Kirk Cousins: Broncos Have "The Best Defense We Will Play" This Season
At first glance, the Vikings shouldn't have much to worry about in Week 11.
Coming off of a statement win over the Cowboys on the road, the Vikings return home for their final game before the bye week to face the 3-6 Denver Broncos, whose quarterback is a former sixth-round pick playing in his second career game. In theory, the Vikings (who are 10.5-point favorites) should roll to an 8-3 record heading into their bye.
Of course, no one in the Vikings organization is thinking that way. Even if the opponent were the Dolphins or Bengals, no coach or player would ever admit to looking past the upcoming game. But if it were the Dolphins or Bengals – the two clear-cut worst teams in the NFL – the Vikings could afford to go through the motions to some extent and still pull out a comfortable victory.
The Broncos are significantly better than those two teams. They're better than three previous Vikings opponents – the Falcons, Giants, and Redskins – too. If anything, they're a lot like the Bears, who handed the Vikings an ugly loss back in Week 4. The Broncos are 21st in overall DVOA, with the 6th-ranked defense and the 23rd-ranked offense; the Bears are very similar (5th-best defense, 26th-best offense). Three of Denver's losses have come by exactly two points, indicating that with a couple breaks going their way they could be 5-4 or even 6-3.
Their rough first half of the season offensively had a lot to do with the poor play of veteran Joe Flacco, who threw for six touchdowns and five picks on just 7.0 yards per attempt in eight games. In his first career game, Brandon Allen showed signs of being an upgrade. He threw for 193 yards with two touchdowns and no picks on just 20 attempts (9.6 ypa), as the Broncos tied their season-high with 24 points and beat the Browns. At his disposal, Allen has a talented wideout (Courtland Sutton), two good running backs (Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman) and an athletic young tight end (Noah Fant), who is coming off a career-high in receiving yards.
More concerning for the Vikings is the challenge presented by the Broncos defense. Kirk Cousins thinks it's better than any defense they'll face all season, including the Bears unit that made his life hell in Chicago.
"We feel like objectively they’re the best defense we will play or have played so far," Cousins said. "So we’ve got a big challenge as an offense."
The Broncos are allowing the fourth-fewest yards per game and seventh-fewest points per game to opposing offenses, thanks to a defense that is stout against both the run and pass.
Schematically, the Vikings won't be surprised by what they see on Sunday. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio spent the last four seasons as the Bears' defensive coordinator, leading a defense that held the Vikings to just over 18 points per game in four meetings in 2017 and 2018. Fangio runs a 3-4 defense that throws a wide variety of looks at the opposing offense.
"They’re fourth-ranked overall, and it’s for a reason," Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. "You turn on the tape, and it’s really just an impressive group of players. We know the scheme, and have a ton of respect for the scheme, what Coach Fangio does with these guys."
"You’re not going to see many mistakes on tape. They do a lot, multiple fronts, multiple coverages, but they all complement each other. I think it’s an outstanding scheme. Again, one that we’ve seen a bunch of times from our days going against [Fangio] in Chicago. You see on tape a very fast group, excellent situationally, really good third down, really good red zone. The way that their different coverages, different fronts complement each other, I think is very impressive."
Even though Fangio left behind a defense that was the NFL's best in 2018 and boasted four Pro Bowlers, he hasn't had to deal with a major drop-off in talent this year. The Broncos have playmakers at all three levels of the defense that will give the Vikings problems.
In the secondary, four-time Pro Bowler Chris Harris Jr. is a true "shutdown" corner and safety Justin Simmons is having an incredible season (53 tackles, nine passes defended, two picks). Breakout second-year player A.J. Johnson leads an athletic linebacker corps that will surely focus on limiting Dalvin Cook. Up front, Von Miller is arguably the best pass-rusher of the decade (no one has more than Miller's 102 sacks since 2011) and Derek Wolfe is having a great year.
"They give us a lot of different looks, very similar to what Chicago did a year ago," Mike Zimmer said. "Big thick bodies in the middle, two edge rushers when they’re in their 3-4, aggressive get up the field and try and knock people back. The linebackers can really flow. "They’ve got guys that can really run. I think their secondary does a great job of disguising."
The quality and play-making ability of the Broncos defense presents a legitimate concern for the Vikings. The last time they faced a defense like this, they only scored six points in the loss to the Bears. That was ages ago, and the offense has come a long way since then. But even with this game taking place at U.S. Bank Stadium, don't be surprised if the Broncos defense is able to turn it into a dogfight that's close at the end.