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8 Takeaways From 2019 as Vikings Head Into the Bye

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have a break this weekend, as players and coaches are getting some rest and relaxation during the bye week.

Minnesota has endured ups and a few downs in its first 11 games. The Vikings sport an 8-3 record, good enough for second place in the NFC North and in prime position for a playoff spot.

The Vikings have five games remaining, beginning with a Week 13 road game in Seattle on Monday Night Football.

But before we look ahead to the final five-game stretch, here are 8 takeaways — one for each of the Vikings wins so far in 2019.

1. Kirk Cousins is playing like an MVP candidate

The Vikings sat at a crossroads, just 2-2 after four games, as frustration mounted after a pair of disappointing road losses in Green Bay and Chicago.

Enter Kirk Cousins, who has been arguably the NFL's best quarterback since then, delivering one clutch performance after another to lead Minnesota to six wins in seven games.

Since Week 5, Cousins has completed 162 of 221 passes (73.3 percent) for 2,020 yards with 18 touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating over the past seven games is 126.5.

Cousins has always had the talent and work ethic to go on this type of run. But with a great collection of skill players around him — more on them below — Cousins is playing at his highest level and is on pace for the best season his eight-year career.

Cousins has completed 226 of 320 passes (70.6 percent) for 2,756 yards with 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating is 114.8, which ranks second in the league behind Russell Wilson's 114.9 rating.

The Vikings quarterback will have to continue to prove his doubters wrong over the final stretch of the season, but there is no question his play has elevated him into the MVP discussion as the calendar heads toward December.

2. Stefon Diggs is a big-play machine

Stefon Diggs has always produced plenty of highlight-worthy plays, but the Vikings wide receiver has taken that ability to another level so far in 2019.

Entering Week 12, Diggs ranks sixth in the NFL with 880 receiving yards. But he's accumulated those yards on just 46 catches, as his 19.1 yards-per-catch average is tied for third in the NFL. By comparison, the five players ahead of him in receiving yards each have at least 56 catches, and they have averaged 66 catches apiece as a group.

Diggs has five touchdown catches in 2019, with four of them coming at least 45 yards away from the end zone. The former fifth-round pick had just two such scores coming into this season.

Diggs is perhaps one of the Vikings most emotional players, a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve each and every game.

But he's also a bonafide deep-ball threat on every play, as opposing defenses have found out all too often this season.

3. Depth players have stepped up

Moments after the Vikings thrilling win in Dallas, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo said something that stuck out.

"We have a bunch of fighters here," Odenigbo said. "We brought 53 of our best men and we came here to fight. We knew the obstacles, but I'm proud of these boys."

Odenigbo's quote was about Minnesota's resiliency, but also about how Minnesota's depth has shined often in 2019.

Odenigbo has been one of those standout players, as he has a career-high 3.0 sacks, tied for the third-most on the team with Linval Joseph. Odenigbo has also made a number of noticeable run stops, including one on Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott late in the game that helped deliver a win.

Jayron Kearse has also stepped up in recent weeks, as the safety has had a hand in a pair of last-second plays in back-to-back games. He intercepted a Hail Mary on Dallas' final pass, and then filled in for an injured Harrison Smith on Denver's final drive, forcing incompletions on the Broncos' final two end-zone attempts.

Other defensive players who have played well when called upon include defensive linemen Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes, plus linebacker Eric Wilson, who has a pair of sacks.

Offensively, veteran guard Dakota Dozier has been crucial with four starts along the offensive line. He started at left guard for Pat Elflein in Week 2, then switched sides and started for right guard Josh Kline in Weeks 4, 6 and 11. He also played 38 snaps at Dallas after Kline was injured.

Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell has made an impact in his fourth season with six catches for 84 yards, while tight end Tyler Conklin's unheralded blocking has helped paved the way for the league's No. 3 rushing attack.

4. Cookin' with Dalvin – By Lindsey Young

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer wanted to run the ball more in 2019, and the Vikings have certainly done that.

While several factors certainly contribute to the better balance between run and pass – offensive coaching staff, scheme, offensive line – it doesn't hurt to have arguably the NFL's top running back shouldering much of the load.

A fully healthy Dalvin Cook has shown consistently what fans caught glimpses of during his first two seasons. The 24-year-old entered the bye week ranked No. 2 in the NFL in rushing yards (1,017) and yards from scrimmage (1,472) behind Carolina's Christian McCaffrey.

Cook's 4.8 yards per carry through Minnesota's first 11 games is tied for 12th among running backs. He is averaging 19.4 carries and 4.9 targets per game and already has 11 touchdowns after combining for just four his first two seasons.

And let's not forget, he also is a threat out of the backfield, having helped make the Vikings screen game extremely effective. He has racked up 45 catches for 455 yards with an average of 10.1 yards per reception.

5. Rookies making an impact – By Lindsey Young

The Vikings have felt the impact – in a positive way – of their 2019 draft class all season long.

Garrett Bradbury went straight from first-round selection to starting center, which was expected, but other rookies have also contributed early.

Second-round pick Irv Smith, Jr., has impressed coaches with his progress in the offense and is a strong complement to veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. Smith has helped stretch the field and added another target for Kirk Cousins in the screen game; he has 27 catches for 261 yards and his first NFL score, which he grabbed against Denver to help spark Minnesota's comeback win.

Running back Alexander Mattison, drafted in the third round, also has notched his first career touchdown. Mattison has proven a reliable reserve back behind Cook. So far, he has 82 carries for 394 yards and a touchdown.

The Vikings selected receiver Bisi Johnson (247) in the seventh round, and he has already played a significant role. Johnson has stepped up in the absence of Adam Thielen, sidelined with a hamstring injury, and has shown his ability to make big catches. He has 24 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Stability on special teams – By Lindsey Young

The Vikings started the 2019 season with three different players at punter, kicker and long snapper than they had to start the 2018 campaign.

But while it felt this offseason that questions remained surrounding the specialist positions, those uncertainties were ironed out and the results have paid off.

Minnesota retained kicker Dan Bailey, who signed with the Vikings in Week 3 last season, and inked veteran punter Britton Colquitt just before the start of the 2019 campaign. At long snapper, rookie long snapper Austin Cutting has made up for his limited experience with his professional approach to the position.

The trio of specialists has jelled well, and the results have shown.

Thanks to a smooth operation with his teammates, Bailey has twice been named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance. Through 11 games, he has made 15 of 17 (88.2 percent) field goals attempted and is 30-of-32 (93.8 percent) on extra points. He also surpassed the 1,000 career points, reaching the benchmark against the Broncos.

7. Big plays allowed have been problematic – By Craig Peters

Based on the emails sent to the Monday Morning Mailbag inbox, the biggest cause for consternation so far among Vikings fans is the number of big plays against the Vikings defense this season.

There is a departure from what the NFL has generally seen as a normal allowance by the Vikings under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.

Eric pointed out in this week's Numbers of Note that the Vikings have allowed 40 passing plays of at least 20 yards through 11 games of the 2019 slate after allowing just 43 in all of 2018 and only 35 in 2017 when Minnesota led the NFL in scoring and total defense.

Two such plays occurred on opening drives in losses at Green Bay and Chicago. Sunday's 31-yard completion to Courtland Sutton on Denver's first possession was the first pass play of 20 or more yards allowed by Minnesota on an opponent's opening drive since Week 4 against the Bears.

It's no coincidence that the Vikings have gone 6-1 in that stretch, and that their only loss since the calendar flipped from September included three pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed, as well as a 91-yard touchdown run.

The Vikings have done a good job of bending but not breaking for the most part and excelling with their red zone defense, but will look for more ways to reduce big plays down the stretch.

8. Front 7 has been impactful – By Craig Peters

The Vikings front seven has performed well in multiple facets, affecting passers if not sacking them, and stuffing the run.

Edge rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have been on the national scene for quite some time, as have linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Each of those players has at least one Pro Bowl to his credit.

Eric Kendricks has been sort of the base drum of the band since becoming a starter as a rookie in 2015. Once thought undersized by some to man the middle, Kendricks is showing that he's built to be an impact player in today's NFL. His 12 pass breakups have tied a Vikings single-season record by Matt Blair and Ben Leber, and he's on pace to lead Minnesota in tackles for a fifth straight season. National media are taking notice of Kendricks, who has a strong case for his first Pro Bowl selection. Click here to vote and help him get there.

Griffen, Hunter and Joseph have all had strong moments this season, and Barr's sack on the first snap of 2019 was a tone-setter. Less heralded but equally important has been the play of Shamar Stephen, who rejoined the Vikings this offseason after a year in Seattle.

It was predicted in March that Shamar's return to do a good bit of dirty work would free up linebackers, and that's been the case.

The Vikings rank sixth in the NFL with 94.2 rushing yards allowed per game, a figure dramatically skewed from the 85.1 per game it would be without the 91-yard touchdown allowed at Kansas City.

Minnesota also ranks third in goal-to-go percentage (56.25) and fourth in red zone percentage (46.67). Those are the rates at which opponents have scored touchdowns after moving the ball inside the 10- and 20-yard lines, respectively.