BALTIMORE – The Vikings offense had been coming out of halftimes flat – punting four straight weeks with their first possession of the third quarter – before running back Kene Nwangwu and the kickoff return team gave them a much-needed spark.
Nwangwu, the fourth-round pick, ran through one Ravens arm tackle and then turned on the jets while taking the second-half kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown. Nwangwu followed blocks by linebackers Ryan Connelly and Troy Dye and safety Josh Metellus, but it was his burner speed that made him uncatchable down the sideline.
"That's why we drafted him," coach Mike Zimmer said. "It was nice to see, and it looked like it was good blocking."
It was just Nwangwu's second NFL kickoff return. The Iowa State product's pro debut was delayed by a preseason knee injury, and his first game against Dallas came and went without any return opportunities. Only three other players have returned kickoffs for touchdowns in the NFL this season, while the Vikings hadn't had one since Cordarrelle Patterson in 2016.
Nwangwu provided a spark again in the third quarter, taking a handoff on a fake punt for a 9-yard gain. That moved the chains before penalties derailed the Vikings offense.
"Special talent right there," running back Dalvin Cook said. "He's just scratching the surface. He can help us in a lot of ways. I think his speed is unmatched."
Cole replaces Bradbury
Center Mason Cole "did a tremendous job" filling in for Garrett Bradbury, said quarterback Kirk Cousins after he wasn't sacked for the second time in three games. Cole, who started 32 games for the Cardinals over three seasons, got his first start for the Vikings after Bradbury tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. The offensive line still struggled with consistency and penalties, but Cole seamlessly stepped in to call out protections and adjustments, according to Cousins.
"Mason still did his part," Cousins said. "I kind of always just view it as I've got the veto card, but to the degree I need to play it, it's only [if] I don't trust what he's doing. But because I trust what he's doing, it's just not a card I need to play very much."
Bradbury, who is vaccinated, is eligible to return this week if he's symptom free and produces two negative tests taken 24 hours apart.
Jefferson: 'Free Odell'
Receiver Justin Jefferson wore a "Free Odell" sweatshirt during pregame warmups, a nod to his fellow LSU alumnus, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who was recently released by the Browns. Jefferson then put his name up there with Beckham's as one of the game's fastest-rising receivers of the modern era.
Jefferson's 50-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter put him over 2,000 career receiving yards in his 24th game. Only Beckham (21 games) did it faster in the Super Bowl era. Jefferson was only targeted four more times throughout the game. He finished with three catches for 69 yards and the score. Cousins said the Ravens' deep coverage took away Jefferson.
"After that [touchdown], they backed up," Cousins said, "and kept things in front of them for the most part."
Keeping Jackson's legs
Only in one other NFL game has 24-year-old Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson run more than he did against the Vikings, taking off 21 times for 120 rushing yards. Jackson also took eight hits as a passer, leading to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh brushing off a question about Jackson's playing style in a long-term view of his career. He said Jackson's sustainability is "not even relevant," adding he'll run as much as needed to win.
"The sustainability questions are like, 'Man, life is short. Run the ball,' " Harbaugh said. "I'm trying to win the game."