The two teams seem to be heading in opposite directions, as the Vikings have won four of the last five games, while the Jaguars have lost 10 games in a row.
1. After a 1-5 start, Minnesota has won four of its last five games. How have the Vikings been able to turn things around, and do you think this team is a legitimate playoff contender?
Eric: I think there are two main factors that have played into the Vikings’ improved recent run of form:
1. The defense hasn’t been nearly as terrible. With so many new pieces and such little time to prepare for the season, we knew that the 2020 Vikings wouldn’t have the classic Mike Zimmer defense look to them. What we didn’t know was just how bad they’d be out of the gate. All of the young cornerbacks were injured, completely carved up by nearly every opponent before the bye, or both. The defense is still pretty poor compared to previous seasons, but they’re certainly playing better than the sum of their parts lately. This is statistically the worst defense the Vikings have had under Zimmer, but the fact that they’re even sniffing the playoffs is a testament to how well he is coaching his players up this year.
2. The offense seems to have found their identity. They lean heavily on all-world running back Dalvin Cook to set up big passing plays to their excellent one-two wide receiver punch of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Gary Kubiak has implemented some solid game plans and the offense has been able to overshadow their struggling defensive counterparts for the past month. As long as they avoid big mistakes, they have proven that they can consistently cash in on their opportunities.
2. What has the play of quarterback Kirk Cousins (Go Green!) been like this season — what do you like from him and what does he need to improve on?
First of all, I’m happy that you can claim your college allegiance when it comes to an NFL quarterback from that school. (As a North Dakota State University grad, I’m currently trying my best to pretend that Carson Wentz never went to my school.) While this Vikings team is still worse on the whole compared to its 2019 iteration, Cousins has played very well for the most part, especially in November. Many people will scoff at Cousins being the No. 5 graded quarterback on Pro Football Focus, but to be honest, it’s a fairly accurate reflection of his overall play. He has made a lot of impressive throws this season. He’s even starting to shed some of the negative narratives that have plagued him throughout his career, like winning on Monday night and fourth quarter comebacks (both of which he accomplished in the past three weeks).
As for what he needs to improve on, he has already shown some with what I consider to be his biggest flaw. Cousins is finally getting better at improvisation. If plays go as planned, Cousins has shown that he can compete with anyone with anyone in the NFL with his accuracy and ability to go through his reads. But when plays break down — especially with pressure up the middle — that’s when he has historically short-circuited. While Cousins can still struggle with adjusting on the fly, he has scrambled more effectively and made much better quick-hit decisions when pressured this season. His pocket presence might be the most improved part of his game in 2020.
Now don’t get me wrong — when it gets bad for Cousins, it’s still bad. But even his most ardent dissenters have to admit that the good has been very good this year.
3. With Dalvin Cook as the focal point of the offense, and possibly playing “banged up” this week, do you expect the Vikings to continue riding him heavily against the Jaguars, or do you think Minnesota will take a more cautious approach with Cook this weekend?
Eric: If Cook plays, I’ll expect that we’ll see a heavy dose of him this week, because...well, that’s what the Vikings do. Despite Cook’s injury history and having a capable backup in Alexander Mattison, Cook has averaged nearly 25 touches per game this season. Personally, I’d like to see that number slightly lower, but I also realize that Cook is probably the most important part of the Minnesota offense. You might see a bit more Mattison on Sunday if Cook isn’t 100 percent, but I certainly wouldn’t take him out of my fantasy lineup or anything. If he plays, he’ll get plenty of the ball unless the game gets out of hand either way.
4. Defensively, who should Jaguars fans be looking out for to make an impact?
Eric: There are two players on the Vikings defense that make everything possible: linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith. Those two are the absolute heart and soul of the Vikings defense, and I cringe to think what the unit would look like if either missed significant time. With so many young and unproven pieces around them, Kendricks and Smith help mask weaknesses everywhere on the defense. Smith can wreak havoc by disguising his coverage before the snap and blowing up plays on the blitz. I have often joked this season that Kendricks is currently the best cornerback on the team with his ability to cover multiple positions over the middle.
If you’re looking for a more unheralded name that could make an impact on Sunday, look for defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. The Vikings pass rush has been pretty quiet the past couple weeks, and it’s painfully obvious that the defensive front misses Danielle Hunter (IR) and Michael Pierce (opted out). But Odenigbo leads the team in pressures and quarterback hits. He has also shown the ability to make splash plays. I’d also include fourth round rookie D.J. Wonnum in the mix here for the pass rush, but right now it looks he’s in serious danger of missing the game.
5. Offensively, how should the Jaguars attack the Vikings’ defense, and defensively, how can Jacksonville try to stop Minnesota’s offense?
We have touched on both of these a bit in previous questions. On offense, Jacksonville should try to test Minnesota’s extremely young group of cornerbacks, especially if they have their full allotment of wide receivers. I could certainly see DJ Chark, Keelan Cole, and Laviska Shenault Jr. giving the Vikings some problems if they’re all available. But the Vikings have quietly been super susceptible to the run this season. If James Robinson can get going and put Mike Glennon in favorable positions on second and third down, the Jaguars should be able to sustain drives and keep it close.
Eric: On defense, Jacksonville doesn’t exactly excel at exploiting the biggest weakness of Minnesota’s offense, which is pressure up the middle. The Vikings can lose to absolutely anyone if their weak guards and underachieving second-year center are getting beat consistently. If the Jaguars can’t do that, then stopping the Minnesota offense is a much tougher task. Keeping Cook in check on early downs and limiting the damage Cousins, Jefferson, and Thielen can do on play action is easier said than done.
Of course, despite how well he has played lately, there’s still the possibility that Cousins puts up one of his patented clunkers against a seemingly vulnerable defense, just like he did against Atlanta earlier this season. I really hope that doesn’t happen. I like good Kirk.
Don’t overlook special teams either; it has been a huge sore spot for the Vikings this year. They’re currently dead last in both offensive and defensive starting field position this year, and shoddy kicking and coverage units are largely to blame. The Vikings drafted a return specialist (K.J. Osborn) in the fifth round this season and a long snapper (Austin Cutting) in the seventh round in 2019. They have 13 punt return yards as a team this season and they just waived Cutting. If Jacksonville manages to pull off the upset, Minnesota’s special teams could be to blame.
6. Score prediction?
Eric: Although the team is playing better, the Vikings have proven time and again this season that you can take absolutely nothing for granted. They made Andy Dalton look competent two weeks ago and they were extremely fortunate to escape with a win over a pretty mediocre Panthers team last week. Fans are very worried about this game becoming a repeat of the 2018 debacle against the Bills, where the team got blown out despite being big home favorites. But the Jaguars don’t appear to be incredibly interested in winning a lot of games down the stretch, so I’ll pick the Vikings to take care of business before their tough road game in Tampa next week. I’ll say 31-20 Vikings.
A big thank you to Eric for the very detailed and insightful answers to my questions. You can follow him on Twitter, and to keep up with what is going on with the Vikings, be sure to follow Daily Norseman as well.
For the crossover Q&A on Daily Norseman, click here.