Last season's 13-3 record and run to the NFC Championship Game followed by an aggressive offseason in which a new offensive coordinator and two splashy free agent signings – quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson – were added created heightened expectations.
At 6-6-1 with three games to go, those external expectations weren't satisfied. It's too late for the Vikings to top last season's regular season record and it's probably too late for the Vikings to enter the postseason as one of the League's most feared groups as they did last year. But it's not too late for the Vikings to achieve the goals they set forth to achieve last July when they gathered for the beginning of training camp.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer made a significant change this week, parting ways with offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and tapping on quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski to serve as the interim offensive coordinator. The goal of this move was to spark the offense to more production and for the running game to be a bigger factor in that process.
The time is now for the Vikings running game to get back on track. On Sunday, the Vikings face a Miami Dolphin defense that ranks No. 29 in rushing yards allowed and that yields 4.8 yards per carry. Next week, the Vikings head to Detroit and will face a defense that surrenders 4.6 yards per carry and ranks No. 18 against the run. Dalvin Cook is fresher than most after missing games in the middle of the season and so it won't take much to spring him on long runs and push the rushing totals higher.
Also, the Vikings will play their final three games indoors, with two of them coming at U.S. Bank Stadium. For a team that started slowly, recovered to win four of five in the middle of the season, and is now trying to shake a stretch of three losses in four games, this final three-game stretch is favorable, all things considered.
It doesn't mean it will be easy for the Vikings to get back on the winning track and regain their playoff form. It just means it's not too late.
Matchup of the Game: Brian O'Neill vs. Cameron Wake
For as porous as the Dolphins run defense has been at times this season, one thing that group can do is rush the passer. Their main pass-rushing weapons are on the edge of the defense – defensive ends Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake. The matchup on the offense's left side will be Riley Reiff versus Quinn, which is a battle of established veterans. The matchup on the other side is the one to watch because it's another established veteran – Wake – going against a rookie – right tackle Brian O'Neill. Injuries have thrust O'Neill into action and the second-round pick out of Pittsburgh has responded well. He'll need his best effort of the season to protect the right side of the offense for Cousins.
I'm hoping top see David Morgan light a spark for our run game and Kevin Stefanski bring some innovation to the offense. The defense is in playoff form. If we get this right on offense, we could be a tough team to beat.
-- Dan Witherington
There's no question the return of Morgan would give the running game a better chance to succeed. Morgan won't cure all the problems, but he can make a difference. The change at offensive coordinator could yield several subtle changes that could make a big difference in production. The offense wasn't lacking innovation with John DeFilippo. That wasn't and isn't the issue. Stefanski had a front row seat to watch and help DeFilippo achieve the kind of offensive balance head coach Mike Zimmer wanted. Now, Stefanski is pulling the strings so it's fair to expect him to pull some things that worked for DeFilippo and blend them with some new ideas and concepts.
"It's not the plays, it's the players." – Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski by way of former Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur
Coaching matters in the NFL and no one should try to marginalize the impact quality coaching can have on a player and on a team. With that being said, the outcomes of each game is ultimately decided by the players who line up on the field each game day. This message from Stefanski, which he credited to Shurmur, is a good reminder of that as Stefanski prepares for his first game as offensive coordinator in place of John DeFilippo.
Tweet of the Week
Stat of the Week
Since Week 5, the Vikings defense is allowing 83.6 fewer yards per game and 9.1 fewer points per game than it did in the first four weeks of the season
There are likely several reasons for this turnaround, from the strategy employed by head coach Mike Zimmer and his staff to the improved execution of the players. When Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson was asked about the defensive improvement on the Wobcast this week, though, he credited a member of the Vikings secondary. To find out who Monson views as a key to the turnaround, listen to the Wobcast.
National TV: FOX
Play-by-Play: Ian Eagles
Analyst: Dan Fouts
Sideline: Evan Washburn
National Radio: ESPN Radio
Play-by-play: Steve Levy
Analyst: Dusty Dvoracek
Sideline: Jeff Darlington
Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130
Play-by-Play: Paul Allen
Analyst: Pete Bercich
Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber