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.
On the final offensive play for the Vikings yesterday, which felt like it lasted less than a second before Sam Bradford was on his back, they relied on a once-undrafted lineman to come off the bench to replace an injury-riddled 31-year-old who was chilling on his couch the last time they won a game.
It was a tough spot for Jeremiah Sirles, who has usually played well when plugged in somewhere on the line, to get thrown in at left tackle to protect Bradford’s blind side with the game on the line. And you feel for Jake Long, whose career might be over after he injured his Achilles’ tendon.
But if you want to point fingers, consider aiming one at the front office.
Praising General Manager Rick Spielman is not always a popular position. But there is no question he deserves plenty for hiring coach Mike Zimmer, giving him the pieces he needed to build one of the NFL’s best defenses and salvaging the team’s Super Bowl hopes with his bold trade for Bradford.
The biggest knock on Spielman and his staff the past three years, though, has been the Vikings’ reluctance to draft offensive linemen with premium picks coupled with their inability to develop late-rounders like they did in years past with guys like Matt Birk, John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco.
Since 2007, the Vikings have drafted only two offensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft — offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt. Instead, they have taken a bunch of late-round flyers on guys such as Tyrus Thompson, David Yankey, Jeff Baca, Travis Bond and Chris DeGeare.
They have also recently traded late-round picks for developmental linemen such as Sirles and Nick Easton. Sirles, despite his whiff on Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith, was a useful addition. We still don’t know much about Easton, who was acquired in the Gerald Hodges trade last year.
Perhaps the Vikings would have taken Brandon Scherff, who started for the Redskins yesterday, had he been available when they were on the clock in the first round of the 2015 draft. Or maybe they would have grabbed Taylor Decker, a starter for the Lions, had he still been there this year.
Instead, they bolstered other positions, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and settled for T.J. Clemmings and Willie Beavers in the fourth round the past two years. And that has left them vulnerable up front.
They had to spend for a stopgap guard in Alex Boone, who has been OK. And without a polished, young tackle ready to go and with Loadholt unlikely to regain his form after a couple of tough injuries, the Vikings were forced to gamble on Andre Smith, the oft-injured former top-10 pick.
Then when Smith inevitably went down, not long after Kalil, another oft-injured former top-10 pick, went on injured reserve, they signed Long, whom the Ravens passed on this summer due to durability concerns. He had been playing a little better before getting carted out of FedEx Field.
With all these injuries piling up, which have seemingly forced the Vikings to trot out a new starting five every week, they have only put together one, maybe two complete offensive performances, before their bye week.
The running game was again nonexistent in Washington. The two times in the second half when they got stuffed on 3rd and 1 loom large, as do the two sacks and the penalty Clemmings took during the Vikings’ last gasps.
Now that Long has been lost, Spielman and the Vikings will have to make more changes up front with their once-promising season teetering on the brink. But significant long-term fixes aren’t going to be available until the offseason, specifically the draft. They can’t ignore the need in 2017.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who sat out the loss to the Lions with a concussion, played only 11 of the 63 defensive snaps before leaving the game with a hip injury he suffered in a collision with fellow linebacker Anthony Barr, who sat out one snap. With Kendricks out of the mix again, Chad Greenway played a season-high 58 snaps. Audie Cole played nine and Emmanuel Lamur played one immediately after Kendricks and Barr banged into each other. The Redskins scored their first TD with Lamur out there.
2. Three weeks removed from his ankle injury, Jerick McKinnon resumed his role as the lead back, though he still did not play even half of the snaps. McKinnon, who led the Vikings with 16 rushing yards, played 32 of the 67 offensive snaps. Matt Asiata played 23 and Ronnie Hillman got 13.
3. Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes were the starting outside cornerbacks with Terence Newman playing exclusively in the slot in place of the injured Captain Munnerlyn. Waynes played 59 snaps and Rhodes played 50 before a concussion knocked Rhodes out of the game during the fourth quarter. Rookie Mackensie Alexander replaced Rhodes and played 14 snaps.
4. Making his first appearance since Week 4, veteran receiver Jarius Wright played four snaps and caught one pass for nine yards. Adam Thielen led the wideouts with 57 snaps. Stefon Diggs played 51 and Cordarrelle Patterson played 44. Charles Johnson played 13. Top pick Laquon Treadwell, who tweaked his hamstring during Thursday’s practice, was inactive.
5. Second-year defensive end Danielle Hunter, one of the team’s most efficient pass rushers, played fewer than 35 snaps for the fourth straight week. Veteran Brian Robison out-snapped him, 54-33. It is no coincidence that Hunter’s role has decreased with the Vikings often trailing lately.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I think we had a lot of confidence that we were going to go down and score on that drive but we just didn’t make the plays in the last seconds of the game.” — Thielen on the Vikings’ unsuccessful final drive
2. “I’ve been practicing that … and at least tried to make the consideration of being on the ESPN Top 10 [plays] in the morning.” — Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith on his one-handed pick in the fourth quarter
3. “I definitely still think we’re a good team. We’re playing good ball at times and there are other times we’re not. Normally you’d say we have to get back and work harder. But this team works its butt off every single day. So it’s not about working hard. It’s not about execution or any of those things. At the end of the day we’ve just got to make plays and right now we’re not doing that.” — Brian Robison on the state of this 5-4 team
4. “We’ve got a new week. We’re winning next week.” — Diggs
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Bradford is performing admirably while carrying the Vikings offense on his back. After the game, Bradford was still beating himself up for throwing that fourth-quarter interception to Preston Smith, who surprised him by dropping into coverage. But for the second straight week Bradford played well enough to win even though the Vikings again got little going on the ground. He was excellent in the second quarter as the Vikings surged back from 14 points down and on that final drive it looked like he was going to get it done before his offensive line let him down. Bradford finished with 307 yards on 31-for-40 passing, many of those yards coming after catches on screens and short crossing routes. But with the running game going nowhere, especially in short-yardage situations, and the line unable to consistent give him time to throw deep, Bradford can only do so much.
2. The Vikings need their defensive stars to shine again to finally halt this freefall. Just a few weeks ago, it looked as if though this defense, which has impact players at all three levels, had a chance to be one of the best in team history — and despite its uneven play the past three weeks, it probably still does. But those impact players need to get back to making an impact. Barr has not produced one of signature splash plays. Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith the past two weeks has uncharacteristically missed several tackles, including one on the walk-off winner in the loss to the Lions. Defensive end Everson Griffen just got shut out by a left tackle who a few years back played in the Arena Football League’s development league. Their lack of big plays, along with big breakdowns like that long touchdown pass yesterday to Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, have made this group look average.
3. Diggs was clearly fired up to play his first NFL game in his home state of Maryland. Yes, this sort of storyline often gets overplayed. But the emotion the second-year receiver showed after the game was legitimate. Peppered by the D.C. media about being back in his old stomping grounds, Diggs mostly kept his eyes on the carpet and at a couple of points he seemed to get a little choked up when talking about playing in front of his mother and newborn daughter. In a losing effort, Diggs was arguably the best player on the field, becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 13 receptions in back-to-back games. Many of those catches were short, but his 36-yarder in the second quarter finally got the offense in gear. Despite finishing with 164 yards, Diggs was downcast, partially because it was the Vikings’ fourth straight loss, but also because it “hurt” to lose his homecoming game.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Are you considering moving Boone to left tackle or was that his idea?
2. Does anything change with Blair Walsh after he missed another kick?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. It would be inaccurate, at least when speaking literally, to say that this upcoming week’s game against the Cardinals is of the “must-win” variety. The Vikings are still in command in the division despite dropping behind the Lions in the standings and there are still seven games left to go. But the next 10 days figure to be one of the most important stretches of the Mike Zimmer era. He kept the boat afloat during the Adrian Peterson saga in 2014 and he navigated another rocky stretch a couple of months ago when they lost Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater. Now he had to get the Vikings back on course as they have inexplicably lost four straight games. If he can’t find a way to stop the skid against the Cardinals or the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, Zimmer might not be able to keep this Vikings ship from wrecking.