1. O’Neill needs to lead O-line
As if the Vikings needed more to worry about on the offensive line. Now, right tackle Brian O’Neill, the best lineman on the team, is struggling. At least when compared to how well he played last season and how high the bar should be set for him. Kirk Cousins’ third of three interceptions in Sunday’s 40-23 home loss to the Falcons was the result of O’Neill being overpowered by backup defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who stood O’Neill up and drove him back into Cousins’ face. He reached out and slapped Cousins’ passing arm, causing the ball to flutter and be picked off. A year ago, Pro Football Focus ranked O’Neill 19th among tackles in pass protection. He gave up one sack and 19 pressures. In his first five games this season, O’Neill ranked 73rd with two sacks and 10 pressures.
2. Fourth-down woes continue
The Vikings were ranked first in third-down defense. As for fourth downs, well, they came in ninth worst, allowing six of eight conversions, including two huge failures in Seattle’s 94-yard game-winning drive the week before. Sunday, the Falcons converted all three fourth-down attempts, including TD passes of 40 and 35 yards on fourth-and-short. A 3-yard run by Todd Gurley on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter also was embarrassing for a team that once had Linval Joseph, the closest thing to an immovable nose tackle the league has seen in recent years. On Sunday, Armon Watts was stood up by the center. Gurley then slammed into him and still gained 3 yards to set up a field goal. First, the Vikings lost Joseph because of money. Then they lost Michael Pierce because he took the COVID-19 opt out.
3. Morris gets interim bump
There have been 93 interim head coaches since 1960, when the league’s modern era began. Atlanta’s Raheem Morris became No. 93 on Sunday. His victory raised the first-game record of those 93 coaches to 32-60-1. Four of the past six interim coaches — including both this season — have opened with a victory. And Morris did it without having to resort to any gadgets or overly daring calls. He went for it on fourth down three times — converting all three, including two for touchdowns — but all three fourth downs were in Vikings territory. In fact, if anything, Morris was a little conservative. In the first quarter, he ran the ball up the middle on third-and-7 and settled for a 50-yard field goal. Of course, Morris didn’t need to resort to gadget plays when he had Cousins throwing the game away in the first half.
4. Cook hurt when Vikings needed him
Dalvin Cook might be the best all-around back in the league when he’s healthy. But he’s not healthy nearly enough for someone who just got a five-year, $63 million deal. For 21 touches through the first half in Seattle, he was vintage Dalvin and the Vikings led 13-0. He pulled a groin muscle on his 22nd touch and the Vikings have been outscored 67-36 in the past six quarters. The hope was to rest Cook, slip by the Falcons and enjoy the bye at 2-4. Well, that didn’t work. The Vikings aren’t good enough to win without their best offensive player. Their 32-yard rushing effort was their worst since they had 21 yards in the playoff beatdown at San Francisco nine months ago. “We really weren’t very effective when we ran it early,” coach Mike Zimmer said. Twelve of the Vikings’ 13 carries netted 16 yards.
Julio’s 'Hammer' beats Cam’s ‘Needle’
Xavier Rhodes had a poor 2019 season. But one thing the former Vikings cornerback did well last year was control Julio Jones, Atlanta’s massive 6-3, 220-pound receiver. With Rhodes shadowing him per usual in a Week 1 Vikings blowout at U.S. Bank Stadium, Jones caught six of 11 targets for only 31 yards and a touchdown. Sunday, Jones punished rookie third-round draft pick Cameron Dantzler — among others — while catching eight passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Nicknamed “The Needle” because, well, he looks like one at 6-2, 188 pounds, Dantzler was no contest for Jones. Atlanta’s first touchdown was a 20-yard pass to Jones six plays into the game. Jones ran a simple down-and-out route that Dantzler couldn’t match physically when Jones leaned into him before making his cut.