The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
Blair Walsh could see us coming as he pulled on his pants. He knew why.
The embattled Vikings kicker had flown under the radar for a month or so, one benefactor of a Vikings offense that had lost its way after the bye week. But after he doinked the right upright on a would-be game-tying extra point yesterday, he later watched a Lions defender Mutombo a 46-yard try.
The lost four points proved costly in the 22-16 overtime loss to the Lions.
Walsh, whose confidence is clearly still shaken even after the Vikings tried to inflate it this spring and summer, was not ready for his close-up. His jaw clenched as the lights flashed on and the tape recorders started rolling.
Someone asked, “Blair, can you explain what happened on those kicks?”
“They just did not go in,” the 26-year-old kicker said. “You watched it.”
Walsh was asked if the missed extra point felt good when it left his foot.
“Obviously not,” Walsh snapped. “It did not go in, right? You can ask me this question a million times. ‘Did it feel good?’ Did I make it? No, I did not.”
After a couple of questions about the blocked field-goal attempt, which was tough for Walsh to accurately evaluate without watching replays of the kick, he was asked why he was so frustrated with the line of questioning.
“It is not that I am frustrated. But you guys have to understand, what do you want the answer to be? I want to be there for my team. Of course I do,” Walsh said. “But come on, you ask the same questions every week.”
He had a point there. We do seemingly ask him about misses every week.
“I am confident in what I am doing. I know I am going to be fine,” he said.
The camera lights then turned off, the reporters started walking away and he said some not-so-friendly words about the exchange under his breath.
The tense encounter provided further proof that Walsh, who so admirably handled his big playoff miss last January, has still not recovered from it. The missed extra point, his league-high third in eight games, backs that up, as does his field-goal success rate of 75 percent, one of the NFL’s lowest.
The extra point, which came after the Vikings scored a touchdown in the third quarter to pull within 10-9, did not end up costing them. Had he have split the uprights there, the Vikings probably would have called on Walsh instead of going for it on fourth down in each of their final two drives.
But the three points lost on that blocked field goal, which Walsh guessed was due to his trajectory being a little bit low, did loom large in the OT loss.
After the game, Mike Zimmer was asked where things stand with Walsh.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” the head coach said. “I’m not going to make any evaluations right now. [This is] not the day to be making any evaluations.”
We will see if today’s evaluations lead him to make a change at kicker.
The cap-strapped Vikings would have to eat a $1.7 million cap hit if they cut Walsh and there are not many proven alternatives waiting for a phone call. But right now, it seems as if though they are waiting for Walsh to either come out of his tailspin or cost them a game with a poor performance.
They didn’t lose to the Lions directly because of the four points Walsh left on the field. The red-zone offense and the defense’s collapse were a bigger deal. But were Walsh’s latest two misses, and the lack of self-awareness he showed after the tough loss, enough for the Vikings to give him the boot?
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. With every-down linebacker Eric Kendricks missing the game due to a concussion, the Vikings relied on three of his peers to replace him. Audie Cole started at middle linebacker in the base defense and played 16 snaps. Chad Greenway and Emmanuel Lamur filled in for him in the nickel, playing 50 and 16 snaps, respectively. All three of those snap counts were season highs. Anthony Barr, meanwhile, played defensive end once again.
2. Second-round pick Mackensie Alexander played a career-high 18 snaps after fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn injured his right knee in the first quarter and later left on crutches. Terence Newman, who played 60 of 66 defensive snaps, also spent some time in the slot, where Munnerlyn exclusively plays. Xavier Rhodes played 62 snaps and Trae Waynes got 36.
3. Jerick McKinnon returned to the backfield after missing the loss to the Bears with an ankle injury. But he only played 26 of the 70 offensive snaps. Matt Asiata led the way with 28 and Ronnie Hillman played 16. Fullback Zach Line played nine snaps as the Vikings dressed only two tight ends.
4. Top pick Laquon Treadwell played 17 offensive snaps, five more than he had played through the first eight weeks of the season. Treadwell finally got his first NFL catch after running a great route on third down. In all, five Vikings wide receivers played at least 17 snaps. Stefon Diggs led the way with 57, followed by Cordarrelle Patterson with 40, Adam Thielen with 35 and Charles Johnson with 22. Jarius Wright was inactive this week.
5. Linval Joseph was a busy man yesterday. Not only did the 330-pound nose tackle play a season-high 51 snaps on defense, he also made his debut as a goal-line fullback, playing three snaps on the offensive side of the ball.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I don’t overanalyze it or think too much. I just kick it and hope it goes straight.” — Lions kicker Matt Prater after hitting his clutch 58-yarder
2. “The fight and the heart are there. These are the games that hurt the most because you put your heart out there on both sides of the ball. It’s a tough team loss but it’s part of the game.” — tight end Rhett Ellison
3. “This week I think the game plan was fairly set in place by the time Pat took over. But it’ll be interesting to see how we go moving forward and how things will change. I thought Pat did a good job today just keeping it relatively simple.” — QB Sam Bradford on new play-caller Pat Shurmur
4. “Matt is a bad man. I knew he was going to make it happen.” — Lions defensive end Kerry Hyder on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has led the Lions to fourth-quarter comebacks in all five of their wins
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Scoring more touchdowns when in the red zone is the top priority for Shurmur. New offensive coordinator, same results for a Vikings that was ranked 28th in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage entering this week’s game. The Vikings under Shurmur scored two touchdowns and one field goal in five trips inside the Lions’ 20-yard line. Their second trip, after outside linebacker Chad Greenway picked off Stafford, was comically bad. They were forced to punt after a pair of penalties, a negative run and a sack that put them back at the 40-yard line. The offense did deliver on its final chance, with Ellison scoring on a clever running play after Bradford connected with wide receiver Stefon Diggs on fourth down. But for the third straight week, squandered opportunities inside the red zone proved costly for the Vikings, who definitely miss Adrian Peterson in that area.
2. It is fair and warranted to criticize Zimmer for some of his key late-game decisions. Let me start off by saying that Zimmer did not miss a kick, he did not get stuffed on fourth down and he did not let Lions wideout Golden Tate slip out of his grasp in OT. But he erred by not letting more time run off on the final Vikings drive. Before Ellison’s touchdown on third down, he had two timeouts and could have let time tick down under 15 seconds before using one. There was a chance that a penalty could give the Vikings a first down and more shots at the end zone. But scoring with as little time left as possible would have given the Lions less time to respond. On defense, Zimmer, typically an aggressive play-caller, only sent a three-man rush with 17 seconds left in regulation, giving Stafford time to complete a 27-yard pass that put Prater in position to tie the game. Zimmer later second-guessed himself for that.
3. The Vikings need to give Hillman more opportunities. McKinnon and Asiata have both averaged well below four yards per carry since Peterson got injured in Week 2. Poor run blocking has been the main culprit but neither of those two has showed an ability to consistently make something out of nothing. Enter Hillman, the speedy veteran running back who sparked the offense in the loss to the Lions with a 14-yard run on a pitch play and a 32-yard gain on a swing pass in the fourth quarter. The Vikings went back to that pitch play one too many times, but Hillman did almost break loose on that 14-yarder. McKinnon is still the most talented athlete in this backfield and Asiata is their only runner with power. But Hillman, who has 1,884 career rushing yards, showed that he might not be “just another guy.” Give him some more carries and see what he can do with them.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Are you sticking with Walsh as your kicker for Sunday’s game in D.C.?
2. How long will Munnerlyn be sidelined by this injury to his right knee?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. Losing three straight games is obviously not a good thing. But making matters worse is that two of those losses have come within the division. Before losing to the Bears a week ago and then the Lions, the Vikings had won seven of their past eight games against NFC North foes, including the Week 2 win over the Packers. I don’t think the Vikings have to worry about the Bears overtaking them. But both the Lions and the Packers are within striking distance and that division tiebreaker could come into play later.