The success of Vikings vs. Patriots will depend on Kevin O’Connell’s ability to lead and adapt

EAGAN, Minn. – Before the season started, Mark Sanchez raved about first-year Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell. Sanchez, who shared a quarterbacks room with O’Connell more than a decade ago, praised the lessons O’Connell learned from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

The impression was clear, Sanchez said, especially in the way O’Connell highlighted some smaller, but important, details: things like scoring points in a two-minute pre-half drill, effectively managing the clock and producing in the red zone.

“(The Patriots) were on the cutting edge of some of these things,” Sanchez said, “redefining the way you think about winning games.”

Many of the Belichickian trappings played an important part in the Vikings’ 8-2 start. Scoring at the end of the half was essential. Also efficiency in the red zone. They will also be essential for the Vikings in Thursday night’s shot of redemption against the Patriots.

But after Sunday’s shooting by the Cowboys, it only feels right to reference another lesson O’Connell learned from Belichick:

“It was about acknowledging the reality of the game, what happened, what happened,” recalled O’Connell. “The things we did or didn’t do in the football game that may have contributed to losing that game. And then how do we fix those things, how do we fix any issues? … That message (from Bill) was always right away, right away.”

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Every week in the NFL features a similar review-and-fix challenge. This week, however, the heaviness of the challenge feels greater. Perhaps that’s because of the margin of Sunday’s loss. Or maybe it’s because Thursday’s game is nationally televised at home in prime time. Either way, the feeling exists, which magnifies both the problems and possible solutions.

The obvious starting point is the pass protection. Asked Tuesday what the offense can do to avoid quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​being sacked again seven times, Dalvin Cook answered succinctly.

“Block,” he said.

As true as it may be, being successful is going to be a bit more complicated.

The Cowboys rank first in the NFL in pressure percentage (42.7 percent). The Patriots are in second place (37.5 percent). The Cowboys have bagged Micah Parsons, who is third in the NFL (10). The Patriots offer Matthew Judon, who is in first place (13).

The Vikings will also be without arguably their best passing protector, sophomore tackle Christian Darrisaw, who suffered a concussion on Sunday.

“Make no mistake about it: it’s going to be a huge challenge for our guys up front and all 11 of us really,” said O’Connell.

So what can the Vikings do to prevent a repeat of Sunday’s nightmare?

First, we need to understand the Vikings’ plan against the Cowboys and how they tried to adapt throughout the game.

Minnesota’s strategy was clear: use the run-and-play pass play on early downs to keep the Dallas pass rushers from moving into the backfield too quickly. That approach made sense. Pressure on the quarterback doesn’t matter if he’s already dealt the ball. Then the play action gives the quarterback more time. It creates hesitation for the defensive front: Do we put the rim, or do we just pin our ears back and let it rip?

O’Connell knew the strategy was not foolproof. Success depended on two factors. 1. The Vikings should effectively run the ball in first and second. 2. The offensive line should occupy the Cowboys’ front long enough with passing action for Cousins ​​to attack downfield.

Neither happened.

The Vikings’ first-half success rate on early downs was 22.2 percent, their fourth-lowest success rate this season. (Their low was against the Eagles in their only other loss.) Meanwhile, Cousins ​​was being pressured for a season-high 60 percent of his play-action passes.

O’Connell, offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, and offensive line coach Chris Kuper attempted to make adjustments during the game, step-by-step adjusting their pass protections to prevent the Cowboys from knocking off one individual lineman. They also offered help for left tackle Blake Brandel, who replaced the injured Darrisaw.

Here’s an example of Cook’s chipping against Parsons:

Ahead of Thursday’s game, the Vikings staff devised a strategy to allow less leakage in their pass guard. It will probably have a lot of similar elements – chip help on the outside and alternating which lineman can be forced into a one-on-one.

Success at an early stage is vital anyway.

“It’s about functioning as an attack on those downs that maybe (the people watching) don’t remember,” O’Connell said.

Why the focus on early downs? When the Vikings gain 4 yards or more in first place, they rank second in the NFL in shot percentage. When the Vikings gain less than 4 yards in first place, they are in 21st.

It is a similar case in second place. When the Vikings need 3 yards or less for a first-on-third down, they rank 15th in the NFL in hit rate. If they need more than 10 feet, they rank 23rd.

So, how can the Vikings make sure they’re in better situations? O’Connell must select the right play based on the game situation and the way his team (and pass protection) is performing. Cousins ​​must then navigate that game by examining the defenses and deciding how best to attack. The other 10 players must then carry out the plan.

On Monday, wide receiver Justin Jefferson said the Vikings need to move toward “more fast play” and that he wishes the offense would be adjusted more quickly during the Cowboys game. His frustration went back to a game against the Lions earlier this year. The Vikings won 28-24, but Jefferson only had three receptions for 14 yards that day. After that, O’Connell and Jefferson talked and worked together to devise an approach that led to 10 catches for 147 yards in the next game and set the stage for a seven-game winning streak in Minnesota.

This time they work the same way, with O’Connell and company trying to adapt once again.

This is a great example of the challenges facing a head coach in the NFL. And these are the types of weeks that can define what it means to be a successful league head coach.

No one knows that better than the man who is on the sidelines of the opponent on Thursday evening. O’Connell considers Belichick to be one of his biggest influences on coaching, not only because of the aspects of the game Belichick emphasized, but also because of the way he behaved in such situations.

(Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)

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