Where does chemistry matter most?

The Vikings have a lot of new faces...how important is it for them to bond together?

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By Matthew Coller

The Minnesota Vikings are going to debut a heckuva lot of new players on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

When the Vikings kick of Week 1, they’ll have different starters from 2020 at left tackle, left guard, right guard, tight end, WR3, defensive end, other defensive end, defensive tackle, other defensive tackle, nickel corner, two outside corners and one safety.

So for the second year in a row, we’re having a conversation that did not exist between 2015-2019: How the Vikings can quickly build chemistry with all of their new faces. From ‘15-’19, the Vikings did change QBs a few times and had oodles of offensive linemen but their top receivers remained the same and every defensive player that started the 2019 playoff game against San Francisco was on the team in 2015. In 2020, older/expensive starters left, Stefon Diggs was traded and they were suddenly a very different group.

When the roster overturned last season, the Vikings started out with three straight losses. They struggled to move the ball on offense at times and failed to master Mike Zimmer’s defense quickly.

This year isn’t like last year though. The most obvious difference between 2020 and 2021 is experience. The opening day defensive backs last season were Mike Hughes, Cam Dantzler and Holton Hill, none of which were older than 24. This time around, one starter has eight Pro Bowls, the other has a ring. The interior D-linemen are expensive free agents, not former backups.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll all lock in with each other instantly — and there could be serious repercussions if they aren’t able to figure each other out. A slow start to this season against Cincinnati and Arizona would put the Vikings in a huge hole going into games against Super Bowl contending teams in Seattle and Cleveland. Two wins to open the year, however, could put them in a very good position coming home for three straight games.

So where does the team’s chemistry stand? Where does it matter most? Where does it show up the most when teams do have good chemistry?

Quarterbacks and receivers

On a routine play, chemistry between a quarterback and receiver might exist simply with each other just knowing the call and read. When we look at the box scores, it’s easy to assume that a QB has a better or worse connection with a particular receiver but quarterback Kirk Cousins said that it’s often a product of the gameplan and defensive scheme rather than intangible forces that bond them.

“I’ve always kind of said, who gets the ball more in one game or one quarter it may just be by chance, it may be by play design but at the end of the day there’s a lot of guys we trust to make plays and where the ball goes from time to time is sometimes out of our control because if the defense’s coverages dictate it,” Cousins said.

But where chemistry comes into play, according to offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, is in key spots. It should come as no shock that the list of league leaders in close-game fourth quarter receiving yards from last year includes Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, D.K Metcalf and Justin Jefferson.

“In the critical moments,” Kubiak said. “Where the chemistry comes into play is when things are hectic and you’re just looking for your best guy to get the ball. It doesn’t matter what the coverage is, what the defense is bringing, when those guys can lock eyes and have that non-verbal communication. You build that in practice but you see it come to light in the critical moments of the game.”

How does that chemistry get built between a receiver and quarterback? As Cousins likes to say: Time on task.

Cousins and Jefferson clearly worked together well last season — Jefferson broke rookie receiving records — but with increased attention on Jefferson this year, they’ll need to be even sharper.

“We only had a small time last year at the beginning of the season, so now that we have a whole extra year that we've been together and now that we've been in OTAs and training camp,” Jefferson said. “We've had a lot of time together so to be back with him and building off of what we had last year, it's definitely going to be smoother this year.”

It’s clear QBs and WRs need to be on the same page but do receivers need to have chemistry with each other? This is, after all, the land of the receiver duo. But Adam Thielen, he of multiple top-notch duos, doesn’t see it as a huge thing, aside from giving some insight to each other between downs.

“I think that’s a little over-talked-about maybe,” Thielen said. “You have to have chemistry, it definitely helps to be on the same page to be able to communicate well and to be able to talk about what you’re seeing and what coverage you’re getting, things like that.”

The Vikings haven’t required much chemistry from receivers over the last two seasons because they have used multiple tight ends more often than anyone else in the NFL. With Irv Smith Jr.’s season-ending injury, we could see more usage from new receivers Dede Westbrook and Ihmir Smith-Marsette along with KJ Osborn, who didn’t have a catch last season.

If chemistry does have a big impact, we’ll find out shortly which receivers Cousins comes to trust soon.

The secondary

Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods all played for different teams last year. Only Alexander had previous experience in Zimmer’s defense. Now after only a few months of practicing together — and zero preseason snaps as a complete unit — they’ll have to come together against one of the up-and-coming star QBs in the NFL.

The key to making it work right away: Communication.

“The coaches have been putting us through a lot of game situations,” Peterson said. “The more and more we’re out there together, when it comes to Sunday, I believe it can come easy to us. A lot of guys are very talkative with putting guys in position like Xavier and Harry who’s been in the system forever. Just adding veteran pieces to this difference, I believe we can thrive that much better.”

Going on the road to start the season actually helps in a way. The road environment will not be hostile with Joe Burrow on the field. But even if they can all hear each other, the new group of defensive backs will have to relay messages quickly, especially in moments where the offense could push the tempo.

“We’ve got to be all on the same page if they go no-huddle or hurry-up situations or 2-minute,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “I think we’re put them in enough of those situations in training camp with game situations and 2-minute drills that we’ll be prepared for that. I think the guys — I sat back and listened to them communicate in practice on Monday — and they are communicating way better than I ever remembered. They’re doing a real good job with that.”

This group may be playing their first game together but they’ve all been around the block. Between the four Viking DBs making their debuts, they have played 376 regular season games.

“The main thing is we all have experience and we’re all intelligent football players,” said Woods.

Offensive line

We go from the most experienced new group to the least seasoned.

“I think there’s some unknowns [on the offensive line], Udoh playing guard, Cleveland played there all last year, Bradbury,” Mike Zimmer said. “Rashod’s played a lot at left tackle in the past, so I think it’s a little bit (of) unknowns but I don’t think it’s a major concern. We’ll just have to find out.”

Starting right guard Oli Udoh will take his first career snaps at guard this week. Right tackle Brian O’Neill, who has played next to different guards each year, said that Udoh’s previous experience as a tackle will help them understand each other better when it’s time for the real game action.

“With Oli, it helps because he had played right tackle for the past couple years since he’s been here, so when you do individual drills, you kind of work with guys at your position, so me and Oli have been doing all our drills [together for a couple years] before he started playing guard,” O’Neill said. “So I understand how he thinks about blocks, and he understands what I think about certain angles and placement of linebackers and things like that. That rapport kind of has been built for a while, and we’ve just got to continue to build on it day after day after day. But a lot of faith in Oli.”

Last year Ezra Cleveland played 622 snaps as a rookie — all of which came at right guard. This year he’ll move over to the left side, where the 2020 second-rounder will still play alongside Garrett Bradbury. According to Cleveland, that time together is helpful in terms of finding chemistry, even if it’s on the reverse side.

“Playing next to someone for ... going on a whole year now ... you get to know someone, you're grinding every day,” Cleveland said. “For this off-season, we were training together, working hard and pushing each other.”

Cleveland said that he thinks getting to know Bradbury a personal level also translates over to the field.

“When you're with someone for that long, just 24/7, you get to know them really well,” he said. “We've been carpooling and stuff in the morning. It turned out to be a great relationship.”

The O-line has one thing going for it: They were able to practice together as a fully-healthy group for the entire training camp and preseason. Very few reps were missed due to dings and cuts during practices leading up to the start of the year.

However, in the third preseason game against Kansas City, a miscommunication caused Kirk Cousins to take a hard sack from a blitzing linebacker. Last year the O-line struggled mightily to block for blitzes. Of his 39 total sacks, 18 came on blitzes, which made up only 33% of his total dropbacks. His completion percentage dropped from 71% to 59% when blitzed.

How they’ll handle defenses’ best stuff can only be determined when those blitzes finally come but Klint Kubiak said they’re doing everything to prepare the line for different rush packages.

“It’s nothing that we haven’t worked through,” Kubiak said. “We’ve seen a lot of pressure from coach Zimmer. It’s a little different scheme this week but our guys are ready to go.”

Defensive line

Mike Zimmer seems pretty excited to have the “Meaty Boys” (as dubbed by Eric Kendricks) Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce. Last year the Vikings were steamrolled up the middle by run-heavy teams, giving up the sixth most total yards and seventh worst yards per carry in the NFL.

Just by nature of Tomlinson and Pierce weighing nearly 700 pounds together, they’re going to be tough to run against. But there’s a lot more to it than being meaty, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson explained:

“They’ve learned to read off each other and get a feel for where guys are going to be on the field, especially with different blocking schemes,” Patterson said. “It works that way pass rush-wise, too. You start to understand how much push a guy can or cannot get, and where you can fall off him or read off of him.”

Pierce said that — like Cleveland and Bradbury — he and Tomlinson are getting to know each other off the field as well, even getting together with their girlfriends for breakfast. Patterson said he has seen their communication grow.

“I think the biggest thing with those two is that they are constantly talking to each other,” Patterson said. “When they come off and another group goes in there, I hear them constantly talking to each other about where they were on that play. You know, ‘Hey, I was here, so you really could have folded back underneath me.’ That’s what veterans do, and that’s what excites me about those two.”

Running back and fullback

Dalvin Cook and CJ Ham are like the lead singer and bass player in a band. You notice one of them a lot more than the other but the singer needs his bassist to keep things steady.

Cook and Ham are quite a bit different than all the new players trying to form bonds. They have been together now since 2017 and through the years they have an understanding deep enough that it doesn’t require much talking.

“We line up in the backfield, I can kind of sense, kind of feel what he's trying to get done as a runner, and I think that's key as a running back, knowing what your fullback is trying to get done, and he sees it like I see it,” Cook said. “I always tell him, 'You used to run the football too. Run it like you're running it. It's the same thing.' I'm just happy to have him in the backfield with me. He's older so he's always been like a big brother to me, so I'm just happy to have him in the backfield.”

Holder and kicker

Two years ago there was a great deal of discussion over holding for field goals because the Vikings signed Britton Colquitt in part because he was a terrific holder. This year they moved on from Colquitt to sign former Steeler Jordan Berry. He’ll have had about a week-and-a-half to get used to holding for kicker Greg Joseph.

Berry said that holding isn’t as much about chemistry as it is making sure he has the right technique and he’s spent a lot of time on it.

“Once I got to college we had I think at one point we had five kickers and I was the only holder so just sitting there all day and holding and that’s really where I got most of my skill from is just reps all day every day in college,” Berry said. “Apart from that it’s really just looking at the finer details, getting some video out and making sure I’m doing the right thing up close. I feel like the TV cameras and the practice film you can’t really see the finer details. So just bringing a camera out and just taking a close look at exactly what I was doing and just improving where I could.’’

The bottom line

One of the things that makes football so fascinating is the sheer number of things happening at once. On any given play, players have to understand all of their assignments and understand how the person next to them operates as well.

On multiple levels, Vikings players will be finding out about each other in Week 1 while trying to start the season off the right way. If they can find the instant chemistry they’re hoping for, they could very well head to Arizona with a 1-0 record.

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