EAGAN, Minn. — Count Rick Spielman among those who are pleased at where the Vikings are at heading into the bye week, as Minnesota sits at 8-3 and in contention for both the NFC North and a playoff spot.
But the Vikings general manager also made it clear Tuesday in his bye week media session that the identity of the Vikings has seemingly flipped a switch in 2019.
"The one thing that is different this year is that we're finding different ways to win games," Spielman said. "It's not just relying on one phase all the time. I know sometimes if the defense is having an off day, then we're running the ball. Or if the running game is not there, then we're able to make plays in the passing game.
"I think we haven't played our best football yet, and I think we're still evolving as a football team. But I know you always want to try to play your best football at the end of the season. Talking with [Head Coach Mike Zimmer], I think the bye week and break comes at a great time," Spielman added. "It's been a grind since training camp started through these 11 weeks, and we're going to give our guys an opportunity to heal up. We have a very tough and challenging schedule ahead these next five weeks."
In years past, the Vikings were known as a gritty, defensive-minded football team under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. The unit has been among the league's best in recent seasons, finishing in the top 10 in points allowed per game each year since 2015.
Minnesota's defense is again in the top 10 in points allowed [ranking fifth at 18.6], but the Vikings rank 15th in yards allowed per game at 338.6 this season.
On the flip side, the Vikings now boast their most productive offense since Zimmer arrived in 2014. Minnesota ranks eighth by scoring 26.3 points per game, and are ninth with 378.6 yards per game.
Spielman pointed to a recent two-game stretch that shows just how dangerous the Vikings offense can be.
"I believe we went into the Dallas game, and they were one of the top-five run defenses, and with the combination of how Dalvin [Cook] and [Alexander] Mattison played, I think those two combined for about 150 [rushing] yards," Spielman said. "And I know Denver has an excellent defense that we played against. I think they were a top-five pass defense, and we were able to create some plays [in the passing game with Kirk Cousins throwing for 319 yards]."
"I think what you're seeing, with the leadership of Coach Zimmer and this coaching staff, is the resiliency of this football team — the grit, the mental toughness — as we've been through these first 11 weeks. That's the culture we've tried to build down there with the type of players we've brought in."
Minnesota has five games remaining to determine its possible playoff seeding for January. It will be fascinating to watch how the Vikings identity — both as an offense and as a team — evolve over the final weeks of the season.
"This is what we envisioned, and especially Coach Zim' envisioned, of what he wants the offense to look like," Spielman said. "Being able to run the ball, the play action. But this week [against Denver], we were down and had to actually go to the shotgun and spread the ball around and make big plays in the passing game.
"I think that shows we have the ability to do that as well, even with our key pieces not out there," Spielman added. "I think that's the sign of a good football team — evolving — because every week is going to be different. Every challenge is going to be different."
Here are five other topics Spielman discussed Wednesday:
1. Shoring up the pass defense
One reason the Vikings defense has dipped to the middle of the league in yards allowed is an up-and-down pass defense.
From 2016 to 2018, Minnesota ranked either second or third in the entire NFL in passing yards allowed per game, with a range between 192.4 and 207.9 yards during that span.
Through 11 games in 2019, the Vikings rank 19th overall, having allowed 244.5 passing yards per game.
Spielman addressed the subject, and noted that he expects Zimmer to dive into the area during the bye week.
Furthermore, Spielman said Vikings coaches will look at all areas they can improve on for the stretch run.
"I think that's the one thing that's great about Coach Zim'," Spielman said. "When he heads to the ranch, he's not just going there and sitting in a deer stand. He's sitting in a deer stand, but he's trying to figure out how we do get better on pass defense, because that's one of the things that was the staple of our defense in the past.
"We've had some struggles this year … guys are in position, but 'Why aren't they making some of the plays they've made in the past?' The one thing about Coach Zim' is that he's a fixer," Spielman added. "He's very honed in and focused on getting some things we need to get fixed … that's what our staff is up doing right now … self-scouting and [looking at] what we need to get better to help us make a strong push here in these last five weeks."
2. Appreciation for Diggs
There was no question Stefon Diggs was frustrated after Minnesota's Week 4 loss in Chicago. He was among the many Vikings players who were.
Through the first four games, Diggs had 13 receptions for 210 yards and a score. But he's been on fire since then, with 33 catches for 670 yards and four touchdowns in seven games.
Spielman said Wednesday that he appreciates Diggs' competitive spirit, even if it meant the wide receiver openly wears his emotions on his sleeve.
"We handle everything internally," Spielman said about Diggs missing a practice. "He's a phenomenal playmaker for us. He's an extremely talented kid.
"The one thing that makes him great is because he's so driven to win and plays with such a chip on his shoulder," Spielman added. "I'll just say everything was handled internally and leave it at that."
Diggs ranks sixth in the league with 880 receiving yards, but is first among all qualifying players with 19.1 yards per catch.
3. Sorting through the pass interference rule
The NFL's new pass interference rule — in which coaches can challenge for both potential offensive or defensive pass interference that isn't called, or challenge for a play where the flag was thrown — has been one of the league's hotly debated topics in 2019.
According to ESPN's Kevin Seifert, coaches were successful on just two of 41 challenges from Week 3 leading up to Week 11, good for a success rate of 4.9 percent.
Spielman weighed in on the new rule, which was implemented in the offseason for just the 2019 season.
"I know, with the new rule, you can challenge, but there have been very few overturned," Spielman said. "I think that whole rule in general … it was a one-year rule … that will be discussed when we go back down to the Owners' Meeting this spring."
The Vikings were affected by an offensive pass interference call reversal in Week 2 against Green Bay. Inside the final two minutes of the first half, officials took another look at the touchdown and eventually ruled that an uncalled offensive pass interference should be added to wipe off Diggs' touchdown. Minnesota settled for a field goal, missing out on three-to-five points in a game it lost by five.
Spielman said Vikings coaches have implored players to keep playing, even if they disagree with the call.
"I just don't know where the consistency is because it's so new," Spielman said. "Sometimes there's a lack of consistency on what is and what isn't … 'clear and obvious.'
"But you have to go with what their decisions are," Spielman added. "There's nothing we can do about it; we keep fighting and playing on regardless of how some of these calls have gone."
4. Analyzing the 2019 draft class
Back in April, the Vikings selected a whopping 12 players in the 2019 NFL Draft, including four offensive players in the first four selections.
Three of those first four picks — Garrett Bradbury, Irv Smith, Jr., and Mattison — have all made noticeable contributions to the Vikings so far in their rookie seasons.
Spielman credited the relationship between Minnesota's scouting department and the coaching staff for identifying players that would be a good fit for the Vikings offensive scheme.
"I think that goes back to giving credit to how well we work together with the coaches," Spielman said. "The biggest thing when Kevin [Stefanski] became the full-time offensive coordinator and Gary [Kubiak] was coming in, just having full-time meetings before we got into the personnel, or into the process, was to identify all of the traits we were going to be looking for.
"And, they're great coaches. They know and everybody knows that these young guys are going to have to play and step up. The coaches take on that challenge, where we're bringing in the right guys to not only fit the physical part of the scheme but also the type of guys from a character standpoint that we're trying to build this with, 'At least you have a chance to have a chance with these guys,' " Spielman added. "I do know for as much time as we spend watching tape and evaluating what we do, we really try to spend as much time on, 'Do they love football? Do they fit all of the off-field traits, do they fit all of the grit and toughness,' everything we try to look for when we bring guys in."
Vikings.com highlighted Smith, Jr.'s recent surge on Monday, as the rookie tight end caught his first NFL touchdown against the Broncos.
"You saw how Alabama used him last year," Spielman said. "They used him as a wing, on the line of scrimmage, split him out, so a lot of the stuff you saw when we evaluated him on tape last year was his ability to create mismatches because of how naturally gifted he is," Spielman said. "But, they still have to learn. … I know that we have two pretty good tight ends in there with him with Kyle Rudolph and [Tyler] Conklin."
The question originally centered on Cousins' play, which has landed him in some conversations for NFL MVP candidates.
Quarterback play can benefit from a supporting cast, and an offense usually excels when a QB executes the way that Cousins has during Minnesota's stretch of six victories in seven games.
Spielman credited analytics, which is somewhat a nebulous term since the field of information seems to expand daily and has sometimes drawn dissension from Zimmer, for helping enhance a system to maximize players' strengths.
He said: "One thing we wanted to identify this offseason — just like with any other player, 'What are his strengths, and how do we make sure we are putting him in the best situations to have success?'
"When you go back and go through all of the analytics — even though I know Coach Zimmer is a huge, huge 'proponent' of analytics, as you guys know — there are certain things there that can tell you, 'OK, this guy excels in specific areas,' " he added. "With what Kevin Stefanski has done, and Gary Kubiak and some of the new coaches we brought in on offense, they've really done an outstanding job, not only on identifying where Kirk excels, but where Dalvin Cook, the receivers, we've seen the tight ends excel, so they've done a tremendous job of developing this system. And even the offensive line. … [In the offseason we said,] 'Let us in the personnel department know what traits you are looking for,' and we were able to match traits with those players we have right now to excel in this scheme."