Cornerback Mike Hughes exited the Vikings’ 40-23 loss to the Falcons on Sunday in the second quarter because of a neck injury and did not return, leaving the defense with three rookie cornerbacks against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan torched those rookies and the Vikings secondary for 371 passing yards and four touchdowns, with the bulk of his production going to Atlanta’s dynamic receiver trio of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. They combined for 18 catches for 263 yards and three scores.
“I still think they’re going to be good players,” coach Mike Zimmer said after the loss. “It’s been a lot of learning by fire.”
Hughes’ neck injury, which forced him to miss two games earlier this season, further exposed a porous Vikings defense that had only Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand at cornerback after Holton Hill (foot) and Kris Boyd (hamstring) were ruled out before kickoff.
Hand, a fifth-round pick out of Temple, replaced Hughes as the No. 3 cornerback for the first defensive snaps of his NFL career. Keeping their heads up with “supreme confidence” is what the young corners need to learn from the loss, safety Anthony Harris said.
“We’ve been doing that pretty much all season, learning on the fly,” he added. “It’s just about going to play, playing with supreme confidence, not worrying about the rest. Just going to play and having fun, regardless of who’s on the other side of the ball.”
Gladney, who forced a first-quarter fumble, and Dantzler were the closest defenders on three of Ryan’s four touchdowns, starting with Jones’ 20-yard score in the first quarter. Jones pushed off Dantzler, but Zimmer said the rookie was in “bad position” and should’ve stayed to the outside of Jones. Gladney later got duped on a 40-yard touchdown to Jones when Ryan looked like he was going to scramble on fourth down.
“Dantzler had help on the inside and he got in a bad position,” Zimmer said. “Gladney comes off his guy when the quarterback moves there late in the game, and he throws it to [Gladney’s] guy for a touchdown. There’s a lot on Gladney’s plate playing inside and outside.”
Jones, a 10th-year All-Pro receiver, hadn’t played much since suffering a Week 2 hamstring injury but led the Falcons with eight catches for 137 yards and two scores Sunday.
Big second half
Rookie Justin Jefferson’s penchant for big plays continued. He was the go-to guy during Kirk Cousins’ garbage-time production, turning around a game that started with just two catches for 16 yards by halftime.
While the Vikings offense scrambled to keep pace with the Falcons in the second half, Jefferson finished with a career-high nine catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns.
Jefferson turned a quick slant into an 11-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, followed by a 49-yard score on a go route with less than two minutes left.
Cleveland’s first start
Ezra Cleveland, a second-round draft pick, got his first NFL start at right guard on a day when not much went right for the Vikings offense. Minnesota was already without guards Dru Samia (wrist) and Pat Elflein (IR/thumb), and the Falcons defense caused havoc up the middle.
Cleveland was bullied into the backfield by Falcons defensive end Allen Bailey on a first-down sack that derailed a third-quarter drive; it was the Falcons’ only sack on Cousins, who was still hit eight times.
Cleveland, the Spanaway, Wash., native, had his father, Jim, in attendance for his first start while the Vikings hosted 250 staff and family members.