After an eight year stint of mostly successful and competitive football with Mike Zimmer as their head coach, the Vikings let him go at the conclusion of the 2021 season as they try to get over the hump of disappointing finishes. Their new coach is 36-year-old Kevin O’Connell, the man who was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion LA Rams last season. O’Connell joins a growing list of young, offensive minded coaches that are sweeping the league, and his arrival brings with it a lot of excitement about what the Vikings and their elite personnel can do with an aggressive coach of his nature, rather than the “defense and ball control” mindset that Zimmer imposed on the organization.
The Vikings did not play their starters this preseason and, as always, preseason play calling and schemes are pretty vanilla, so it is hard to point to specific things on film or in box scores to define their approach. However, from training camp reports, beat writers, O’Connell’s history and the Vikings’ personnel we can paint a pretty clear picture of what to expect this season:
Putting that all together, we can expect a much more aggressive and fast paced offense (specifically early in games, where the Vikings were previously very conservative and usually had to be “pulled out of their shell” by game script) than we have seen from the Vikings in recent years. We can also expect a large portion of their offense to funnel through their two all-pro skill players, albeit in a variety of creative ways.
It is worth noting that the Green Bay defense faced O’Connell’s Rams last season at Lambeau in November, a game in which the Packers controlled most of the way and won 36-28. It should be noted, however, that game was played outdoors in the cold Wisconsin weather late in the season. This game will be played in good conditions, at home, early in the season before injury issues become prevalent.
The biggest obstacle for this new look Minnesota offense in its debut will be a ferocious Green Bay defense that performed well last season and has now added more firepower through the draft, free agency and the return of some key players from injury. The Vikings have at best, a middle of the pack offensive line, while the Packers have a pair of high end edge rushers in Rashaan Gary and Preston Smith, along with all-pro DT Kenny Clark who routinely collapses pockets from the interior. This, along with a loaded secondary led by the return of Jaire Alexander – the highest paid cornerback in the NFL – makes the Packers defense anything but a cakewalk, particularly through the air.
The Packers run defense ranked 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric last year and was clearly the easier way to attack this defense. We should expect the Vikings to exploit this area when possible, but not to shrivel up as they would in the past when trying to “establish the run.” I would expect in this Week 1 matchup with a division rival at home, that the Vikings will look to find ways to be aggressive and send a message that things are changing. While running may be the “easiest path,” this is a matchup of strength on strength as the Vikings offense is now primed to attack rather than be pulled along for the ride. Sometimes teams will abandon ship on their philosophies as the season drags along, but at full strength in a high leverage game in front of their home crowd I would expect O’Connell to have an attacking mindset.