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The Vikings Can’t Play It Safe if They Want to Turn Their Season Around

Minnesota got a rare one-possession win on Sunday, keeping its playoff hopes alive and offering a blueprint for a possible playoff push

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just over four minutes left in Sunday’s game, Mike Zimmer settled in at the contest’s nerviest point. The Chargers had just cut the Vikings’ lead to seven, 27-20, and the Vikings head coach didn’t want his team to be conservative in the closing moments. That approach hasn’t worked for Minnesota this season anyway—six of the Vikings’ first seven games were decided by one possession, and only two had gone their way. A loss against the Chargers would put them three games below .500, jeopardizing their playoff chances and possibly Zimmer’s job.

Zimmer didn’t worry. He delivered a clear message to Klint Kubiak, his first-year offensive coordinator.

“Be aggressive here,” Zimmer told Kubiak, “and try to go score.”

With Minnesota facing third-and-6, Kubiak heeded Zimmer’s command. He dialed up a pass play with star wideout Justin Jefferson streaking along the near sideline. Quarterback Kirk Cousins took a quick three-step drop before flinging a back-shoulder throw to Jefferson, who beat single coverage and made an acrobatic catch by wriggling his body midair to tap his feet inbounds.

Four plays later, the Vikings faced third-and-20. Kubiak called another vertical pass play, and Cousins found receiver Adam Thielen on an in-breaking pattern for an 18-yard gain, setting up a potentially game-deciding fourth-and-2. Dalvin Cook took a toss right, and slipped around the edge to convert the first down and seal Minnesota’s 27-20 victory. Points weren’t necessary, as the Vikings melted the rest of the clock.

“We had that sense of urgency that we need to end it and not give them a chance,” said tight end Tyler Conklin, who caught two touchdowns Sunday. “That’s how we felt as an offense, that we were gonna take this game in our hands and close it out.”

Zimmer’s aggressive approach paid off, opening the door for Minnesota to build on a crucial win entering the second half of a crucial year. Last week, after a second straight loss, Zimmer was adamant with his team about how much he hates losing, and how they needed to start seeing positive results for their efforts. He insisted throughout the practice week that the Vikings would be aggressive on the road against one of the NFL’s most aggressive teams in the Chargers. He anticipated that Los Angeles would take chances and decided that his offense needed to raise its game. Or, at least, expand its imagination, particularly in stretching opponents downfield in the passing game.

The 4-5 Vikings are right back in the NFC playoff picture, one game out of a wild-card spot despite a bumpy start to the year. They’ve played up to the level of some tough opponents and down to the level of underwhelming ones, leading to an extraordinary number of tightly contested affairs. Those matchups can often feel as though they’re left to chance, where one play or decision can make all the difference. Zimmer didn’t allow that to occur Sunday, imploring his squad to be decisive from the outset.

Getting Jefferson more involved was pivotal. The former first-round pick out of LSU had recorded five catches for 90 yards and one score on nine targets in the Vikings’ previous two losses. Kubiak told reporters last week that he needed to “be more conscious of” feeding their young star the ball more often. Zimmer spoke to Jefferson individually last week, telling him that he needed a strong week of practice leading up to facing Los Angeles, as the Vikings planned on making a concerted effort to get Jefferson the ball against the Chargers.

“We made a kind of big adjustment during practice [last] week, just giving the playmakers the ball whenever they need to,” Jefferson said.

That onus rests with Cousins, who this season has been safe with the football (he sports a league-low 0.6 percent interception rate) and unwilling to take chances downfield, despite registering decent numbers in such areas and boasting a pair of elite perimeter threats in Jefferson and Thielen. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins ranked 27th in deep pass rate (20 yards or more) entering Sunday:

Kirk Cousins Deep Passing

Year Deep Pass (20-plus Yds) Rate (Rank Among Qualified QBs) Deep Pass Completion Rate Tight-Window Throw Rate Completion Rate on Non-PA Dropbacks aDOT on non-PA Dropbacks
Year Deep Pass (20-plus Yds) Rate (Rank Among Qualified QBs) Deep Pass Completion Rate Tight-Window Throw Rate Completion Rate on Non-PA Dropbacks aDOT on non-PA Dropbacks
2021 9.5% (25th) 46.2% (7th) 14.7% (21st) 67.2% (9th) 7.2 (t-25th)
2020 12.6% (t-13th) 43.1% (14th) 16.1 (19th) 69.7 (6th) 8.3 (13th)
2019 13.7% (t-11th) 39.3% (19th) 12.8 (34th) 67.8 (4th) 7.9 (21st)
Stats entering Week 10; Data via PFF, NextGen Stats

“I do think that sometimes he needs to be aggressive with the football,” Zimmer said Sunday.

Cousins is most comfortable operating out of play-action, but the Vikings aren’t utilizing play-fakes as frequently this season as in recent years. And when Minnesota has dialed up play-action passes, Cousins is throwing at startlingly shallow depths:

Vikings on Play-action

Season Play-action Rate—Percentage of Dropbacks Completion Rate on Play-action Attempts Average Depth of Target (aDOT) on Play-action Passes
Season Play-action Rate—Percentage of Dropbacks Completion Rate on Play-action Attempts Average Depth of Target (aDOT) on Play-action Passes
2021 23.3% (23rd) 71.4% (8th) 6.7 (28th)
2020 28.7% (11th) 62.6% (23rd) 10.0 (t-9th)
2019 31.4% (5th) 71.8% (5th) 9.3 (t-12th)
Stats entering Week 10; Data via PFF

“He’s gotta trust everybody,” Zimmer said of Cousins. “If he has to hum a couple in there and it gets tipped or something, so be it. That’s why we are a team.”

The Vikings called play-action on only 11 of Cousins’s 40 dropbacks on Sunday, and he mostly found receivers in the short areas of the field on such calls. But Cousins completed two of three passes of 20 yards or more against the Chargers (both to Jefferson), an encouraging sign he’s embracing Zimmer’s mentality.

“I do feel we were aggressive, for the most part,” Cousins added Sunday. “I think it did give a few more opportunities to go down the field.”

Initially, getting the passing game going proved difficult. Los Angeles pressured Cousins frequently (he was hit six times and sacked twice), and offensive penalties sometimes knocked the Vikings offense off schedule. But Zimmer expected—and seemingly demanded—that Minnesota’s offense find a way to overcome roadblocks.

“If you have second-and-18 or whatever it is, we have to get the ball downfield,” Zimmer said. “You can’t just throw 5-yard throws. Some of those are dictated by the game situation and, unfortunately, penalties.”

Cousins completed 25 of 37 passes for 294 yards and two scores. He managed a 6.8 average depth of target (aDOT) on Sunday (matching his season average, which is tied for the third lowest among qualified passers). But there were several moments when Cousins displayed trust in his star receivers, finding them both along the perimeter and over the middle of the field, and taking advantage of single coverages when presented the chance:

Jefferson notched nine catches for a season-high 143 yards on 11 targets. Thielen added five catches for 65 yards on seven targets.

“This game, we stressed giving me the ball, giving me the opportunity to go up and make a play,” Jefferson said. “I’m definitely grateful for that and making those plays.”

The Vikings enjoyed an aggressive performance from their defense, too. Despite missing several key players—such as safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr, and defensive lineman Michael Pierce—Minnesota routinely hounded Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, registering two sacks and six QB hits, and picking Herbert off once. The unit lived up to its no. 8 billing in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA ratings by preventing the Chargers from scoring more than 20 points Sunday.

It’s unclear whether this win is a blueprint the Vikings can replicate. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Minnesota has played the 10th-toughest schedule through Week 10, but has the 13th-easiest remaining slate. Ideally, the Vikings would avoid competing in more one-score contests, and their star-powered passing game should be able to help. Regardless, Zimmer and his players believe the mettle developed from playing in so many tight games will pay off.

“To be in these close games early in the season—and you lose some, you win some—but as a team, you wanna get hot at the right time,” Conklin said. “You wanna learn how to win these games. So the fact that we’re in them a lot and we’re learning how to win them and overcome adversity and winning the tough ones will be really beneficial for us in the long run.”