The Vikings' collective backs are against the wall after a frustrating start to a 2021 season that began with high expectations, at least internally. They've played two road games that have come down to the very final play, both times squandering an opportunity to come away with the victory.
In a vacuum, going 0-2 against the Bengals and Cardinals is a disastrous start to the season, particularly with a tough schedule lying ahead. The Vikings went all-in on this year during the offseason, they've dug themselves an early hole, and there could be major changes coming if they don't reach the playoffs. The pressure is on.
At the same time, it's still too early to panic. If two plays had gone differently, the Vikings would be 2-0 and the conversations surrounding this team would be entirely different. Due to the nature of their losses, they're still in the middle of the pack in various analytical ratings. The Vikings have a lot of issues that need to be cleaned up — the performance of their secondary chief among them — but at the same time, they've done a lot of things well during the first two games.
Here are four reasons to be optimistic about the Vikings' ability to turn their season around, starting with a three-game homestand against the Seahawks, Browns, and Lions.
Kirk Cousins is playing some of the best football of his career
The two easiest people to blame when a team loses games are the head coach and the quarterback. I don't think Mike Zimmer has been bad, but if you're going to criticize one of the two, it should be him. His reloaded defense hasn't lived up to the billing so far, and some of his in-game decisions have been questionable.
Cousins certainly isn't to blame for this 0-2 start.
The Vikings' much-maligned veteran quarterback has been fantastic to open the season. He's thrown for 595 yards and five touchdowns without turning the ball over once, adding 35 rushing yards in Week 2. Cousins ranks fifth among NFL QBs in PFF grade, eighth in passer rating, and 12th in EPA per play. He hasn't been perfect, but he has taken care of the ball, distributed it accurately to his receivers, and led two game-winning drives that came up short for reasons out of his control.
“I think he’s taking real good care of the ball," Zimmer said. "I think he’s done a good job of getting the ball to the right place. His leadership has been a lot better this year, just the way he’s gone about his business and not just being to himself, but being around the guys more. I think all those things are important. He’s been really accurate."
Cousins takes a lot of heat from Vikings fans, and that has frequently been warranted. He's been too inconsistent in the three seasons since Minnesota signed him in free agency, and that has contributed to the fact that they only made the playoffs in one of those seasons. But so far this year, Cousins looks locked in. His pocket presence and decision-making have mostly been excellent, and he's even making some plays outside of the pocket.
Perhaps most importantly, he's stepped up late in games and put the Vikings in position to win.
"That’s 8," said Dalvin Cook. "That’s what he do. He’s been playing lights out football. That fourth quarter you’ve seen a different demeanor from him – let’s go win the game. That’s what he’s been like since I’ve been around. He’s just dialed in and you’ve been seeing him take steps every year to be a good quarterback. These past two games, it’s been fun because in the fourth quarter we’ve had a chance to go win the game, or put ourselves in positions to do that with, kicking a field goal or whatever the situation is. He’s been dialed in."
If Cousins can keep that up, the Vikings will have a good chance to start winning some games.
K.J. Osborn has established himself as a legit No. 3 receiver
The Vikings have been searching for a solid, reliable No. 3 wide receiver since the days of Jarius Wright. Since 2015, when rookie Stefon Diggs broke onto the scene, no Minnesota receiver other than Diggs, Adam Thielen, or Justin Jefferson has reached 500 receiving yards in a season.
Osborn is already at a team-leading 167 yards through two weeks, putting him on pace for over 1,400. That's obviously unsustainable since 64 of those yards came on a coverage bust and Jefferson and Thielen are still the clear top two guys at the position, but Osborn should continue to be a productive target for Cousins going forward. With no Irv Smith Jr. this year, Klint Kubiak and the Vikings have used three receivers at a time far more than they did over the past two seasons. As a result, he's played nearly as many snaps (78) as Jefferson and Thielen (92 and 93, respectively).
Osborn has done nothing but continue to build momentum from an outstanding offseason and earn the trust of Cousins and the coaching staff. His route-running has been sharp, and he's stepped up with impressive catches late in the game in each of the first two weeks. In additional to total receiving yards, Osborn leads the Vikings in yards per route run, yards per catch, and PFF receiving grade. He's caught all 12 catchable targets thrown his way (via PFF), making him the only receiver in the NFL with a 100 percent catch rate on more than six such targets.
That's pretty impressive for a guy who couldn't even get on the field as a receiver last year after being drafted in the fifth round.
“He’s done a great job since OTAs with making difficult catches, playing with a lot of confidence and being great after the catch, using speed and running down to get the ball," Cousins said. "I’ve been really impressed with the effort he’s given, really since the spring, and it’s just continued since we’ve gotten into the games."
Danielle Hunter is back — and he might be better than ever
Not only is Hunter back after missing all of last season, but he's living up to the bar he set for himself during an incredibly impressive training camp performance. This is the strongest start to a season, sacks-wise, that the two-time Pro Bowler and youngest player to reach 50 career sacks has ever had.
With a sack in the opener and three more against the Cardinals, Hunter is second in the NFL in that department and seems primed to potentially compete for a sack title this year. His trademark burst, length, and power are all still there, and he's reminding the league just how good he is.
"I think you guys saw what I said a week ago, that I told you I could see him starting to become himself in the second half of the game against Cincinnati," Andre Patterson said. "And he looked like D on Sunday. I think he’s just gonna continue to get better and better and better.”
The Vikings are relying on Hunter to be the dominant leader of their pass rush, and he hasn't disappointed through two games.
The offensive line has shown major improvement
Last but certainly not least, it's worth acknowledging the jump made by the offensive line from Week 1 to Week 2. After a penalty-filled mess in Cincinnati, the Vikings' perpetual Achilles heel was a strength in Arizona. The line was superb in run blocking for Dalvin Cook, creating huge initial holes or cutback lanes in Minnesota's wide zone scheme (Klint Kubiak also did well to incorporate pre-snap motion). They were also solid in pass protection, as Cousins was only sacked once on a play where he stepped up into the pressure.
This offensive line might be a healthy Christian Darrisaw away from being firmly average, if not better. Brian O'Neill has lived up to the big contract through two weeks, leading all NFL tackles in pass blocking snaps without a pressure allowed (per PFF). Garrett Bradbury had a much-needed good game against the Cardinals in both phases.
And perhaps most notably, the guards were both great in Arizona. Oli Udoh is off to a strong start, and Ezra Cleveland shook off an ugly effort in Week 1 and played very well last Sunday.
Rashod Hill at left tackle has been the weak link, although he was at least serviceable last week. The Vikings would love to get Darrisaw healthy, up to speed, and in the lineup, but that may not happen for a little while longer. As long as Hill isn't truly awful and the other four continue playing well, the unit should be able to survive and even put more good games on tape in the immediate future.
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