The preseason has come and gone, with the Vikings going 3-1 in their sixth exhibition slate under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
The focus now turns to the regular season, which Minnesota will open by hosting Atlanta at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 8.
Before we get there, Vikings.com's Mike Wobschall, Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters have compiled our prevailing thoughts from the preseason. Each of us elaborates below on elements that might stand out about the 2019 Vikings, based on what we've observed in practices and podium sessions.
Practicing what is preached yields results in running game | By @wobby
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has been vocal about his desire to run the ball more often and more efficiently. Merely talking about it wasn't good enough anymore for Zimmer, though. The 2019 offseason was a time to actually put the work in to do it.
The effort started with the coaching staff. Zimmer promoted Kevin Stefanski from interim offensive coordinator to full-time offensive coordinator. Stefanski has worked with Zimmer for six seasons and knows very well the head coach's demand to field a productive rushing attack is genuine. Then Zimmer brought in Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison, a pair of coaches who have put together productive rushing attacks together at multiple stops in the League.
"The offensive line, especially in the running game, is doing very well," Zimmer said earlier in camp. "I think Rick (Dennison)…he's a good teacher, he works them hard, he's got a good way about him. He's positive but demanding. I think all those guys are taking well to him, to the teaching. I think we've got a good tight-knit group in there that work together and prove that they want to be good."
With a run-committed coaching staff in place, the Vikings then turned to personnel in an effort to put a productive ground attack together. With three starting offensive linemen (free agent signing Riley Reiff, second-round pick Brian O'Neill and third-round pick Pat Elflein) and a former second-round running back (Dalvin Cook) already in place, the Vikings went out and signed a starting right guard (Josh Kline) in free agency and used two early draft picks on important components – the No. 18 overall pick on a center (Garrett Bradbury) and a third-round pick on another running back (Alexander Mattison).
"They all have a little bit different personality, but Riley Reiff, Bradbury, O'Neill, Elflein and Kline, they're all battlers, and I think that's important at that position," Zimmer said. "We've got some guys behind them, too, that are good battlers as well. A lot of that is being able to play together and toughness and us helping them as coaches."
Zimmer has also said in the past that teams "get good at what they practice." That theory has proved true in the case of the Vikings 2019 rushing attack. The Vikings finished the 2019 preseason leading the NFL in rushing yards per game (168.3), and Mike Boone finished the preseason ranked second in the NFL with 196 yards. Oh, and Cook dazzled last week with an 85-yard touchdown run. Rookie fullback Khari Blasingame scored three touchdowns in four games, and veteran Ameer Abdullah averaged 8.8 yards per carry and scored on a 15-yard reception on Thursday night.
Cousins likely to play on the move more often | By @pcraigers
Whether it's by design, which we've seen a bit, or a quick-and-necessary reaction, it won't be surprising if quarterback Kirk Cousins plays on the move more this season than in his first with the Vikings.
Minnesota's offense has lined up Cousins under center at a higher rate than in 2018 and utilized more play-actions and bootlegs this offseason under the direction of Stefanski and Kubiak.
Stefanski has noted Cousins' prior successes at using play-action.
"I think Kirk works really hard in the ball-handling aspect of the game, and that's in the run game and in the pass game," Stefanski said. "When he sticks that ball out there, it looks exactly the same as it does on a run as a play-action pass. He's really diligent about that, and that comes from working it. There's also an element of, 'Don't get bored with it.' You'll see some quarterbacks that get sloppy with their technique, and I don't see that from Kirk. I think that's an element from his game that allows play-action to have some success."
Unlike some quarterbacks whose accuracy can take a hit, Cousins is able to put the ball on the money when moving to his right or left.
"The thing that jumps out at me about Kirk is that he's very accurate," Kubiak said. "He's an extremely accurate player and plays the game on the move really, really well."
As for using his legs more on scrambles, Cousins showed alertness at New Orleans by tucking, running and converting an important third down. Cousins said he believes that has been a "missing element" in his game.
He's talked with Scramblin' Fran Tarkenton this offseason about playing on the move.
"I play with rhythm and timing, so I'm not trying to play off-schedule all the time, but I think I have the ability to run around a little bit, and I think I have the arm to make those throws," Cousins said. "So, it's just a matter of doing it. It's so important that it's instinctual. When the ball is snapped, you can't say on this play, 'I'm going to give up on my read and just run around.' It has to be when the play breaks down.
"That's the hard part, training your body and mind to do that, so it was good in the game to have that moment where it did break down, the protection was loose, and my instinct was to take off and run," he added of the run in New Orleans. "The fact that it was man coverage is what made it a conversion; if it's zone coverage, I probably get tackled, and we punt."
A diverse and deep defensive line | By @EricLSmith
By the time the Vikings set their 53-man roster this weekend, the biggest percentage of that group could be made up of defensive linemen.
There is a chance Minnesota keeps as many as 10 defensive linemen, which highlights the talent and depth within the unit.
Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen will be the starters at defensive tackle, although we haven't seen much of them in the preseason.
Joseph recently practiced for the first time this summer but noted he's been hard at work and doesn't necessarily need preseason action to be ready. Stephen, meanwhile, played 17 snaps in the third preseason game after working his way back from an injury to open training camp.
The massive men in the middle last played together in 2017, when Minnesota ranked second by allowing just 83.6 yards per game on the ground.
"Well, it's good to have some more beef in there, and I felt like that's what we need, is more size in the middle of the defense, take some of the pressure off some of the ends," Zimmer said. "I think that part's good. They're still working their way in. Linval's had a couple of good days, Shamar's shown some good flashes. So, that helps."
If the pair again solidifies the interior of the d-line, defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen could present nightmares for opposing quarterbacks. Both defensive ends have looked impressive all summer.
Hunter had a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2018, while Griffen had 5.5 despite missing five games for personal health reasons. If healthy, they could be among the most productive pass-rushing duos in the league.
Stephen Weatherly played a crucial role in Griffen's absence in 2018, and will be used in a variety of ways this season. That includes moving inside and standing up on third downs as a pass rusher.
"He's a really good athlete," Zimmer said. "Played on his feet in college so he can do all those things that we're asking him to do."
Those players could account for only half of the possible defensive linemen on the roster, as the Vikings have developed depth on the line thanks to the teachings of Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes started in place of Joseph and Stephen in the preseason, and both showed flashes.
Fellow defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa is more of a pass-rush specialist, as he showed up in spring practices and training camp. If Mata'afa makes the roster, Zimmer has suggested he'll be used in specific situations.
"He'll probably just be in on the nickel. I want to see if he can just pass rush," Zimmer said. "We'll just kind of go from there, because I think that's what his role will be this year, if that is his role. I got to find out if he can go in there and rush on third down."
Ifeadi Odenigbo spent part of the 2018 season on the Vikings practice squad but has shown great improvements this spring and summer. He could provide depth at defensive end and on special teams.
"I think he's really improved a lot as far as understanding the concepts that he has to do it at defensive end," Zimmer said. "He's a power player, really good physicality. He's a guy that worked really, really hard last year when he was on the practice squad and this spring, and I think it's starting to show."
According to NFL stats, defensive ends Anree Saint-Amour and Karter Schult each played all 58 defensive snaps Thursday. Defensive tackle Armon Watts, a sixth-round pick in the spring, played the next most snaps (28) among linemen.
Young players making their mark | By @LindseyMNSports
All the cards have been played, and the Vikings will now work through tough decisions before tomorrow's deadline hits for the 53-man roster.
Throughout the past four months (rookie minicamp, Organized Team Activity practices, minicamp and training camp), young players have worked to put their best work on tape and solidify a spot for themselves on Minnesota's roster.
Now specifically throughout preseason, a handful of those players have caught my attention as they have carved out increased roles for themselves, beginning with a pair of tight ends.
Under Stefanski and Kubiak, the Vikings offense has been implementing heavier formations with multiple tight end sets; joining veteran Kyle Rudolph, rookie Irv Smith, Jr., and second-year pro Tyler Conklin have each shown up to make plays. Smith scored his first NFL touchdown against the Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Conklin had four catches for 68 yards in the first three preseason games and did not play Thursday.
Cole Hikutini and undrafted free agent Brandon Dillon have occasionally flashed, as well.
Boone made the most of his opportunities during his second preseason. He has impressed not only on special teams but on offense, as well, taking a good chunk of the load in Minnesota's final three games. Boone totaled 196 yards on 41 carries (4.8 yards per attempt) and scored twice on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, Odenigbo is not new to the Vikings locker room, but he has taken a big step forward this offseason. After spending two seasons on Minnesota's practice squad (and brief stints with the Browns and Cardinals), Odenigbo has been in the Vikings defensive line rotation with the second team and has been making his case for active roster consideration.
"From where he started and where he is now, it's like night and day," Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said last week. "We just look for him to keep continuing moving around, inside, outside, those types of deals as far as pass rush. We just look for him to keep continuing to improve and be able to transition those things to the game."
NFL Kickoff | We Ready
The kickoff for #NFL100 is here and we only have two words - WE READY! Don't miss the season opener Green Bay Packers taking on the Chicago Bears on Thursday, September 9th at 7:20 PM CT