Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we'll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
Asked on Friday if the youth of his defense — which gave up a franchise-record 583 yards to the Saints in a 52-33 loss — was an excuse for why the group had played so poorly in the 15th game of the Vikings' season, coach Mike Zimmer responded by saying, "I don't think being young has got anything to do with tackling.
"They manhandled us up front pretty well with the front guys and linebackers, but we didn't tackle," he added. "When we had chances, we didn't cover very well today. Defensive backs came off the receivers. It was disappointing."
When he was hired nearly seven years ago, Zimmer offered a thesis on sound fundamentals in his opening news conference. "A lot of times, if you don't make mistakes, you beat half of the teams in this league," he said on Jan. 17, 2014.
Viewed through that lens, the Vikings' worst defensive day in Zimmer's seven seasons and the tackling issues endemic to the 2020 team must be especially galling.
The Vikings missed 15 tackles on Friday, when the Saints ran for 264 yards on 45 attempts. The total actually was only the team's second-highest of the season (it missed 16 against the Panthers on Nov. 29) but will likely stand as the enduring image of a season in which the Vikings have missed more tackles — by a significant margin — than any in Zimmer's history.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings have collectively missed 134 tackles this season, 23 more than their previous high (111) in 2016. In 2019, they missed 86 in the regular season. In 2018, it was 71. They missed 85 in 2017, 97 in 2015 and 107 in 2014.
The last time the Vikings missed this many tackles, according to PFF, was in 2013 — Leslie Frazier's final season as head coach — when a defense that finished last in the NFL in points allowed missed 144 for the year. The Vikings could eclipse that total with another bad tackling day in Detroit a week from Sunday.
On Friday, PFF credited three defensive backs (Anthony Harris, Jeff Gladney and Harrison Smith) and defensive end D.J. Wonnum with three misses each. Hercules Mata'afa had two, and Eric Wilson had one.
While many of the misses were on the back end of the defense — Gladney and Harris both missed Jared Cook when they couldn't adjust to an underthrown Drew Brees pass and the tight end took it for 44 yards — tackling statistics aren't necessarily indicative that all the issues lie there.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray had room to reach the second and third levels of the Vikings defense as the Saints' offensive line controlled interior defenders such as Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts and Jaleel Johnson, opening holes for the running backs to meet Vikings defenders with plenty of momentum. The absence of Eric Kendricks, who functions as the core of the defense and has become a relatively sound tackler during his time in Minnesota, likely contributed to the problem, as the Vikings had players starting for the first time at linebacker.
"We have a lot of people out there just trying to come in, get the job done, trying to fly around, make plays," Harris said. "So I'm not really sure what to point at in terms of missing tackles and things like [that]. I think it might honestly be guys just trying hard and maybe not focusing in on the technique as much in terms of being able to get your guys on the ground.''
There's no sugarcoating the fact the Vikings' run defense has broken the past two games, though. In losses to the Bears and Saints, the Vikings have allowed 463 rushing yards. Their opponents have been successful on 59% of their runs and have added 0.261 expected points every time they've run the ball, according to NFLFastR data. To put that in some context, the Titans — with NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry — have been successful on 48.5% of their attempts for the season and average 0.076 expected points per run.
It's a large part of the reason why, when the Vikings have scored 60 points in the past two games, they've gone from harboring decent playoff chances to preparing for a meaningless season-ender against Detroit.
On Friday, as Kamara carried Vikings defenders into the end zone with him for his NFL record-tying sixth touchdown, one of the team's fundamental issues was exposed for all to see.
"It's tough from a veteran being here a number of years, knowing what the expectation and a level that we've been able to play at for so long," Harris said. "So to not be able to go out there and play at that high level and play like we played today is disappointing, but at the same time we've got a lot of young guys out there and we're just trying to go out there and battle each week."
Here's a look at one other area of concern from the Vikings' 52-33 loss:
Lack of pass rushing: The Vikings hit Brees just once in the game, and pressured him on only three of his dropbacks, according to PFF. Yannick Ngakoue — traded away in October — still leads the team with five sacks headed into the season finale. Brees is typically one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to pressure, and the Vikings approached him with the light load of blitzes (five in 26 dropbacks) that they use against many wizened veterans, but when the quarterback still looked tentative in his second game back from 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung, the Vikings did little to affect him in the pocket.
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Justin Jefferson: Both the rookie and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore had their moments in a matchup where Sean Payton put Lattimore on Jefferson instead of Adam Thielen. Jefferson caught four of his eight targets against Lattimore for 55 yards, and Lattimore broke up two passes intended for Jefferson, according to PFF. Kirk Cousins couldn't connect with Jefferson on a deep pass he threw to the receiver's outside shoulder, after Jefferson had drifted in a bit too far, but Jefferson ran a nice route on Malcolm Jenkins for a 25-yard gain.
Brian O'Neill: On a day where Kirk Cousins wasn't pressured as much as he's been in recent games — and when the Saints did get pressure on the quarterback, they did it up the middle — O'Neill did a solid job against New Orleans Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan. He finished the day without allowing a pressure, and he hasn't been flagged in two weeks after being penalized eight times this season.
TWO TRENDS TO WATCH
The Vikings' two-minute drill issues before halftime: As my colleague Andrew Krammer pointed out yesterday, the Vikings have had the ball seven times since Nov. 8 in the final two minutes before halftime with at least 30 seconds to try and score. They've scored six points in those possessions. Zimmer and Cousins blamed a perplexing sequence on Friday — during which 26 seconds ran off the clock before the coach called timeout — on a headset malfunction, but the timeout came as Cousins snapped the ball for a throwaway that would have stopped the clock anyway. At that point, the Vikings might have been better off letting Cousins stop the clock and saving the timeout for the next play when he threw over the middle for Tyler Conklin and the clock expired. I'm curious to ask more this week about the Vikings' process in that situation, and how much freedom Cousins has to call things in the event he can't hear a play call. But if they get a chance to score before the half against the Lions on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if they can do better in their final opportunity of the year.
What the Vikings do in the season finale: Zimmer is ordinarily loathe to sit players in games that matter, and sometimes even in games that don't — he talked last year about deliberating for much of the week before resting starters in last year's regular-season finale against the Bears when the Vikings already had a wild-card spot wrapped up. But given the number of injuries the Vikings have, it's worth watching how they approach Sunday's game against the Lions; players like Kendricks, Kyle Rudolph, C.J. Ham and Alexander Mattison might not gain much from playing (though if Rudolph's foot injury allows him to play, he could push to get on the field in a building where he's had quite a bit of success). Jefferson also limped momentarily after his final catch on Friday; the extended break could help him, but as bright as his future is, it also makes sense to be safe with him. Left tackle Riley Reiff played every snap again on Friday, and still hasn't missed one this season; the only way he'd be at risk of not reaching the 92.5 percent playing time threshold he needs for a $2 million bonus is if he sits and the Vikings play roughly 81 snaps without him. If they have interest in seeing Ezra Cleveland at left tackle in a game, they could make the switch, but out of respect for one of their captains, they might also just let him play.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How many of the Vikings' problems are immediately fixable: When I asked Zimmer last night how the Vikings can correct things on defense, he pointed to the number of players they've lost due to injury: "We've got to get [Danielle] Hunter back, we've got to get [Michael] Pierce here, we've got to get [Anthony] Barr, Kendricks, Pro Bowl players, good players that we have, they need to be back, and then we lost another corner again today [Cameron Dantzler]. If you go back, and honest, I'm not trying to make excuses, it was embarrassing today. We're missing four defensive linemen, we're missing a safety, we're missing three corners, we're missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started. We're just a little undermanned. That's still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey they've got to play."
That's all fair, and many of the issues we discussed early in this piece could be markedly different if the Vikings had those four players in their front seven. But they also could benefit from an upgrade at three-technique tackle, and another defensive end could be an item for the offseason shopping list, particularly if the veiled threats from Hunter's camp about a new contract become an issue. In the secondary, Harris will hit free agency after a disappointing year on the franchise tag, and the Vikings will likely need additional depth at corner (particularly if Mike Hughes' time in Minnesota is up, as could be the case given his ongoing neck issues). The Vikings' fondness for Barr is well-documented, but he carries a $15 million cap charge in 2021 for a team that will have cap issues again. In short, adding Hunter, Pierce, Barr and Kendricks back to the defense would help, but it's likely not as simple as re-installing those four players and assuming everything's fixed. The Vikings will need further development from their 2020 draft class, some sensible veteran additions or maybe a combination of the two.