EAGAN, Minn. — The first nine games of the 2018 Vikings season showed stark contrasts between September and October-into-November.
The Vikings have reached their bye week at 5-3-1 and 1-0-1 in the NFC North, which is behind the 7-2 mark that Minnesota posted in 2017 thanks to a five-game win streak.
Minnesota has rebounded from a 1-2-1 opening quarter to win four of the past five games by improving in several key areas.
Vikings.com’s Eric Smith did a deep comparison of the Vikings stats, noticing several differences between the first four games and the past five. The gap included a mini-bye after visiting the Los Angeles Rams for Thursday Night Football in Week 4 that allowed for some self-scouting opportunities before Minnesota won at Philadelphia in Week 5.
This piece will take a look at three areas on offense where the Vikings are seeing an uptick in 2018 and three areas where they can still improve. Vikings.com will look at the defense on Thursday and special teams on Friday.
1. Completion percentage and passer rating boost
The Vikings turned to Kirk Cousins and the passing game early this season. Part of that was falling behind in Weeks 2 and 3 and the high-flying affair with the Rams.
Cousins’ completion percentage of 71.3 is more than five points higher than the 66.0 percent that Vikings passers had in 2017, and his passer rating of 102.2 is on pace to be a career best. Vikings passers had a combined rating of 96.8 through nine games of 2017.
“I think he’s been phenomenal,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said during his annual bye week session with media members. “I think, he’s coming in, learning a new system and working with a new offensive coordinator, a new offense, and working together for the first time and everybody getting together for the first time.”
The Vikings have had five different starting offensive line combinations, which is one more than at this point last season.
“Fortunately, we’ve been pretty lucky with the skill guys, except for Dalvin [Cook], but we got him back last week. Is there room for improvement? Yes. I think you’ll see that … as these guys continue to develop down the stretch here.”
2. Running less frequently, but average is up
Cook suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 that forced him to miss all but one game until returning on Sunday against Detroit.
The second-year pro had 89 of his 187 yards on the season, thanks to a 70-yard breakout run against the Lions.
Latavius Murray leads Minnesota with 417 yards and five touchdowns on 92 carries.
The Vikings have rushed 73 fewer times (197 compared to 270) for 237 fewer yards (825 compared to 1,062) than they had through nine games a year ago, but Minnesota’s yards per carry have increased from 3.9 in 2017 to 4.2.
Minnesota ranks 29th in rushing yards per game, but its status at 19th in rushing yards per play is much more tolerable.
3. Going for and getting more fourth downs
Part of it is being behind earlier in the season, part of it was wanting to be aggressive against New Orleans in Week 8 and part of it could be a high level of confidence demonstrated on Minnesota’s first possession against Detroit, but the Vikings are already 6-for-10 (60 percent) on fourth downs.
The Vikings are on pace to surpass their highest total of conversions under Head Coach Mike Zimmer by a substantial margin.
2014: 6-for-12 (50 percent)
2015: 5-for-11 (45.5 percent)
2016: 8-for-18 (44.4 percent)
2017: 1-for-7 (14.3 percent)
Here are three areas where Minnesota has room for improvement.
1. Avoiding sacks
Cousins has been sacked 24 times, which is more than double the 10 that Vikings quarterbacks suffered through nine games in 2017.
It’s worth noting that Cousins was sacked just once against Detroit.
2. Protecting the football
The Vikings are plus-one in turnover margin at this point in the season for the second year in a row.
Minnesota’s 13 turnovers, however, are three more than the 10 that the Vikings committed through their first nine games of 2017.
3. Time of possession
The Vikings dominated the Lions in most statistical categories, but Detroit held the ball for a whopping 36:45.
Part of that sway was because the Vikings had a three-play touchdown drive that lasted 1:25 and a scoop-and-score by NFC Defensive Player of the Week Danielle Hunter that gave the Vikings a 24-6 lead but sent the defense back on the field.
Even though the defense allowed just three field goals, the unit could benefit from a little more time on the sideline as the season progresses.
At this point, Minnesota’s possession average of 29:50 is close to the midpoint but trails the 31:10 that the Vikings averaged through the first nine games of 2017.