The Minnesota Vikings desperately needed a win on Sunday in New Jersey and they got one, stiff arming those ready to push the eject button on the season for at least another week.
After a 2-2 start with two losses on the road within the NFC North the sky was falling. Kirk Cousins and the passing attack looked anemic, and that’s being polite. The offensive line appeared to be the same turnstile it was a year ago. Stefon Diggs was skipping practices and not demanding a trade but might have been demanding a trade. The Giants came in with a rookie quarterback and one of the worst defenses in the league. Losing here would’ve been unacceptable—yet very on brand for the Vikings.
So did we learn anything from Sunday or do we just chalk this up to handling business against an overwhelmed opponent?
Sure, the Giants’ defense is, for a lack of a better word: trash. But for one shining moment we saw what many had hoped the Vikings offense would look like when Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski took over. Minnesota had balance and finally the passing and running games complimented each other. Cousins and Adam Thielen torched the New York secondary but it didn’t came at the expense of Dalvin Cook who still toted the rock 21 times for 132 yards, catching six passes for 86 yards.
So what changed? I’ve been beating the drum for about three weeks now that the Vikings needed to use the passing game to setup the run. Cook’s early-season success paired with two big leads in the home wins, hampered the growth of Minnesota’s passing attack. It was time to make an effort to get Cousins, Diggs and Thielen going and the play calling would suggest the coaching staff did just that.
The Vikings passed on 12 first downs on Sunday and if you take away the fourth quarters of the two losses when Minnesota was in scramble mode, that’s the most first-down pass plays they’ve called all season. The play-action and intermediate passing games kept the Giants off balance as the Vikings racked up nearly 500 yards of total offense. Three of Thielen’s biggest catches came on first down—a 9-yard touchdown, a 28-yard reception and the 44-yard catch-and-run.
Minnesota has had Cousins drop back to pass on first down 54 times this season and the results have been good. Cousins is 37-of-54, 437 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 97.5 rating. Solid numbers, Kubiak and Stefanski would be wise to dial that up a little more especially with defenses so keyed on Cook.
For comparison, Atlanta, Kansas City, Buffalo and the LA Rams have all run nearly double the first-down passing plays the Vikings have. Minnesota has one of the worst first-down percentages (19.3) in the league when throwing out of the gates, when a third of the league earns a first down approximately 33 percent of the time they drop back to pass on first-and-10.
There was a clear shift in the scheme on Sunday. Things were skewed too far to one end of the spectrum last year under John DeFilippo and there was a bit of an over correction with the play calling in the first four weeks of this season. The win against the Giants has to give the Vikings’ fanbase hope that the coaching staff is figuring this all out.
There is still room to nitpick the job Stefanski did at Metlife Stadium. The first-quarter draw play on third-and-long deep inside New York territory was a head scratcher but overall the game plan was far better suited for the talents this roster has offensively.
I said this during and after the Packers’ game but this team feels like a good team even when faced with adversity. Down 21-0 nothing on the road in Green Bay, Vikings teams of old would have folded right then and there, losing 42-6. Instead, they fought back and had a chance. Tell me what usually happens in Minnesota when disgruntled player X causes a shit storm during the week—the Vikings fall flat on their faces in epically embarrassing fashion. Sunday against the Giants had all the makings of a Minnesota dud but the team rallied and rose to the occasion.
Balance on offense means keeping teams off balance on defense. Pass to setup the run. Let Cousins, Diggs and Thielen get into a groove like they were for stretches in 2018 then finish teams off with the hammer in Cook. Sunday proved the Vikings can win by doing both, they just need the right approach.