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.
In this space a week ago, after the Vikings were dominated by the Eagles, I wrote that no one should panic unless they lost to the lowly Bears.
Welp, time to panic.
I am not advocating for a complete freak-out here after a stunning 20-10 loss on Halloween night to one of the NFL’s worst teams. After all, the Vikings are still in first place and in good position to make the playoffs.
But fans have reason to be concerned after the offensive line was again a major issue for the Vikings, quarterback Sam Bradford had another rough outing and — gasp! — Mike Zimmer’s fearsome defense got outmuscled by a Bears offense that was missing both of its starting guards.
Players were mad in Philadelphia and Zimmer was apoplectic. But last night, as they quickly and quietly stripped out of uniform and into street clothes, players seemed dumbfounded by their second straight loss. And, though they would never admit it, they looked a little worried, too.
“We still have that same team in the locker room,” insisted Bradford, who was sacked five times. “I believe in all those guys. I think everyone in there believes we have a special team. … We just have to figure out the way that we did it, what the formula was those first five weeks. We have to do it.”
Before the bye week, the Vikings looked unbeatable. Zimmer’s defense was getting compared to the Purple People Eaters and the offense had found a groove with Bradford in the shotgun and was humming pretty good.
Now, it appears that the injuries on offense, specifically at the two tackle spots, are catching up to the Vikings after they were able to scheme around their deficiencies in pass protection and the league’s worst rushing attack in their five straight wins to open the regular season.
But hey, at least punter Jeff Locke is staying sharp for the playoff push.
After this loss, veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway spoke about the challenge of players keeping their confidence up after how things went down the past two weeks, which is a way of saying that the Vikings have lost a little bit of swagger, though Mike Zimmer disagreed.
“They were not unconfident. They got beat. Sometimes you get beat. The other team beat us tonight,” the subdued head coach said. “We didn’t play good enough. They played better than we did. It’s as simple as that.”
That is a serious understatement. The Vikings were thoroughly outplayed and probably outcoached, too, in a pair of double-digit losses to teams that were picking in the top 10 in the NFL draft six months ago.
They were only two games out of 16, but the Vikings have not looked like a team that can make it to the Super Bowl, not even in the mediocre NFC, where only three teams have fewer than three losses right now.
“That’s what’s frustrating,” right guard Brandon Fusco said. “We’re such a good team, and what we’re putting out on the field right now is not us.”
The Vikings, left searching for answers after last night’s loss, now get six days to get ready for a Lions team that is better than the Bears.
Even a third straight loss won’t put them in a bad position at the midway point of their season. But it is clear the Vikings, whom their head coach has on pins and needles after every loss, feel urgency to recapture what they had going before getting outscored 41-20 in consecutive losses.
“Last week, I said this wasn’t us,” Greenway said. “But if you do it enough, it becomes you. That’s two weeks in a row. We have to change that.”
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. With Andrew Sendejo out with an ankle injury, seventh-round draft pick Jayron Kearse got the start next to Harrison Smith at safety. But after taking a bad angle on the 69-yard run by Bears rookie running back Jordan Howard, he was benched in favor of Anthony Harris. Kearse later got back in on defense, but Harris ended up out-snapping him 48 to 15.
2. Matt Asiata got the start at running back with Jerick McKinnon sidelined and ended up playing 43 of the 61 offensive snaps. Ronnie Hillman played the other 18. The two combined to run for 57 yards on 18 carries.
3. Cordarrelle Patterson, who was cleared through the concussion protocol over the weekend, resumed his role as the No. 3 wide receiver behind Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. He played 41 snaps but was targeted only three times, catching all three for 36 yards. Top pick Laquon Treadwell was active but did not play on offense. Charles Johnson got 19 snaps.
4. With the Vikings in 11 personnel for much of the game and tight end Kyle Rudolph playing all but four offensive snaps, we did not see much of tight end Rhett Ellison (nine snaps), fullback Zach Line (five) and rookie tight end David Morgan (two). Tight end MyCole Pruitt did not play.
5. The Bears, on the other hand, used a lot of two-wide sets, which meant that the Vikings’ base defenders had busy nights. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen played 47 and 41 snaps, respectively, and Greenway played 34. Nickelback Captain Munnerlyn played only 27.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I wouldn’t say that we’re off track. It’s small things that don’t go our way.” — Diggs after the Vikings offense scored three points in the first three quarters for the second straight game
2. “That deep ball to Diggs, if I was able to hit that one, I think that could have sparked us.” — Bradford lamenting the first-quarter deep ball that he threw beyond Diggs, who had gotten behind the Bears secondary
3. “We just played a great team and we dominated them. So it’s gotta [tick] everybody off and say, ‘We shouldn’t lose no more games to teams that we ain’t got no business losing to.’” — Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee after the Bears upset the first-place Vikings to win their second game
4. “We didn’t make any plays. They made them all.” — Zimmer on the loss
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings have missed Teddy Bridgewater’s mobility the past two weeks. While Bradford’s bigger arm opened up the field in his first four starts, the trade-off with having him under center instead of the injured Bridgewater is that he doesn’t have the pocket poise and ability to evade the rush that Bridgewater consistently flashed in his first two seasons. At times, that ducking and dodging got Bridgewater in trouble. But more often than not, it helped him salvage plays that quickly broke down due to poor pass protection, something that continues to happen again and again (and again and again) this season. Bradford, a more stationary target after twice tearing his left ACL, has been sacked 11 times the past two weeks and last night seemed at times to be skittish with the pocket continuing to crumble around him. That big arm is less effective without any time to throw.
2. Howard, the Bears’ rookie running back, could be a handful for years to come. Howard, a fifth-round pick who plays bigger than the 222 pounds at which he is listed, channeled his inner Eddie Lacy, breaking through arm tackles and showing a little wiggle as he rumbled down the field. He also produced a few big plays in the passing game. He rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries and his 69-yard run in the first quarter was a tone-setter for the Bears. Howard also caught four passes for 49 yards as he was responsible for 202 of the Bears’ 403 yards of offense. The Bears are looking for a long-term replacement for Matt Forte, the former Pro Bowl back whom they let walk in the offseason. Howard made a convincing case to be that guy last night while running all over a Vikings defense that gave up more than 150 rushing yards for the first time in a dozen games.
3. One silver lining in the loss is that the Vikings might have gotten Diggs going again. Diggs looked to be on the verge of a breakout second season after topping 100 receiving yards in each of his first two games, including a 182-yard performance in the big win over the Packers. But, slowed by a groin injury, Diggs has not totaled 182 yards in his past four games combined. There were encouraging signs against the Bears, though, even before his 25-yard touchdown catch when the outcome had already been decided. Diggs caught eight passes for 76 yards and would have had nine catches for 126 and two TDs had Bradford not inexplicably overthrown the speedy wideout on that first-quarter deep ball, a would-be big play that could have changed the complexion of the game. It appears that groin injury might be behind the Vikings’ most dangerous offensive weapon.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. What is your confidence level that offensive coordinator Norv Turner can get this offense back on track after a pair of poor performances?
2. What did the x-rays on Munnerlyn’s foot reveal after the game?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. Calvin Johnson, who retired in the offseason, should be in the Hall of Fame in a few years. But surprisingly, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is arguably playing the best football of his NFL career without the former All-Pro wide receiver. Stafford has thrown 16 touchdown passes against only four interceptions and his 103.4 passer rating is currently the best mark of his career. Free-agent pick-up Marvin Jones ranks among the league leaders in receiving yards and Golden Tate has gotten in a groove these past three weeks. I won’t dare say the Lions are better off without Johnson. But Stafford is proving he is more than just a guy who threw the ball up and let his 6-foot-5 freak of a receiver take it from there. Stafford is certainly capable of hanging another loss on the Vikings this Sunday.