Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
Much of the focus coming into the Vikings’ Monday night game with the Seahawks centered on quarterback Russell Wilson, and specifically the plays he’s been able to make downfield with a reinforced receiving corps.
To hear Wilson talk about it after the game, the Vikings’ focus was there, too.
“They kept playing [a] two-high shell, just super deep,” Wilson said. “They didn’t want any shots thrown on them. So we said, ‘OK — we’ll just run it and do what we do really well. Sure enough we just kept going, kept going with it.”
The Seahawks ran for 218 yards, the second-most the Vikings have allowed in Mike Zimmer’s six seasons (behind only the 230 they gave up in 2015’s season-opening loss in San Francisco). As Zimmer pointed out after the game, the Seahawks did get 29 of them on a fake punt. But even without that play, the other 189 yards would have ranked as the fourth-most allowed by a Zimmer-coached team.
The Vikings were starting Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris after both safeties were listed as questionable with injuries that limited them in practice all week. They had good reason to worry about the Seahawks’ ability to throw deep, and they’ve used more split-safety looks this season than in some past years, ostensibly in an effort to stem the number of big plays they’ve given up through the air.
But while Wilson’s 60-yard touchdown to David Moore — and the heated sideline scene around Xavier Rhodes — was one of the indelible moments from the game, the Seahawks built their offense more through force than fireworks.
They found a fair amount of success pressing the edges of the line of scrimmage on zone runs (much like the Vikings do), gaining 74 yards when running outside the left or right end and another 34 when running to their right tackle. They used George Fant as an extra tackle on 42 of their 75 plays, betting they could overpower the Vikings’ defensive front in Linval Joseph’s first game back from knee surgery. Joseph told our Andrew Krammer after the game that he’d been given a six-week recovery timetable following his early November surgery, but he made it back in three. Joseph’s defensive snap rate (71 percent of the Vikings’ snaps) was in line with what he’s done the rest of the season, and the Vikings likely weren’t going to use him more than 90 percent of the time when he came back so soon, even if the Seahawks’ game plan might have invited that approach.
Still, it was striking to watch the Seahawks exert their will against the Vikings’ defensive front (like when D.J. Fluker put Joseph on his back during Chris Carson’s 25-yard run in the first half). And it’s worth noting that Zimmer said after the game he was “a little bit” surprised to see the Seahawks run as much as they did.
“I thought they would be throwing the ball a little bit more than they did and what they have done in the past,” Zimmer said. “They stuck with [the run] a lot more than I thought.”
The Seahawks have run the ball more than all but two teams in the league, but Zimmer seemed to expect they’d try and find big plays against his secondary, as other opponents have looked to do. Instead, they controlled the game in a way few teams have against the Vikings in the past six years.
Here are two other areas of concern from the Vikings’ 37-30 loss to the Seahawks on Monday night:
Big plays against Rhodes: The cornerback reacted like he expected safety help on Moore’s 60-yard touchdown, turning his hips and releasing Moore inside as if he thought there would be a deep man to help over the top. The Vikings had Anthony Harris over the top of two receivers on the other side of the formation, though, and Harrison Smith was near the line of scrimmage as the Vikings showed a blitz look on third down. Zimmer would only say after the game that the Vikings busted the coverage; it would seem as though either Rhodes might have been banking on help that the coverage scheme wasn’t designed to give him, or there was a miscommunication about who was supposed to be where. Rhodes’ personal foul on Carson came a play after he gave up a third-down completion to D.K. Metcalf. Zimmer pulled him the series after Moore’s touchdown, giving Rhodes time to cool off after their sideline exchange.
On Monday, Zimmer said he saw improvement in Rhodes and the rest of the Vikings’ corners in coverage. “We busted a coverage on the one, but the one curl that they caught, we were in zone coverage — actually, he did a nice job on that,” Zimmer said. “He got beat on a stop 9 [to Metcalf] one time, I think, but other than that, I saw some improvement technically. And really, with all the corners, I saw improvement in the secondary. We’ve got to continue to get better in that area, but there was improvement, and something to build on.”
Special teams: The Vikings had issues across the board on Monday night, from Dan Bailey’s missed extra point that would have pulled them within three to the 29-yard Travis Homer run they allowed on the Seahawks’ fake punt. C.J. Ham also fumbled a squib kick in the final minute after Seattle kicked a field goal to go back up by seven.
Three players who stood out:
Kirk Cousins: The narratives about Cousins’ record on Monday night (now 0-8) will continue, but the quarterback probably deserves more credit than blame for what he did in the Vikings’ loss on Monday night, given how much his supporting cast had been compromised. Cousins’ lone interception — his first since Oct. 13 — bounced off Stefon Diggs’ hands. He continued to produce in the red zone, with a third-down TD to Kyle Rudolph, and avoided the kinds of mistakes that many have come to associate with his play in big games. ““I thought he did well,” Zimmer said. “He made some good plays. He was under duress a few times but made good plays. He moved in the pocket pretty well. He got the ball out under some tough situations.”
Anthony Barr: Tasked with spying Wilson for much of the night, the linebacker finished with 11 combined tackles and a pair of quarterback hits, while preventing Wilson from making many plays with his feet. Wilson ran just four times for 13 yards and didn’t have many opportunities to make throws on the run after breaking the pocket.
Kyle Rudolph: The tight end’s re-emergence in the passing game has come as the Vikings have looked for options with Thielen out, and Rudolph has been critical to the Vikings’ passing game. He caught four passes for 50 yards on Monday night, hauling in Cousins’ touchdown with his impressive wingspan and making a pair of big catches (including on a sideline throw where Cousins was drilled) in the fourth quarter. He contributed a key block on Dalvin Cook’s touchdown run in the first quarter, on a play that appeared to be the same one the Vikings called for a score in Dallas.
Three trends to watch:
How the Vikings manage defensive depth in December: They had four starters — Joseph, Smith, Harris and Shamar Stephen — listed as questionable for the game, and also limited Everson Griffen to 57 percent of their defensive snaps as he continued to fight through a nagging knee injury. The Vikings leaned on Stephen Weatherly for 36 snaps and Ifeadi Odenigbo for another 16, and got some nice contributions out of rookie Armon Watts in 11 snaps. But they’ll have to make decisions in key moments down the stretch about how far to push their veterans; it’s worth noting how long the Vikings’ injury report was this week, even coming out of a bye, and their chances for a week off in the playoffs are minuscule at this point.
The workload at running back: Cook said he could have gone back into the game after getting hit in the chest/shoulder area and aggravating the injury he’d sustained two weeks ago against Denver. He added he supported the decision to keep him out for precautionary reasons, and rookie Alexander Mattison — who posted 73 yards from scrimmage while finishing the night as the Vikings’ leading receiver — continues to be a luxury for them at running back. The question with Cook is somewhat similar to the one with the Vikings’ defensive players: how much will they try to dial back his workload down the stretch in an effort to keep him as healthy as can be for a playoff push?
How teams rush Cousins: The Seahawks blitzed the quarterback just eight times on his 38 dropbacks on Monday night, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings did a decent job protecting him, especially with the work Riley Reiff did on Jadeveon Clowney before leaving with a concussion. It’s worth noting, though, how much the Vikings emptied out their backfield even as they spent most of the game in heavier personnel packages, motioning C.J. Ham out wide. The fact the Vikings are using at least two tight ends most of the time — Irv Smith played 47 snaps as their de facto slot receiver — means they can sometimes provide extra help on the line of scrimmage, and Cousins has done a good job getting rid of the ball with defenders in his face, as he did on a dump-off to Ham that netted 36 yards. If Adam Thielen’s absence continues and the Vikings are forced to find different ways of boosting their passing game, it’s worth watching whether teams try to blitz Cousins more often and dare his receivers to win on their routes before pressure can get home.
And one big question:
What kind of December will this be for the Vikings? The Vikings have never gone undefeated in their final full month of the season under Mike Zimmer — and they won’t this season — but they’ve had impressive runs to seal playoff bids the two times they’ve gone to the postseason. In 2015, they rebounded from back-to-back losses to a pair of playoff teams (the Seahawks and Cardinals) to win as home favorites over the Bears and Giants and beat the Packers at Lambeau Field for the division title. And in 2017, they went 4-1 in December to clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed at 13-3.
But there are December collapses in the Vikings’ past, too — like 2018, when they fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo after road losses to the Patriots and Seahawks and got beat by a Bears team that had already clinched a playoff spot. Or 2016, when they lost to Dallas at home and got blown out by Indianapolis before a Christmas Eve loss at Lambeau Field marked by Rhodes and Terence Newman’s decision to buck Zimmer’s game plan for Jordy Nelson. Even in 2014, when a young Vikings team harbored remote playoff chances, they lost a pair of two-point road games to the Lions and Dolphins to fall out of the race.
The Vikings have three division home games left, and a trip to face the Chargers that could feel like a home game, so they’ve got ample opportunity to figure things out. But their regular-season winning percentage in December and January under Zimmer is a modest .520 (compared to .595 in September, .667 in October and .636 in November). They’ve played 12 games against winning teams in December and January in that time, which is tied with nine other teams for the 13th-most in the league, so the strength of the opponents the Vikings have faced in that time has been fairly average. In those 12 games, though, the Vikings are 2-10, having beaten only the Packers in 2015 and the Falcons in 2017.
Whether it’s an accumulation of fatigue and injuries, breakdowns in a handful of big moments or some other factor, the Vikings simply haven’t been as effective as they’ve been in the earlier months of the season. A playoff berth, and the Vikings’ position in the postseason field, will hinge on whether they’re able to have success in the month that has derailed a couple of their recent seasons.
(Star Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores)