Editor’s note: We welcome managing editor Christopher Gates of the Daily Norseman — our sister site covering the Minnesota Vikings — for Five Questions with the Enemy as we head into the Week 9 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Vikings this Sunday.
1) The Vikings started the year 2-2, but have now won four games in a row. What has changed during this four-game stretch?
I really think it has a lot to do with the offensive line coming together and finally getting in tune with the new scheme.
The last loss the Vikings had was a 16-6 defeat against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, and in that game, Kirk Cousins was under siege pretty much all afternoon. Since that game, however, the level of play from the offensive line has improved a lot, most notably from center Garrett Bradbury, the Vikings’ first-round pick this past April. After being one of the lowest-rated centers in the league after the first four games, Bradbury has been the third-highest graded center over the past four weeks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Josh Kline has been a welcome surprise, and tackle Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill have played well, too. The offensive line has been a source of problems for the Vikings for a long time, but it appears that they may be starting to get it figured out. I suppose you could chalk some of that up to the level of opponent the Vikings have faced over the past few weeks, but you can only play who’s in front of you, and the Vikings have been very good up front for about a month now. That’s been the biggest change, in my opinion.
2) WR Stefon Diggs requested a trade earlier this season but has been on a tear lately. Was he simply in need of more opportunities?
I think everyone was frustrated with the way things were going offensively early on in the season, but if it took Diggs speaking out to get things changed and get this offense humming, that’s totally fine.
Diggs has been on a tear over the past three games, bringing in 21 passes for 452 yards, the most in any three-game stretch in Vikings history. Sure, he hasn’t had Adam Thielen across the formation for the past couple of games, but Diggs and Cousins are finally getting on the same page, and the offense is really reaping the benefits. I’d expect that to continue even if Thielen were to come back on Sunday.
3) If you were an opposing team, how would you defend RB Dalvin Cook?
I think the key against Cook is to just stay as disciplined as possible and do your best to prevent the potential cutback lanes that he can find. Over the early portion of this season, Cook has had plenty of situations where he’s looked like he’s going to get dropped for a loss, only to spin away or cut back and turn it into a big gain.
Cook is one of those guys that, I suppose, is to running backs what Patrick Mahomes is to quarterbacks. There are times when a defense can do everything right and look like they have him, and then he makes a play and all you can do is tip your cap and tell yourself you’ll get him next time. (But you probably won’t get him next time, either). A healthy Dalvin Cook really is a special running back, and this year he’s been on a level with any other back in the league.
4) What have been the biggest factors that have led DEs Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffon to 26 combined QB hits?
As cliche as it might be to say it, they’re two guys that just never stop fighting.
I mean, obviously, it helps that they’re both pretty freakish athletes — particularly Hunter at this point. But they just have so many different ways they can beat you. They can come at you with power or speed, they have outstanding discipline (excluding Griffen’s weekly offsides penalty, which is a bit of a running joke for us fans), and they really do feed off each other.
After Griffen’s issues in 2018, I think he’s personally on a bit of a mission to show that he’s all the way back, and so far, he’s showing that he is. Hunter might be the best young edge defender in the game — and if he’s not the best, he’s on the list somewhere. This is his fifth NFL season, which is a little crazy to think about, given that he just turned 25 earlier this week.
5) Give one player on each side of the ball that fans should be paying more attention to. Why?
On defense, Eric Kendricks might not get as much press as a lot of his teammates do, but he has been, by far, the steadiest presence on the Minnesota defense so far this season. Week in and week out, Kendricks is everywhere, whether it’s making stops in the run game, defending passes — he’s tied for the NFL lead in passes defended overall, not just for linebackers — and could be getting some All-Pro consideration if he can keep up his current pace throughout the second half of the season.
On offense, someone to keep an eye on might be rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. With Cousins, Cook, Diggs, and Thielen getting most of the attention, Smith is starting to assert himself in the offense a bit. The Vikings drafted him knowing that they were going to be using a lot of multiple tight end sets in their new scheme, and he’s serving not just as a complement to Kyle Rudolph, he might be surpassing him as a pass-catcher already. If the Chiefs’ linebackers aren’t up to the task in coverage, it could be a solid afternoon for this year’s second-round pick.
Bonus score prediction
The Chiefs (likely) being without the reigning MVP gives the Vikings a bit of an advantage, but I think this game lines up as a favorable one for the Vikings.
Minnesota has been one of the best running teams in the league behind Cook and rookie Alexander Mattison, and the Chiefs run defense has struggled this season. I’m guessing that the Vikings are going to try to get Cook going early, and if they’re successful, it will open things up for Cousins in play-action, where he has excelled en route to being named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for October.
I think this is going to be a close, hard-fought game, but I think the Vikings are going to do just enough to pull this one out and run their winning streak to five. I’ll go Vikings 27, Chiefs 24