Before the season began, the Vikings looked like a team that would have to rely heavily on a top-tier defensive unit to compete in the NFC North. That side of the ball, which finished sixth in the NFL in points allowed and eighth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA last year, remained stocked with talent: It had its shutdown corner in Xavier Rhodes, its Pro Bowl safety in Harrison Smith, and plenty of secondary depth in Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, and Mackensie Alexander. It featured three very good pass rushers in Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Brian Robison, a pair of dominant interior linemen in Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson, and a dynamic linebacker duo in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. The belief that this group would be the one to carry the team only strengthened when Minnesota’s starters on offense failed to score a touchdown in four preseason games.
But through three weeks, the Vikings offense has flipped the script: The formerly listless unit has looked nothing like the group we saw last year or in the preseason, and Minnesota has ridden an offensive awakening to a 2-1 record. The formerly conservative passing attack has been one of the league’s most aggressive through three weeks, and the previously anemic run game, which finished dead last in yards last year, looks dynamic and efficient. Behind the improved play of a retooled offensive line (there’s a new starter at every spot this year), the continued breakouts of receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and the emergence of a foundation back in rookie Dalvin Cook, the unit suddenly looks like one of the league’s best. The offensive skill-position players have been so good that it doesn’t even seem to matter that starting quarterback Sam Bradford is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Backup signal-caller Case Keenum struggled in his first outing, but knocked off all the rust last week, registering a near-perfect 142.1 rating as he threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout win over the Buccaneers.
The Vikings are second in the NFL in total yards (1,201), sixth in yards per play (6.2), and fourth in offensive DVOA. They rank third in passing yards (856), are tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (6), fifth in yards per pass attempt (8.6), fifth in completion percentage (69.9), and fourth in overall passer rating (115.4). With Cook slotting into the backfield as a bona fide bellcow, the team is 11th in rush yards (345) and has seen its yards-per-carry average jump from 3.2 last year to 4.0 through three games this season. They’ve turned the ball over only once. It looks like a completely different offense from last year—and that’s most apparent in the Vikings’ sudden willingness and ability to throw the ball deep.
In 2016, Minnesota set a new standard as a check-down-heavy pass offense. Bradford’s NFL-record 71.6 percent completion percentage might imply the Vikings were a well-oiled machine through the air, but that group finished just 19th in passing DVOA. A big part of the reason for that was that Bradford was frustratingly cautious with the football, finishing with an NFL-low average for air yards per completion (5.4) and intended air yards per attempt (7.1). So far this season, whether behind Bradford or Keenum, Minnesota’s aired it out in the passing game, and it ranks third in the NFL in explosive pass rate (behind only the Rams and Patriots), with 15 explosive pass plays (16-plus yards) on 106 attempts (14 percent).
In his only start this year, against New Orleans in Week 1, Bradford threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns, completing passes of 44, 35, and 27 yards to Thielen, adding 30- and 20-yard completions to Diggs and a bonus 24-yarder to Jerick McKinnon. Keenum’s been just as aggressive in his two relief appearances, with 293 of his 536 passing yards coming on throws 15-plus yards downfield (fourth in the NFL). Both signal-callers have displayed poise in the pocket, willingness to stand and deliver in the face of an oncoming hit, and accuracy downfield. But Bradford and Keenum have also been able to lean heavily on Thielen and Diggs, who are second and third in the league in receiving, respectively. Their combined 592 yards are more than Viking greats Randy Moss and Cris Carter ever combined for through a season’s first three games. And against Tampa Bay, the playmaking duo showcased their talent.
On two plays in the second quarter, Diggs illustrated how he’s developed into a quarterback’s best friend. On the first, a deep out-breaking route, Keenum leads his receiver a little bit too much. But the third-year pro lays out to make a diving catch, snagging the ball as it’s just about to hit the turf. That play picked up 17 yards and helped lead to a Minnesota touchdown.
Then, just before the half, Diggs makes another highlight-reel catch, this time for a touchdown. Starting from the slot, Diggs runs a flag-route toward the pylon. Keenum lofts the ball up to him, and the 6-foot, 191-pound playmaker elevates above Buccaneers corner Vernon Hargreaves III to get it.
Diggs collected another touchdown in the second half—a league-leading fourth on the year—and strengthened his status as one of the brightest budding superstars in the NFL. He can line up anywhere on the field. He breaks defenders off with lightning-quick cuts. He can go up high into the air and come down with jump balls. He’s a complete player, and it doesn’t seem to matter who’s throwing the passes because he just needs the ball somewhere in his vicinity to make a play. And while Diggs has been astounding, Thielen’s been nearly as fantastic without the same sort of fanfare.
On the team’s first drive, Keenum goes right at Hargreaves, throwing a bomb to Thielen down the sideline. The former undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State fends off a hold by Hargreaves, reaches up, and reels in the pass with one hand. The play picked up 45 yards and the Vikings scored a touchdown four plays later.
On Minnesota’s second possession of the quarter, Keenum slightly overthrows Thielen on a play-action pass over the middle of the field—but his receiver lays out, gets just enough of his fingers on the ball, and pulls it in.
The fourth-year pro, who earned a four-year, $19.2 million contract extension over the offseason, has quietly developed into one of the best no. 2 options in the league. He’s got speed down the sideline and plenty of moves over the middle of the field, and as we saw on Sunday, he can make circus catches with ease.
But the Vikings’ deep-passing renaissance isn’t the only new element to their offensive explosion. The run game has finally found some traction, and Cook has almost instantly joined Diggs as a superstar in the making. With unbelievably quick feet, incredible burst, and a penchant for bouncing runs to the outside and get upfield, Cook has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and is second in the NFL in rushing (288 yards, one touchdown). It’s helped plenty that the offensive line combination of Riley Reiff (an offseason free-agent acquisition), Nick Easton, Pat Elflein (a rookie third-rounder), Joe Berger, and Mike Remmers has looked much better than any of the groups the team ran with last year, but Cook is a creator that can pick up yards even when there’s not much blocking in front of him. Through three games, only Kareem Hunt has forced more missed tackles than Cook (14), per Pro Football Focus, and runs like this 26-yard third-quarter scamper are a great illustration of the spark he brings to the Vikings offense.
Combine the short-area passing efficiency the Vikings perfected last season with their new, explosive downfield attack and a dynamic ground game, and the Minnesota offense looks pretty damn hard defend. Of course, all this success so far comes with a pretty big caveat: There are still 13 games to go. It’s easy to forget that at this time last year, Minnesota was 3-0. The then-newly-acquired Bradford, who made his debut in Week 2, had thrown for 719 yards at 7.6 yards per attempt, with four touchdowns to no picks for a 105.5 passer rating. The Vikings eventually pushed their record to 5-0 last year before losing eight of their final 11 games to finish .500.
But even during that early success, it was clear that Minnesota’s offense was built on an unstable foundation. Adrian Peterson and any hope for a run game was gone by Week 3, Diggs had yet to truly emerge as a bona fide no. 1, and terrible offensive line play meant the team was forced to design their passing scheme around getting the ball out as quickly as possible to avoid getting Bradford hammered (a big reason they relied on the dink-and-dunk style).
This offense feels and looks different. This year, the foundation’s been fortified. Diggs has developed into that true go-to guy, the playmaker that Bradford or Keenum can throw to in high-pressure situations. Thielen gives them a talented secondary option and can get behind a defense on any given snap. And with Cook, the team has what looks to be an elusive home run hitter that can create on his own and take a ton of pressure off his quarterback. Holding it all together is what looks like a much improved offensive line, which has given up only three sacks in three games, tied for third fewest in the league (the Vikings gave up 38 sacks last year, which ranked 23rd).
Keenum gets his third straight start for the Vikings this Sunday, and the veteran passer will face a tough test against the division-rival Lions, whose defense looks like one of the NFL’s most improved units over last year. This game will tell us whether the Vikings offense can continue to replicate the balance and explosiveness they’ve shown over the first three weeks—and it should give us a better idea of whether they’re a contender or just another early-season pretender.