A lot went wrong for the Vikings offense to sputter into just 129 yards and three points during the nine meaningful drives in Chicago on Sunday night.
Immediately after the loss, three culprits were pinpointed: turnovers, a lack of a run game and red-zone inefficiency. A day later, head coach Mike Zimmer wondered aloud if the Vikings offense needs to simplify things with “too much volume” in the game plan against the Bears.
“Those same plays we called tonight are the same plays that have also worked well for us in the past,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said after the game.
But they didn’t work against a vaunted Bears defense that now, thanks in part to the Vikings, is the league’s second best allowing a stingy average of 4.9 yards per play.
Why? Let’s take a deeper look at a Vikings offense that has put up just 19 points per game in the last three contests (1-2).
1. There were correctable flaws in the Vikings blocking. Miscommunication was a problem for the run and pass. In short, this offensive line simply isn’t talented enough to hang with the Bears. That was obvious when Khalil Mack sped inside on a twist and derailed a Vikings drive in the red zone by sacking Cousins on first down. Left guard Tom Compton, admittedly not fully healthy with a sprained knee, barely got a hand on Mack, who also beat left tackle Riley Reiff with speed and power moves. The Vikings’ matchup losses continued with Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who had five (!) of Chicago’s nine tackles for losses while beating the entire interior offensive line including center Pat Elflein and right guard Mike Remmers.
But there were inexcusable mental lapses that compounded their physical deficiencies. Rookie tackle Brian O’Neill, making his fifth NFL start, was in the middle of a couple apparent mix-ups in the run game that contributed to nearly half (6 of 13) of the carries going for negative yardage.
Below on this 1st-and-10 run, receiver Brandon Zylstra (#15) enters the game and likely signals to Bears corner Bryce Callahan (#37) that its going to be a run. Callahan responds with an aggressive alignment right behind Leonard Floyd (#94). This creates the problem as both O’Neill (#75) and Zylstra initially block Floyd, letting Callahan disrupt Dalvin Cook before he ever gets going. The result is a loss of one yard. Afterward, you can see O’Neill and Zylstra talking through the mishap.
That also happened with O’Neill and tight end Kyle Rudolph on a 2-yard Cook run in the first quarter when O’Neill didn’t give Rudolph help on an outside zone run, leading to Floyd shedding Rudolph for the tackle.
Another ugly miscommunication happened at the Bears’ 10-yard line with the Vikings trailing 14-3 in the fourth quarter. Hicks could’ve walked between Elflein and Remmers for this sack. It appears Remmers didn’t slide to his left with the rest of the line, leading to the gap.
2. The Vikings need better from Cousins. He entered Sunday night having performed pretty well under pressure this season, but that wasn’t the case against the Bears. Even when kept clean, Cousins had inexcusable misfires — namely his deep end-zone overthrow to Stefon Diggs in the first quarter.
Both of Cousins’ interceptions could’ve been prevented by him. The first was a miscommunication with Rudolph, who stopped on an apparent option route as Cousins threw deep down the seam to Bears safety Adrian Amos. The second pick was a bad read by Cousins, who threw to Laquon Treadwell and missed a wide-open Diggs in the flat.
On this 3rd-and-11 play in the red zone, Cousins needs to throw this ball to Diggs, who is single covered on a whip route to the far left. It’s short of the marker, but it’s his only option. Instead, Cousins runs around and throws it away.
3. Anatomy of a play: The Vikings’ ongoing red-zone problems bring up an important question — where’s Kyle Rudolph?
Rudolph entered this season having caught more passes in the red zone (29) between 2016 and 2017 than any NFL tight end. His touchdown total (13) in that span trailed only Jimmy Graham. This season has been a different story. Rudolph has not caught a touchdown since Week 3 against the Bills, and he’s caught just 2 of his last 9 red-zone targets from Cousins.
Against the Bears, the Vikings seemed to reemphasize Rudolph in the red zone, where all 4 of his targets came. He caught two for 13 yards. It’s important to note the Vikings’ red-zone issues are multiple (both sacks were allowed deep in Bears territory), but one of their best weapons has been minimized in Rudolph.
On this 1st-and-10 play below, the Vikings get the look they want with Rudolph aligned inside of a 3 by 1 formation. The Bears keep both safeties deep (circled in white), and the Vikings run all vertical routes to keep the middle open for Rudolph.
Rudolph is covered well by Bears linebacker Roquan Smith (#58), but Cousins and Rudolph have scored against similar coverage. Rudolph is capable of snagging it over Smith, and Cousins is capable of being accurate enough, but he’s not on this incompletion.
Entering Sunday night’s loss, the Vikings offense ranked below average in touchdowns per red-zone drive (18th) and points per red-zone drive (22nd), according to Football Outsiders.
And just a quarter of Rudolph’s targets (13 of 50) have come in the red zone this season. He’s caught five for 28 yards and two touchdowns.
4. Mike Zimmer again said the Vikings need to better commit to the running game. But do they, really? A quick look at the Vikings’ first down plays in Chicago shows a split of 7 passes and 5 runs in quarters 1-3 (excluding the hurry-up drive before halftime). That’s balanced for an offense that doesn’t run the ball well. The issue was simple execution on all first downs, regardless of run or pass.
In the first three quarters at Chicago, the Vikings gained an average of 2.7 yards per pass and 1 yard per run on first downs; Cousins completed 2 of 6 throws for 19 yards and took a sack.
One thing that’s clear is Cook, who played 59 snaps (88 percent), has room for improvement. His fumble was a costly error.
And while he had little to no room to run, there were a couple carries where he appeared to have space outside, but he tried to force the crease inside. That includes the first run for 1 yard, when Cook ran into Leonard Floyd between O’Neill and Rudolph. Cook has to recognize the play-side Bears linebacker crashing the A gap at the snap, leaving yards of room to the outside.
5. Receiver Chad Beebe did, indeed, eat into Laquon Treadwell’s playing time. The two receivers played 29 snaps apiece behind Diggs and Thielen. However, the Vikings didn’t turn to Beebe until they were in full catch-up mode in the fourth quarter. Beebe’s only target was an 18-yard catch on the final drive of the game. Treadwell started and played more in the first half, but it’s worth wondering if the Vikings should turn to Beebe earlier as another option who can get open quickly for Cousins.