Coach Mike Zimmer said he personally shoulders “100%” of the blame for the Vikings’ 1-5 start, the worst in his tenure, entering a bye week that will be good for the team’s health, but not necessarily for the development of a young roster that struggled in a 40-23 loss to the Falcons.
Players will get four days off, which is “a little bit of a Catch-22,” Zimmer said, but everybody will be required to continue daily COVID-19 testing and stay in the area during the bye, the NFL’s time typically reserved for quick getaways to see friends and family. While players will be in town more, the NFL’s collectively bargained rules mandate time away from the facility and football activities.
“Some of these young guys need a lot of work,” Zimmer said Monday. “But some of them are playing every play.”
The to-do list is long. The Vikings are playing poorly “when it’s time to win,” Zimmer said, pointing to a nearly league-worst fourth down defense (82%) that gave up two touchdowns to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Sunday.
Through Sunday’s games, only the Cowboys (minus-8) had a worse turnover differential than the Vikings’ minus-7. The offense’s average drive time of 2 minutes, 37 seconds is near the bottom of the league.
“We didn’t see much progress [Sunday], that’s for sure,” Zimmer said. “There’s some areas we’re doing really good in. Offensively, we’re No. 1 in the league in first-down average. We’re 10th in the league in rush average on defense, but we’re getting a bunch of rushes at us because we’re not controlling the game. We had too many mistakes, too many soft coverages.”
The Vikings’ 30th-ranked passing defense will be a primary focus for coaches during the bye week, according to Zimmer. Rookie cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler were consistently targeted by Ryan in critical moments of the latest loss.
“It was just guys playing unsure. It really wasn’t coverage lapses,” Zimmer said. “We just didn’t challenge them enough.
“The long ball down the sideline on Dantzler, he didn’t get into the receiver. There was a couple times we were way too far away from the receivers and give up easy catches. We didn’t contest any balls. That was disappointing.”
Bad read at goal line?
Running back Alexander Mattison missed a big hole to his right on the failed fourth down in Seattle in Week 5, and Zimmer alluded to the second-year back making another poor read during the Vikings’ failed goal-to-go sequence in the second quarter.
After getting tackled for a loss by an unblocked linebacker, Mattison took a handoff into a pile up the middle for 2 yards on second down. He was replaced on the next two snaps by running back Mike Boone, who was tackled on fourth-and-goal for the turnover on downs.
“I think the back [Mattison] could have made a better read,” Zimmer said. “I think it was the second-down play, maybe.”
Not the easiest transition
Justin Jefferson, who leads all rookie NFL receivers with 537 yards in his first six games, pushed back on the notion he’s making this look like an easy transition from his days running through SEC defenses for a record-setting LSU offense.
He noted the grind of losing, having lost five games already in his NFL career after losing just three games in two seasons as a Tigers starter.
“It’s definitely been tough. This is the NFL, this is the top tier,” Jefferson said. “I don’t do this just for me. I want to go out there and win games. I don’t like coming home with a loss.
“I’ve never been on a losing team. I just want our swagger back. This team is known for having that swagger and winning games, and I just want that old team back.”
‘Wasn’t too bad’
A new lineup yielded similar results for the Vikings’ interior offensive line, which struggled to create space during second-round rookie Ezra Cleveland’s NFL debut.
Coaches didn’t want to change two positions by moving left guard Dakota Dozier to right guard, so Cleveland, who practiced at left guard throughout camp, moved to the right side. Cleveland replaced Dru Samia (wrist) and allowed a team-high three hits on quarterback Kirk Cousins, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He had some good moments and some moments he’d like to have back,” Zimmer said. “He did some impressive things and then he had some poor moments. For the first time out, it wasn’t too bad.”