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Offensive Line

Photo: Brian O'Neil with Pat Elflein at his natural position
Brian O’Neil (with Pat Elflein at his natural position). Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

We Vikings fans have been bemoaning awful offensive line play since 2016 when Sam Bradford lead the Vikings to a 5-0 start with a quick passing attack to compensate for poor protection until eveything fell apart as the team stumbled to an 8-8 season.

The offensive line play was just as awful the following year but quarterback Case Keenum was insanely adept at dodging and weaving to avoid pressure.

And last year we saw just how bad Kirk Cousins could look when he doesn’t have a clean pocket.

Going into this season, Vikings fans pleaded for offensive line help. They got it with the addition of veteran right guard Josh Kline via free agency and the drafting of center Garrett Bradbury in the first round. They got it with a zone blocking scheme implemented by Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Rick Dennison.

Through the first four games of the season, it didn’t look like much had changed, especially during the debacle in Chicago.

But during the past three games, the Vikings have piled up yards on the ground and through the air, kept Cousins mostly upright, and given him a staggering amount of time to find his receivers.

A lot of credit for that has to be given to offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski for his game plans and play calling that varies Cousins’ launch points.

But much credit must also be given to an offensive line that looks like it is improving week after week, especially rookie Bradbury.

That protection has allowed Kirk Cousins to play his best game yet as a Viking and earn the game ball for Sunday’s performance against the Lions.

Stefon Diggs

Though he did not score a touchdown, Stefon Diggs had another huge game with 142 yards on seven receptions. That despite the fact that Adam Thielen left the game early.

Despite his big game, several miscues caused fans frustration. A week after Diggs created an interception opportunity for Eagles safety Andrew Sendejo, the earstwhile pouty receiver dropped a touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins, leading to a failed field goal attempt by Dan Bailey.

That was a swing of seven points early in a close game.

As frustrating as those drops have been, The Athletic‘s Arif Hasan provides important context:

But it should be noted that Diggs has had four drops, per Pro Football Focus, on 34 catchable balls — a drop rate of 11.76 percent, which ranks 17th-highest of 63 receivers. This is a fairly unusual occurrence for Diggs, whose drop rates have been historically low. Last year, he had one of the best rates in the NFL with only one drop in 103 catchable passes, the sixth-best rate of 93 receivers.

Vikings takeaways: Just how good is this suddenly explosive offense?

Diggs’ three fumbles on the season (two lost) are also atypical for him.

Still, the Vikings have had fumbling problems beyond the Kirk Cousins variety. There’s an easy fix.

Remember when former Giants running back Tiki Barber was having a bad case of fumblitis? It was solved by him learning to carry the ball high and tight (a lesson that never caught on with Adrian Peterson).

Maybe the Vikings should invest in this High and Tight training football.

Kyle Rudolph & Irv Smith Jr. Break Out

I’ve been excited about the potential of Irv Smith Jr. since the Vikings drafted him. We’ve seen glimpses of that potential at times this year but on Sunday it started to come into full view.

While Stefon Diggs was gobbling up yards in the absence of Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and Smith combined for 10 catches, 118 yards and Rudolph’s first touchdown of the season.

Smith has been surprisingly effective as a run-blocker, a skill he demonstrated on Dalvin Cook‘s first touchdown run.

Smith was considered a pass-catching specialist coming out of the draft and he has definitely made the most of his opportunities catching the ball.

When Laquon Treadwell is on the field, the opposing defense can consider it a good bet that the Vikings will be running the ball. Treadwell is a tell.

When Smith is on the field, because of his blocking abilities, it is not obvious the Vikings will be throwing the ball. That uncertainty helps keep defenses off balance even when showing a three tight end set.

Add to that uncertainty the fact that Smith appears to be an accomplished route runner to complement his good hands. With Smith emerging as a playmaker, opponents cannot just focus on shutting down Thielen and Diggs. Or Diggs and Rudolph, as the case was on Sunday.

This Twitter thread by Nick Olson goes into detail about Smith’s game.

Olabisi Johnson

Photo: Olabisi Johnson
Olabisi Johnson. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings.

Just like Irv Smith Jr., we’ve seen blimpses of what wide receiver Olabisi Johnson could become during the past few weeks. He’s made the most of his few opportunities.

On Sunday, with Thielen out, Johnson was targeted eight times, the same number of targets as Diggs. He did make the four catchable balls that were thrown his way, turning them into 40 yards and his first NFL touchdown.

What has been most impressive about Johnson is his route running and ability to create separation, a skill Laquon Treadwell was never able to master.

If Thielen sits on Thursday, it will be interesting to see how much attention Johnson gets from Washington‘s D.

Dalvin Cook

Photo: Dalvin Cook at Lions
Dalvin Cook. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned Dalvin Cook yet!

Twenty five carries for 142 yards, two touchdowns and one reception for seven yards.

There was this something-out-of-nothin Maddenesque run:

But then there was this beautiful four-yard touchdown run.

Through seven weeks, Cook has accounted for 945 yards of offense and eight touchdowns.

Damn.

Ameer Abdullah

Photo: Ameer Abdullah
Ameer Abdullah. Photo courtesy Minnesota Vikings

Can we have Ameer Abdullah play the Lions every week? He had three kick returns for 88 yards against his former team.

Still, I’d take Cordarrelle Patterson back with open arms.

Imagine what this year’s offense would look like with Cook and Patterson in the same backfield.

Or a four-wide of Thielen, Diggs, Johnson/Bebe, and Patterson?

And Then There Was The Defense

While the Vikings front seven played as well as they have been all season, the defensive backfield had a really bad day, giving up 30 points.

There were the two touchdows Xavier Rhodes‘ gave up along with his 33 yard pass interference penalty.

Trae Waynes‘ poor tackling resulted in a touchdown and Mike Hughes gave up inside leverage for another easy score for the Lions, though you could chalk that one up to inexperience.

The offensive explosion came at precisely the right time.

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