2018 NFL Season Preview: Can the Minnesota Vikings separate themselves from the rest of the pack?

2018 Season Preview, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

It was a frisson inducing moment. Fans of the Minnesota Vikings joined together in raucous thunder clapping after having just witnessed an incredible last second Stefon Diggs touchdown that would later be dubbed the “Minneapolis Miracle.” The man leading the chants was Case Keenum, the quarterback who came out of nowhere to somehow win the Teddy Bridgewater vs Sam Bradford quarterback battle. The long time journey man was an unexpected hero in Minnesota and was now only a game away from leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl in their own home stadium.

A week later Keenum and the Vikings would be battered by a Philadelphia Eagles team that had the honor of winning their franchises first Super Bowl at US Bank Stadium.

The 2018 Vikings plan on being right back in the mix of things. They return every major piece of an incredible defense, and much of their offensive cast remains the same. Minnesota did make one key change on offense that they hope will make all the difference this season.

Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater have all moved on from the Twin Cities and Kirk Cousins, formerly of the Washington Redskins, was handed a massive contract and the responsibility of leading the 2018 Vikings to the success the 2017 version let slip through their fingers.

Now with a star quarterback, one of the best receiving duos in the league in Diggs and Adam Theilen, the return of Dalvin Cook and a defense with pro bowl potential at every single position the Vikings have created a super team. Unfortunately, they play in a tough NFC where teams all around the conference have loaded up and are ready to make Super Bowl runs of their own.

Minnesota will yet again be among the favorites in the NFC, but have they done enough to distance themselves from the pack?

Stefon Diggs is still a threat outside of the slot

Game Film, Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

Stefon Diggs is a force to be reckoned with when he is fully healthy. Injuries have nagged him throughout the past two years, and despite a few huge games he has still not yet broken 1,000 yards in a full season. He is back to full health entering 2017, but many feared a drop in production as he will be taking most of his snaps split wide this year and not in the slot where he had seen playing time before.

Diggs silenced many of his doubter’s week one with a huge game against the New Orleans Saints. The receiver had seven catches on eight targets for 93 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings beat the Saints to open the new season.

He only lined up in the slot twice all game, and all of his receptions came from out wide. Many of his receptions early on came on the same routes he would run out of the slot anyway.

Diggs still has the quick first step and insane agility when split out wide that he has in the slot. On this play, he is lined up towards the inside and makes a quick move off of the snap. His route takes him beneath underneath two other routes and the defender covering him has trouble weaving through the bodies to keep up. He has a few steps on his man and catches a quick slant and turns up the field for 10 yards and a first down.

His first three catches of the day were all on plays that looked exactly like this one. He caught three passes in the first quarter for 23 yards all on slant routes. Diggs is quick and shifty and has the route running ability to always find space when he is in man coverage. He excels on shorter routes as they allow him to make full use of his agility, and usually get the ball before defenders can recover.

His route running also allows him to make plays when running downfield, as well, though.

On this play, Diggs absolutely embarrasses the Saints secondary. He initially turns towards the inside on his route, causing the linebacker and corner back around to creep forward. Diggs quickly changes his course and breaks towards the outside before either can react and finds himself wide open for an easy touchdown. He benefitted greatly from the Saints deep safety being at the other side of the field being distracted by Adam Thielen.

Even when there is a safety on that side of the field Diggs still manages to find space within zone coverage.

Diggs breaks into another corner route on this play after starting his route by taking a few steps towards the inside. Off the snap, the deep safety on Diggs side begins to back pedal, while the corner in front of him begins to sit within his zone to help on a shallower route. The corner facing his hips towards the inside is a telltale sign of zone coverage, which tells Diggs the kind of defense he has in front of him. Once he is beyond the corner and linebacker on the first level he finds the crease in the zone. He makes a quick break on his route to the outside and Sam Bradford finds him in space for an easy completion.

He comes down with the ball while getting absolutely blown up on both sides by the Saints defenders. Diggs is great at making a play on the ball and has great hands that allow him to snag passes out of the air, which he showed on two later grabs.

On his second touchdown of the day, Diggs fights off contact at the goal line before going up and coming down with a touchdown catch over his man. He has always had great hands but in his first few seasons in the NFL he had troubles fighting through contact. Here he uses his agility at the line of scrimmage to get outside leverage and then beats his man over the top for the catch. Diggs also shows incredible balance to come down with the ball and getting both feet in bounds to complete the catch.

His longest catch of the day came despite a defensive pass interference.

Diggs comes off the snap and instantly breaks towards the outside. He runs a vertical route upfield, and even though he has a step on his man he never fully shakes him. Bradford stares at him the whole way and launches a great pass at his receiver. The corner needs to grab on to Diggs in order to recover and hopefully break up the pass. Diggs still manages to make an excellent grab despite the defensive back hanging off his arm.

He may not have been the Vikings top receiver on the day but he was the most exciting of the bunch. The Maryland product used his skills as a slot receiver to make plays over the middle, but spreading him out wide lets him show off his true arsenal of skills. His speed and agility running downfield make him look like a sort of Odell Beckham-lite, and he should only get more comfortable as the season goes on.

One issue that did arise in this game, though, was his limited route tree. Diggs ran 27 routes on Monday night but slant routes, vertical routes and corner routes accounted for 17 of them. All his targets on the day came on those exact routes and he had trouble getting open at all when running any other route.

Slant Verticle/Fly Corner Other
Routes 4 9 4 10
Targets 4 1 3 0
Receptions 3 1 3 0
Yards 23 30 40 0
Yds/ Target 5.75 30 13.33 0
Yds/ Route 5.75 3.33 10 0
TDs 0 0 2 0


He was most efficient running corner routes but found a lot of success with the other two as well. His limited tree does make him more predictable though. New Orleans has one of the worst defenses in the league, and they rarely jammed him at the line of scrimmage which seemed to be a weakness for him in the past.

Diggs is taking on a new role for the Minnesota Vikings and he got off to a hot start. It may have been one of the easier match ups he will run into all season, but his performance turned heads around the league on Monday Night Football. Minnesota can have a dangerous passing attack this year, and Diggs may be one of the most important parts of it.


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The Vikings Offensive Line May Cost Them Everything

Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

The Minnesota Vikings were shocked on Monday Night be the Chicago Bears, losing 20-10 on the national stage. The Bears only had one win coming in, and the Vikings have looked like contenders all season due to surprisingly decent play by quarterback Sam Bradford and possibly the best defense in the NFL. Their defense played well Monday, but they received little help from their offense, specifically the teams underperforming offensive line.

Sam Bradford was pressured 12 times on his 42 dropbacks on Monday, and had trouble getting any time in the pocket. This was despite the Bears only choosing to blitz 3 times the entire game. Their minimal pass rush still managed to sack Bradford five times and totally disrupt him on many plays.

The Bears first sack of the game came as a result of them not blitzing.

The Bears only rushed four on the play, and the Vikings offensive line did a decent job picking up the rush and keeping Bradford safe at first. The Vikings pass protection slid towards the right, but on the weak side the Bears Cornelius Washington (#90) overpowered Tight End Rhett Ellison (#85) after Matt Asiata (#44) vacated the back field in order to run a route. This forced Bradford to take off on his feet.

Bradford is not very fast.

He turns and scrambles towards his left, away from the rush, but Lucas manages to drag him down before he can get across the line of scrimmage for the Bears first sack.

But how did Lucas even have enough time to blow up the play?

Because of what was happening down field.

With only four men rushing the Bears were able to drop seven men back into coverage. It was a 3rd down and 8, so the Bears anticipated a pass play. Only three receivers ran routes off the snap, all to Bradfords right.

As you see from this angle (and Soldier Fields odd coaches cam), the Bears zone defense picked up all three of the Vikings initially run routes. None of the Vikings receivers could gain any separation on the play, and despite the slide protection doing its job, a Tight End losing a one on one on the weak side blew the play open.

The Bears second sack of the game came early on in the second quarter, and yet again came on a play where they did not blitz.

Both of the Bears edge rushers, Willie Young (#97) and Leonard Floyd (#94), are quick to get around their opposition and quickly closed down on Bradford. Interestingly enough Rhett Ellison, Kyle Rudolph (#82) and Ronnie Hillman (#33) all ran routes right by Young, and none of the three made any sort of effort to slow Young on his way to the quarterback. TJ Clemmings (#68), who has shifted from left to right tackle due to an injury too Jeremiah Sirles, was entirely outmatched by Young, and Will Sutton (#93) man handles Brandon Fusco (#63) on the interior. This stops Bradford from looking downfield in an instant, and forces him to step towards his left. On his left, though, Floyd gets inside leverage on Jake Long (#72), a usual backup filling in Clemmings spot, and got to Bradford for the Bears second sack.

Even though Floyd got the sack, majority of the pressure was provided by Young. Young lined up across two Vikings Tight Ends, yet neither they nor a Vikings running back made any sort of effort to help Clemmings. The Vikings offensive line could have done a much better job on the play, but they were failed by a lack of effort by their skill position players.

The Bears got another sack on the Vikings next possession, and yet again they only needed to rush four to get there.

Minnesota’s protection shifted towards the right, while Asiata occupied the empty space on the left to pick up a potential blitz before running a route. Clemmings yet again got beat on the edge, this time by Pernell McPhee (#92), and McPhee got to Bradford as he pulled back to throw and forced a fumble.

Clemmings yet again being beaten is still and issue, but two of the Vikings interior linemen also failed miserably. McPhee’s path towards the quarterback would have been a lot trickier had Akiem Hicks (#96) had not caused havoc in the middle. Hicks was matched with Joe Berger (#61). Berger did a decent job holding back his opponent, but Hicks managed to draw the attention of both Alex Boone (#76) and Brandon Fusco. Hicks distracted Fusco, drawing him away from helping Clemmings on the edge.

Fusco was lost, though.  He is caught between Hicks and McPhee and for a split second is just standing there as the play goes by him. Boone, on the other hand, whiffs while attempting to throw a block onto Hicks and ends up on the ground.

A communication failure on the part of the Vikings offensive line, and Clemmings lack of speed on the edge was nearly devastating for the Vikings, as if Hicks did not give up on the play, a Vikings receiver eventually recovers Bradfords fumble, the Bears may have even scored on the play.

With the second half winding down, the Bears fourth sack of the game was just more of the same. Hicks ends up with the sack on the play, but three of the four Bears pass rushers erupted into the backfield with ease.

TJ Clemmings had trouble staying within arm’s reach of Willie Young on one end, Fusco was again lost in a zone blocking scheme, Hicks made quick due of Joe Berger on his way to the quarterback and Sam Acho (#49) manages to shove Jake Long back into Bradford. The play may have cost the Vikings points, as they failed to convert a 3rd and goal from the two and were forced to kick a field goal to end the half.

Minnesota managed to go the entire third quarter without giving up a sack, and may have gone the entire second half without giving up a fifth sack if not for an incredible effort by Akiem Hicks.

The Vikings shifted their protection to Bradfords left. Hicks started on the right side of the Vikings interior line, but ran a stunt towards the left and easily discarded of Fusco before jumping on to the quarterback.

Despite rarely bringing any major pass rush throughout the game, the Bears still managed to pressure Bradford on more than a quarter of the Vikings passing snaps. Their offensive line failed to handle anything Chicago threw at them. With the Bears not having to commit much towards their pass rush, they were able to drop defenders back into zone coverage further hindering Bradford’s ability to move the ball downfield. Their offense did not reach the end zone until the fourth quarter against a bad Bears defense as they were completely exposed.

The Vikings offense was never the main reason for their victories tis the season, but their offense needs to be able to get something going in order to continue winning games. After a 5-0 start they have dropped 2 straight and offensive coordinator Norv Turner has even stepped down. Minnesota’s defense is good enough alone to drag a mediocre offense to victory, as we saw during their hot start to the season, but with Jordan Howard having a career game for the Bears offense, they needed help on the other side of the ball.


Header via Fox Sports

The Vikings and Their Unbeatable Pass Rush

Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

The Minnesota Vikings defense has led them to a 4-0 start this season, yet they are still somehow underrated by many. When people hear about the Vikings they usually think about Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater, who are both currently out injured, and forget about the amazing defense they have put together. A defense so good they frustrated Odell Beckham Jr. to the point where he said he no longer finds the sport of football fun anymore. A defense so good, they may lead the Vikings all the way to the Super Bowl despite losing their quarterback before the season even began.

The Vikings defense does not have any real “super star” players. No one as dominant single-handedly as Von Miller or JJ Watt, and the closest thing they have to a star is safety Harrison Smith.

So how is this defense so good? They work together as a unit and manage to disrupt almost every play an opposing offense runs.

Despite not getting a single sack in their match up against the New York Giants, their defensive front managed to be dominant off of the stat sheet. They tore apart the Giants offensive line, which is ranked in the top five overall by Pro Football Focus and in pass protection by Football Outsiders, and in doing so made it near impossible for Eli Manning to have enough time to truly let anything develop downfield.

The Giants were forced to rely on their running backs and Tight End Will Tye for production through the air, as Manning had limited time on the pocket forcing him to dump it off short early and often.

Player Targets Receptions Yards TDs
Victor Cruz 9 5 50 0
Odell Beckham 9 3 23 0
Sterling Shepard 7 4 30 0
Paul Perkins 3 2 72 0
Bobby Rainey 9 7 43 0
Will Tye 6 4 43 0


Beckham, Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard had a combined 25 targets, but only 12 receptions between them for just over 100 yards, or about 4 yards per target and only 8 and a half yards per reception.

That’s because many of their targets were like this pass here to Beckham in the fourth quarter

The receptions by the three did have were mainly short passes over the middle or into the flat for minimal gain. Paul Perkins turned out to be the team’s leading receiver, but that is only because of a 67 yard gain on a screen pass.

Looking at these numbers alone, majority of the credit for the teams win would be given to the secondary, but the film tells another story. Although, the secondary played a great game, the collective pass rush of the Vikings front seven, with occasional help from the safety’s ruined any chance for the Giants to have success through the air.

Late in the second quarter with the Giants driving down field, the Vikings pass rush showed their prowess and creativity to bust a play within seconds.

The Vikings rushed their four down lineman, but Harrison Smith (#22) showed a late blitz off the edge, and the Giants did not adjust. Instead of staying back to block the oncoming rush, Running Back Bobby Rainey (#43) allowed Smith a free run at Manning, forcing him to throw the ball into the ground to avoid the sack. Even if Smith was not gifted a free run, the Vikings Brian Robinson (#96) had beaten Bobby Hart (#68) and would have gotten to Manning within seconds. The ability to rush Smith safely is result of coordination between the Vikings linebackers as well. Anthony Barr (#55) quickly shifted to his right covering the area Smith vacated, while Eric Kendricks (#54) slid into the middle to play zone over the middle, putting himself in position to make a play on the two Giants receivers over the middle.

Eli Manning’s lone interception of the game came on a creative blitz scheme by the Vikings early in the third quarter.

The Vikings lined up 7 players on the line before the snap, including defensive back Harrison Smith. They overloaded the right side of the line, sending four. On the left, though, both Kendricks and Everson Griffen (#97) drop back into coverage. As they drop back they take the spot of Captain Munnerlyn (#24) who shows a late blitz and easily beats the much slower Ereck Flowers (#74) around the edge and nearly gets to Manning. The quarterback panics and heavily overthrows Odell Beckham (#13) deep and Xavier Rhodes (#29) comes up with an easy interception.

With the Giants driving down field trying to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Vikings pass rush came up big again on fourth down.

The defense lined up six men on the line of scrimmage, but only rushed five. The Giants were in a zone blocking scheme, and when Eric Kendricks drops back into coverage, Center Weston Richburg (#70) is caught out of position allowing Barr to blow by him. Barr bursts through Paul Perkins (#28) and manages to get a hand on Manning’s pass as he closed down on him.

The fluidity and coordination of the Vikings defensive front throughout the game is a testament to the genius of defensive coordinator George Edwards. Every player knows their particular assignment both before and after the snap, and follows it to a tee. Rarely is anyone out of position, and on both the defensive front and secondary it is nearly impossible to find a weakness to exploit.

Eli Manning would have had his second interception of the game later on, if not for a drop by Kendricks.

Four Vikings blitzed on the play, while Kendricks and Barr dropped back into coverage. The two rushers off the edge, Griffen and Danielle Hunter (#99), collapsed towards the inside, while the two interior linemen, Brian Robinson and Tom Johnson (#92) ran a stunt towards the edge. This frees up both of the interior linemen, and Robinson manages to reach Manning. Manning manages to again avoid a sack, but it nearly costs his team possession as Eric Kendricks jumps an ill thrown pass towards Will Tye (#45).

Manning only completed 25 of his 45 pass attempts on Monday, and many of his completions were short dump offs to receivers. The Giants only converted 2 of 12 third downs the entire game, and their offense could not get anything going downfield all game despite having one of the NFL’s best group of receivers.

The Vikings defense has been outstanding this season, and now with the team at 4-0 they look near impossible to beat. They are performing well as a unit, and every player seems to know their role. Their play, along with new quarterback Sam Bradford having a surprisingly impressive year so far has the Vikings right back in the Super Bowl discussion, and maybe even the front-runner to be the NFC’s representative.


Header via GettyImages