Mike Zimmer and the Vikings May Deserve More Hype This Season Than Last

It was second-and-10, not exactly a run down, and the Vikings had two tight ends and two running backs on the field. Accordingly, the Falcons dropped Keanu Neal—their tank of a safety—low into the box, a step off the line of scrimmage and right into the middle of the front seven.

If Minnesota was going to hand the ball off here, it was going to take some stomach—and squaring up Atlanta nearly perfectly. And that’s pretty much how this situation played out.

As Kirk Cousins tossed to Dalvin Cook and booted to the offensive left, right guard Josh Kline pulled to the right and stoned Falcons defensive end Takk McKinley. Tight end Kyle Rudolph worked to the second level, first running Neal out of the play, then engaging linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. By the time all this played out, Cook was upfield with a head of steam, on his way to a tone-setting 21-yard, we-run-when-we-want-run kind of chunk play.

At once, this play displayed so much that’s changed for the Vikings.

First, we saw Cook’s burst; the running back is now two years removed from the torn ACL that blew up his rookie year—and his fit for Minnesota’s new scheme. Second, a revamped offensive line showed its mettle, creating a pileup at the line that left the defense to chase Cook, who’s not easy to catch. Third, the play was a ringing endorsement of what first-year OC Kevin Stefanski has put together with staffmates Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison.

“Dalvin ran the ball really well, and we blocked pretty well for him,” coach Mike Zimmer said from his office late Wednesday night. “I thought our coaches did a nice job scheming up some runs against their extra-guy-in-the-box fronts. And I like that we can control the game and control the tempo of the game if we choose do that. But I really don’t think it’s gonna be like that every week. … We hit some big runs on them.

“If we couldn’t run the ball, we wouldn’t have thrown it 10 times.”

That last part reads like a mistake—the Vikings threw the ball 10 times on Sunday and won resoundingly. As Zimmer said himself, it can’t be like that every week, no matter how much he’d like it to be.

But to pull that off even once? It says plenty about where the Vikings are coming out of Week 1, and how far they’ve come. And maybe—just maybe—where they’re going from here.

Week 2 is here, and we’re going to give you NFL and college players to watch this weekend, and some answers to your mailbag questions, including those on …

• The Dolphins’ rebuild.

• The young Bucs running back who may not be a bust.

• The Patriots’ image.

• The rookie head coaches.

And plenty more. But we’re starting with a team that once got a lot of hype and may deserve more now after a disappointing last year.

Week 1 saw some twists across the NFL. Amid a storm of penalties and turnovers, and shackled by an undermanned offensive line, the Browns got popped in the mouth by the Titans. The Redskins went up two scores on the Eagles, only to be run out of the building. The Jets blew a 16–0 lead at home to a division rival not named the Patriots.

And for the same reason it’s wise to pump the brakes on sweeping conclusions predicting certain doom for any of those teams, Zimmer is wholly uncomfortable with saying that the Vikings are cured of whatever hurt the team’s 2018 season, turning Super Bowl aspirations into an 8-7-1 campaign and a playoff miss.

“It’s the first game,” he said. “I’ll let you know Week 10.”

Last year, the struggle between Zimmer and the since-departed OC John DeFilippo, who fired in mid-December, left the offense devoid of a real identity. The defense, while still good, wound up in bad spots as a result, and didn’t quite maintain the level that Zimmer established.

The team itself had become disjointed, so as Zimmer looked to fix it, making different phases of the roster fit one another became his top priority. Stefanski, promoted from interim OC in January (he’d served as QBs coach under DeFilippo, then replaced him in December), wanted to run the Mike Shanahan system. So when Kubiak decided not to take the coordinator job in Denver, the Vikings pounced and got Stefanski the ideal guy to help install the offense. Kubiak, in turn, moved to bring in his long-time line coach Dennison.

Last year, the Vikings ranked 30th in the NFL in rush offense. This year, conversely, Minnesota opened by rushing for 172 yards on 38 carries—and only the Ravens had more attempts on the ground in Week 1. Apparent there is how the addition of rookie Garrett Bradbury, development of right tackle Brian O’Neil and health of left Riley Reiff has flipped a 2018 team weakness. But the early results of the reclamation project is also a testament to the scheme, Stefanski and the coaches that have helped him.

“They’ve made a huge difference,” Zimmer said. “[Kubiak is] very, very smart, he understands the system really, really well. And [Kubiak and Dennison] have been together, and [Dennison] did a great job. The running game had a lot to do him. He had a couple real nice schemed-up runs that we ran last week, that were really good. I give both of them a lot of credit for the play-actions, the run game, and I think Kirk’s bought into what they’re trying to sell.”

Historically, Cousins’s best play has come in this style of offense (and it did playing for Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay in DC), with an effective running game that allows him to get his footing as a rhythm player. That showed up Sunday (even if the sample size is tiny), too. He finished 8-of-10 for 98 yards, with 23 of them accounting for the game’s first touchdown, on a connection with Adam Thielen.

“That part’s important too—the play actions and the run game have to marry together, and hopefully you stay on schedule on third downs, and we don’t get in a whole bunch of third-and-longs,” Zimmer said. “That’d help any quarterback.”

The 21-yard run in the first quarter was one example. Another came right after halftime. Minnesota came out in its clock-killing, four-minute offense in the third quarter, and limited Atlanta to one possession in the first fourteen-and-a-half minutes of the second half as a result, effectively running the ball and playing the game on its terms.

Which brings things right back around to Zimmer’s wheelhouse—the defense.

That one possession the Falcons got? It ended with Anthony Harris picking off his second pass of the afternoon, indicative of a play-making explosion from a Viking defense that got sacks from four different players. Just as important to Zimmer was how he saw the group carrying themselves as part of that effort.

One example of that wound up being fairly easy for him to spot. The Vikings were up 21-0 at the half, and 28-0 going into the fourth quarter, and as the Falcons started moving the ball after that, their defensive guys started getting animated.

“These guys have a lot of pride in what they’re doing. I get that feeling,” Zimmer said. “It was 28–0. They did not want to let them score.”

And when Atlanta did, it was a problem for a lot of guys on the home sideline.

“You don’t ever want to let anybody score on you,” Zimmer said. “That was good for me to see. Now, it’s a different game next week and everything else. But I hope they have that same attitude every week that, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna let this team score.’ And if they do score, we’re pissed off about it. … Every time we take the field we have to represent ourselves the way we feel like we’re capable of representing ourselves.”

That happened Sunday. In fact, that as probably how Zimmer would’ve drawn it up, coming into this year. Bruising, aggressive run game. Reliable quarterback feeding off of it. A defense that can carry the day. And all of that is why, with Green Bay next, Zimmer felt comfortable telling me, “I don’t think it’s like, ‘We have to play the best football in the history of the world to beat this team.’ I don’t think they feel that way.”

Instead, he says, they’re focused on day-over-day improvement, and clearing their own bar rather than one set by someone else. And if the Falcons game is any indication, on that one, they’re on their way.

WEEKEND WATCH LIST

Seahawks DE Jadeveon Clowney: Eight days after being traded to Seattle, Clowney played 46 snaps on defense, which was third among the team’s defensive linemen. That shows just how satisfied the Seahawks are with his progress in their defense. Against a good Pittsburgh offensive line, his ability to wreak havoc will be even more important.

Rams DT Aaron Donald: History shows that if you’re going to pressure Drew Brees, it’s going to be with pressure coming right down main street—and that’s where Donald plays, right in the middle of the Los Angeles defense. “You cannot block him with one guy,” Brees said this week. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody like him.” The Saints threw the kitchen sink at Donald last year, holding him to just one tackle for a loss and no sacks in two meetings last year. This year, New Orleans has a rookie at center, and it’ll be interesting to see if that affects things.

Browns QB Baker Mayfield: Cleveland had all kinds of issues in the opener—turnovers and penalties. to name a few. But Mayfield’s performance didn’t help either, and that Titans game was probably one of his two or three worst performances as a pro. Last year, he had a way of rebounding from bad weeks, and the Browns need him to on Monday night. In general, playing more on schedule and getting rid of the ball efficiently will be important, given the issues the team has up front.

Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey: Carolina had hoped to manage—not limit—McCaffrey’s workload this year, and that went out the window when they needed him in the opener. He wound up with 29 touches for 209 scrimmage yards. And that was during the week in which the Panthers happened to have their Thursday nighter. So tonight, it’ll be interesting to see how Carolina deploys McCaffrey on four days rest, and maybe a bit of a tell on how this is going to evolve going forward.

Redskins RB Adrian Peterson: No matter what he says, being a healthy scratch for the first time in his 13-year NFL career (and probably the first time in his football life) had to be pretty humbling for the Peterson. With Derrius Guice banged up, it’s unlikely that happens again with the Cowboys coming to town Sunday.

TWO FOR SATURDAY

Stanford QB KJ Costello (at UCF, ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET): The redshirt junior missed last week’s loss to USC after suffering a head injury in the first game of the season against Northwestern. But he’s expected back for this week against UCF, and he’s got the pros attention as a prospect with some promise and a good head on his shoulders.

“Has all the intangibles,” one NFC exec said. “Leader, worker, good toughness. Has a strong arm. Longer in his release and needs to clean up lower body mechanics. Not in the top tier of QBs this year with Tua [Tagovailoa], etc but there’s enough there to try and develop.” Costello’s year-over-year improvement from 2017 to ’18 was good enough to where, I’m told, he kicked around the idea of declaring. Like our exec said, he’s not a first-rounder, but he’ll get drafted and have a shot at lasting in the NFL. A comp for him is DeShone Kizer—and while Kizer hasn’t worked out yet as a pro, he was drafted in the middle of the second round.

South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw (vs. Alabama, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): One of eight rising seniors to receive first-round grades from National Football Scouting (the group that runs the combine) this summer, Kinlaw still has a ton of room for growth. He showed up at South Carolina in 2017 as a juco transfer weighing in the 340s, and now the 6' 6" defensive tackle is down into the 290s. Last year, he led the Gamecocks in sacks (4.4) and had 10 tackles for losses and five pass breakups. This year already has two sacks, a hurry and a blocked field goal on his ledger.

“He’s legit,” one AFC college scouting director said. “He’ll be a first-round player. Big, strong, athletic. His only limitations have been technique related, things like pad level, better hand usage, things like that. Correctable things.” Another veteran evaluator said, “He’s got really high-end tools. … He’s a massive dude, big frame, powerful, twitchy, and he’s still figuring out how to play. If you drafted him off junior tape, he’d be a second or third rounder. If he puts it all together this year, there’s no telling how high he can go. The flashes are legit.” Kinlaw’s got the body of a 5-technique end, but is plenty athletic enough to be a 3-technique in an upfield scheme. And this is a good week to see all that, with the big, bad Tide coming to town.

Dolphins‘ Jakeem Grant fumbles a punt in the second quarter against the Ravens. - David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Dolphins‘ Jakeem Grant fumbles a punt in the second quarter against the Ravens. David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

MAILBAG!

From Michael J. Fischer II (@mjfischerII): Are the Miami Dolphins truly as awful as they appeared to be in Week 1 vs. the Ravens? Or is it too early to make such a judgment call?

The Dolphins roster is, by design, in disrepair, and I think that’s at least in part due to ownership’s edict that his new leaders, GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores, find themselves a quarterback at all costs. So most of these guys will be gone when/if Grier’s and Flores’s plan comes to life. There are some that should sustain (LB Jerome Baker, CB Xavien Howard and DT Christian Wilkins among them), but not many.

And my belief is that’s made Flores the most important person in the building. Setting up a program as demanding as his while all this is going on has to be very challenging. You can tell the players whatever you want. They can look around and see what’s going on. It’s hard to ask them to be all in for this year, when it sure looks like the franchise itself isn’t. It’s hard to get buy-in when a lot of individual players have to ask if they’re next to be gone.

Flores, for what it’s worth, absolutely has the makeup to pull this off. Many in the Patriots’ building felt he was the best head coaching prospect there the last few years, even as part of a loaded staff. And if the Dolphins make it through to the other side, he’ll have proven very worthy of this praise.

To answer your question, I wouldn’t expect a ton from the team this year. What’s important will be the effort and progress of the young players, which you’d hope will show up late in the year.

From Ben (@2legit2dunk): How much can we trust Ronald Jones for the rest of the season?

For those who missed it, Jones was labeled a gigantic bust last year as a 2018 second-round pick, but the Buccaneers’ running back flashed big-time against the Niners in Week 1. He only played 22 snaps (Peyton Barber played 25), but Jones made the most of them, going for 75 yards on 13 carries, and 93 yards on 14 touches (he had an 18-yard catch, too).

And I’m optimistic this is a corner turned for Jones—he was a talent coming out of USC, and the Bucs people I talked to over the summer harbored optimism that what you saw in Week 1 was coming. The issue with Jones as a rookie was simple—he lost confidence, and started playing hesitantly, which is the kiss of death at position where decisiveness and aggression are vital.

Don’t underestimate the job running backs coach Todd McNair has done with him. McNair has been out of football for nine years—he was caught up in the Reggie Bush scandal at USC after seven years as running backs coach there, and dealt a show-cause penalty by the NCAA. Bruce Arians tried to get him to join his Cardinals staff in 2013, and it didn’t quite work out. This time around, Arians got him, and it’s made a tangible difference already.

From Matt Abel-Curtis (@MattAbelCurtis1): Do you think the Patriots organization gets a free pass with a lot of the scandals that arise within and around the organization? Seems like a lot of the issues there start with the owner on down. Constantly getting swept under the rug.

No, I don’t. I think the time in which they were seen as virtuous in how they put their roster together has long since come and gone, and the public now has become almost numb to the risks they take. And as I wrote the other day, I think that’s largely because even when they strike out, it rarely takes the toll on the Patriots that it would other teams—which is a credit to the strength of their infrastructure.

In 2010, Randy Moss had a locker-room confrontation with a coach, publicly declared he felt underappreciated and was traded a month into the season. In 2011, the Patriots traded for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson on the same day; Haynesworth was gone that November, while Johnson was largely ineffective through the year. In 2013, they had a star arrested for murder, and court proceedings went on during the season.

All three of those teams won the AFC East, won at least 12 regular season games and got playoff byes. Which is why I think, at this point, most people look at these things, sneer at the Patriots, and know that they’ll probably still be playing in late January.

From Dennis Donovan (@dennydon): Any comment on the timing of Antonio Brown lawsuit?

No, Dennis, I don’t have much comment on that. And I don’t think it had anything to do with him switching teams. I think it was coming either way.

For the record, I have no idea on the validity of the claims. Only two people really know the whole story. And if your opinion is based on which colors Brown is wearing, you probably have some things to re-evaluate—and I say that with respect to all the passionate NFL fans reading this.

From Abdullah Ahmed (@Abdullah12): Which rookie head coach looked most impressive on Sunday?

It wasn’t a great weekend for the NFL’s rookie coaches—they went 1-6-1 collectively. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything to like from the group. First off, Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur should get credit for being the one guy to bring home a win. Likewise, Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury led a team that showed pluck and resilience in fighting back from a huge deficit at home against the Lions, and that’s nothing to sneeze at either.

But if you want one off the board, from the six that lost, give me Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor. I can tell you the Seahawks were immensely impressed with the Bengals coach, both in how he managed the team and called the game. Cincinnati threw it 51 times, against 14 runs (and four of the runs came in a downpour), in a passing game that was controlled most of the time, but took shots when they were.

Also, Andy Dalton (35-of-51 for 418 yards, two TDs and 0 INTs) looked as good as he has in a while in non-optimal conditions, and John Ross (seven catches, 158 yards, two TDs) broke through, which shows Taylor’s ability to get the most out of his players. Really good start for a guy many in the NFL questioned upon the hire.

From Michael King (@RealMikeKing): Panic time for Jimmy Garoppolo?

Mike, I’m withholding judgment for right now. Kyle Shanahan’s big thing with Jimmy was that he simply needed more experience coming into this year—he’d only started 10 games in his first five seasons—and that’s why I think you saw some of the rough practices and preseason games this summer. Shanahan was challenging him in different ways to try and accelerate his growth.

I also think Sunday’s up-and-down performance was, in part, due to the 49ers’ needing to figure out the skill positions (outside of tight end George Kittle), and the job that Tampa’s Todd Bowles did in reminding everyone what a good defensive coordinator he can be. And you have to consider it’s his first real game back off an ACL tear.

If it still looks like this in November, get back to me. I’m not there yet.

From Mark Thorn (@MarkThorn84): With Miami going so far with their tank, when / what will the NFL do to manage tanking in the future? Is a draft lottery a real possibility? And is the integrity of the NFL at stake long term if teams take the 0–16 approach?

Mark, in the May 20 MMQB, I actually wrote about a draft lottery, seeing the interest in the Zion Williamson-driven 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. And as part of that, I polled 13 decision-makers, 10 of which said they’d be against it. Here’s some of their feedback …

“I would be in favor of it to keep anyone from attempting to tank for a player like Andrew Luck, Tua (Tagovialoa) next year, etc.”

“I like the formula we have now. … I think it’s fair, keeps the league competitive, allows for teams to bounce back after a bad year. So it keeps fans engaged. I could go on, but it’s worked as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see a reason to change it.”

“It would be an interesting night – another really good day of NFL drama and content. I’m not smart enough by any means to design it, but after last night it has to be on the radar of a lot of influential people in the NFL.”

“I just think the worst team should pick first.”

Overall, the response I got indicated that it’s not seen as big enough a problem to take action. You’re seeing it now with the Dolphins, you saw it with the Browns in 2016, and some version of it with the Jaguars’ teardown in 2013. But it doesn’t happen often. And the other part here is that it isn’t all that common that there’s a singular player worth a team throwing its season away from (guys like Luck being the exception, not the rule).

From Steelers (0-1) (@Quis_215): What was more concerning: Steelers getting blown out or the Browns?

I’d say the Browns, for right now. We’ve seen the Steelers boatraced by the Patriots in the past. It’s always been a bad matchup for them, as it is for a lot of teams. And so I think Pittsburgh will wind up being fine in the long run—I’ll even tepidly stick by my prediction that they’d win the division, even with Baltimore looking as impressive as it did Sunday.

Cleveland, to me, is concerning because some of the issues you thought you might see in the team have manifested themselves. We knew the offensive line, with the exodus of Joe Thomas and Kevin Zeitler the last two offseason, was an area to watch, and it wasn’t good on Sunday. And given the hype surrounding this team, everyone was going to look at how focused the Browns were, and they responded with three turnovers and 18 penalties.

I think Freddie Kitchens can right the ship, to be sure, and the front-line talent is still there. But there were some not-so-good signs on Sunday.

From LetsBeReal (@LetsBeReal73): Are the Cowboys true Super Bowl contenders this year? I feel like they are. One game but that offense looks legit and I know the defense is good.

Yes, I believe they are. New OC Kellen Moore has built an offense specifically for the strengths of his quarterback, and Dak Prescott responded with 405 yards and four touchdowns through the air. And here’s a great snapshot of what Moore did to help Prescott: Three of the four touchdown passes were off play-action on first or second down. That shows Moore’s marrying the pass and run, which is where Prescott, going back to his time as a collegian, has always been most comfortable.

As for the defense, those linebackers have a very good chance to be the best group in the league—Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were monsters against the Giants—and the front has promise and should be better in the long run than they were Sunday.

So yeah, Dallas is really good, and the race with Philadelphia in the NFC East should be fun.

From John Theodor (@JhnnyTheo): Should we be worried about Sam Darnold?

No, I think he’ll be fine, John. I think too often we don’t consider a young quarterback’s circumstances—and right now, Darnold’s playing behind a deficient offensive line. And if you look at the quarterbacks that broke out in their second season the last couple years, you’ll see that both Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes were playing behind top five offensive lines. That matters.

That’s why I believe the Jets need to continue to lean on Le’Veon Bell (he had 23 touches Sunday), both to take pressure off Darnold in the run game and create easy completions for him in the passing game. Bottom line, if Bell’s effective, it mitigates the issues up front, and I know that Adam Gase knows that.

From Kyle (@suavestish): Do the Giants have any answer on the defensive line considering a pass rush?? Non-existent vs Dallas Sunday ... or is this a wait a year and draft a pass rusher kind of deal.

Kyle, I think it’s going to be a wait-a-year kind of deal. GM Dave Gettleman believes in building up the lines of scrimmage, and the Giants will get there on defense (he’s already done a ton of work on the offensive line, which has shown progress). Dexter Lawrence, Oshane Ximines, and BJ Hill have a shot to be pieces of the equation, but you’re right to believe that more foundational pieces, especially in the way of pass rushers, are needed.

Gettleman, of course, was part of building the fearsome fronts that won the Giants a couple of Super Bowls, and his work in Carolina also shows deep investment and competence in that area.

From Blondie (@blondie6332): If the Bills can beat the Giants this week, can they legitimately contend for an AFC wild card? The team has several winnable games on the schedule through Week 11 with the exception of games against the Eagles and the Patriots.

We’ll wrap it up here with Blondie. I love the work that Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott did this offseason with middle-class free agents (Mitch Morse, John Brown, Cole Beasley, etc.) and a promising draft class (Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, Devin Singletary, etc.) Right now, I think they’ve probably got the best shot of keeping up with the Patriots in the AFC East (although it’s not a real shot), and should get better as the year goes on.

But a lot of that, as you know, boils down to the development of Josh Allen.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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