The Minnesota Vikings are 1-3 with a point margin (minus 5) that is better than their turnover margin (minus 8). That’s the kind of start it’s been to the season.
Disappointment settled in after the Week 1 loss at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Angst built after the Week 2 loss on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles. The alarm bells began to ring after the Week 3 loss at home to the Los Angeles Chargers. But then, at long last, the Vikings snagged a win in Carolina on Sunday against the Panthers.
Evaluating this four-game start is complicated. It is, in many ways, the inverse of the 2022 season. And yet it also feels essential, especially to keep track of for later on down the road.
So, here is a wide-ranging assessment of the Vikings through four games in which we examine the offense, the defense, the rookies and their remaining schedule.
Why the Vikings might actually be a more dangerous team than you’d think
Where the offense ranks
The Vikings offense has been a bit of an enigma. Spurts of explosiveness are drowned out by turnovers. High-end efficiency is dampened by frequent bouts of three-and-outs.
On the whole, the unit ranks in the top 10 in the league in most metrics. The Vikings are third in yards per play (6.2), fifth in success rate (45.7 percent) and second in explosive play rate (14.6 percent). Their passing attack carried them the first two weeks against the Buccaneers and Eagles, but the rushing attack has come along in the last two weeks against the Chargers and Panthers.
In fact, the team has gone from 21st in success rate per rush following Week 2 to third after Week 4.
“It’s been fun,” left guard Ezra Cleveland said earlier this week. “We’ve put a big emphasis on this. So having it come to life has been a treat.”
Turnovers are the only statistic keeping this unit from being among the elite. Minnesota has fumbled seven times and thrown four interceptions. Seven of those turnovers have occurred in the opponent’s territory. Prevent these giveaways moving forward, and the Vikings should rack up a bevy of points.
Where the defense ranks
The success of the Vikings defense in 2023 was always going to hinge on Brian Flores’ ability to create chaos. Thus far, Minnesota’s unit has improved from a season ago, ranking 20th in DVOA, which is up from 24th last season. Notably, the Vikings have also improved in yards per play allowed, going from 30th in 2022 to 10th this season.
No NFL team has blitzed more this season than the Vikings (57 percent of snaps). This is one of the key differences between the 2022 defense under Ed Donatell and the 2023 version with Flores at the helm. Although their pressure rate this season is lower than last year, they are forcing opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball more quickly on average. This is keeping the ball in front of the defense. Only the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens have given up fewer explosive plays.
Another adjustment that Flores has made is his usage of different personnel groupings. Not only have the Vikings toggled with multiple edge rushers on the front depending on the situation, but they have also been willing to use six or even seven defensive backs at times. Whereas Donatell’s defense only played 1.4 percent of snaps in dime or quarter personnel packages, Flores has used them at a combined 19.6 percent.
Team MVP: Justin Jefferson
He leads the NFL in receiving yards. He is on pace for 140 catches. He is responsible for more plays of 20-plus yards (14) than Patrick Mahomes. When you have Justin Jefferson, you have the ingredients for an explosive offense.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 1, 2023
Jefferson’s ability single-handedly dictates how opposing defenses game-plan to face the Vikings. Two-high safety looks with light boxes frequently open up premium rushing opportunities. Double coverage on Jefferson also leaves T.J. Hockenson, K.J. Osborn and Jordan Addison in one-on-one opportunities. The result is a high-octane passing attack.
Jefferson is the reason why.
Top rookie: Jordan Addison
Four of the Vikings’ 2023 draft picks have played thus far: wide receiver Jordan Addison, cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy and safety Jay Ward. Both Blackmon and Roy have positive defensive grades, according to Pro Football Focus, while Ward has only played 58 special teams snaps. Addison, meanwhile, has 13 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
The Vikings drafted Addison with the idea that he could replace Adam Thielen (at a much lesser cost) and serve as important depth at receiver with Osborn set to become a free agent after this season. Three times already he has displayed a degree of speed over the top that Thielen did not possess in 2022. Addison snagged a 39-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay and a 62-yard touchdown against the Eagles. Last week against the Panthers, he inched past his defender and forced a penalty down the field.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) September 15, 2023
Minnesota has only targeted him 20 times, but Addison is averaging 9.3 yards per target, 26th-best in the NFL. His blocking on the edge leaves a lot to be desired, but the Vikings drafted him to enhance their passing game in both the short and long term.
Key player who needs to improve: Ed Ingram
Ed Ingram, a second-round pick in 2022, has allowed the second-most pressures (14) this season among 61 qualified guards. His pass-blocking grade, 50.5, ranks 48th among those 61.
These pass-blocking struggles are not new. Last season, Ingram allowed 63 pressures, the most of any NFL offensive lineman.
Complicating the issue are two elements: First, Ingram has been an effective run blocker in spurts. And, second, Minnesota is navigating a competitive rebuild where the development of its draft picks is crucial. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that Minnesota recently signed free-agent guard Dalton Risner.
How is Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s ‘competitive rebuild’ going a year and a half in?
Toughest remaining games: Chiefs, at 49ers, Lions, at Lions
The Vikings’ schedule no longer looks as difficult on paper as it did before the season.
No longer do the Cincinnati Bengals seem as formidable, especially with Joe Burrow’s calf injury. Additionally, the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders are three of the worst four teams in the NFL, according to DVOA. Add in the Atlanta Falcons (27th), Green Bay Packers (21st) and New Orleans Saints (18th), and the back half of the Vikings’ schedule is the league’s seventh-easiest.
Matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs and 49ers still remain, and the Vikings will also face the Detroit Lions twice in the final three weeks of the season. But overall, Minnesota can make some noise if it puts the pieces together down the backstretch.
(Photo of Justin Jefferson: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.