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:
The play, on an afternoon that presented something close to ideal conditions for the 2019 Vikings, couldn’t have been much more favorable to Kirk Cousins: On a first-and-10 from the Raiders’ 35 in the first quarter, Cousins ran a bootleg out to his left after his play fake to Dalvin Cook sent the Raiders’ defense the other direction. Cousins set himself for more than a second, hopping twice before unleashing a strike back to his right for Adam Thielen.
The wide receiver’s outside stem caused Raiders safety Karl Joseph to bite hard on the possibility of a corner route, and as Thielen cut back toward the middle of the field, he separated from Raiders cornerback Curtis Riley. Thielen caught the pass in stride, eluded a diving tackle from Riley and strolled into the end zone.
“The bootleg there, I was just able to get the edge, had a clean edge, and then Adam did a really good job of winning across the
field, and we got the right look,” Cousins said. “When I can get the edge and stand there and be able to wait on Adam to cross the field, that’s the key to the play. And you know, last week they were taking away those edges or those clean edges. You couldn’t get them, so those plays weren’t able to develop.”
A week ago, the Packers resolved to take away Cousins’ play action shots first, giving up cutback lanes to Dalvin Cook by sending defenders at Cousins in an effort to take away his space to roll out. The Raiders gave Cousins more room to work on Sunday, and on a day where Dalvin Cook stole the show again, the quarterback could work from a favorable environment.
He hit seven of his nine play action attempts on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, throwing for 107 yards and a touchdown a week after going just 4-for-9 for 23 yards on play action against the Packers. It might not be so easy for Cousins to set up those play-action throws every week, but as teams are forced to honor Cook (the NFL’s leading rusher through three weeks), the quarterback could see more opportunities like the ones he had Sunday.
“I think to some degree they were still going split safety and taking away a couple of our opportunities to take some shots,” Cousins said. “There were a couple times I checked the play to run the ball because they were getting back and preventing other plays down the field. But it’s a beautiful thing when you can run the football effectively, get some single high looks, get some loaded boxes and then hit an explosive to a guy like Irv Smith. That’s a great thing when you don’t even have to get into third down, you can just, first, second, first, second, first, second. That’s not usually reality, but if you can do it, it’s a great thing.”
Two other trends to watch:
How the Vikings use Smith: The Vikings unleashed their second-round pick as a receiving threat for the first time on Sunday, with a reminder of the dynamic they sought him out to bring to their offense. Smith caught three passes for 60 yards, carving up the Raiders’ defense on seam routes that showcased his downfield speed. He had another big gain called back in the third quarter because of an illegal block on Chad Beebe, but especially as the Vikings look to diversify their receiving options, Smith figures to see his role increase.
Cook’s workload: Though the Vikings have leaned on their third-year back through three weeks, they also seem mindful of the need to keep his snap count in check, in hopes of preventing the injuries that have derailed his first two seasons. Cook had a season-low 16 carries on Sunday, and only played 38 of the Vikings’ 63 offensive snaps in the blowout win, as offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski got Alexander Mattison (12 carries, 58 yards) and even Mike Boone (three carries, 28 yards) involved in the blowout win. If Cook is to be the central figure in the Vikings’ offense — and it certainly appears through three weeks he is — they’ll need to keep him sharp for a demanding second-half schedule that includes three prime-time road games (with two on the West Coast).
Three players who stood out:
Everson Griffen: The right end’s strong start continued on Sunday, with a sack and three hurries. Griffen took it to Raiders second-year man Kolton Miller with his bull rush, knocking the left tackle back on numerous occasions with a rush plan that had been a point of emphasis for the Vikings this week. Through three weeks, Griffen has two sacks, and has played 81.8 percent of the Vikings’ defensive snaps. The latter number is worth watching for two reasons: how fresh it means Griffen will be later in the season, particularly if the Vikings continue to prioritize a physical rush plan like they did Sunday, and what it portends for his future. Griffen can void the final three years of his contract and become a free agent if he posts at least six sacks, plays more than 57 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season and is on the team’s 90-man roster the day after the Super Bowl.
Eric Kendricks: The Raiders’ game plan called for plenty of max protection against the Vikings’ pressure packages, which meant Kendricks could run and hunt more than he had to spend time in coverage on Sunday. He posted a number of stops near the line of scrimmage, including a fourth-and-one stop with Danielle Hunter late in the third quarter on a Raiders power run.
Trae Waynes: He was targeted six times on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, but only gave up 31 receiving yards, and had another strong day as a run defender, posting eight tackles and stuffing Josh Jacobs for a one-yard loss in the first quarter.
Three areas of concern:
Punt returns: The Vikings will have to see about Chad Beebe’s availability for Sunday’s game in Chicago after he was carted off the field with an ankle injury in the third quarter, but even if Beebe is healthy enough to play, the Vikings could look for other options at the spot. Beebe muffed a punt for the second week in a row on Sunday, leading Zimmer to say the Vikings will “have to keep looking” for return men. “We can’t muff punts,” he said. “I don’t think that was a hard one to catch, so we’ll look.”
The annual guessing game of whether Marcus Sherels would last another year on the Vikings’ roster, as entertaining as it was, ultimately was somewhat misguided: it underestimated Sherels’ importance as a punt returner the Vikings could trust to consistently field punts cleanly and make good decisions. Now that Sherels is gone, the Vikings are going through some growing pains while trying to find his replacement. Mike Hughes could end up returning punts, once the Vikings feel good enough about his knee. It’s also worth noting Sherels is a free agent after reaching an injury settlement with the Saints at the end of the preseason, and is healthy enough to play at this point.
The interior line (vs. tougher defenders): The Vikings cleared plenty of running room for their backs on Sunday, on the way to 211 yards on the ground, and only allowed Kirk Cousins to get hit twice. But there was no one the caliber of Grady Jarrett or Kenny Clark lined up across from them. That will change on Sunday, when the Vikings have to contend with Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman in Chicago. If the Vikings want to run the ball effectively against the Bears, they’ll need players like Pat Elflein and Garrett Bradbury to shed blocks quickly and get to the second level. Elflein fell down on back-to-back plays on Sunday, first as Dalvin Cook was stopped for a yard at the goal line and then as Cook went into the end zone for a one-yard TD. Officials had initially thrown a flag as Elflein fell while trying to reach Johnathan Hankins, taking the tackle’s legs out in the process, but referee Jerome Boger announced there was no foul on the play. The Vikings will also have to see if they’ll be without right guard Josh Kline, who is in the NFL concussion protocol.
Wide receiver depth: The Vikings only had four healthy receivers on their roster before Beebe was injured on Sunday; they were down to three after he left. If his injury keeps him out for any length of time — and that’d seem like a possibility, given the fact he couldn’t put weight on it on Sunday — the Vikings would need to add a receiver, even if they’re building a bigger role for Smith. By my count, Vikings only had three or more receivers on the field for 12 plays in the game’s first three quarters on Sunday, but it’s another thing to expect to have complete control of the game flow on the road against a stout defense in Chicago. The Vikings, at the moment, have three receivers on the practice squad — Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis and Alexander Hollins.
And one big question:
Can the Vikings’ offensive formula work in tough road games? The Vikings have been able to run the ball on 103 of their 168 offensive plays through three games, and while those numbers have been boosted by blowout wins at home, they also stayed committed to the run while rallying in Green Bay a week ago, handing off on 25 of their 65 offensive plays. The Packers, at times, seemed not to want to let Cousins beat them; the Bears could take a different approach with Cook now posting three straight big games and establishing himself as the primary threat on the Vikings’ offense. Chicago’s run front is also stout enough that it might not need to sell out against the run to stop it, especially if it believes Hicks and Goldman can control the line of scrimmage against Elflein, Bradbury and either Kline or Dakota Dozier. In a nationally-televised late-afternoon start at Soldier Field, the Vikings’ offense will face a tough test.