a while.”
“For the most part, however, Cousins’ positives have greatly outweighed his negatives so far this season,” he continued. Despite the massive investment in the former third-round draft pick, the Vikings offense has been inconsistent so far this season. The unit has scored 22.2 points per contest through its first 11 games — just the 18th best number in the league. One reason for this is quickly found: the running game.
Minnesota has struggled when it comes to running the football, and a look at league-wide rankings confirms this. The Vikings rank just 28th in the NFL in rushing attempts (240) and 26th in touchdowns (6). The team is even worse when it comes to yards gained on the ground (938) and yards per attempt (3.9): Minnesota ranks as the 30th best — aka. the third-worst — club in the league in both categories.
“Part of it has been the injury to Dalvin Cook,” Christopher answered when asked about the team’s issues in the ground game. “The bigger part of it is the fact that the offensive line, for what seems like the fifth or sixth year in a row, just hasn’t been very good at run blocking. The team was without center Pat Elflein in the early part of the season, as he was still recovering from the broken ankle he suffered in the NFC Championship Game, but he’s been a welcome addition since his return.”
“But other than Elflein and rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill (who is way ahead of schedule compared to where most Vikings fans thought he would be in his first season), the offensive line has really had issues this year,” he continued. “Riley Reiff has missed some time, both starting guards (Mike Remmers and Tom Compton) have been a little banged up, but overall the Vikings’ offensive line hasn’t been great even with all the starters out there together.”
A natural reaction for the issues is to blame the team’s front office for not addressing the unit over the last few years, but Christopher would not do that. “I’m not going to go so far as to say that the Vikings have ignored the offensive line in recent years, because I don’t think they have,” he said. “They’ve tried to do things to make the offensive line better, but the things that they’ve tried simply haven’t worked, by and large.”
“They’re going to have to invest some serious capital, particularly draft capital, into the position in 2019, but at this point of this season it sort of is what it is,” he continued. When thinking specifically about the game against the Patriots, it would not be a surprise if New England tried to make the Vikings run the ball. The defending AFC champions have used a similar approach multiple times in the past and considering the quality of Minnesota’s pass catchers, their defensive game plan might look the same today.
Speaking of the quality of the Vikings’ receivers, the team’s offensive playmaking ability goes beyond the aforementioned Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs — one of the NFL’s best wide receiver duos as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out earlier this week. Two players in particular are worth mentioning, according to Christopher: running back Dalvin Cook and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“It appears that Dalvin Cook is finally back to 100% after missing much of his first two seasons,” Christopher said about the 23-year old who appeared in just six games so far this year. “He tore his ACL in week 4 of his rookie season in 2017, and has been limited this season because of a hamstring issue. When he’s on the field, he brings a completely different dimension to the Minnesota offense because of his speed and his ability to be a weapon out of the backfield.”
“I’m not going to put him in the same class as an Alvin Kamara or a Christian McCaffrey — not yet, anyway, until he proves that he can actually stay on the field,” Christopher continued. “But he has the ability to do special things both as a runner and as a receiver.” Another threat when it comes to passing the football is Rudolph, the Vikings’s number one tight end and third most targeted receiver behind Thielen and Diggs.
“After having a pretty quiet 2018 season to this point, Kyle Rudolph finally re-emerged this past Sunday against Green Bay with seven catches (he had nine catches in the previous four games combined),” Christopher said about the tight end. “Rudolph has been a solid, reliable target for Vikings’ quarterbacks for a very long time, and is still a dangerous threat in the red zone because of his size and his catch radius.”
Considering that New England will likely try to limit the impact of Thielen and Diggs, Cook and Rudolph might be the beneficiaries. As a result, the Patriots’ linebackers and safety Patrick Chung need to be on high alert and able to win potential one-on-one matchups. If they can do this and force Minnesota to give the ball to its running game, the team’s chances of winning today should look good.