Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
The first question Mike Zimmer was asked after the Vikings’ 27-26 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday night was how much he’d considered kicking a field goal with a five-point lead on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks’ 6, rather than choosing to go for it and trying to seal the game. The last question Zimmer got asked was whether he had any regrets about his choice.
”We came here to win so I’m not going to second-guess any of that stuff,” he said to close his news conference. “We didn’t get it done.”
Then, after a pause, Zimmer signed off by saying, “Everybody else will [second-guess it]. Let them.”
It was a confident answer from a coach who’d been successful on two fourth-down decisions earlier in the game. And though his third fourth-down attempt ultimately didn’t work — Alexander Mattison got stuffed and the Seahawks converted two of their own fourth downs on a game-winning 94-yard drive — it shouldn’t have been unexpected, given the shift in the way Zimmer has approached fourth downs during his tenure in Minnesota.
According to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index, Zimmer was the league’s fifth-most aggressive coach on fourth downs last season, going for it nine times in 89 opportunities (10.1% of the time) when the average coach was expected to do so only 4.68 times. The metric found Zimmer was 92% more likely to go for it than an average coach in comparable situations.
How big of a change is that? Just two years earlier, he’d ranked last in the index, going for it just twice in 104 attempts (1.9% of the time) when expected to do so 5.96 times.
Zimmer’s shift has come as more coaches have pushed the envelope on fourth downs. Leaguewide, coaches went for it about 10% of the time last year, according to Football Outsiders, after doing so 6.1% of the time in 2014 (Zimmer’s first season). It’s become more widely accepted as data has shown the benefits of being aggressive on fourth downs, though Zimmer demurred when asked whether the numbers had any role in his fourth-down thought process last year.
As should be expected with a coach that attributes his fourth-down decisions to a number of different factors, there’s some nuance required in any fourth-down analysis of Zimmer.
After Kirk Cousins was stuffed on a fourth-down sneak from the Vikings’ own 34 in a game they led by 10 in the fourth quarter against Washington last year, Zimmer called it “probably the dumbest decision I’ve made since I’ve been here,” later saying there are a number of factors that play into his decision.
“The team that we’re playing, how we’re playing the game, field conditions, the wind,” he said. ” Do I feel like we need to score more points? Do we want to play field position?”
He responded to a follow-up question about the role of analytics by saying, “The analytics say, ‘Go for it.’ I don’t go by that, no.”
Asked about analytics on Monday, Zimmer said: “You can do all those things, but you don’t have time. You’ve got to make decisions quick. You don’t have time to ask analytics guys what to do. In that situation, I’m always going for the win. I don’t care.”
Still, there’s evidence Zimmer has become more willing to push things.
In 24 fourth-and-1 decisions where the Vikings were in opposing territory with a lead or a chance to tie the game with a field goal, Zimmer has gone for it 11 times, kicking a field goal 12 times and punting once. But since 2018, he’s only kicked once, bringing Dan Bailey out for a 27-yard field goal with the Vikings up 25-10 against the Chargers last December.
On Sunday night, he saw an opportunity to win a game where the Vikings were underdogs by more than a touchdown in a building where neither Zimmer nor his predecessor, Leslie Frazier, had won in four previous tries.
According to EdjSports, the Vikings had a 88.2% chance of winning the game before the play, and would have improved their chances to 99.7% if Mattison had been able to convert the first down. Their chances of winning, after Mattison was stopped short, dropped to 72.6%. The site concluded Zimmer’s choice was a reasonable risk, given the fact the required conversion rate to justify the decision (57.6%) was below the 60% clip at which teams typically convert a fourth-and-1.
Zimmer decided to go for the kill. Whatever you think of his decision, it’s worth realizing the choice fits comfortably on the spectrum of how the coach has been operating over the past few years.
“We had a half a yard to go and we’d been running the ball really well,” Zimmer said Monday. “I felt like their defense was tired and we had hit two other fourth downs earlier in the ballgame. So I’ll do it again the next time it comes up. If we’ve got a chance to win the game, you’ve got to go for it.”
Here is another trend to watch from the Vikings’ loss to the Seahawks on Sunday night.
The Vikings’ cornerback plan: With Holton Hill out because of a foot injury on Sunday night, the Vikings kept their two rookies (Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney) on the field for every snap, playing Mike Hughes on 43 of their 54 defensive snaps when the Vikings were in a nickel defense. Hughes played both in the slot and at one of the outside corner spots on Sunday night, with Gladney moving inside in some situations. The Vikings have toyed with different combinations at corner this season, and a return from Hill would undoubtedly change the mix again. But it’s worth pointing out that on Sunday night, the Vikings were comfortable enough with their two rookies to keep them on the field for every snap of the game.
Two players who stood out
Irv Smith: The second-year tight end’s lack of production had been a concern through the first quarter of the season, but Smith played a major role from the Vikings’ first snap of the game on Sunday night. Cousins tried him on a slant route on the game’s first play from scrimmage, before K.J. Wright batted the throw down, and hit him for 23 yards on the next play when Smith made a diving catch. Smith ended the night with four catches for 64 yards, playing in the slot, splitting out wide and setting up on the line of scrimmage in 12 and 13 personnel. Smith (59 snaps) played almost as much as Kyle Rudolph (64), while Tyler Conklin saw 10 snaps and Rashod Hill got two as an extra tight end.
Eric Wilson: The linebacker has gone from a base-defense player to an every-down player in Anthony Barr’s absence, and Sunday night was probably his best game as a pro. He fell down in the end zone while in coverage on Will Dissly’s touchdown, but had a sack and two other hits on Russell Wilson (including one that forced a throwaway on Seattle’s final drive) and made a terrific play to pick off Wilson along the Vikings’ sideline for a fourth-quarter interception that appeared it would give Minnesota a chance to ice the game.
Two areas of concern
The second-half secondary: The Vikings kept their safeties back in the first half to take away Russell Wilson’s deep shots, and their plan worked brilliantly as they built a 13-0 lead. But rookie mistakes on the Seahawks’ final drive appeared to do the Vikings in. On Wilson’s 39-yard completion to D.K. Metcalf on fourth-and-10, Dantzler appeared to misplay a ball Zimmer said he thought the Vikings were going to intercept, giving Metcalf space at the last second to make an easy catch. And on Wilson’s fourth-down game-winner to Metcalf, the Seahawks ran a mesh concept with twin crossing routes designed to create a natural pick in the middle of the field. They occupied Harrison Smith with an out route from tight end Greg Olsen, while Gladney handled Tyler Lockett in coverage. But after initially reacting to Metcalf’s route, Dantzler stayed on his side of the field, rather than carrying Metcalf’s route while Hughes followed Freddie Swain’s crossing route. After the play, NBC’s cameras showed Harrison Smith giving Dantzler a sharp rebuke that wasn’t hard for lip-readers to decipher.
I’m a bad lip reader. He’s saying, “Cover your pumpkin pie,” right? Seems like a sensible cooking tip for the holiday season. pic.twitter.com/nCE0buMakW
— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) October 12, 2020
Interior offensive line play: This has been another consistent theme throughout the year, but it bears repeating after a dreadful night for Dru Samia, who was flagged for holding three times (and had a block-in-the-back penalty the Seahawks declined). Dakota Dozier was pushed back into Cousins’ lap in the first quarter, and got beat by Damontre Moore on Cousins’ first fumble of the game. The Vikings ran the ball for more than 200 yards on Sunday night, and the line deserves credit for that, but pass protection remains a concern.
One big question
Are the Vikings now playing for the future? Of the 146 teams who have started 1-4 since 1990, just 10 reached the playoffs in a 12-team format (with another three — including the 2005 Vikings — missing the playoffs at 9-7). The Vikings will play a winless Falcons team at home on Sunday before their bye week, and it’s difficult to concede anything in a year where 14 teams will make the playoffs and any number of strange outcomes could be possible given the circumstances of the season. But the smart money is on the Vikings being sensible with Dalvin Cook’s groin injury a week before their bye, and Sunday night brought striking reminders about how much a transcendent quarterback can do to overcome weaknesses elsewhere on the roster. The Vikings have a young secondary, and a quarterback who’s good most of the time. That might not be the kind of combination that can produce the 11-week run of consistent success they’d need to reach the playoffs in 2020.