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2020 Midpoint: Opportunistic Vikings Hopeful for 2nd-Half Surge

EAGAN, Minn. — Doesn't it feel like we've all been in a bit of scramble mode for most of the 2020 calendar year?

You can include the Vikings in that group, especially during the first half of their 2020 season.

It seems each NFL season brings its own twists and turns, but 2020 has been a different animal for the Vikings, who find themselves at 3-5 at the midway point.

If you had told Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer before the season that his team would have that record at the halfway point, he would have been disappointed. And he likely still is.

But given the fact Zimmer's squad is coming off back-to-back wins, both over divisional opponents, there a sense of optimism these days at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

Even if there wasn't after the first six weeks of the season. The encouragement from a pair of one-point losses to solid teams was offset by a noncompetitive showing against a previously winless Atlanta team on the way to the Week 7 bye.

"When you're sitting there at … what were we, 1-5? … everything is collapsing. You're getting ready to jump off the cliff," Zimmer said. "You beat Green Bay, and then you start to get a little juice. You beat Detroit, now you start getting a little bit more juice.

"So, I think the confidence level helps. Continuing to play well, I think, gives us confidence we can do these things against good football teams," Zimmer added. "And Detroit's a good team. They really are. Maybe they weren't their best [Sunday], but it was a good win."

Here's a look at how the Vikings got to where they are now, and what the second half of the season could bring for Minnesota.


1st-half recap

The Vikings operated a bit under the "boom or bust" mantra through the first eight games. Dalvin Cook has been on fire of late — and has produced all season — but the Vikings were hurt by a flurry of turnovers early in the season.

Cook leads the league with 858 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns, while Adam Thielen (tied for third with seven receiving touchdowns) and rookie Justin Jefferson (657 receiving yards; and the league's second-best mark at 18.4 yards per catch) have helped carry the load.

But through eight games, the Vikings are tied for the sixth-most giveaways in the league with 12, and that's after not having any the past two weeks. Kirk Cousins was connected to 11 of those, with 10 coming off interceptions. In three wins, neither Cousins nor any teammate has turned the ball over once.

Up front, the Vikings seem to have found a solid starting five of late, especially in the run game. Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill have been steady at tackle, while second-year center Garrett Bradbury has taken a step forward. Dakota Dozier has started every game at left guard while rookie Ezra Cleveland, who has started three straight games at right guard, has shown the talent and athleticism that made him a second-round pick.

When they're clicking — which usually means feeding Cook and his explosive play-making abilities — the Vikings wear teams down and pound the rock.

2nd-half outlook

Cook has catapulted himself into the MVP race with 478 yards from scrimmage and six scores in the past two games. But it's unlikely he can turn in those performances every single week, especially as defenses start to key in on him, and perhaps fully sell out to stop the run.

It's worth noting that the Vikings will see only two defenses that currently rank in the top 10 in rushing defense the rest of the way. But those two units — Tampa Bay and New Orleans — are the league's two best teams in that area.

But if opponents scheme to take away Cook, the Vikings could continue to have success on offense with a more balanced attack, which we saw a glimpse of against the Lions. Yes, Cook racked up his first 200-yard rushing game of his career, but Cousins was efficient as he threw for 220 yards and three scores for a passer rating of 141.7.

Minnesota's offense is built with a run-first identity, but with the way Cook and Alexander Mattison can run the ball, that could lend to chunk plays on play-action passes from Cousins to his pass catchers.


1st-half recap

The Vikings underwent a bit of a makeover on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, especially at cornerback. And with key veterans such as Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce and Anthony Barr not in the lineup, there were some struggles in the early going for Minnesota.

Zimmer admitted things took longer to click than he thought they would, as the Vikings find themselves 29th in the league in yards allowed per game (412.9) and 25th in points allowed per game (29.3).

But much like how the past two wins have injected some life into the Vikings, Minnesota's defense has also shown recent flashes of turning the corner. The unit held on late to defeat the Packers — something that might not have happened in the first month of the season — and then played perhaps its best overall game in a win over the Lions.

The unit has been led by a handful of veterans, especially at safety and linebacker. Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson might make up on of the league's top linebacker duo at the moment, and the same can be said at safety with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris on the back end.

But youngsters have stepped into the fold, too, with rookies Jeff Gladney and D.J. Wonnum making more of an impact week by week.

2nd-half outlook

Zimmer's big focus at the bye week was eliminating big plays. The Vikings allowed six passing plays of 40-plus yards in their first six games, but have cut that number to one in back-to-back wins.

Minnesota's coaching staff has tinkered with its scheme and teaching methods to help gain more cohesiveness, and the defense has responded with its stingiest point totals of the season in the past two weeks.

That's a formula that could continue down the stretch, as the Vikings will currently see just one team — New Orleans — that ranks in the top 10 in both points and yards per game. In fact, Minnesota will see four teams in its final eight games that rank in the bottom 10 in points scored per game (Chicago, Jacksonville, Dallas and Carolina).

Key questions remain in the second half, such as whether or not the defensive line can generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And can the Vikings actually get healthy at cornerback and have the same unit for multiple games in a row?

The unit has made progress of late, but there could also be a few tense moments down the stretch. If Zimmer's unit can deliver, perhaps the Vikings find themselves in the playoff conversation over the final few weeks of the 2020 season.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.

Special Teams

1st-half recap

This group was solid if not unspectacular through eight games. Veterans Dan Bailey and Britton Colquitt mostly shined, although each had a hiccup or two along the way. Austin Cutting was a bit up-and-down at long snapper.

Minnesota didn't allow any game-changing plays in either return game, but the Vikings also didn't produce any either.

K.J. Osborn and Chad Beebe combined for five punt returns for 10 yards; the 2.0-yard average ranks dead last in the NFL. Osborn has a team-high 13 kickoff returns for 289 yards; as the Vikings return average of 20.9 yards on kickoffs is tied for 17th.

As far as bright spots, Mike Boone and Dan Chisena did team up for a forced fumble and recovery against the Texans. And Bailey and Colquitt were reliable in extremely windy conditions in Green Bay.

The low point? Allowing a pair of blocked punts to the Lions.

2nd-half outlook

Speaking of the weather, that likely won't be a problem for the majority of the rest of the season. While the Week 10 game is in Chicago, six of the final seven games are indoors, with four at home and one each in New Orleans and Detroit.

The ideal conditions could hopefully mean some improved play for this unit. Bailey and Colquitt can be counted upon, but with so many young players at other spots, someone will need to step up down the stretch.

An unheralded reason for the Vikings 2019 playoff appearance was the steadiness on special teams down the stretch. And if Minnesota wants to get back into the dance, a positive pivotal moment in the final eight games could help swing a game of two in the Vikings direction.