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Minnesota Vikings playoff

(AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

The Minnesota Vikings will be a playoff team in 2022

Minnesota Vikings Playoff
Could the Minnesota Vikings make the playoffs in 2022? (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

The Minnesota Vikings will be a playoff team in 2022

The 2022 Minnesota Vikings training camp began last week, and as Vendetta’s resident Vikings fan, I have a confession to make: I think they will be a playoff team in 2022.

The original title of this article was going to be: “I talked myself into the Minnesota Vikings,” which I irrationally, and sometimes rationally, do every season with the same blind optimism as the year prior. The only time in recent memory that I can recall not doing it was ahead of the 2020 season, when Minnesota lost the bulk of their defensive production — Trae Waynes, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse, among others — to free agency, as well as Stefon Diggs to Buffalo.

No, we didn’t know how good Justin Jefferson would be at receiver at the time. He immediately broke out three weeks into the season and had one of the best rookie campaigns for a wide receiver ever, but Minnesota still finished 7-9 with one of the worst defenses in the league after making the NFC Divisional Round at 10-6 in 2019.

Last year, I was more optimistic with more continuity in a make-or-break year. But the team ended 8-9 — still performing below-average defensively, even though they only ranked No. 16 in defensive DVOA — and never found its footing, missing the playoffs yet again. Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins nearly fought after a win; Zimmer trashed the team’s rookie quarterback instead of giving him game reps; Minnesota had an unspeakably bad two-minute defense (I’ll get into in the next paragraph), despite Zimmer’s ties to that end, and star linebacker Eric Kendricks called his coach’s culture “fear-based” after Zimmer got fired.

Let’s go into more depth with its two-minute defense: They ended up surrendering 128 points in the final two minutes of each half. Yes, you read that correctly — 128 points!

Do the math, and that’s roughly 3.76 points allowed at the end of each half on average. That’s comically bad — I’m not sure where that ranks historically, but it has to be at or near the top. To add even more insult to injury, all but three of Minnesota’s regular season contests were one possession (eight points or fewer) ballgames — going 6-8 in those games; they went 3-5 in games decided by six or fewer points and 2-4 in ones decided by three or fewer points.

They missed the playoffs by one game, so if Minnesota didn’t play anemic two-minute defense, they would’ve likely made the playoffs easily.

In summary, it was a bad season up north. And it’s been a rough go in each of the last two years.

Back to my first point, the title “I talked myself into the Minnesota Vikings” is too ambiguous. What have I talked myself into? For me, that usually entails them having a good season, or to be even more specific, be a playoff team.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers all rightfully deserve to be NFC favorites entering the 2022 season. The Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and possibly the New York Giants will fight for one, maybe two playoff spots; so will the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals; and I wouldn’t necessarily rule out the New Orleans Saints….yet.

But I still (irrationally?) think Minnesota could weave their way into a playoff spot.

It cleaned house with Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman — hiring Kwesi Adofo-Mensah at general manager and a Sean McVay disciple, Kevin O’Connell, as the team’s next head coach. They retained most of their key core members, replaced Michael Pierce with Harrison Phillips and signed former Packers EDGE rusher Za’Darius Smith to form a lethal pass-rushing duo with Danielle Hunter. Minnesota also drafted Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. with its first two selections — both touted defensive backs — addressing their needs in the secondary.

O’Connell will likely implement many McVay principles — an up-tempo, pass-heavy attack with 11 personnel groupings and plenty of pre-snap motion — officially giving Cousins keys to the offense and freedom to operate: #LetKirkCook.

O’Connell’s new offense will also presumably get its skill position threats on the outside — namely Justin Jefferson — more touches in early down situations, instead of taking the ball out of Cousins’ hands entirely.

Jefferson has even taking an early liking to his new head coach and the offense surrounding it:

“He’s great,” Jefferson told CBS Sports in June, when asked his thoughts on O’Connell. “Everybody in the building loves his attitude, and just him connecting with the players all around the building. Everybody seems to have fun and get the job done all at the same time. It wasn’t like that the first two years that I was there. And really just everybody connecting as a team and responding.

“Yeah, I mean that’s definitely the word for it,” Jefferson added, when asked whether the offense gives a new ‘flavor’. “Definitely gives us a lot more ability to get the ball to different people in different positions. But we love the offense, it seems to be working very well, us going against the defenses in seven on seven. But it’s great, we love it. Hopefully it’s the change we need.” 

Full quote here

Jefferson won’t be the only one commanding the attention of defenses — so will Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Irv Smith Jr. (who returns after a freak knee injury that preemptively ended his 2021 season) and Dalvin Cook, who could be more involved in the passing game than he was previously.

Minnesota banking on the (interior) offensive line improving could be its one problem. The Vikings added Chris Reed and Jesse Davis, who will be battling for the starting right guard spot. Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings’ 2021 first-round selection, should be the Week 1 left tackle. Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury will presumably start at left guard and center while Brian O’Neill holds down the fort over at right tackle.

Defensively, O’Connell brought in longtime defensive coach and former Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who plans to implement the Vic Fangio’s multi-front (primarily 3-4), two-high safety look that mitigates long plays and excels at disguising coverages on the back end.

“That family of defense has really caused a lot of people problems, and it’s because it puts a lot of stress on the quarterback on the other side post-snap, puts a lot of stress on the communication of the offense to make sure they are able to play within the framework once that ball is snapped,” O’Connell said to the Minnesota media in June. “That’s where you really have to define the detail as an offense. That’s what I love about practicing against it every day. It forces us to really learn what we’re capable of and what we’re doing, instead of just taking advantage of every look we see pre-snap.”

Find full quotes here

Patrick Peterson, who re-signed with the team earlier in the offseason, had his own thoughts on Donatell’s new scheme, which should help him and the rest of the defensive backs “steal a second” from the quarterback from the different looks.

“Lining up in certain things to steal that second is going to make our job that much easier,” Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “When you have a confused quarterback, you don’t have a clear indication on where to go with the ball, that gives Danielle [Hunter] and ‘Z’ (Za’Darius Smith) an opportunity to get that much more pressure on him.

“I love the scheme. I love the way it’s structured; I love the way that it’s built, and I’m just excited to see how it’s going to unfold here in the fall.”

Find full quotes here

While Minnesota ranked second in the league in sacks (51) last year, a lack of consistent pass rush — placing in the bottom-four leaguewide in pass rush win-rate for the second straight season — mounted more pressure on their back-six/seven. That led to Minnesota ranking 13th in pass DVOA with the fifth-most pass yards allowed (252.9 ypg).

The former isn’t a terrible placement, but if the scheme pans out as planned, it can crack the top-10 in a league where the pass is becoming more prominent each and every year.

Also, the addition of Smith to pair with Hunter should help its pass rush immensely — while simultaneously making life easier for Phillips, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jalen Twyman/Armon Watts along the three-man front. Smith has paid homage to the Purple People Eaters by uttering their famous motto “Get to the quarterback” in hopes of creating a PPE 2.0 with Hunter and Co.

Minnesota’s schedule shouldn’t be super tough either, going up against the AFC East and NFC East along with the NFC North; it will also face the Saints (road) and Colts (home), who finished second in the NFC and AFC South divisions.

All in all, if things fall into place, it’s a doable task for the Minnesota Vikings to make the playoffs. Optimistically speaking, a new coach with new philosophies, new culture, new leadership raises new hope for a franchise that’s endured heartbreak-after-heartbreak in their history.

So rationally, or irrationally, I’m in. I’ve put my chips in the middle. Now it’s time to see if my hand hits (or inevitably doesn’t hit because they are, you know, the Minnesota Vikings).

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