In the middle of last season, Mike Zimmer told Vikings personnel evaluators he needed bigger offensive linemen, especially in the interior where pockets too often collapsed in front of quarterback Kirk Cousins.
A year later, it was more of the same in Sunday's season-opening loss in Cincinnati. Third-year center Garrett Bradbury was bullied into the backfield by Bengals nose tackles D.J. Reader and Josh Tupou — listed at 347 and 345 pounds, respectively — and guards Ezra Cleveland and Oli Udoh struggled to keep their hands on defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill; that duo combined for four tackles for losses and three sacks.
"They were big guys," Zimmer said Monday. "We got pushed back a little bit. Some of it, one time there was a miscommunication, and then one time was a three-man rush where we got pushed back. Couple times we overset guys. We just have to be better with our feet and our communication, you know, as far as where they are. If your feet are bad, that leads to grabbing and reaching."
1. Bradbury, the 2019 first-round pick, didn't calm concerns about his development. The matchups were difficult, but Bradbury again failed to consistently anchor against powerful nose tackles that routinely worked him into the backfield. He's an athletic, mobile center whom coordinator Klint Kubiak featured in screens as an open-field blocker, but 33 games into his NFL career he's leaving coaches thinking they have to do more to help him.
On this second-and-8 play in the fourth quarter, Kubiak calls a play-action dropback to try to take a shot downfield. Eight Bengals defenders in the box are eyeing Dalvin Cook as receiver Justin Jefferson releases on a deep crossing route at the bottom of the frame.
But when Cousins turns after the fake handoff, Bradbury is already driven three yards backward by Tupou, the Bengals' 345-pound nose tackle.
"He's on bigger guys and sometimes that's going to happen," Zimmer said. "So we've got to do a little bit more with the guards to help him at times as well."
Cousins drops back nine yards, but Bradbury is still in his lap around eight yards behind the line of scrimmage. Cousins still gets enough on the ball to Jefferson, but the placement and timing are a bit off as Cousins navigated immediate pressure in front of him.
2. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo targeted the Vikings' interior line, forcing one-on-one matchups against Bradbury, Cleveland, and Udoh with certain alignments.
Like the previous play, Bengals defenders aligned over Vikings tackles Rashod Hill and Brian O'Neill, but they had no intention of pressuring Cousins off the edge.
The goal of the Bengals' five-man front on this second-and-9 below was to isolate their interior three rushers against the Vikings' interior three blockers. Those matchups routinely produced for Cincinnati.
In the next frame below, you'll see Hill (circled) and O'Neill (circled) occupied with what appears to be a five-man pass rush. But Bengals edge rushers take only a few steps forward before dropping into coverage.
By the time O'Neill and Hill turn inside to help, the Vikings' interior three linemen are already driven backward. The pocket collapses in front of Cousins, who takes a sack that was eventually negated because Jefferson drew a holding call on Bengals corner Eli Apple in the end zone.
3. The Vikings' entire front looked out of sync at times, from left tackle Rashod Hill to tight end Tyler Conklin.
On this second-and-5 below, the Vikings keep seven blockers against six rushers and still surrender immediate pressure.
At first look, Bradbury appears to be the culprit letting Tupou, the Bengals nose tackle, quickly through the line. The Vikings run a half-line slide protection to the right, which has Bradbury, Udoh, and O'Neill sliding right. The backs — Cook and C.J. Ham — go to the left side in protection.
But Bradbury passes off Tupou to no one, a miscommunication where Bradbury appears to expect inside help. Maybe it was supposed to be Cook, who blocks no one, or Cleveland didn't slide right as part of the protection call that was maybe a full slide. Or Bradbury simply got the assignment wrong, and should've stuck with Tupou.
4. Zimmer put a little blame on himself for cornerback Bashaud Breeland's worst moment, when Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase got loose for a 50-yard touchdown before halftime.
The Vikings had hit on some early blitzes, including sacks by linebacker Nick Vigil and safety Harrison Smith, so Zimmer went back to the well after Burrow had completed three straight passes for 25 yards. The Bengals were marching.
Zimmer sends Smith again, this time with linebacker Eric Kendricks, with a quarters coverage over the top. Corners Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, Breeland, and safety Xavier Woods each have their deep 1/4th of the field.
Breeland (circled) is more of a gambler. He didn't give Chase as much space, expecting a quicker throw against the blitz. He keeps his eyes on Burrow.
But Breeland watches Burrow too long and loses the foot race.
"A bad call," Zimmer said.
5. The Bengals' game-winning play was really an audible by Burrow, who checked out of a run on fourth-and-inches in overtime and into the 32-yard completion that set up the field goal.
Attention flows to the Vikings' right with Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd reverses his pre-snap motion and runs to the flat, needing only inches to move the chains.
Safety Xavier Woods, the second defender from the top, actually does a good job identifying the fake and dropping into coverage. But the Boyd route draws attention to a shallow pass. Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah also does a good job going vertical, and Burrow's ball placement is perfect.