On a day when Kirk Cousins moved the chains just twice on 15 third downs, he often looked toward his favorite targets.
The Jets, coached by a well-respected defensive mind in Todd Bowles, were the opponent to finally give receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs the attention they deserved. After Thielen produced his seventh straight 100-yard game, tying an all-time NFL record to begin a season, Mike Zimmer immediately pointed to what his receiver was dealing with in critical moments of the Vikings’ 37-17 win on Sunday.
The lopsided final score dwarfs a contested game the Vikings led just 10-7 at halftime.
“Well, they were double covering him a lot,” Zimmer said of Thielen. “They doubled him and they doubled Diggs. So, we probably need to adjust to that a little bit quicker.”
This is the balance coordinator John DeFilippo and Cousins will need to strike. One of the NFL’s top receiver duos demands the ball. Currently, Cousins is finding Thielen or Diggs on 54 percent of his passes this season. But when a defense, like the Jets on Sunday, throws consistent doubles on one or both, part of the Vikings’ next evolution is to adjust accordingly toward the better matchups.
This Sunday night should provide many opportunities against the red-hot Saints (5-1), winners of five straight and yet allowing a league-worst 43 percent of passes to get first downs. Below we’ll break down the Vikings’ win against the Jets and some relevant elements heading into the Saints game.
1. Pressure report: The Vikings can’t rest easy after back-to-back successful blitzing days against two rookie quarterbacks in Arizona’s Josh Rosen and New York’s Sam Darnold. Drew Brees is the PhD program to those bowling classes. But the blitzes kept working Sunday as Zimmer was most aggressive on third downs. At one point in the second half, Darnold was 0 for 8 and took a sack on the Vikings’ first nine blitzes. He finished 2 for 10 for 31 yards and a sack as Zimmer hovered around the Vikings’ blitz average (27.8 percent) by sending extra rushers on 22.5 percent of Darnold’s drop backs. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly had the standout snap, and he wasn’t even rushing the quarterback when he dropped into coverage and ripped a deep ball out of tight end Neal Sterling’s hands.
The Vikings’ defensive line had its most success against Jets right guard Brian Winters, who was beat by defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson. Richardson used a swim move on Winters that forced the initial pressure for the split sack by Danielle Hunter and Jaleel Johnson. Without nose tackle Linval Joseph for just the fifth time since 2014, the Vikings turned to Jaleel Johnson for his first NFL start and got some promising results. He had a hand in three run stops, showing some ability to anchor against the run. Hunter again led the Vikings’ pass rush with three hurries and a sack.
On offense, guard Danny Isidora (61 of 69 snaps) stepped in for the injured Tom Compton (knee) and got his first prolonged playing time of his second NFL season. Isidora mostly struggled with holding his ground against Leonard Williams, Steve McLendon and Nathan Shepard. He was flagged for ineligible man downfield (declined). But he did make critical blocks on plays that netted 21 yards to Thielen and 23 yards by running back Roc Thomas. If the Vikings need to rely on Isidora for another game or more, they’ll field an athletic guard who remains susceptible to power rushers.
The Vikings dropped Cousins’ pressured rate to roughly 32 percent (season avg. is 40 percent) against the Jets, according to Pro Football Focus, with factors including left tackle Rashod Hill’s steadier game, Cousins’ quick average throw time of 2.45 seconds and the Jets’ insistence on playing more coverage than blitz on obvious passing downs. The Jets’ coverage led to the lone sack as Cousins held onto the ball for 3.6 seconds before feeling the pressure.
2. The Vikings miss Dalvin Cook’s elusiveness. Cook’s health is paramount, and the Vikings should hope he’s ready to return soon because the offense’s short game is missing its slipperiness. The two games Cook played healthy — Week 1 and Week 2 — he led the league with 8 avoided tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. That mark is still tied for 12th even though he’s missed four games since. The Vikings turned to Diggs as that quick-play threat against the Jets, and he avoided just one tackle while averaging 4.1 yards on 8 catches and taking two runs for a loss of seven yards. Diggs leads the Vikings with nine avoided tackles on the season, per PFF, but he was unable to get much going against a Jets defense that often attacked underneath routes and run blitzed.
Running back Latavius Murray showed off his vision on interior zone-blocked runs, cutting through holes for touchdowns from 11 yards and 38 yards away. Both came from behind blocks thrown by center Pat Elflein, who had perhaps his best game since returning to the starting lineup in Week 3.
3. Anatomy of a play: Cousins had one of his more inefficient outings, in part because of how the Jets sold out to prevent Thielen and Diggs from doing the damage. The Jets deployed aggressive doubles on more than a few third downs, including the two examples below.
On this 3rd-and-14 in the second quarter, safeties Jamal Adams and Doug Middleton give a single-high safety look with Adams (circled at hash marks) inching toward Cousins. But after the snap, Adams runs straight to Thielen for the bracket coverage with his cornerback. The Jets do the same on the other side to Diggs.
Watch the play below, and you’ll see Cousins’ best option is the out route by Laquon Treadwell (orange) that is five yards short of the marker. Cousins throws this one into the dirt and the Vikings punt.
In the same quarter on third-and-8, the Jets dedicate both safeties to again hover over routes by Thielen and Diggs.
Cousins again doesn’t have a great option. He flees the pocket to avoid Leonard Williams and throws this one away.
The Vikings adjusted better in the second half. Diggs and receiver Aldrick Robinson ran double go routes on 4th-and-8. The Jets doubled Diggs, leaving Robinson single covered. That’s when Cousins found Robinson for the 34-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
4. Linebacker Eric Kendricks is in for perhaps his toughest matchup on Sunday against Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Kendricks and his teammates will likely get cutups of last year’s Saints film that includes Kamara’s 14-yard touchdown catch over Kendricks that gave New Orleans a late 21-20 lead in the NFC Divisional round.
The Vikings will need a little better from Kendricks than the two catches he allowed by Jets running backs to go for 56 yards on Sunday, including the 35-yard wheel route by Trenton Cannon during New York’s first-half scoring drive. Kendricks, who had an otherwise strong day, also missed a tackle on Isaiah Crowell during his 21-yard catch and run.
Kamara’s 40 catches for 362 receiving yards this season trail only running backs Saquon Barkley and James White.
5. The Vikings’ sure-tackling secondary is heading in the right direction to face the Saints, an offense that features receiver Michael Thomas and Kamara in the backfield; both rank in the top 10 of their positions in yards after the catch. The defensive backs had a strong outing halting Jets receivers to less than 30 yards total after catches. Cornerback Trae Waynes continues to be a leader in run support, closing from the perimeter to force two run stops. He had an especially disruptive day in coverage, getting credit for four pass deflections, including his interception that was tipped into the air by Jets receiver Charone Peake.
The other two Vikings interceptions were relative gifts from Darnold, who overthrew his target on the pick by cornerback Holton Hill. He made a very poor decision on the pass to receiver Robby Anderson, who was shadowed at times by cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes tipped the aforementioned pass into a Harrison Smith interception. Meanwhile, Brees will enter U.S. Bank Stadium as the only NFL quarterback to not yet throw a pick.