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:
Since the Vikings started asking Xavier Rhodes to shadow opposing teams’ top receivers, beginning with Calvin Johnson late in the 2014 season, the cornerback has made a habit of slowing down some of the game’s top offensive threats. But there might not be any Pro Bowl receiver, against whom Rhodes has been as effective, as the Falcons’ Julio Jones.
The first time he squared off against Jones — covering him for part of the game while he was still staying exclusively at right cornerback — Rhodes allowed only three catches for 33 yards in the Vikings’ 2014 win. Their 2015 matchup saw Rhodes limit Jones to two catches for 18 yards, and when Rhodes faced Jones in 2017, the wide receiver caught just one pass for 13 yards against him.
In Sunday’s 28-12 Vikings victory, Jones caught only six of his 11 targets for 31 yards, posting two of his catches and his touchdown against Mark Fields after the Vikings were already resting starters late in the game.
Rhodes didn’t do it by himself — coach Mike Zimmer talked this week about paying special attention to Jones, and the Vikings often had a safety over the top of Jones to take away Matt Ryan’s throwing windows, like they did on Anthony Harris’ first interception of the day.
“They had two players over him basically the entire game,” Ryan said. “So that makes it tough. With hard inside leverage from Xavier Rhodes and a safety over the top, it creates opportunities for other guys, but when he did get one-on-ones, he made plays.”
After an injury-plagued 2018, and an offseason where Zimmer said the cornerback needs to play up to the contract he signed in 2017, it’s worth watching how much help Rhodes gets against top receivers this season, and how much the Vikings trust him to shut wideouts down without the benefit of extra safety help. They’ve used safeties to bracket top receivers in the past, so the narrative about Rhodes shutting down the great ones all by himself gets a little overbaked at times. But Rhodes has often been at his best when he’s asked to spend much of a game on one man, and the Vikings have started using him against the Packers’ Davante Adams in recent years, after (famously) opting to keep him on one side during his early years under Zimmer (remember Christmas Eve 2016?). He could have another big chance to show he’s rebounded from 2018 when the Vikings travel to Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Here’s a closer look at the rest of the Vikings’ win over the Falcons, and what it means going forward:
Two other players who stood out:
Everson Griffen: All offseason, the Vikings have expressed guarded optimism that Griffen could return to being the player he was from 2014-17, after a mental health episode sent things off course last year. The 31-year-old defensive end showed early signs of a return to form, posting a sack on Sunday and providing a more consistent force against the run than he did last year. That second point is especially important, given how good of a run defender Griffen has been over the years and how teams started to run the ball more in his direction at times last season. His consistency is worth watching for another reason: if he plays at least 56 percent of the Vikings’ snaps and posts at least six sacks this year, his contract voids and he will be a free agent after the season.
Anthony Harris: The safety received plenty of recognition after the game, but it’s hard not to single him out here for his role in corralling the Falcons’ passing game on Sunday. Harris’ two interceptions highlighted what the Vikings like about him — he was in the right place to make a play on Julio Jones in the first quarter, when he converged on a high throw and took it away from the receiver, and he made an exceptional play to snatch Ryan’s ill-fated third-quarter throw in the back corner of the end zone, almost looking like the receiver Ryan had intended to hit after Luke Stocker stopped his route. Those two picks, and his fumble recovery, could have Harris in line for NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, but the fact he made the plays without taking unnecessary chances on defense was just as important to the Vikings.
Three areas of concern:
The running game (yes, actually): If you’re in the mood to pick nits with the ground game (and you can bet the Vikings coaches noticed it while reviewing film last night), the team’s gaudy running totals were dressed up quite a bit by how many explosive runs they had. Dalvin Cook, who gained 111 yards on 20 carries, got 70 of those yards on four runs, and had 11 carries that went for two or fewer yards. Alexander Mattison, who gained 49 yards on nine attempts, got 40 of them on two carries. Especially given how much the Vikings struggled to produce big plays on the ground last year — they only had seven runs of 20 yards or more all season — they’re certainly appreciative of a run game that can break off a game-changing run from time to time. But they’ll also have days where they need more drive-sustaining runs that net four or five yards at a time than they got Sunday. As Mike Zimmer noted after the game, the Falcons’ defensive scheme means they usually have a safety near the line of scrimmage, creating an eight-man box to run against. But the Vikings will nonetheless look for more consistency out of their run game to go with the big plays.
Pass protection: This didn’t gain much attention because of how little they threw the ball and how large their lead was. But Kirk Cousins, who was charged with nine fumbles last year, had two on Sunday, with the second one coming when Grady Jarrett beat Pat Elflein and stripped the ball out of Cousins’ hand. Jarrett also bull-rushed Garrett Bradbury for a hit on Cousins on a first-quarter play that was nullified by pass interference, and a holding penalty later on the drive helped the Vikings pick up a first down after pressure around both edges of the line forced Cousins out of the pocket. Given how disruptive the Packers’ pass rush was last Thursday in Chicago, the Vikings will have a tough test awaiting them on Sunday at Lambeau Field, and things could be especially difficult for players like Elflein and Bradbury with Packers tackle Kenny Clark.
Mackensie Alexander’s health: While the cornerback will have a MRI on his dislocated right elbow on Monday, it’s possible the Vikings will be without him on Sunday against the Packers, which makes Mike Hughes’ health an especially important topic this week. The Vikings ruled him out for the game after he practiced last week, and Hughes is still working his way back from the ACL injury he sustained last October. But if he’s able to go on Sunday in Green Bay, it would put a capable slot corner back in the Vikings’ lineup at the point they might be without Alexander. They’d have to decide whether they wanted to put Hughes back in a substantial role right away — and they’d have to determine if his knee was ready for the demands of the nickel corner spot, with all of its lateral movement and changes of direction. But even if they’re able to use Hughes sparingly, it’d give them an important piece if Alexander is out. The Vikings resorted to more zone coverage in the second half on Sunday, when Jayron Kearse took much of the playing time in the slot once Alexander left.
Three trends to watch:
Irv Smith/C.J. Ham: The Vikings made frequent use of both players on Sunday, though Smith was employed largely as a blocker; the second-round pick didn’t have a catch in his first NFL regular-season game on Sunday, where he played 26 snaps. But the Vikings were able to make use of the tight end as a slot receiver on a number of occasions, including on Cook’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, when Smith had a nice downfield block after Cook stepped through the initial hole between Josh Kline and Brian O’Neill. It’ll be a busier year for Ham than it was in 2018, when the fullback only reached 20 offensive snaps in one game. On Sunday, he played 22 snaps and carved out a key role as a lead blocker on several of the Vikings’ big runs (including both of Mattison’s long gains).
Anthony Barr: The Vikings sent the linebacker off the left edge of the Falcons’ line for a sack on the first play of the game, creating a free rushing lane for him after Griffen bumped inside by a step. Barr finished with six tackles, and found himself rushing from off the edge of the line a little more often on Sunday, in addition to his customary spot in the Vikings’ double A-gap blitz look. They actually crowded Barr, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith into the gaps over center Alex Mack on one first-quarter play, before Everson Griffen’s neutral zone infraction wiped out the play. It’d be presumptuous to assume Barr’s role will fundamentally change just because the Vikings spent big money to keep him — he’d carved out a role that was relatively light on pass rushing before, and they valued that role enough to pay him this spring — but especially as the double A-gap has become more commonplace, Zimmer has looked for other ways to create pressure. It’s possible he’ll do so by moving Barr around more often this season.
Adam Thielen’s run fakes: In addition to finding Adam Thielen for their lone passing touchdown, the Vikings sent the wide receiver on a handful of jet sweep or end around fakes, ostensibly to draw attention away from their running backs on downhill runs. It’ll be interesting to see if the Vikings keep employing Thielen in that role as much as they did Sunday, and when they’ll eventually decide to put the ball in the receiver’s hands. Thielen ran five times for 30 yards a year ago, and Stefon Diggs carried 10 times for 62 yards.
And one big question:
What will “balance” ultimately look like for the Vikings’ offense? We’ve heard Zimmer talk about the need for more balance on offense since last Nov. 18, when the Vikings ran just 14 times for 22 yards in a 25-20 loss to the Bears, and it’s clear the 2019 Vikings have coalesced around the coach’s desire to run the ball more often. From Kevin Stefanski to Gary Kubiak to Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen, the Vikings’ key figures on offense have talked about how the team’s identity will be forged by a strong running game. But after the Vikings ran it 36 times and asked Cousins to drop back 11 times on Sunday, even Zimmer seemed reticent about calling this the blueprint for the 2019 Vikings. “I never thought we’d throw it 10 times, but the score of the game dictated that,” he said Sunday — in response to the “blueprint” question.
The Vikings aren’t going to be sitting on 28-0 leads every week, and they’ll have to unpack more of their offensive playbook at some point, possibly as soon as Sunday at Lambeau Field, as they face a Packers team that gave up just 46 rushing yards to the Bears. The guess here is the Vikings will still end up throwing the ball between 55 and 60 percent of the time during the season, and it’s overly simplistic to equate “balance” with running on every play — especially when three of the team’s four highest-paid players are the quarterback and his top two receivers. They’ll look for a running game that can take more pressure off Kirk Cousins, but they’ll also look to create consistently clean pockets from which he can work. As soon as Sunday, they could have to achieve something closer to true “balance” to succeed on offense.