INDIANAPOLIS - At the end of a loss he didn’t expect, which gave him a record he hasn’t experienced in seven years as Vikings coach, Mike Zimmer tried to sum up a team he didn’t recognize.
“This team has kind of been built on controlling the time of possession, playing great in the red zone and on third downs, and we haven’t been doing that very well,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to have to get back to work and try to figure out what’s wrong because the identity of this team has not been what it has been for the last six years.”
Before Sunday, the Vikings hadn’t started a season 0-2 since 2013, when they allowed more points than any team in the league in Leslie Frazier’s final year as head coach. They are there again after a 28-11 loss to the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday that showed them perhaps even more off their moorings than in their season-opening loss to Green Bay.
If the Vikings were to remain competitive in a year when they reworked their defense on the fly without the benefit of a full training camp or preseason, the thinking went, it would be because an offense that retained nine of its 11 starters from a year ago could lend some stability in the short term.
The Vikings doubled down on what worked for them a year ago, replacing Kevin Stefanski with Gary Kubiak to call plays in the offense he had constructed while signing Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook to contract extensions.
As the Vikings lost on a day when they scored only three points going into the fourth quarter, allowed the Colts offensive line to exert its will on their defense, extended drives with illegal contact penalties on their young corners and made special teams mistakes that set up two Indianapolis touchdown drives, it was fair to wonder exactly who or what they were.
“I’ve been telling them, ‘We can’t start winning until we stop losing,’ ” Zimmer said. “Right now we are doing things to beat ourselves with the turnovers and sacks and safeties and penalties on third downs on defense. I’m just not going to deal with it anymore.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Cousins had a 1.5 passer rating, which would have trailed only Gary Cuozzo’s 0.0 rating in 1971 against Detroit as the worst in franchise history by a quarterback with at least 15 attempts. He finished with a 15.9 mark, the ninth-worst in Vikings history.
The first of Cousins’ three interceptions was a deep ball into double coverage for Adam Thielen that Khari Willis returned 43 yards to set up a field goal. The second came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. The third was on a throw behind Bisi Johnson on a slant that bounced off the receiver’s hands and led to another Colts field goal. For the second week in a row, Cousins was sacked in the Vikings’ end zone for a safety.
Asked if he was pressing on any of the plays to try to get the Vikings offense going, Cousins said: “The only one would be the third down near the end of the half, where I threw to Adam. That was a shot play and that’s what we’re trying to do is take a shot there. I thought, ‘Let’s give it a chance to get something going, get something sparked.’ Normal down and distance you wouldn’t just make that throw, but I just wanted to try to make something happen and get something going at the end of the half.”
Minnesota opened the game with Cousins hitting Thielen for a pair of first downs, before the Colts’ Denico Autry hit the quarterback as he threw for a 15-yard penalty. Cook’s 16-yard gain gave the Vikings first and goal at the Colts 8, but the Vikings called a red-zone series that suggested they didn’t think they could pound the ball into the end zone against Indianapolis’ front.
Cousins lined up in the shotgun with C.J. Ham and Cook in the backfield, handing off to Ham for a 4-yard gain. Then Colts tackle Taylor Stallworth quickly shed a block to stuff Cook for a 1-yard gain, before Cousins threw incomplete for Kyle Rudolph out of an empty backfield on third down.
Dan Bailey’s 21-yard field goal was the only score by the Vikings until 5:20 left in the game.
Cook finished with 63 yards on 14 carries; only six of those came in the first half. He caught just two passes for 8 yards, as the Vikings struggled to get him involved on screens and swing passes again.
“It’s just been a bit off schedule. When the play-caller’s got to call a game kind of off schedule, it’s kind of different,” Cook said. “I had two catches and it doesn’t really affect me. I just wanted to win the game, I wanted to win.”
After the Packers ran for 158 yards last week, the Colts lined up with little doubt about how they planned to approach the Vikings. Former Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor carried 11 times on an opening drive that ended when Harrison Smith broke up a pass Philip Rivers intended for tight end Mo Alie-Cox, tipping it to Eric Wilson for an interception.
Taylor finished with 101 rushing yards in his second NFL game, and Alie-Cox, who became Rivers’ favorite downfield target, caught five passes for 111. It was the first time since Dec. 17, 2010, the Colts had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game.
The Colts ran the ball 40 times for 151 yards against a defense that lost linebacker Anthony Barr because of a shoulder injury before Rivers ended the game with a series of kneel-downs.
The next task, for a Vikings team trying to avoid 0-3, comes in the form of a 2-0 Titans team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season with the kind of forceful running game the Vikings want to establish.
Then, it’s on to Houston for a matchup with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, followed by a Sunday night game in Seattle against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson.
It’s a slate that will test the Vikings defense in different ways, at a time where the team’s playoff hopes will hinge on quick improvement. Any chance to make things easier went by the wayside Sunday.
“I think some of it can be [attributed to youth], but we have a pretty veteran offensive group, and that is concerning to me,” Zimmer said. “These young guys [are] trying to come in here and learn in a short amount of time, but that’s no excuse. The game plan was simple enough for them this week that there shouldn’t be very many mistakes.”