The next time the Vikings play in U.S. Bank Stadium on Oct. 18, against the Atlanta Falcons after back-to-back road games against the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks, could be the first time this season they take the field in front of their home fans.
The team admitted 250 staff and family members on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, as a kind of test drive for the safety protocols it would need to host paying customers should it gain approval to do so from the state.
What the substance of the Vikings’ season will be by that date is anyone’s guess.
Will a defense that has given up 1,320 yards in three games and permitted Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill to direct eight scoring drives in a 31-30 loss on Sunday find its footing on the road the next two weeks against Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson? What will become of an offense that sailed along for much of Sunday before netting 13 yards in its final two possessions and ending the day with a series its head coach described as “chaos”? Will Houston or Seattle be the place the Vikings, who gave away leads of 12 and then five points at home Sunday, figure out how to win?
Their fans could only vent from the comfort of home during Sunday’s loss to the Titans, rather than make their feelings known in vociferous manner from the stadium. It might have been to the Vikings’ benefit that their fall to 0-3, for the first time in coach Mike Zimmer’s seven-year tenure, played out sans paying customers.
A game that appeared in the Vikings’ grasp when Kirk Cousins hit Justin Jefferson for a 71-yard touchdown in the middle of the third quarter instead became an exercise in frustration and a search for answers, as Minnesota fell three games out of first in the NFC North and approached a place of oblivion in the conference playoff picture before the calendar reached October.
“The thing I have to figure out right now is to how to [get] this team to understand what’s causing them to lose,” Zimmer said. “We come out at the start of the second half by throwing an interception. … We give up a big play on defense. The last possession, when you’ve got a chance to go down and win the game with a field goal, is a complete disaster. But those are the things that are causing us to lose.”
It appeared for much of the second half that the Vikings’ offensive performance — ignited by the emergence of Jefferson and buoyed by a career-high 181 yards from Dalvin Cook — would be enough to salt away their first victory of the season and stave off existential questions about exactly what they are capable of in 2020.
Tennessee seemed happy to contribute through various means of inefficiency. The Titans drove into Vikings territory nine times; they managed just two touchdowns, settling for Stephen Gostkowski field goals six times and ending another drive when Tannehill floated an interception to Harrison Smith after Derrick Henry and Khari Blasingame collided on a play fake.
Jadeveon Clowney’s illegal blindside block on Johnathan Joseph’s interception return turned a touchdown into merely a turnover on the first play of the second half, and the Titans came away with no points after Yannick Ngakoue beat Ty Sambrailo — playing left tackle in place of injured Taylor Lewan — for a strip sack of Tannehill.
But the Titans packed their only two touchdowns of the day into a 2:31 stretch in the third quarter after Cousins’ touchdown to Jefferson, handing off to 2019 NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry eight times in two drives while Tannehill came up with two big plays.
He hit Corey Davis for a 38-yard catch-and-run to set up the first score, and found Kalif Raymond on a deep over route off play-action behind Jeff Gladney for 61 yards on the second drive, to set up Henry’s second TD run.
“The big plays on defense, you just can’t do that,” Zimmer said. “On the bomb, on Gladney, we had two safeties bite. These guys have to got to do what they’re supposed to do, too.”
Cook, who finished with a career-high 181 yards, looked livelier than he has all season, as part of a game plan that sought to get him opportunities to press the edges of the Titans defense. He fumbled once — on a fluky play when he landed on C.J. Ham’s shoulder pad and lost the ball while going to the ground — but gave the Titans plenty to worry about while Cousins exploited one-on-one matchups against Joseph and Malcolm Butler.
The Vikings got a revelation in the form of Jefferson, who caught seven passes for 175 yards and showed he could do everything from running after the catch to beating cornerbacks deep to making contested catches.
“Of course teams have been looking at Adam [Thielen] and kind of keeping a safety on Adam,” Jefferson said. “That was just one of the reasons why Coach Kubiak and everybody else on this offense is looking for somebody else to bring big plays to the team.”
The big plays dried up at the end of the game, though, giving the Titans time to win on two late Gostkowski field goals: one from 54 yards after a curious series of play calls took the ball out of Henry’s hands, and the final one from 55 following the Vikings’ soiled chance to put the game away.
The Vikings’ final drive started when Cousins threw in the direction of Cook while under pressure on first down. Garrett Bradbury snapped the ball before Cousins was expecting it on second down, and the Vikings lost 14 yards as Cousins retrieved the ball.
Jeffery Simmons — who beat Dru Samia for a sack earlier in the game — got around the guard and hit Cousins on third down, as the quarterback had to throw the ball short again in the direction of Cook to avoid a sack.
Clowney then got around Riley Reiff and hit Cousins on fourth down as well, but the quarterback’s desperation heave almost landed in Adam Thielen’s hands before popping out and Amani Hooker picked it off.
“Those guys [on offense] are all veteran guys, and I want them to take charge in those moments when we have the opportunity to go down and win the football game,” Zimmer said. “Instead, it was chaos.”
Cousins — one of three players to speak to reporters after the game — said, “You’ll have to ask Coach specifically what he meant, but we’ll have to work on what didn’t go well there.” Later, he said, “Any time you have almost 500 yards and score 30 points, you’re doing something correct.”
Different facets of the Vikings’ operation could point to some success in their specific areas, but the number for which the whole group is accountable — victories — remains at zero.
If it’s still there in October, and the state approves some number of fans to enter U.S. Bank Stadium for the Falcons game, Sunday’s stunned silence could be replaced by a different soundtrack.