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:
In what can now be regarded, almost unequivocally, as the low point of the Vikings’ 2019 season, the team lost a 16-6 game to the Bears on Sept. 28 that exposed some raw nerves in their passing game. Stefon Diggs skipped two days of meetings and practices following the loss, earning himself more than $200,000 in fines, while Adam Thielen talked in the locker room after the game about the team’s frustration over an offense that was still misfiring.
After that game, quarterback Kirk Cousins invited Thielen on his radio show to apologize to him for missing him on a downfield throw where the wide receiver was in single coverage and could have been on his way to a touchdown. Coach Mike Zimmer was nonplussed by the exchange, but Cousins connected with Thielen for four touchdowns in the next three games.
All appeared to be well, until Thielen injured his right hamstring on the fourth of those touchdown receptions in Detroit on Oct. 20. For the better part of two months, he tried to work his way back from the injury, having to shut it down after seven snaps against Kansas City on Nov. 3 and again after tweaking the hamstring in a chilly outdoor practice following the Vikings’ bye week. While Diggs emerged as the Vikings’ pre-eminent deep threat — taking a role that had typically belonged to his counterpart — Thielen seemed not himself, catching only three passes for 27 yards in two games after his return.
On Sunday, as Cousins hit Thielen for a 43-yard connection on a play that closely resembled the one he missed in Chicago, everything came full circle. The Vikings’ wild-card win over the Saints saw Thielen return as a downfield threat, making a catch that set up the game-winning score to Kyle Rudolph.
Cousins’ final two throws of his first NFL playoff win were his most momentous of the day, and perhaps also his most difficult: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he had only a 31.9 percent chance of completing the throw to Thielen with Patrick Robinson trailing tightly in coverage, and he had just a 24.9 percent chance of hitting Rudolph for the game-winner over P.J. Williams. But as Cousins hit those two receivers to end the game, it was also clear he’d reaped the benefits of having his full complement of receivers healthy for the first time since Week 6.
“He was frustrated at points earlier in the season, but we all were,” Thielen said. “We all had a piece in that. It just goes back to his preparation; he’s not going to change his preparation because of the bad or the good. That’s what you want in a leader, and that’s what makes him great.”
Thielen’s return to form as a downfield option came as the Saints used Janoris Jenkins to help take Diggs out of the game. Thielen found himself matched up against Marshon Lattimore for much of the day, and Cousins hit an early shot to Thielen as Lattimore appeared to let him go in coverage.
The receiver’s day started disastrously, with a fumble on his first catch and a holding penalty that wiped out a 12-yard gain from Dalvin Cook. But he picked up first downs with three third-down catches after that, and put the Vikings in position to win by beating Robinson at the end of the game.
For the Vikings to win again on the road in San Francisco on Saturday, they’ll need all their options against the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense. The 49ers will likely try to force Cousins to work underneath while their formidable pass rush goes to work against the Vikings’ line, but another win as road underdogs could be easier to come by if the Vikings can find a few big gains. Thielen’s return on Sunday showed evidence they have another option to make that happen.
“That’s a route I’ve run since my rookie year,” Cousins said of the overtime throw to Thielen. “Sometimes you connect on it, and sometimes you don’t. It was great to connect on that one.”
Here are two other players who stood out in the Vikings’ 26-20 win over the Saints on Sunday.
Everson Griffen: Zimmer put Griffen and Danielle Hunter at defensive tackle spots on some third downs on Sunday, looking to exploit mismatches with the middle of the Saints line rather than testing their two strong tackles (Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk). Griffen whipped guard Andrus Peat on Sunday, using his deep bank of pass-rushing moves to finish with 1 1/2 sacks and three quarterback hits.
Anthony Harris: The Vikings have a big decision to make after the season, as the safety heads into free agency following a Pro Bowl-caliber season next to Harrison Smith. The interception he made on Sunday — his seventh in 16 games — was the kind of play at which Harris has excelled all season; he started as the lone safety in the middle of the field, tracked back with Trae Waynes (who was carrying Ted Ginn’s route deep) and put himself in perfect position to take away an underthrown Drew Brees pass from Ginn.
Three areas of concern:
Second-half running game: The Vikings gained 106 yards on the ground before halftime, but had just 31 in the second half (excluding a Kirk Cousins kneel-down) as the Saints snuffed out their outside zone plays. The Vikings spent the day trying to press the edges of the Saints’ defense, either with zone handoffs to Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison or a handful of reverses and jet sweeps to Thielen and Diggs. But in the second half, when the Saints’ linebackers started to seal off the edges, it seemed like the Vikings had few answers. Their fourth-quarter drives netted 7, 14, and -3 yards, all ending with punts as the Saints erased a 10-point deficit.
Tackling: The Vikings missed 10 tackles on Sunday, which tied their highest total of the season, according to Pro Football Focus. They struggled especially with Taysom Hill, the Saints’ multi-position dynamo who eluded Stephen Weatherly on his 11-yard read-option run, dragged defenders on a nine-yard gain for a first down in the fourth quarter and bounced off Anthony Harris on a 28-yard gain two plays later. In his effort to keep the Vikings from getting too high after an emotional win, coach Mike Zimmer might harp on finishing tackles this week.
Shamar Stephen’s health: The defensive tackle left with a knee injury on Sunday, and his status bears watching this week as the Vikings prepare for a 49ers offense that mirrors its own in terms of how often it uses heavy personnel groups. Jaleel Johnson snuffed out a pass to Alvin Kamara for a six-yard loss on his only tackle of the day on Sunday, but mostly played in passing situations with the Saints trying to rally in the fourth quarter. If the Vikings are without Stephen on Sunday, they’ll need Johnson to play well against the run, too.
Three trends to watch:
The Vikings’ plan at nickel corner: The knee injury Mackensie Alexander sustained the Friday before the regular-season finale, and the neck injury that put Mike Hughes on injured reserve last week, led Zimmer to use safety Andrew Sendejo in the slot on Sunday, and the veteran did well in his first action there, breaking up a throw for Tre’Quan Smith on a post route in the second quarter. But the 49ers’ personnel could force the Vikings into a decision about whether they want to stay in nickel on Saturday or employ more base packages. The luxury of using a safety like Sendejo (or Jayron Kearse, who did not play a defensive snap on Sunday) is that the Vikings could theoretically stay in nickel and have the size to deal with what the 49ers will throw at them.
Fourth-down decisions: Zimmer has been more aggressive on fourth downs at times this season than he has in the past, and it’s fair to wonder if offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s embrace of analytics has nudged the coach in a different direction there. Still, the Vikings were awfully conservative in the second quarter, kicking a 21-yard Dan Bailey field goal after getting stopped near the goal line (though it’s worth noting an odd stoppage after the SkyCam fell off its cable gave the Saints a chance to catch their breath on that drive). They also seemed to work around Cousins in the fourth quarter, running on six straight plays with 10:31 to go after the Saints had cut the lead to three and effectively choosing to play it safe after Dalvin Cook lost seven yards on a play that was initially ruled a New Orleans fumble recovery for a touchdown. As the Vikings head to the West Coast to play the No. 1 overall seed on a short week, we’ll see if they decide to take a few more chances.
Whether the Falcons provide the Vikings another blueprint: Defensive end Danielle Hunter credited the Falcons’ performance in a Week 10 win over the Saints with providing the Vikings their defensive blueprint for Sunday’s victory; the decision to put Hunter and Griffen in the middle of the line seemed specifically inspired by how Atlanta was able to get after Drew Brees. It’s worth wondering if the Vikings will fire up the film of Atlanta’s defense again this week, looking to glean some hints from the Falcons’ Week 15 win in San Francisco. Grady Jarrett had six pressures that day, and the Vikings could continue to use Hunter and Griffen in the middle of their defense to put pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo.
And one big question:
Does the win mean all of the questions about the Vikings’ future have been answered? Co-owner Mark Wilf’s statement in support of Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman came out of nowhere on Friday afternoon, and caught many by surprise 40 hours before the Vikings were to kick off against the Saints. Now that Zimmer and Spielman have their second playoff win together — and a shot to reach their second NFC Championship Game in three years — they’d seem to have an even stronger case to keep their partnership together. Zimmer called speculation about his job status “silly,” citing the 60 percent clip at which the Vikings have won since he took over in 2014, but the matter isn’t resolved quite yet. Both Zimmer and Spielman have deals that expire after the 2020 season, and it’s worth pointing out what ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Sunday about Zimmer not wanting to coach as a lame duck. In other words, the 63-year-old coach is eyeing a contract extension — and it would follow the Vikings would do one for Spielman, as well, to keep the two on the same track.
But now that offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski can interview this week with other teams for head coaching openings (the Browns and Panthers are known to be interested), the Vikings will have to decide if they want to risk losing the 37-year-old. The smart money is on the Vikings giving Zimmer a new contract sometime this offseason, but the coach could be looking for his fifth offensive coordinator if another team hires Stefanski. This time, there seem to be some in-house options, whether Gary Kubiak wants to resume play-calling duties, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak is ready for a promotion or the Vikings contemplate bringing Pat Shurmur back after the Giants fired him. The team’s decision-makers also could contemplate new deals for Cousins and Cook this offseason, and the sustainability of all the goodwill the Vikings generated on Sunday is incumbent upon them playing well against the 49ers on Saturday. When it comes to their coaches and two of their most important players, there’s plenty of business still on the agenda.
Photo credit: Liz Flores, Star Tribune