4 things the Minnesota Vikings can learn from the NFC Championship game

The San Francisco 49ers went against all odds and completed their comeback against the Detroit Lions to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVII.

San Francisco rattled off 27 unanswered points in the second half after being down 24-7 at the halftime break. With how  Detroit played, it looked like everything had to line up perfectly for San Francisco to get to Las Vegas to avenge their Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

It did. 

Back in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings are approaching one of the more crucial points in team history. General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has a unique chance to map out the short-term and long-term direction of the Vikings with their decisions this off-season.

These decisions also come with tough questions: Is the roster ready to compete now? If they are, how do they maximize the current window to compete? If they aren’t, how do they build towards competing sooner rather than later?

There is no right or wrong answer, but there are different ways to go about building this roster, and there are some real lessons that can come from watching a thriller like the Lions had against the 49ers.

Fundamentals First

Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

In the first half of the game, the Lions were as fundamentally sound as a team can be. They controlled the line of scrimmage on offense, leading to huge gashes on a 49ers defense that was top-five against the run this season. On defense, they showed discipline in both their run fits and pass-rushing lanes, limiting San Francisco’s explosive plays. 

In the second half, that all changed. Brock Purdy found running lanes and extended plays when the play broke down in the secondary. Receivers dropped passes in crucial situations, including two heartbreaking drops from Josh Reynolds on critical third- and fourth-downs. The fundamentals that gave Detroit their lead were nowhere to be found as San Francisco surged back into the game.

Through the first 14 weeks, the Vikings’ defense forced quarterbacks to go through their progressions before they wanted to, forcing them to check the ball down while the defense rallied and tackled ball carriers short of the sticks. It helped them to allow 231 first downs, third least behind only the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns.

In the final four games, Minnesota allowed the second-most first downs, and one reason why was that they didn’t tackle as efficiently as they did throughout the season. Throughout 2023, the Vikings missed 100 tackles on the season. Forty-eight of them occurred in the final four games of the season.

One of the first things players learn when playing on defense is how to bring a ball carrier to the ground. The play design can be flawless, but not executing the fundamentals, such as filling your run fits or tackling the ball carrier, makes winning games more difficult in a league where every detail matters.

Perfectly balanced, as all things should be

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

One factor the 49ers and Lions share is their multi-faceted offenses that can beat you both through the air and on the ground. 

There is no telling where this Vikings team could have been if Cousins stayed healthy, but there were clear deficiencies no matter who was under center. The running game was atrocious.

Minnesota was 29th in rushing yards and 30th in rushing touchdowns this season. The efficiency stats weren’t better, ranking 27th in rushing DVOA and 25th in EPA/rush. The Vikings tried to supplement their myopic running game with an early-season trade for Cam Akers, who did bring the team their first rushing touchdown in week eight of the season against the Packers.

Kevin O’Connell has spoken extensively on how the run game can’t be neglected in this offense’s gameplans, especially this season when they relied on three different backup quarterbacks to keep the passing game afloat.

No matter the direction, the run game can no longer be an afterthought. If this offense wants to take the next step toward competing or build it toward success, there needs to be an answer.

Stay true to your identity

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There will be a lot of discourse surrounding the Lions and their aggressive decision-making on 4th down in the next two weeks. The discussion should be about how, even when down 17, Kyle Shanahan stayed true to his game plan to keep a balanced attack against the Lions. The 49ers ended with 31 pass attempts for Brock Purdy and 33 rushing attempts, including 20  for Christian McCaffrey. 

Detroit stayed with their identity, even if it was to a fault, but if they convert on either of those key fourth-down conversions, who knows how this game ends up. 

O’Connell is a quarterback. He has been for his entire life, and the identity of the Vikings offense has adjusted accordingly. The defense under Flores is designed around confusing and tricking the quarterback. The first-round pick of last year’s draft was a former Biletnikoff winner paired with Justin Jefferson to make the passing game even more of a threat.

Everything starts with the quarterback for Minnesota, so that means that before anything else happens, before any other decision is made for next year, there needs to be a consistent plan for the quarterback position. Whether that’s re-signing Kirk Cousins, going and finding a potential franchise guy in this quarterback-heavy draft, or maybe even both, there has to be a plan for the position this off-season.

Talent trumps all

David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports
David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

George Kittle jokingly stated that the Lions “had [them] in the first half” as Detroit jumped out to that 17-point lead, but they didn’t flinch.

The Lions fans in Ford Field were going crazy as the fans in Santa Clara stood silent and stunned, yet the players and coaches didn’t lose hope.

Brock Purdy was 7-for-15 with an interception going into the half but came out in the second half and had a near-perfect performance (13-for-16, 174 yards and two touchdowns, 99.1 QBR per ESPN). 

Why? Because no matter the circumstance, when you have the talent that San Francisco has, anything is possible. When you have a player like Aiyuk who has the concentration to find a football that careened off a defensive back’s helmet and turned it into a 50-yard gain, anything is possible. When players like Deebo Samuel can reach the outside and hit another gear to beat the defender to the outside and find yards where there were none, anything is possible. When you have a weapon as versatile as McCaffrey on your roster, anything is possible. 

If anyone knows this, it’s the Vikings faithful. When Minnesota was down 38 against the Indianapolis Colts last season, the game plan was simple: Get the ball to the most trusted players on this team. K.J. Osborn and Jefferson combined for 17 receptions on 22 targets for 247 yards and two touchdowns. Dalvin Cook had 135 yards on 16 touches and added a touchdown of his own.

Flores tried to squeeze as much as he could out of this defense this season, but there wasn’t enough talent to be as versatile as they could have been, leading to a stretch of four disappointing games down the stretch.

This team is not ready to compete with the cream of the crop in the NFC. Not yet. This off-season, with a few key moves, such as keeping Jefferson/Hunter, can keep the talent level high for this team. Not to mention a draft where they can bring in another blue-chip talent just outside the top ten.

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Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire