Stars will lead Vikings offense, but others could be the difference between good and great
EAGAN – If you’re an NBA fan on TNT, you’ve heard Shaq talk about “The Others.” His theory is that stars can only take teams so far – it’s if everyone around them rises to the occasion that will make the difference between making a playoff run deep or stay at home.
This concept applies to the Minnesota Vikings offense in 2022. While Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook can be reasonably thrown to make life difficult on defenses, the Vikings have enough talent in other areas. to take the offense beyond its previous output.
It starts with KJ Osborn, who had a great start to training camp after his breakout season in which he caught 50 passes for 655 yards.
“Two practices ago, he got two touchdowns, one at the back pylon, one near the front pylon — big plays,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s doing a good job of separating as best he can and making tough catches.”
Osborn’s 2021 marked the best performance in terms of yardage by a Mike Zimmer-era Vikings No. 3 receiver. The second best was Charles Johnson in 2014 with 476 yards. During Cousins’ time in Minnesota, Laquon Treadwell’s 35 receptions for 302 yards was the previous high water mark.
Cousins spoke Wednesday about urging coaches to target Osborn more often after he continued to make plays in big situations.
“KJ started showing up a lot, and I was saying to the coaches, ‘We might want to involve him more in the first and second down game plan throughout the game, because in two minutes he really does games for us,'” the cousins said. “I’m thrilled to have a player of his caliber who can help take the pressure off Justin and Adam. I’ve always said that when you have a great second receiver it can relieve the first, but you can also say the same about KJ relieving Adam and Justin.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell called Osborn’s camp “really, really good” and said Osborn’s role may be more complex than just being third reading behind Thielen and Jefferson.
“With the marriage of the run and the pass, that third receiver position requires a guy to put in a lot of work,” O’Connell said. “These jobs aren’t always the most glamorous and glitzy where we all take notice of that. It could be putting a block or figuring out how to hit a block in the running game and ultimately how it plays with some of these screens and variations of what we do.
Having receivers who can play any role when a star player is out is also hugely valuable. Cousins pointed out that other receivers have been asked to step in at times over the past three seasons when Thielen has been out of the lineup. Thielen lost six games to injury in 2019, one to COVID in 2020 and four injured last year.
“When Adam was out for a game in 2020 against Carolina, I pulled Olabisi [Johnson] aside and you said ‘Hey, you gotta be Adam, you gotta step in and be that #2 guy this week.’ And he did. And that makes a big difference to our offense,” Cousins said. “I think we lost Adam for about six weeks in 2019 and we really relied on Bisi the whole time, he did a great job. Last year, KJ took over in Adam’s absence. So you always want that second guy to be the difference against a defense and if you have an injury you have to find a way to always have him.
Cousins has mentioned his comfort with Bisi Johnson on several occasions. Practice rotations so far suggest Johnson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and veteran Albert Wilson are in contention for spots behind the top three receivers, but each’s positional order will likely be determined by the rest. of camp and pre-season.
The Vikings may be hoping Smith-Marsette earns the WR4 spot because he’s the deep and fast threat in the group. Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips explained the difference a receiver with extra gear can make in his system.
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“I think depending on the covers you can get matches sometimes,” Phillips said. “You hear defenses when you walk into three sets of receivers, they’re yelling, ‘Hey, they’ve got speed at three,’ because in some coverage, shared safety coverage, some teams are asking linebacker Mike to wear the number three vertical. There are certain benefits you can get against certain diets. Other times you might prefer a bigger guy on the inside, it kind of depends on what pattern you’re playing that week.
Speaking of deep threats, the Vikings have lost theirs to the rest of the side starting with tight end Irv Smith Jr. He underwent thumb surgery which will keep him out until at least the week 1. Johnny Mundt and Zach Davidson take his place in training. O’Connell wants to see a ‘next man’ mentality but hasn’t ruled out bringing someone else into the mix.
“I know with this group we talked a lot about the role of a tight end – what attack on attack really looks like in the NFL these days, we ask our guys to do a lot – at the both in the running game and the passing game, so on all levels,” O’Connell said.
Mundt has more league experience since 2017 but has just 10 career catches. Davidson hasn’t played in an NFL game since being drafted last year. But he has more potential as a quick pass receiver. Cousins said the team coach issues a t-shirt to any player who runs over 21 miles per hour and Davidson is just under that mark.
“He has a lot of speed on the pitch and at his height, he also has a lot of size and that combination gives you a lot of potential as a player,” Cousins said.
Davidson made several catches on Wednesday in place of Smith Jr., but also dropped a pass that turned into an interception by Patrick Peterson.
At running back, the Vikings proved that Alexander Mattison was behind Cook. Kene Nwangwu entered training camp with high expectations as a running back after showing his dynamic skill with the ball last year in kicking returns, but Nwangwu suffered a ‘soft tissue’ injury. and missed the last three practices. It is considered “day to day”.
As the season approached, there were speculations about whether O’Connell would include full-back CJ Ham in an attacking system that traditionally didn’t use a full-back. The Vikings head coach has made it clear that he will follow his predecessors in using the veteran in a versatile way.
“He’s really capable of taking a lot more off his plate than the traditional full-back: A) Because he can handle it mentally, but then B) he’s a dynamic player,” O’Connell said. “To have the strength that he has in the running game, the understanding to be able to do unique running game concepts with him and then ultimately use that as a weapon in the passing game.”
Cousins said he felt more comfortable on the pitch with Ham alongside him.
“He can throw a tee ball and catch a tee ball like he did against the Ravens last year. He can also block a defensive end who is 50 pounds heavier than him,” Cousins said.
While Ham’s production probably won’t tell the difference between good and great, he is part of a group of weapons that must all rally around Thielen, Jefferson and Cook to slam the Vikings offense over the course of his first year under O’Connell.