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5 Qs, 5 As with Daily Norseman: How do the Vikings compare to 2017?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

My apologies for a brief intro but I’ve been battling the flu all week.

The Seattle Seahawks host the Minnesota Vikings on Monday. I asked Ted Glover (@PurpleBuckeye) of Daily Noreseman some questions and he replied because he’s a good guy. Read!

Q: Kirk Cousins has dealt with a lot of criticism throughout his career. Doubt too. The $84 million deal was heavily scrutinized and especially so after 2018 and into the early part of 2019. Since Week 3, he may have the most impressive passing statistics in the NFL however. Did something change specifically to Cousins or the offense, is this thought to be a hot streak for a 31-year-old, or something else? And are you ready to see the Vikings actually extend him rather than regret him?

A: Did something change? Yes, for sure. Something happened after that week four loss to the Bears, where the Vikings looked incompetent on both sides of the ball in a 16-6 loss that wasn’t remotely that close or competitive. I will go to my grave believing that after both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs spoke up about their frustrations, there was some sort of ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting, if you will. Whether it was ownership to management, management to the coaches, coaches to players--whatever the combination was of some or all--I think there was a Festivus Airing of Grievances in September, feelings were hurt, some bad air was cleared, and they got better because of it. I don’t think it was leveled all at Cousins, either. The offense has been more explosive, the playcalling has been better, and this team seems to have really come together when it looked like they were going to fracture and implode. Whatever it was, it has seemed to work, and it all came together in that big comeback against the Broncos.

As to an extension, barring a complete implosion over the last five games, I think it’s going to happen. I hope it’s not another fully guaranteed deal, and I also hope the Vikings draft a QB of the future early in either 2020 or 2021 even if they do extend him, but yes, if he keeps playing like this I would be okay with a 2-3 year extension. It would probably provide some much needed cap relief, and drafting a guy long term would further stabilize a position that has had way too much uncertainty for this franchise over the years.

Q: Mike Zimmer has had an impressive six seasons. His worst year was 7-9 in his debut. His best year was 13-3 in 2017. Do you think 2019 is now Minnesota’s strongest team under Zimmer and what separates the 2019 team from the frustrating inconsistencies of 2018?

A: It has the potential to be, but until they top 13-3 and go to the NFC Championship and beyond, I’d still have to consider 2017 his strongest team. Comparing 2017 to now, the offense in 2019 is better, but the defense isn’t as good, and the 2019 team still has five games to go until the end of the regular season. Let’s re-visit the first part of your question at the end of the season to see how far they go. I will say, 2017 sort of came out of nowhere, and they made a run all the way to the NFC Championship, with a miracle along the way. 2019 has the weight of expectations on them, which is a dynamic 2017 never had. That team was playing with house money from week four on, which is why it was a pretty special season. 2019 is expected to make a deep run, and I think that will factor in to how this season is viewed in future years.

As to the difference between this year and last, the offense is a lot more balanced. 2018 OC John DeFilippo either ignored or abandoned the run early and often last year, the Vikings became too one dimensional on offense, and I think Cousins was asked to do too much. That became next to an impossible task at times with an offensive line that struggled mightily, and as a consequence, when teams were able to shut down the Vikings passing attack, the offense couldn’t do anything. This year, the line play is a lot better, Dalvin Cook is healthy, defenses really have to pay attention to the Vikings running game, and OC Kevin Stefanski really is in tune with the strengths and weaknesses of what Cousins can do as the quarterback. It’s been fun to watch them evolve and improve over the course of the season.

Q: The Vikings gave up 73 points in their first five games but 132 points in their last six and the best of those by far came against awful Washington. Anything changed on that side of the ball that can explain the difference or is it just typical regression? This does not seem like Zimmer’s best defense by any stretch but how good are they capable of being?

A: The Vikings secondary has taken a real step back this year, and it’s way more than typical regression. It’s just bad defense, plain and simple. Starting cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes started out okay, but have really struggled in recent weeks. The Vikings run defense is still pretty solid, but you can gain yards in big chunks on them this year. Since Mike Zimmer became the coach, the Vikings were always one of the top five or so defenses in limiting pass plays of 20 yards or more. This year, they’re in the 20’s and dropping. It’s a very worrisome trend heading to Seattle, for sure.

Q: What’s the likelihood of Adam Thielen’s availability and outside of him and Stefon Diggs, how potent are Minnesota’s receiving options?

A: All indications are that Thielen will play, and he will be a huge lift to the offense. The Vikings have struggled to find a wide receiver to replace him, although rookie Bisi Johnson had a few highlight moments. Past Johnson, though, it’s former first round pick Laquon Treadwell...and no one. The Vikings released Josh Doctson earlier this week, a further indication that Thielen will play, so it looks like Minnesota will roll with four WRs against Seattle--Thielen, Diggs, Johnson, and Treadwell. TE Kyle Rudolph is back to his red zone target ways, and rookie TE Irv Smith, Jr., their second round pick out of Alabama, is really starting to come on strong as well. And for all his talents as a runner, RB Dalvin Cook is killing defenses on swing and screen passes. He has an uncanny ability to catch the ball in the flat, make a guy miss, and the next thing you know he’s got a 15-20 yard gain. That’s really been an overlooked part of the offense when talking about the passing game, and it’s definitely something Seattle needs to prepare for and defend, or they’re going to get burned.

Q: I don’t really see anybody talking about the Vikings despite the fact that they look locked into the playoffs with five other NFC teams: Cowboys (or Eagles), Saints, 49ers, Seahawks, and Packers. Maybe a reason for this is that they don’t have many superstars or aren’t dominating opponents -- not that Seattle is either -- including a necessary comeback against the Broncos in their last game. Which leads me to this: If Cousins has a bad day, which many believe he is still wont to do, are the Vikings good enough to consistently win those days? We know Dalvin Cook is perhaps the best running back in the NFL, but can he or the defense take over a game right now and win it if Cousins is off?

A: So, this is where I get on my soapbox and defend Kirk Cousins a bit. I used to think the same thing, for what it’s worth--when he stinks the Vikings have no chance. There were 2-3 games last year when that was 100% the truth. If you recall last year’s meeting between our teams, I thought the inability of Cousins to generate any offense was a HUGE part of the loss. This year, though, I feel somewhat different. Has Cousins had bad games? Yes, he sure has. But when he’s had a bad game, it’s been along with the whole team, for what it’s worth. Against Green Bay, Cousins struggled, and threw a brutal red zone pick in the 4th quarter, but the defense got gutted like a blonde in a B movie horror flick, the Vikings were down 21-0 before we knew what happened, and they were playing catch up all day. Against the Bears, journeyman Chase Daniel was Joe Montana for a day, leading the Bears on multiple 10+ play scoring drives and eating chunks of game clock, while the Vikings had no answers for the Bears defense until it was way too late in the 4th quarter. And it was a very similar story against KC, and in the first half against Denver.

I say all of that to tell you this--if Cousins is having a bad day, at least this year, the entire offense probably is. The one game where I would say Dalvin Cook brought the team back was in Green Bay. He busted off a 75 yard touchdown run to start the Vikings comeback, and up until the Cousins end zone pick on that last fateful drive, both Cook and rookie RB Alexander Mattison had gashed the Packers and gotten them down to the shadow of the end zone. Why they called for a pass there is mystifying to me. Cousins was off early against KC, and Cook’s running helped keep the Vikings in it, so yes, I think he could. Although I would argue second half Kirk in KC was pretty good, and the reason the Vikes took a fourth quarter lead. So, can Cook win it? Maybe, but I think he can definitely keep the Vikings in it and give them a chance to win.

The defense? Ehhhhhhhh...the defense gave up a game winning drive to KC, and they let Denver go on a 16 play drive and eat up the last six minutes of the fourth quarter before they finally stopped them, so I don’t know. At the beginning of the year I would have said yes, the players from what was a top ranked unit the last 3-4 years are almost all still in place, but the results aren’t there at the moment. So right now, against one of those good playoff teams, I’d be petrified if the defense had to make a stop to win the game.

Bonus: My parents are from Minneapolis. Did you know that?

No, I didn’t. I was born and raised (well, until I was 12) in Richfield, south suburb of Minneapolis.