Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at three players who stood out, three concerns for the team, three trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
At the beginning of the third quarter on Sunday, Fox’s Pam Oliver relayed a conversation she’d had with Mike Zimmer, during which the Vikings coach said the team’s offense was trying to be “too cute” in the first half, and needed to run more in the second half, rather than trying to throw the ball all over the field. The Vikings, who ran the ball on only 13 of their 35 plays in the first half, tried 14 runs on 31 second-half plays, but still ended up with their second-worst rushing day of the season, failing to surpass 100 yards for the first time since their Week 4 loss to Chicago.
Even if the Vikings were marginally more committed to the run in the second half on Sunday, their efficiency was an issue all day. Specifically, they forced Dalvin Cook to do quite a bit of extra work for his 71 yards.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook needed to run 5.65 yards (of both vertical and horizontal distance) for every yard he gained on Sunday, and he spent an average of 2.95 seconds behind the line of scrimmage. The numbers, taken together, lend context to day in which Cook had to do plenty of dancing behind the line of scrimmage, rather than finding space to cut upfield. His longest run Sunday was just 12 yards, and Cook hasn’t had a run of 15 yards or more in the Vikings’ past two games.
“We had what we wanted, and we just didn’t take advantage,” Cook said. “We’re a good close out team, and we just didn’t close the game out today. That’s what it came down to.”
In the Vikings’ final two drives — one with a three-point lead, one with the game tied — Cook carried the ball just twice, losing three yards on a second-and-10 (after an incomplete pass on first down made it fairly predictable the Vikings would run) and gaining five to keep the clock moving on third-and-13. Zimmer said after the game the Vikings “had to get back under control and get back to being a little more balanced” in the second half, and it’s hard to say definitively the Vikings did that. Their final two drives took only 1:55 off the clock combined, as the Chiefs found time to make their comeback.
But the Vikings did little to create space for Cook against the NFL’s second-worst run defense through much of the day, and it cost them.
Here are two other areas of concern for the Vikings after their 26-23 loss on Sunday:
Interior line play: Pat Elflein’s struggles at left guard continued, as he was pushed back into Kirk Cousins’ lap for the Chiefs’ only sack of the day. Center Garrett Bradbury was flagged for holding, and his ineligible man downfield penalty wiped out a 14-yard gain on a tight end screen to Irv Smith. Josh Kline’s illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty nullified a 14-yard reception from Ameer Abdullah, and the Chiefs declined a holding call on Kline later in the game. Pair those things with the Vikings’ struggles to move the Chiefs’ defensive front and help Cook, and it was a difficult day for a group that had improved during the Vikings’ four-game win streak. The Chiefs blitzed Cousins on just seven of his 40 dropbacks, but pressured him on 17 of those dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kirk Cousins’ accuracy: The quarterback seemed off-target from the jump on Sunday, firing too high for Cook on his first throw of the game, throwing behind Adam Thielen on his only attempt to the receiver and overshooting Laquon Treadwell on a deep throw. His 50 percent completion rate was somewhat reminiscent of his day in Green Bay, when he connected on only 43.8 percent of his passes, and though Cousins didn’t have issues with turnovers, it’s worth paying attention to what he said about his mechanics after the game:
“My hips were open to the middle of the field, reading a post route or a far cross, and then I have a flat to my right,” he said. “Rather than flip my hips, [I was] throwing from that open position, trying to make that throw. That contributes to the ball being high. As a quarterback, you take pride in being able to make all of the throws without having to move your hips — you know, being able to do a shoulder turn and throw the ball. But certainly, you go back and look and say, ‘Should I just flip my hips there and gotten the ball?’ I think one of the guys was on a stunt and got in there, but on another one I could have probably done that. I take pride in throwing accurately regardless, so you have to make the throw because a good quarterback does not have a base and can still make the throw.”
Cousins was pressured on 17 of his 40 dropbacks Sunday, and the fact he didn’t enjoy as many clean pockets as he has in recent weeks might have contributed to some of his issues. But he wasn’t pressured on his early misfires, and he could have to hit off-platform throws next week against a formidable Cowboys pass rush. Given the fact Cousins’ 80.9 adjusted completion percentage is the third-highest in the NFL this season (according to PFF), it’s probably wise to consider his accuracy issues a blip on the radar until proven otherwise.
Three players who stood out:
Harrison Smith: The safety came up empty-handed on Damien Williams’ 91-yard touchdown run, but otherwise had one of his more active days of the season, posting eight tackles, forcing a fumble, breaking up a jump ball for Tyreek Hill and posting his first sack of the season when he raced through the Chiefs’ line untouched on a double-A gap blitz, benefitting from the fact Kansas City used Demarcus Robinson to pick up Eric Kendricks’ blitz. Smith was nearly in position for an interception on the play before his sack, too, when Matt Moore threw too high for Travis Kelce.
Stephen Weatherly: The defensive end had a sack and a pair of quarterback hits on Sunday, also setting up Ifeadi Odenigbo’s sack off a stunt. Weatherly had a quiet first half of the season, and his sack on Sunday was his first of the year, and he also had a nice rush to force a quick throw from Moore on a bootleg in the second quarter.
C.J. Ham: The Vikings have continued to expand on the number of ways they use their fullback in recent weeks — especially as they’ve been forced to look for ways to help their passing game with Adam Thielen injured — and Ham (who played 22 snaps) had their longest play of the day on Sunday when he took a screen 32 yards, using a stiff arm and powerful legs to pick up the last 10 yards of the play. Ham had more than 3,600 yards from scrimmage in college, and the Vikings’ comfort level with him in a number of roles has added another dimension to their offense.
Three trends to watch:
How the Vikings rush QBs: The seven-man blitzes coach Mike Zimmer called on Sunday were somewhat noteworthy, in the sense the Vikings don’t frequently use such heavy pressure the way they did on Sunday. Smith’s sack came on one of those blitzes, but Moore took advantage of the space vacated by a similar blitz to hit Hill and set up the Chiefs’ final field goal. Four of the Vikings’ five sacks came on four-man pressures (it’s also worth noting that both Weatherly and Odenigbo had sacks while rushing from a stand-up position in the middle of the Vikings’ line). Zimmer called blitzes on 30 percent of Moore’s dropbacks on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and though the Vikings came with some heavier pressures on Sunday, they didn’t blitz much; they only brought extra pressure seven times. Teams have blitzed Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott just 24 percent of the time this year, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings will have to come up with a smart rush plan as they deal with Prescott on Sunday night.
What the Vikings do at wide receiver without Adam Thielen: It stands to reason the Vikings will be cautious with the wide receiver, who wasn’t in the game on third downs in the first two series of the day and left after re-aggravating his right hamstring injury in the first quarter. It appeared the Vikings had Thielen on a snap count even before he left the game, and with just two games until their bye week, it’s possible cooler heads will prevail and Thielen will sit out to let his hamstring injury completely heal. The wide receiver isn’t one to want to sit for long, but if he does, the Vikings will have to figure out how they can set up their receiver group. Laquon Treadwell was their leading receiver on Sunday (though TV cameras showed an irate Cousins coming to the sideline after a third-down throw that went off Treadwell’s hand). Josh Doctson could come back from injured reserve this week, and it sounds as though Chad Beebe’s return might not be far off. Will either of those players give the Vikings another solid option — and can Cousins reconnect with Stefon Diggs when defenses are paying more attention to him? It’s all worth following closely.
The approach in the red zone: The Vikings came away with three points on their drive at the end of the first half after they emptied the backfield out with 23 seconds left and a timeout remaining. Cousins missed Rudolph throwing off his back foot against pressure, had a flat-footed throw in a tight pocket for Bisi Johnson in the back of the end zone on second down and missed Diggs on a sideline fade on third down. With a timeout left, it’s interesting the Vikings chose not to work the middle of the field or get the ball in Cook’s hands on an early down. Cousins hit Ameer Abdullah for a 17-yard score after Johnson’s route occupied the Chiefs’ safety in the third quarter, and drilled a touchdown throw into tight coverage for Kyle Rudolph in fourth quarter, on what might have been his best throw of the day,
And one big question:
How will the Vikings’ secondary fare going forward? The Chiefs went after Trae Waynes early and often on Sunday, targeting him on all three of Moore’s big completions to Hill and completing seven passes for 143 yards and a touchdown against him. Xavier Rhodes only allowed four completions for 35 yards, according to PFF, and had fairly tight coverage on the longest of those four completions (a 17-yarder that Sammy Watkins had to initially corral with one hand). But teams have shown more willingness to go after the Vikings’ secondary this season, and things aren’t going to get easier with Prescott, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers among the quarterbacks still on the schedule. The Vikings’ best defensive attribute these days might be their ability to pressure quarterbacks, and if they’re able to do that on the road — especially in outdoor games on grass, where Zimmer’s teams have struggled — they might be fine. If they’re not able to consistently affect the quarterbacks they’ll see down the stretch, though, they could find teams willing to test them downfield more frequently, as the Chiefs did Sunday. The Vikings won’t see many receivers as dynamic as Hill, but there are still enough difficult matchups on the schedule to cause them trouble if they’re not better in coverage.