As the Vikings’ team charter headed west Sunday night, the mood on the plane sullied by a road loss for just the second time this season, two plays ran on a loop in Adam Thielen’s mind.
On the first one, Case Keenum’s pass hit Thielen in the chest, exiting his grasp in the corner of the end zone before the wide receiver’s yellow gloves could secure it for a touchdown with 25 seconds left in the first half against the Carolina Panthers. Thielen angrily punched the turf after the play, before patting his chest to accept responsibility.
The second pass occupying Thielen’s attention was just two plays later, when the receiver tracked a ball over his head in the corner of the end zone while separating from cornerback Kevon Seymour. He clutched the ball until he rolled to his back, and the football moved in his hands as his left elbow hit the ground. A replay review overturned the touchdown, drawing coach Mike Zimmer’s ire over the NFL’s widely loathed catch process rule, and the Vikings wound up settling for a field goal in a game they lost by seven points.
Drops for receivers are something like interceptions for quarterbacks, blemishes on a record that must be forgotten quickly; “I,” Thielen said, “don’t have that skill.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. There’s probably a happy medium about where you want to forget about it, and things like that. It’s good to learn from it. It’s good to be mad about it, because it obviously means that you care. But there’s definitely a point where you’ve got to let it go, and try to beat the guy the next play.”
Until last Sunday, the Vikings hadn’t had many dropped passes over which to stew this season. They’d lost just 11 all season before the Panthers game — the fewest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus — as sure-handed targets such as Thielen, receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph helped the Vikings build the NFL’s 13th-ranked passing offense to that point.
The Vikings’ loss to the Panthers, however, was pockmarked by drops that significantly affected the game’s final outcome. Rudolph, who’d caught his 51st pass and seventh touchdown of the season in the first quarter, had his first drop of the year on the next drive, wiping out what could have been a big gain.
Thielen only had three drops all season before Sunday; his two gaffes on the final drive of the first half wiped out touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, Keenum threw a wide receiver screen a bit high for Diggs; when the wide receiver jumped to corral the ball, it bounced off his hands and helmet and into the waiting arms of Panthers cornerback James Bradberry at the Carolina 25.
In total, the Vikings dropped five passes Sunday — six if you count Thielen’s overturned touchdown. They’ll look to wipe out the uncharacteristic stretch of errors Sunday against Cincinnati.
“There’s nothing you can do about it now; no reason to get down on yourself or kind of dwell on it,” Diggs said. “More plays are going to come, especially at receiver. You’ve just got to make the next one.”
Diggs and Thielen both attributed drops to a momentary lapse in focus. Rudolph, who’s trying to return from an ankle injury and play against his hometown team after not practicing the first two days of this week, said last week the key to avoiding drops is to avoid breaking concentration.
“Mostly, it’s mental,” he said. “You add up all the balls that you catch throughout the course of [practice] and it could be 200, 300 catches that you have. When the ball’s in the air, focus in on a small point, mentally locking in and not worrying about what’s around you.”
The Vikings return home Sunday, playing at U.S. Bank Stadium for just the second time since Oct. 22, against a Bengals defense that Zimmer built during his time as the team’s defensive coordinator from 2008-13. It’s a favorable environment in which the Vikings can clinch the NFC North title, and it’s a prime opportunity for Minnesota’s receivers to move on from a surprising number of errors.
“It just happens,” Thielen said. “There’s nothing else to really say about it. As much as you’d like to, you’re not going to [catch every ball]. It’s about how you respond, how you come back from it, and that’s all you can do.”