Only nine teams in the National Football League are worse than the Vikings, according to the latest ESPN power rankings. The Vikings landed on an atrocious 23rd spot. Despite a lot of changes in the offseason, the purple team did not get better compared to last season, at least in the eyes of ESPN.
The defense was a big problem in 2021. However, the unit was better than people realized. Per DVOA, the Vikings’ defense ranked 16th in the league, above five playoff teams — Raiders, Packers, Bengals, Chiefs, and Eagles.
The EPA/play is looking somewhat similar. The Vikings’ defense ranks 12th. The passing defense ranks 8th, and the rushing defense 29th. DVOA had them ranked 11th in passing and 26th against the run.
The situational defense, meanwhile, was a mess. Various statistics are swirling around social media, such as Warren Sharp’s four-minute analysis.
Mike Zimmer’s defense was totally unable to stop an opponent if the team needed a stop. Multiple game-winning drives from Kirk Cousins and his offense were nullified by a subsequent defensive breakdown.
One big problem was obviously the rushing defense. Edge rushers couldn’t set the edge, interior linemen were hurt, and linebackers were out of position. A combination of problems with the scheme, personnel, and player performance led to a bad running defense.
The next problem was the injury of Danielle Hunter. Before his injury occurred, the defense ranked 6th in EPA/play. Afterward, they ranked 23rd. Hunter wasn’t the only parameter that changed in the defense, but it shows to some extent the impact of an elite pass rusher.
Now, the offense hasn’t been great, either. While the Cousins-led part of the team looked extremely explosive in some games, it wasn’t consistent enough. In almost every game, the offense failed to score or even to keep drives going for a quarter or more.
The same advanced stats as for the defense are available for the offense as well. Per EPA/play, the Vikings had the 13th best offense, 12th in passing, and 24th rushing. Per DVOA, the Vikings’ offense was 16th overall, 8th in passing, and 28th in rushing.
The offensive line was once again a disaster. Bradbury at center and Udoh at right guard were a big problem. At left tackle, the Vikings started Rashod Hill for six games. They allowed too much pressure for quarterback Kirk Cousins and couldn’t open enough holes in the running game.
The play calling was also not very good. First-time play caller Klint Kubiak was overwhelmed at times. Casual viewers of the game could often call if the Vikings ran or passed. Too much predictability led to some missed opportunities.
Cousins couldn’t get it going in some games. Against the Browns or Cowboys, for example. Both defenses were pretty good, but he didn’t play well.
An inconsistent offense combined with a bad situational defense still led to an 8-9 record, including one-possession games seemingly every week. That shows the talent the Vikings have on the roster. Therefore, the Vikings opted to fire the coaching staff to get better results out of the players.
They also addressed some of the weaknesses. Za’Darius Smith, Harrison Phillips, and Jordan Hicks will help the running defense. In addition, Smith will also be a good pass rusher, so the defense isn’t a Hunter-injury away from collapsing.
Ed Ingram will be an upgrade at right guard, and left tackle Darrisaw is evolving into a star lineman. Head coach Kevin O’Connell will handle the play-calling. He’s unproven in that department as well, but the expectation is that he’ll be good at his job. Improved play calling and a different scheme could fully unlock the offense with weapons all over the place and a good quarterback in town.
One weakness, however, hasn’t been addressed. Center Garrett Bradbury is named ‘on the hot seat’ in the ESPN article for obvious reasons. Kevin Seifert wrote about the center: “Bradbury was an immediate starter at center after the Vikings drafted him No. 18 overall in 2019. But he was benched briefly last season, and new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. That means Bradbury’s deal will expire after this season, giving him one final chance to convince the team he can be its long-term answer.”
Indeed, Bradbury is entering his contract year and, therefore, his final chance in Minnesota. His level of play in 2022 will determine his next contract. He won’t get paid the big bucks if he can’t improve. Especially his pass protection is a big problem, as he’s just not big enough to keep defensive tackles away from his quarterback. The Vikings didn’t try to fix it. They neither added a real competitor in free agency nor in the draft. Austin Schlottmann and converted guard Chris Reed are no real competition.
The Vikings finished 8-9 last season despite a lot of issues. Too many weaknesses in the team, combined with struggling coaches, injuries to key players, feuds all over the place, and, yes, some bad luck. A lot went wrong in 2021. Therefore, the ranking at 23 is a bit strange.
Most Vegas sportsbooks have the Vikings at 9 or 9.5 wins in 2022. That’s a whole lot better than the 23rd-best team. The number would even allow the Vikings to be in the mix for a playoff spot until the end of the regular season. The Eagles made the playoffs with a 9-8 record. If the leadership of the Vikings was correct and the new coaching staff and a few additions to the roster are enough to be a contender, the Vikings will soon rise in all sorts of power rankings.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt