I’ve been a Vikings fan my entire 35 years on this planet; even before I was born, as my dad used to joke with my mom that he wanted to name me Studwell Johnson (after legendary Vikings linebacker Scott Studwell, who retired as the Viking’s all-time leading tackler with 1,981 career tackles (among other records)). I’ve only missed one training camp in my entire life and that was the 2005 camp, for reasons that you should be able to surmise. Because of that, I (like many other Vikings fans) get used to the emotional roller-coaster that can come from being a fan of one of the winningest teams in NFL history both period and especially as a team that hasn’t won a Super Bowl.
As I’ve mentioned on-air and in other articles, my girlfriend (of coming up on six-months) was a Packers fan before committing to supporting the Purple and she has really admirably jumped in with both feet. After the disaster that was the Bears game and the subsequent turn-around from Kirk Cousins and company, my girlfriend looked over to me and said, “Being a Vikings fan is exhausting”.
That it is. That it really is.
That up-and-down nature can also make you unaware of what, or rather whom, exactly you’re rooting for. Are the Vikings the team that spotted the Packers 21-points before waking up at some point in the second quarter or was it the defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown all season? Are they the offense that has taken the league by storm over the past four games or the version we saw against the Bears?
It’s safe to say we’ll be at least closer to an answer to that question tomorrow as the Vikings are facing one of the few powerhouse teams in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs. As of the writing of this piece, it’s looking like reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes won’t be playing after a week of gamesmanship from KC that made it seem like he may play, despite being only a couple weeks removed from a dislocated knee cap.
The Chiefs activated third-string quarterback Chad Henne for tomorrow’s game, which essentially either seals the deal or makes Andy Reid and company super, super sneaky. Regardless of who the Vikings face under center, though, we should have a better idea as to what this team is made of about 24-hours from now.
Chiefs back-up quarterback Matt Moore has been called the best backup in the NFL by some (who apparently don’t know who Teddy Bridgewater is) and he showed that he is more than capable of operating the high-powered Chiefs offense last weekend against the Packers. Sure, they only put up 24-points, but that was a good showing against what some are calling an elite defense in Green Bay (I’m not one of those ‘some’…s?).
Moore has had an additional week of practicing with the 1’s and should feel a lot more comfortable Sunday against the Vikings in what will be his second game at home against an NFC North team in as many weeks.
There’s also this “fun” bit of NFL trivia/proof that the cosmos hate the Vikes:
Moore had a good line last week, going 24-of-36 for 267 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. Moore distributed the ball nearly evenly to the many weapons on the Kansas City offense, ending the day with passes to eight different Chiefs. Tyreek Hill led the day with 6 catches for 76-yards, followed closely by Travis Kelce who had 4-for-63 and a touchdown. Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, LeSean McCoy, and Demarcus Robinson and Darwin Thompson combined for over half of Moore’s completions.
That diversity in play-calling should keep the Vikings defense on their toes Sunday, which considering that the Vikings are coming off of two of their most iffy-performances on defense these past two weeks, could be a big undertaking. I know what you’re thinking, the Vikings held the ‘Skins to only nine points last Thursday, so what am I talking about? Well, I’m referring to the “soft” play that Zimmer mentioned in his half-time interview.
That soft play allowed the Case Keenum lead ‘Skins to march down the field at will, or at least until they reached the red/infrared zone, where amazing plays by Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter essentially held Washington to field-goals. Had Keenum not left the game due to a concussion, we could be looking at the game in Arrowhead COMPLETELY different this weekend.
The Vikings defense seemingly had no answer for Matt Stafford and company the week before that, which one could write off as an elite-level quarterback that has faced the Vikings twice a season for a lot of seasons and thus is just a different animal altogether. However, we’ve yet to really have seen a complete game out of this Vikings team on all sides of the ball and special teams recently, save for the Raiders game.
While the Vikings offense has been getting all sorts of ink spilled about it, the defense has been playing good enough but no where near the level that we’ve all come to expect from this Zimmer-lead unit that has been together for long enough to not need to “find itself”, which is what Troy Aikman said they needed to do after that first quarter (plus) of the Packers debacle.
You’d think that with Everson Griffen taking a pay-cut and Anthony Barr not only spurning the Jets but also hurting any future potential free agency paychecks by bailing on the Jets at the 23rd hour, that this defense would’ve come out this season as a cohesive unit that knows one another like the back of their own hands. A unit that would smother opposing teams, especially “inferior” teams, as they’re clearly all-in on the idea of making a deep playoff run.
Evidently, however, that hasn’t been the case as after an opening week win against an objective bad Atlanta Falcons squad, they came out super flat against Green Bay in Lambeau and spotted them so many points that they essentially had to pitch a shutout the rest of the way for their team to have a chance.
They get credit for stepping up and there were injuries in the secondary that Aaron Rodgers exploited. Though, the fact that they had to do that, or that they had to pull something miraculous out of their jockstraps (I regret that analogy) at the end of all of those drives in the ‘Skins game, shows that this unit is either still attempting to “find” itself, or they’re so cocky that they feel that they don’t need to really try until things hit the fan.
While the latter sounds preposterous in today’s day and age, consider Zimmer’s “Major” concerns from this pre-season. It was the first of August when The Pioneer Press’ Dan Maizutani wrote:
“Mike Zimmer looked on with exasperation during Wednesday’s practice as the offense did pretty much whatever it wanted against his vaunted defense.”
When asked about what I can only imagine was the worst stank face man has ever witnessed, Zimmer said of the difference between the offense and defense at that point:
“I feel like the offense has got a lot of grit and fight, and I haven’t seen that much out of the defense yet. That’s my major concern at this point.”
What should’ve been concerning was also the fact that the offense was still learning the new wrinkles added this off-season in general but especially thanks to the addition of legendary offensive mind Gary Kubiak. Sure, the defense is at a major disadvantage in general but especially during training camp with the new-ish rules that forbid things like two-a-days, tackling and Chinese amphetamines, but Zimmer obviously was onto something. Intensity.
I’ve been struggling these past few weeks on my podcast, ‘Morning Joes‘, to find the right word to describe what I’d like to see from this Vikings defense. Even when they play at their highest levels they feel sterile, emotionless. It’s at best been a very long time since I’ve seen this defense completely dominate a game as they did in the 2015 Wild Card game against the Seahawks. Sure, the temperature helped A LOT, but Zimmer also called an amazing game and the defense was ironically on fire (probably because they had to, lest they lose a toe).
Now they feel like they’re going through the motions. Sure, Xavier Rhodes has shown ample emotion, but it’s not the right kind of emotion. I’ve said on the show that they don’t play “Mean”, and I don’t mean… Mean as in being chippy or cheap a la the New Orleans Saints, but rather a team that feels more like the Bears did last season when Khalil Mack essentially moved into the Vikings backfield. In that game, it never felt like the Vikings had a chance to do anything, and I haven’t really felt that way this season about any of the Vikings’ games, even against really bad opponents.
Zimmer finished his statement with:
“They aren’t making mistakes because they’ve been in the same defense for six years now; it’s just a little bit of, maybe, complacency, like, ‘Hey. We are in the Top 5 in defense every year.’ ”
Right now the Vikings defense is top-ten in nearly every defensive category. That’s all well and good, but they’ve not really played against the best teams in the NFL either. The Falcons, Raiders, Giants, Bears, Eagles, and Redskins are all on the spectrum of terrible to borderline okay. The Packers are the Packers, and the Lions are on the upswing but have a defense that bleeds yards. That means that, at least on the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs may be the best offense the Vikings have faced all season.
That means that the Vikings have to start fast, strong and mean on the road in one of the more inhospitable places to play in not only the NFL but in all of sport. The question is whether or not they’ll rise to the challenge. If this Vikings team is serious about making a deep playoff run, they’re obviously going to have to not rest on the laurels that come from being a “Top 5” defense now and always and actually start enforcing their wills on other teams, good teams, on the road like championship defenses do, and I haven’t even gotten into how this defense has played in “important” or prime time games, which has been an issue since half-time against the Saints in the 2017 playoffs.
Hopefully, they’ll answer the call Sunday as a lot of the core defensive players for the Vikings are either 30 or are turning 30 soon. Sure, they’re all mostly locked up until 2023, but they’re in the prime of their primes right now. They’ve also got an offense that should be able to put up enough points for them to perhaps not need to dominate a game, but wouldn’t it be nice if they performed the way they did when we all just wished we had a semblance of an okay passing attack to help out with Adrian Peterson’s miraculous 2015?
This offense, for once, looks not only balanced but incredibly dangerous and it has another big piece coming next weekend in the debut of Josh Doctson, a deep ball specialist who could essentially be like Aldrick Robinson if he went into that machine that turned Urkel into Stefan Urquelle.
If not, we might end up looking back next year as yet another missed opportunity for this “Top 5 defense”.