The Vikings ended their regular season on a high note but are turning the page to 2021 much earlier than they would have liked.
Minnesota finished 7-9 and missed the postseason, and it will be interesting to see what the offseason holds.
ESPN recently asked its beat reporters to share "what went wrong" and the "biggest offseason question" for each non-playoff team. Courtney Cronin delved into the Vikings 2020 campaign in which the roster – particularly the defense – was ravaged by injuries and hindered by inexperience. Cronin wrote:
The Vikings couldn't predict Michael Pierce opting out [due to the COVID-19 pandemic] or Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Mike Hughes sustaining season-ending injuries. Minnesota learned how challenging it would be to plug inexperienced players into starters' roles and expect the same results on defense. […] While the Vikings offensive line finished tied for 16thin pass block win rate thanks to the play of the tackles, the interior remains a major problem. And for how well the offense performed, ranking [fourth] in yards per game, fifth in rushing and [11th] in scoring, the Vikings often played from behind and relied more on their rushing attack than their wide receivers when they needed an offensive surge.
As for the biggest offseason question, Cronin asked which part of the roster Minnesota will lend the most attention to.
With needs on the offensive and defensive lines, how will the Vikings prioritize their decisions in free agency and the draft? The offense has leapfrogged the defense as the strength of the team, but if Minnesota doesn't upgrade the offensive line and find a better balance with the run and pass game, it will struggle to improve. Could the Vikings consider drafting a quarterback if they don't extend Cousins after his deal ends after 2022? Defensively, Minnesota needs its injured and opt-out players to return and continue to add in the secondary and up front.
PFF Spotlights QB Performance in Vikings-Lions season finale
Minnesota and Detroit put up big numbers against each other Sunday, totaling 72 points between the two NFC North offenses.
Lions QB Matt Stafford played in the final game despite injuries and despite Detroit having already been eliminated from the postseason. Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer opened his postgame press conference by tipping his cap to the opposing quarterback.
"I want to share my utmost respect for Matthew Stafford, the way he battled and played today through the injuries he's had," Zimmer said. "I've got the utmost respect for him as a player and a leader, [and] they've got some great weapons."
View photos of the Vikings in "Big Head Mode" following the 37-35 victory over the Lions at Ford Field in the 2020 season finale.
Analytics site Pro Football Focus spotlighted the performance of Stafford and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in the Week 17 matchup. PFF's Ben Linsey wrote:
Matthew Stafford was back to firing the ball deep, with an average depth of target nearly 17 yards downfield, and Marvin Jones was his top target on those looks. The two combined for eight completions on 11 targets for 180 yards and two touchdowns. They narrowly missed on a third touchdown … that was overturned upon review.
On the other side, Kirk Cousins averaged over 10 yards per pass attempt himself — throwing for 405 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another. The Lions pass defense has struggled mightily all season, and it had yet another dismal outing. They will likely end the season ranked dead last in EPA allowed per pass play (0.364).
Linsey also recapped rookie outings on both sides of the ball. He started with Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, who surpassed Anquan Boldin to set a new NFL rookie receiving record, saying it was "only fitting" that Jefferson cap an impressive season with a 133-yard game.
View game action photos as the Vikings take on the Lions in Detroit for the 2020 season finale.
He then looked at first-year offensive linemen and cornerbacks, offering evaluations.
Of the two rookie guards — Jonah Jackson (Lions) and Ezra Cleveland (Vikings) — Cleveland put forth the better performance in pass protection. Pending final review, Jackson was charged with four pressures allowed against a Vikings defensive front that struggled to generate pressure all season. If that figure holds, it would tie the most pressures Jackson has allowed in a single game this season.
Jeff Gladney and Harrison Hand both drew starts at cornerback for Minnesota — Gladney in the slot and Hand outside. Gladney had some success inside, allowing just one reception for seven yards into his coverage on 20-plus slot coverage snaps, pending final review.
Craig's '5 extra points' include praise of Cousins, criticism of D-line
With the Vikings 2020 season now barely in the rearview mirror, Mark Craig of the Star Tribune rolled out his final “5 Extra Points” article of observations from Sunday's game.
Craig recapped Minnesota's high-level struggles on defense and specifically pointed to the Vikings pass rush – or lack thereof – during the campaign. He wrote:
The Vikings entire decimated defense entered Week 17 tied with Jared Allen's 2011 sack total of 22. But the deadlock was broken! Hercules Mata'afa had the Vikings lone sack Sunday, but the season total of 23 still checked in dead last in team history since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Even in 1982 – the nine-game strike-shortened season – the Vikings had 30 sacks. This year's sack yardage of 126 yards also ranks last.
Craig also made comparisons between Jefferson and Randy Moss, commented on kicker Dan Bailey's "freefall" over the final quarter of the season, and highlighted Cousins' stack of starts for Minnesota.
Quick, name the top five Vikings quarterbacks in career games started. Fran Tarkenton, of course. He had 170. Tommy Kramer (110). Daunte Culpepper (80). Wade Wilson? Yep. He had 48. Then who? Kirk Cousins.
His 47thregular-season start for the Vikings on Sunday moved him ahead of Brad Johnson into fifth place. Cousins has done this in three years, missing only one game when Zimmer rested his starters in Week 17 last season.
With the win Sunday, Cousins' record as a Viking is 25-21-1 (.543). The win total ranks sixth behind Tarkenton (91-73-6, .553), Kramer (54-56, .491), Culpepper (38-42, .475), Johnson (28-18, .609) and Wilson (27-21, .563). Cousins reached a career-high 35 touchdown passes this season.