Pressure, expectations follow Cousins, Vikings into new season

MINNEAPOLIS — The buzz surrounding the Minnesota Vikings a year ago was unmistakable, after the addition of the best available quarterback to a roster that reached the NFC championship game.

Even for an experience-hardened team directed by a no-nonsense coach, though, the widespread belief that the Vikings were poised to finally win a Super Bowl inevitably penetrated their normally narrow focus. Such infiltration was naturally for the worse, however slight, and not for the better.

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“You kind of have a feeling when you’re around a team that thinks about expectations or talks about it a lot in the locker room or to the media, what have you, I think that’s when you’re not playing your best football,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think teams that usually win Super Bowls or are playoff teams consistently, they’re just coming out here and busting their tail. They’re not worried about that, and I think that’s the mindset of this team.”

Conveniently for coach Mike Zimmer, quarterback Kirk Cousins and everyone else in purple attempting to pivot from the 8-7-1 record in 2018, punctuated by a lackluster loss at home to division champion Chicago that kept them out of the playoffs, the Vikings have long had their best years amid lowered external expectations.

Their odds to win it all are merely 13th best in the league. The Bears have the defense coming off the more dominant season, and the NFC North title is in their possession. Still, there will be plenty of heat on general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer and Cousins this fall, given the investment Vikings ownership has made in them — and the lack of postseason success on each of their resumes. They’re pushed hard against the salary cap after keeping the core of the team intact.

“I hope the people on the outside say, ‘Boy, they better be good this year, or else,'” Cousins said. “I mean, is that pressure? Yeah, but we’re professionals. We’re living a dream, and we should have pressure on us, and there should be expectations. I hope we get to play here for a lot of years where people really are putting a lot on us because they expect a lot out of us, because we’ve shown that we can do it. That should be the goal.”

Here are some key angles to the 2019 season, which begins for the Vikings at home on Sept. 8 against Atlanta:

NEW LOOK

Kevin Stefanski has taken over as offensive coordinator, directing a scheme with significant influence from new offensive adviser Gary Kubiak that’s heavy on play-action passing and more familiar to Cousins from his time with Washington. With wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs established as one of the NFL’s best duos, the Vikings will seek a better run-pass balance and again try to make running back Dalvin Cook a prominent weapon after his first two seasons were shortened by injuries. Rookie Irv Smith Jr. will join in frequent two-tight end formations with Kyle Rudolph, the longest-tenured offensive player on the team.

BETTER BLOCKING

The offensive line remains a concern until proven otherwise, but first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury ought to be able to provide a reliable presence in the middle. His arrival at center allowed Pat Elflein to slide to left guard, and Josh Kline was signed to be the new right guard. Cousins could use more consistent protection, but the first priority is to re-establish the ground game. The Vikings were 25th in the NFL in yards per rush and 30th in rushing yards last year.

SPECIAL DELIVERY?

The kicking game has grown increasingly unstable — and problematic — over Zimmer’s tenure, which has entered a sixth season. The Vikings have turned the long snapper role over to rookie Austin Cutting and acquired Kaare Vedvik to likely be the new punter. Dan Bailey is the incumbent kicker, but if he were to struggle, Vedvik, who spent last year on the injured list with Baltimore, could ultimately replace him.

HIGH BARR

One of the most important offseason developments was the re-signing of linebacker Anthony Barr, who initially agreed to join the New York Jets before changing his mind. He couldn’t bring himself to leave a tight-knit group that finished in the top four in the league in yards allowed in each of the last three years. Barr and college buddy Eric Kendricks will start their fifth straight year together manning the middle of Zimmer’s defense.

ON THE SLATE

The Vikings have a late bye in Week 12, a welcomed respite during a difficult second half of their schedule. Their last four road games (Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles Chargers) are all against teams that made the playoffs last year, with a combined record of 44-20, and both trips to the West Coast are for night-time kickoffs. The upside to the tough stretch? The Packers and Bears must visit U.S. Bank Stadium over the final two weeks.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-7-1)

New faces: C Garrett Bradbury, RG Josh Kline, DT Shamar Stephen, TE Irv Smith Jr., RB Alexander Mattison, P/K Kaare Vedvik, LS Austin Cutting, WR Jordan Taylor, assistant head coach/offensive adviser Gary Kubiak.

Key losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, RB Latavius Murray, DT Tom Johnson, RG Mike Remmers, LG Tom Compton, PR Marcus Sherels, LS Kevin McDermott, SS Andrew Sendejo, WR Aldrick Robinson.

Strengths: Defense, entering sixth season in coach Mike Zimmer’s aggressive, effective scheme, remains as reliable as there is in league. Vikings ranked fourth in NFL in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed last year, and front office managed to bring almost entire band back, losing only Richardson from starting lineup. DE Everson Griffen, NT Linval Joseph and FS Harrison Smith are now 30-plus, but Smith in particular remains one of best in game at his position. LB Anthony Barr changed mind after verbal agreement to join New York Jets, keeping solid duo with Eric Kendricks in middle of defense intact. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs comprise one of best WR tandems.

Weaknesses: Offensive line, again, is concern until proven otherwise. Though QB Kirk Cousins made his share of mistakes in first season in Minnesota, he was often under duress. Run blocking was an even bigger problem last year, as Vikings finished with third-fewest rushing yards in NFL. Bradbury will be asked to anchor group as rookie, with Pat Elflein moving to LG and Kline sliding in to his right. Kicking game continues to be in flux, with surprise acquisition of Vedvik likely to push P Matt Wile out or, perhaps, K Dan Bailey.

Fantasy Player To Watch: TE Kyle Rudolph. With Thielen and Diggs bound to draw most of attention from opposing defenses, and recent admission by Cousins that he didn’t throw to Rudolph enough last year, longest-tenured offensive player on team remains ever important in new scheme designed by Kubiak under direction of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Rudolph, who hasn’t missed game in five years and is still just 29, had 634 receiving yards last season, second-highest total of career.

Vegas Says: Win Super Bowl, 27-1. Over/under wins, 9.

Expectations: After stumbling underneath weight of Super Bowl goal following NFC championship game appearance and signing of Cousins to fully guaranteed contract, Vikings enter 2019 with less buzz — exactly how Zimmer wants it. Still, team has as many individual stars as any in league, and Zimmer has just one playoff win in five years. Pressure remains on him and GM Rick Spielman to help guide Vikings to deep playoff run before window for proud, fierce defense closes. Committing new money to Barr, Thielen and Rudolph, on top of megadeals doled out in 2018 to Cousins, Diggs, Kendricks and DE Danielle Hunter, has pushed team even harder against salary cap and further cemented aggressive approach to securing franchise’s elusive first championship.