For the first time ever, the Detroit Lions can clinch the NFC North—their first divisional title in 30 years—with a win over the Minnesota Vikings. The sole team that poses a threat to the Lions in the division, the Vikings, have battled through plenty of adversity this year, losing key players and not getting insanely lucky in one-score games as they did a year ago.
As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. Ahead of this Week 16 divisional matchup between Detroit and Minnesota, we called on Christopher Gates from DailyNorseman.com to give us some insight into how this Vikings team has weathered the storm through injuries at key positions, their defensive renaissance under Brian Flores, and the expectations for T.J. Hockenson against his former team.
The Vikings caught some terrible breaks on the offensive side of the ball this year: losing Kirk Cousins for the season with an Achilles injury and missing Justin Jefferson for seven games so far this season. Despite that, they’re still in the thick of the playoff race.
We’ve seen the Josh Dobbs experience come and go in Minnesota, and now they’re on to Nick Mullens. What kind of adjustments has Kevin O’Connell made to calling plays for their latest starting quarterback–and what’s your level of confidence in the Vikings offense, O’Connell, and Mullens heading into these final three games?
It’s pretty hard to have any level of confidence in the Vikings’ offense at this point, which seems like an extraordinary thing to say given all of the talent they have on that side of the ball. Guys like Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson are all outstanding, but the quarterbacks haven’t been able to get out of their own way since Kirk Cousins went down in Week 8 and it’s cost this team in a major way. Mullens is probably the closest thing to Cousins the offense has, which is probably a good thing given that Kevin O’Connell wasn’t really doing much to take advantage of Josh Dobbs’ mobility when he was running things. But Mullens, as we saw against Cincinnati, is capable of making some awful decisions, and if he can’t curb that, the Vikings’ offense won’t be doing much of anything. I like Kevin O’Connell as a coach and the guy has been coaching his ass off since Cousins got hurt, but given the way that Cousins was playing before he got hurt it’s been almost impossible to replace him... and the Vikings still really haven’t.
Though they rank 30th in rush DVOA, the Vikings have stacked a couple of solid performances on the ground over the past two weeks, and Ty Chandler has provided some burst (4.8 yards per carry) in their last two games.
What’s been the issue with the Vikings run game this season, and do you view Chandler as the preferred guy to get the bulk of the workload?
I really do think that Chandler should get the majority of the work at running back going forward, and that’s been the biggest issue with the run game for the Vikings so far, in my opinion. I think Alexander Mattison is a solid running back, but he doesn’t have the second gear that Chandler has. Mattison has a place in this offense, but Chandler needs to be the lead guy going forward. O’Connell’s commitment to Mattison is a bit mystifying, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s some sort of misplaced loyalty, given that Mattison sat behind Dalvin Cook for the first four years that he was here and was finally going to get the opportunity to be “the guy” in the Minnesota backfield. Whatever the reasoning behind it is, Chandler’s performance against Cincinnati should pretty well force O’Connell to give him a bigger role in the offense going forward and I hope that we continue to see that.
Minnesota isn’t exactly loaded up with talent on the defensive side of the ball, but they’re one of the best groups in the NFL, ranked fifth in team defense DVOA (seventh against the pass, eighth against the rush).
Tell us how big of an impact Brian Flores has had in transforming this defense into a top-five unit.
The NFL has an award for the Assistant Coach of the Year, and if Brian Flores isn’t the front-runner for it at this point, he should definitely be on the short list.
What he’s done with a defense that, as you point out, doesn’t have a lot of big names on it, is nothing short of miraculous. Last year under Ed Donatell, the Vikings were content to sit back, rarely blitz, and let teams nickel and dime their way down the field, hoping that the opposing offense would make a mistake they could capitalize on. Under Flores, on the other hand, the Vikings lead the NFL in blitz percentage and percentage of plays where they bring three or fewer rushers, so there’s a big unpredictability factor this year that simply hasn’t been there in the past. Again, outside of Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith there aren’t a lot of players on this defense that non-Vikings fans are going to recognize, but Flores has taken this unit and turned it into a defense that has legitimately been one of the best in the league for the past couple of months, their fourth quarter meltdown against Cincinnati notwithstanding.
Who are some of the unsung heroes on this Vikings roster, on either side of the ball, that have made a big difference this season?
We’ll start on the defensive side of the ball with a guy that Michiganders might be familiar with, that being safety/linebacker/edge rusher/whatever else Josh Metellus, the former Wolverine that has become an integral part of Minnesota’s defense this season. The guy lines up at just about every position on the defense that Brian Flores requires him to be at—not at once, because that would be even more incredible. He’s proven to be incredibly versatile, not unlike a young Harrison Smith, and has been very good at whatever he’s been asked to do. His PFF grades in every facet of the defense, whether it’s run stopping, coverage, or rushing the passer, are all above 70, making him one of the few players to accomplish that. He’s gotten better every year he’s been in Minnesota and now is a centerpiece of a rising young defense.
On offense, wide receiver Brandon Powell has made his fair share of plays this season, though his number of snaps will likely decrease now that Justin Jefferson is fully back in the fold. Powell stepped in as the No. 3 receiver in Jefferson’s absence, and even as the No. 2 when K.J. Osborn missed time, and performed pretty admirably. He’s not the flashiest receiver but he’s gotten open when the team has needed him, including catching the game-winning touchdown against Atlanta. He also provides some juice in the punt return game, which is something the Vikings have been lacking since Marcus Sherels hung it up a few years ago.
What’s one nugget of Vikings’ intel that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this weekend?
Whatever T.J. Hockenson’s numbers for receptions, receiving yards, or both are sitting at, play the over. Hockenson leads all NFL tight ends in receptions (91) and is second in receiving yards (902) and has been one of the most reliable targets in the Minnesota offense with Jefferson missing time and Jordan Addison still adjusting to life in the NFL. Sure, Hockenson has had a few bad drops this season, but for the most part has been everything he was advertised to be when the Vikings acquired him last season and should continue to serve as a bit of a safety blanket for Mullens (or whoever the Vikings go with at quarterback... there are still three games left, after all going forward.) When the Vikings have needed a catch in a big spot, Hockenson has been the guy they’ve turned to, and more often than not he’s responded. I’d expect him to have another solid game on Sunday afternoon.