Zulgad: Vikings have a chance to save season but there’s work to be done

A month ago, the Minnesota Vikings were coming off a four-point loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that dropped them to 0-3 and gave them two losses at U.S. Bank Stadium.

That type of start buries most teams in the standings and causes fans to root for losses and the best possible draft position. But the Vikings have overcome that start, not to mention losing four of their first five games, and have hope as November nears.

The key was an upset victory on Monday night over one of the best teams in the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers. That win has created optimism and that will only increase if the Vikings can pull to .500 for the first time this season on Sunday when they face struggling Green Bay at Lambeau Field.

So are the Vikings ready to take off or is this just a brief resurgence soon to be followed by a letdown? Let’s take a look at factors working for and against coach Kevin O’Connell’s team.

Now the real work begins

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Vikings won 13 games and the NFC North last year in O’Connell’s first season, but many pointed to the team’s 11-0 record in one-possession games as evidence that Minnesota was more lucky than good.

Their start to this season supported that claim. The Vikings’ inability to hold onto the football helped lead to losses of three points (Tampa Bay), six points (Philadelphia), four points (Chargers) and three points (Kansas City).

Quarterback Kirk Cousins was intercepted on his second pass of the game Monday — the fourth time this season the Vikings have committed a turnover on the opening possession — but instead of giving up a touchdown, the Vikings defense recovered a San Francisco fumble and Minnesota drove for a score.

The Vikings proceeded to put together their most complete performance of the season, showing what they can do when they cut down on mistakes and win the turnover battle (plus-2).

But that win will mean little if they don’t beat the Packers on Sunday. Minnesota’s tough early-season schedule is over and the next five games, which lead into the bye week, feature four teams that are below .500.

There are four NFL teams, including the Vikings, with 3-4 records but Minnesota currently holds the eighth seed because of tiebreakers, putting them only a half-game game out of a wild card spot.

The Vikings are also only two games behind Detroit (5-2) for the NFC North lead and will face the Lions in two of their final three regular-season games.

The key for O’Connell will be getting his team to realize that how they played against the 49ers will be the expectation for the remainder of the season.

Handling the pressure and expectations will be key

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

One advantage the Vikings had on Monday night was nobody expected them to win, even though the game was in Minneapolis. The 49ers were a touchdown favorite and the expectation was San Francisco would come in angry after suffering its first loss of the season.

But it was the Vikings who were ornery and decided they were going to be the bully against the often-more-physical 49ers. The strategy worked as the Vikings’ offensive line had one of its best games and quarterback Kirk Cousins wasn’t sacked in a game for the first time this season.

Vikings left tackle Christian Darrisaw had an outstanding game against 49ers’ defensive end Nick Bosa, who led the NFL with 18.5 sacks last season and was voted the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. Bosa, who held out of training camp this summer before signing a five-year, $170 million contract extension, has only 2.5 sacks in seven games but remains a threat.

The interesting thing will be how the Vikings respond when the pressure shifts back on them and they are no longer the underdog. Cousins was brilliant on Monday, completing 35-of-45 passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but he has thrived before when many have given up on him or his team.

If the Vikings are able to put together a run they are going to become the team with a target on their back. How they respond will determine if they make a second consecutive playoff appearance.

Jordan Addison's emergence sparks optimism

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Vikings selected Jordan Addison with the 23rd pick of the draft last April to serve as a complement to All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson. However, Jefferson suffered a hamstring injury on Oct. 8 against the Chiefs and was placed on injured reserve.

That has enabled Addison to move into the No. 1 role and his performance on Monday night sent a message that he is a future star. Addison caught seven passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60-yarder near the end of the first half.

Jefferson’s absence has given Cousins more time to develop chemistry and trust in Addison and that figures to only grow as Jefferson must sit out at least two more games.

It’s not only Cousins who should be salivating over an offense that has the potential to cause nightmares for opposing defenses. O’Connell is the Vikings’ play-caller and certainly has to have more ideas than ever about how he can use Addison, Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson to cause confusion.

The Vikings are 18th in the NFL averaging 21.6 points per game. That isn’t close to good enough for a team with this many weapons.

Minnesota needs to cut down on turnovers and find more ways to get into the end zone. The Vikings are 23rd in the league in scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone and that includes an 0-for-2 performance on Monday night.

The Vikings have too much skill on offense to settle for field goals and that skill will only increase when Jefferson returns.

Taking defense from liability to asset

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

If there was any failure in O’Connell’s first season as the Vikings’ coach, it was the fact that his defense was one of the worst in the NFL. O’Connell took the job with the expectation he would be in charge of the offense, and one of his first decisions was to put veteran assistant Ed Donatell in charge of the defense.

It turned out to be a terrible move. Donatell arrived having coached in Denver under the well-respected Vic Fangio, and O’Connell thought he was going to get a defense that would get results similar to what Fangio did. That didn’t come close to happening and after the season the Vikings fired Donatell and hired Brian Flores, whose resume included a three-year stint as coach of the Miami Dolphins.

The hope was that Flores could make the Vikings’ defense respectable. He has done that and more and on Monday night he put together a plan that had young quarterback Brock Purdy looking lost when the game was on the line.

Flores has the Vikings’ blitzing 56.4 percent of the time. The second place team in this category, the New England Patriots, is blitzing 42 percent of the time.

The Vikings are 20th in the NFL, giving up 21.7 points per game and are 15th in total defense (330.3 yards given up per game). Last season, they finished tied for 28th in points surrendered (25.1) and were second-to-last in total defense (388.7 yards). Flores gets much of the credit for the improvement.

The Vikings’ defense might not be perfect, but it certainly is no longer a glaring weakness.

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Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire