During the week-to-week grind of an NFL season, so much time is spent preparing for the upcoming opponent that there is little room for much else.
Specifically, it's difficult to spend significant time on self-reflection. Throughout the offseason, from OTAs through training camp and the preseason, much of the focus is on improving technique and drilling certain abilities until they become second nature. Once the season arrives, each week becomes focused on preparing for the weekend's game.
For the Vikings, the bye week provided an opportunity to break their normal routine. It allowed them to step back a little bit and evaluate the body of work they put together over the season's first 11 weeks.
"I think with 11 games, you got a pretty good sample size of who you are and what you’ve done and the tips that you might be giving and things like that," Mike Zimmer said. "And if you can make it through those 11 ball games, I think it gave us another chance to sit back and reevaluate and get back to some fundamental things that kind of slip and get away when you’re game planning for somebody each week and next week and on a short week. You’re concentrating so much on the other team you don’t concentrate on your own team quite as much."
It's been a mostly successful 11 weeks, as the Vikings own an 8-3 record and one of the two wild-card spots in the NFC. They're 7th in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, mostly behind an offense that is in the top ten in yards per game for the first time in the Zimmer era.
But there are concerns that must be addressed if this team is going to make a deep run into the playoffs. The defense, normally the strong suit of a Zimmer team, has been mediocre, especially against the pass. The offensive line has been inconsistent. This is a team that could easily be 6-5, had the Cowboys and Broncos finished off late drives, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
"You pause and just look back at ‘ok, what have we done well this year, what has enabled us to win football games, and what have we struggled at that has hurt us, and how can we right the ship or fix some of those struggles in the last stretch of the season,'" Kirk Cousins said. "So the bye week does give you that time to self-scout, press pause a little bit, and hopefully make any corrections you need to for the stretch run.”
The correction they need the most is to fix their pass defense. With MVP candidate Russell Wilson waiting for them in Seattle on Monday night, continued struggles in that area could lead to an ugly loss. Players like Xavier Rhodes took the bye week to assess their issues and try to get back to the basics. For Rhodes, that means an increased emphasis on making plays on the ball when he's in position, he said.
"We spent a lot of time with it," Zimmer said of the team addressing the secondary over the bye week. "Spent a lot of time in the last couple of days on fundamentals, re-teaching the things that we feel are important going forward in these last five ballgames."
Tied with the Packers for the division lead but trailing due to a head-to-head loss in Week 2, the Vikings control their own destiny. Win out, and the division is theirs. In order to do that, they know they'll have to elevate their level of play for the season's final five games. Players used the off week to look at how they, individually, can be better. Even players who are second in the league in yards from scrimmage, like Dalvin Cook is.
"I [self-scout] every day," Cook said. "It’s something that nobody could ever see or nobody could ever tell you. There could be some runs that I know could pop out for bigger runs and longer gains. I could be better in my technique for blocking, things like that. My overall game, I just want to take another step."
It's scary to imagine what another step might look like from Cook, or any of the team's stars. As a team, taking another step could mean the difference between being great and being a championship contender. The Vikings are hoping that the adjustments they made over the bye week will have them ready to play at that level on Monday night and beyond.