EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings 2021 season has had, well, a little bit of everything so far.
Minnesota has experienced back-to-back thrilling wins over Carolina and Detroit but also suffered tough losses to Cincinnati and Arizona. The Vikings third loss (to the Browns) also was by one score.
Add it all up, and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's team enters the break with an even 3-3 mark.
"I mean, could we better? Yeah," Zimmer said after Sunday's overtime win. "Could we be worse? Yeah. We are where we are. But I like the resiliency of this team. They fight."
The Vikings will get some much-needed rest this weekend before a tough stretch out of the bye against four teams (Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers) that are all currently leading their respective divisions.
In the meantime, here are six takeaways from Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
1. This is who the Vikings are — Eric Smith
It's not just players and coaches who need a week off. Vikings fans have been through their share of emotions over the past six weeks, too.
Through six games, the Vikings have a plus-10 point differential. And while that mark actually leads the NFC North, it's also a comment on how close Minnesota's games have been, with two already needing an overtime period.
Truth be told, it seems like most games around the league are extra tight this year. In fact, there has been at least one overtime game in each week so far in 2021. That's only happened one other time in league history (2018).
The Vikings have shown they have little margin for error thus far. While there have been plenty of bright spots, there have also been maddening miscues that have led to so many close games.
Zimmer's teams have shown that they rarely get blown out, and I expect that trend to continue. But the Vikings also rarely score big wins either, something that will be tough to do in the final 11 games given the tough schedule.
So get ready for more close games and more ups and downs. It seems that is the theme of the 2021 Vikings.
2. The emergence of K.J. Osborn — Eric Smith
Osborn has been perhaps the best feel-good story through six games, as he bounced back from a disappointing rookie season to become a bona fide threat in the passing game.
And not only has he been reliable in clutch situations (he's had plenty of late-game catches, including the walk-off winner against the Panthers), but his emergence has also allowed the Vikings to open up their offensive scheme in the wake of Irv Smith, Jr.'s, meniscus injury.
According to data from Sharp Football Analysis, the Vikings have used 11 personnel (3WR, plus a RB and TE) on 201 of their 419 offensive plays so far this season, a whopping 48 percent. Compare that to the 2020 season — when Minnesota ran 294 plays in that set (29 percent) — or the 2019 season, when just 25 percent of the Vikings offense operated out of 11 personnel.
Another thing to note is that Minnesota seemingly has run that formation at all times in a game, rather than when trying to play catch up, which is what we saw from the Vikings last season.
So while it's clear Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak has shown a liking for that scheme, it also gives the Vikings the potential to have an explosive passing offensive going forward.
With Kirk Cousins playing well — and the trio of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Osborn on the rise — Minnesota could really light up the scoreboard if they lean into that group going forward.
3. Cousins has played quicker & calmer — Craig Peters
The differences in traditional stats for Cousins between the first six games of 2020 and this season are wide.
2020: 113-of-175 passing (64.8 percent), 1,475 yards, 11 TDs, 10 INTs, 88.2 passer rating, 14 sacks
2021: 166-of-239 passing (69.5 percent), 1,769 yards, 13 TDs, 2 INTs, 105.4 passer rating, 9 sacks
Beyond those numbers, Next Gen Stats also reveals a big difference.
Cousins' average time to throw this season is 2.64 seconds, which is the fifth-fastest among 33 qualifying passers.
That's nearly a quarter of a second faster than in 2020 when his average time to throw of 2.88 seconds was 34th of 41 passers and almost half a second faster than in 2019 when his time of 3.01 seconds was 39th out of 39 passers.
Play calls, such as fewer play-action bootlegs with deep shots, can explain some of that reduction, but it appears Cousins has been more decisive, particularly at the start and end of games.
The Vikings scored touchdowns on opening possessions in Weeks 2-4 and field goals the past two weeks, even though Minnesota wanted more out of last week's possession that began at the Carolina 22. He's also been calm in clutch situations at the end of games with back-to-back game-winning drives.
4. Run game still trying to reach full stride — Craig Peters
Even with the switch to use more three-receiver sets, the Vikings still want success running the football. Minnesota's ground attack ranks eighth in yardage (767) but last in rushing touchdowns (two).
The 2020 Vikings rushed for 735 yards and eight scores through the first six weeks on the way totaling 2,283 yards (fifth in NFL) and 20 scores (sixth).
Minnesota's average per carry has slipped from 4.9, which ranked fourth in 2020, to 4.5, which is 11th.
It's worth noting that Dalvin Cook, one of the best in the biz, suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 that cause him to miss Weeks 3 and 5 completely and part of Week 4. He returned to the lineup at Carolina and scored a 16-yard touchdown after gaining 13 more yards than expected.
Plays like that, and Cook's threat in the red zone could help Minnesota boost its touchdown rate on possessions inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
The Vikings are 12-for-18 for a rate of 66.7 percent, which is tied for 10th. That's a dip from the rate of 71.2 percent (42-for-59) that ranked sixth.
5. A (mostly) improved special teams unit – Lindsey Young
The Vikings last season struggled on special teams in seemingly all areas.
Kicker Dan Bailey experienced significant challenges in the second half of the season, ending the 2020 campaign with a field goal rate of 68.2 percent, the NFL's lowest. He was also just 2-of-5 on field goal attempts from 50-plus yards. The punting game ebbed and flowed, as Britton Colquitt's 45.1-yard average per boot (20th in the NFL) was satisfactory, but he recorded an average net of just 36.7 (29th) after ranking sixth overall in 2019 with a net average of 42.6.
Zimmer also was unhappy with Minnesota's return game on punts and kickoffs.
Zimmer elevated Ryan Ficken from assistant to special teams coordinator for the 2021 campaign, and through six games there have been noticeable improvements – although the unit certainly hasn't been without hiccups.
The Vikings have seen increased consistency across the board on special teams, although it is worth noting that 11 games remain this season.
So far, though, punter Jordan Berry is averaging 42.8 net yards per punt (eighth-best in the NFL) with a general average of 48.4 (sixth-best). Berry has no touchbacks, and his longest punt of 63 yards ranks 13th in the league.
Greg Joseph has missed a few kicks this season but has impressed Zimmer on field goals from 50-plus yards. He leads the NFL in such attempts, entering the bye good on 5-of-6.
6. Pumped up the pass rush – Lindsey Young
Minnesota's pass rush experienced a major drop off in 2020.
With the departure of a couple of key pieces in free agency, Danielle Hunter being sidelined by a neck injury for the campaign's entirety and Michael Pierce opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, the Vikings simply struggled to get to the quarterback.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer focused heavily on defense in free agency this spring, though, and Hunter and Pierce both returned to the lineup.
The payoff is undeniable.
Through the first six games, the Vikings have recorded 21 sacks – just two fewer than their 2020 season total. Minnesota's 21 sacks tied with Chicago for the league lead through Week 6. The Vikings sacks-per-pass-attempt ranks second-best in the NFL at 10.29 percent; last season, that number was 4.25 percent and ranked 28th.