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:
Over the past three years, the Vikings have made substantive investments in their offensive line, designed to fix one of their biggest problems at a time when the NFC North was loading up with pass rushers.
Bears defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who joined the team in 2016, posted 6 1/2 sacks in his first six games for Chicago against the Vikings. Chicago sent five picks to Oakland for Khalil Mack last September; the edge rusher had 2 1/2 sacks and 16 pressures in his first three games against Minnesota.
This offseason, the Packers gave $66 million to Za’Darius Smith and $52 million to Preston Smith, breaking with their long-standing habit of free-agency frugality under second-year GM Brian Gutekunst. Preston Smith had eight pressures and a half-sack in two games against the Packers this season; Za’Darius Smith had 14 pressures and 3 1/2 sacks, which all came in Green Bay’s 23-10 win on Monday night.
The Packers’ disruptiveness in two games this season — which has coincided with Kirk Cousins’ two lowest-rated games of the year — is among the most significant reasons why Green Bay is closing in on a first-round bye while the Vikings prepare to head on the road as the NFC’s No. 6 seed in the playoffs. In Week 2 at Lambeau Field, and again at U.S. Bank Stadium on Monday, the Packers pressured Cousins through the middle of the Vikings’ rebuilt line especially, turning the game on their ability to rattle Cousins without blitzing him.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers (who pressured Cousins on 65.7 percent of his dropbacks in Week 2) got to the quarterback 47.2 percent of the time on Monday night — despite blitzing him on just one of his 36 dropbacks.
All five of the Packers’ sacks on Monday night came when they brought standard pressure. On three of those five sacks, Green Bay sent just three rushers after Cousins, who finished the night with just 122 yards on 31 attempts.
Asked how the pressure affected his night overall, Cousins simply said, “It had an impact. They have a pretty good rush.”
Smith’s first sack, which came after he beat Riley Reiff off the edge and chased Cousins into the backfield, might have been one instance where the quarterback could have unloaded the ball sooner. Cousins held the ball for an average of 3.12 seconds (more than any passer in the league during Week 16, according to NFL Next Gen Stats), and seemed to lack the resources to neutralize some of the Packers’ pressure on his own, either with quick decisions or the ability to avoid sacks with his feet. But when the Packers were able to keep seven or more players in coverage on all but one of Cousins’ dropbacks, it’s hard to expect consistent throwing lanes. And with no counterpunch from the running game with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison out, the Vikings found themselves ill-equipped to deal with the Packers’ pass rush.
Mack and the Bears come to town on Sunday with little to play for, but if the Vikings decide to give their starters some work (despite the fact they’re locked in to the No. 6 seed), they’ll get chances to work on neutralizing another dynamic pass rush. The fact they won’t be division champions this season has plenty to do with their inability to complete that task in three games against Green Bay and Chicago so far this season.
Here are two other areas of concern from the Vikings’ 23-10 loss on Monday night:
Cousins’ accuracy: The quarterback was on target with only 63 percent of his passes on Monday night, according to PFF; that adjusted completion percentage is his third-lowest of the season, behind only his marks in losses to Kansas City and Green Bay. The narratives about the quarterback’s performance in big games were on full display Monday, and they’ll continue to be until Cousins (who’s now 0-9 on Monday night in his career) answers them. The aforementioned pressure he faced against the Packers certainly had an effect on his accuracy, but on other throws — like the third-and-goal pass he fired high for C.J. Ham on the Vikings’ first series — he had a clean pocket and time to work. His best throw of the night — his 21-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs — came when Cousins couldn’t step into the throw with Josh Kline being pushed back into him, and the quarterback made a nice throw on a deep ball that Adam Thielen couldn’t haul in. But overall, Cousins was off-target enough to make it so the Vikings couldn’t find a rhythm on a night where their defense produced three turnovers. Which brings us to …
Lack of points off turnovers: The Vikings’ only 10 points on Monday night came off takeaways, but the fact they only led 10-9 at halftime was a direct reflection of their inability to punish the Packers for two fumbles and an uncharacteristic Aaron Rodgers interception. Cousins’ misfire for Ham on the Vikings’ first drive led to a Dan Bailey field goal, and the Vikings turned the ball over on downs from the Green Bay 42 after a perplexing sequence in the second quarter, when Diggs overthrew Cousins as the Vikings attempted to recreate the “Philly Special” and Cousins overshot Thielen on a fourth-down deep ball. Coach Mike Zimmer said after the game he told his offense to take some shots against the Packers’ defense, and both Cousins and Diggs defended the play call after the game, saying the play was wide open and could have gone for a big gain if Diggs had made a better throw. “I just missed the throw,” Diggs said. “I’ve never said those words before; I see how it feels now.”
Three players who stood out:
Anthony Harris: His sixth interception of the year — the most by a Vikings player since Darren Sharper in 2005 — came on an impressive play where Harris undercut Rodgers’ throw for Davante Adams after starting the play from a split-safety look opposite Harrison Smith. It’s the kind of disguise the Vikings can execute so well, and they employed it to fool Rodgers into throwing only his third pick of the season. The Vikings will have a difficult decision to make after the year, when Harris becomes a free agent after an impressive year during his first full season as a starter.
Smith: In the Vikings’ past three games, the 30-year-old safety has two interceptions, three pass breakups, three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble (which came on Monday night as Smith ripped the ball away from Davante Adams in the middle of the field. In the first quarter, he stopped Aaron Jones for a one-yard loss on second down after Stephen Weatherly blew up the Packers’ run at the line of scrimmage, and Smith forced Rodgers into a rushed throw with a blitz on third down.
Ifeadi Odenigbo: The Vikings have given more work to Odenigbo throughout the season — he played 31 snaps on Monday night — and he’s continued to emerge as a pass rusher that can add depth to defensive line coach Andre Patterson’s group. Odenigbo had his third sack in four weeks on Monday night when he won a one-on-one matchup with tight end Robert Tonyan and got to Rodgers.
Three trends to watch:
What the Vikings do with their veterans on Sunday: With Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr getting banged up on Monday night, and Trae Waynes and Diggs slow to get up after a pair of plays in the third quarter, the Vikings could opt to treat Sunday’s game against the Bears as a quasi-bye week, resting some of their injured starters before a wild-card playoff game the following week. Cook and Mattison sat out on Monday night, and sources said last week the Vikings’ plan has been to rest Cook until the playoffs. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, however, Zimmer could be inclined to give his starters some work after such a lackluster showing on Monday night. Even with the stakes low, the coach likely won’t reveal much about his plans — he’s taken to secrecy about even his lineups for preseason games in recent years — but the plan for the Vikings’ starters figures to be a topic of conversation amongst coaches all week.
Whether the Vikings get their play-action game going again: According to PFF, Cousins attempted just five throws off play action on Monday night, completing just two after posting the NFL’s highest passer rating off play action through the first 15 weeks of the season. The Packers made a point to take away the Vikings’ bootlegs in Week 2, and the Vikings only got to a couple of their play-action shots on Monday night. “I think they did a good job in different parts of their defense in taking it away,” Cousins said. Given how much the Vikings have leaned on their deep shots off play action this season, the absence of those plays stood out on Monday night.
What’s next for Adam Thielen: He didn’t catch a pass on four targets on Monday night, after posting just three catches for 27 yards in his first game back from a hamstring injury last Sunday. It was surprising to see Thielen unable to haul in the deep ball Cousins threw for him in the first quarter; he was doing plenty of hand-fighting with Jaire Alexander as he ran down the field, but it’s still typically a catch the wide receiver makes. Diggs has operated as more of the Vikings’ downfield threat than Thielen has this season, but the receiver has typically been outstanding at fighting off defenders downfield and tracking balls over his shoulder. After Ameer Abdullah led the Vikings with seven receiving targets, the Vikings could stand to get Thielen going again as a counterpart to Diggs.
And one big question:
How much of the Vikings’ success hinges on Cook? The running back’s absence, because of a pair of chest and shoulder injuries, made sense on Monday night as the Vikings try to get ready for the playoffs, and he figures to sit against the Bears again on Sunday. But with Cook out (and with Mattison missing, for that matter), the Vikings’ offense had a fundamentally different look; they weren’t able to press the ball to the perimeter without Cook’s unique speed and balance, and Cousins seemed to miss the running back as a receiving option. Plays like the jet sweep the Vikings ran to Thielen in the third quarter — when they got one yard on a 3rd-and-2 — might have been called differently if offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski could turn to Cook instead on an outside zone play. The difference was also noteworthy on the first drive, when Cousins threw for C.J. Ham on second and third downs from the Packers’ 5. The toss play the Vikings usually run to Cook in those situations has become their go-to option, and his absence showed up as much in the occasions where they needed a few yards as it did in their lack of big plays. Cook hadn’t run for more than 100 yards since the Cowboys game on Nov. 10, as his injuries and game circumstances kept him from some opportunities, but Monday night served as a reminder of how much the Vikings need him. Especially if they have to trade scores with a team like New Orleans — their current first-round matchup if the current standings hold — the Vikings will need Cook (and Mattison, for that matter) at their disposal.