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 Vikings' belief they could maintain their passing game productivity after dealing Stefon Diggs to Buffalo this spring was based on two factors: the idea Adam Thielen would return to his typical productivity in 2020 after recovering from last season's hamstring injury, and the notion they could get big contributions from a cast of young players (rookie Justin Jefferson and second-year players Irv Smith and Bisi Johnson among them).
Two games is far too small a sample size to quash that theory. The Vikings' commitment to their current offensive direction seemed to make Diggs a "programmatic non-fit," to use the phrase Brad Childress coined after parting with another mercurial receiver. And Jefferson in particular could provide a boost to the Vikings' passing game if he's able to build a connection with Cousins going forward. But on the day Diggs had his first big performance for the Bills, catching eight passes for 153 yards and a touchdown in Buffalo's shootout win over the Dolphins, his absence from the Vikings' offense seemed particularly pronounced.
Cousins' 15.9 passer rating was the third-worst since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger by a Vikings quarterback that threw 20 or more passes. He targeted Thielen on eight of his 26 passes, completing three on the Vikings' opening drive but failing to hit Thielen the rest of the day. Cousins completed only three other passes to his receivers in the first three quarters of the game. Through two weeks, Thielen has 16 targets on Cousins' 51 passes; no other Vikings player has more than seven.
On Sunday, Smith officially had four targets; it was fortuitous he dropped his first one, on a pass that likely would have lost yardage if he caught it, but his second would have gone for 21 yards had Smith been able to hold on after getting open on a post route and making a leaping grab over the middle. Darius Leonard nearly picked Cousins off on the following play when the quarterback threw to Smith's inside shoulder on an out route. Smith finished with one catch for three yards and also committed a pass interference penalty that wiped out another first-down catch.
Cousins' third interception was on a pass behind Johnson on a slant, and the receiver's only catch was a 24-yard grab when the game was decided in the fourth quarter. Jefferson finished with three catches for 44 yards; the first was a 22-yard grab with 16 seconds left in the first half, and the other two came in the fourth quarter.
When I talked with Cousins before the season about building a rapport with his new receivers, he said the elements of the passing game that rely more on timing and precision — like intermediate throws — take more time to develop than downfield throws where the quarterback can just give his receivers a chance to beat their man. Some of the issues on Sunday, like the interception to Johnson, appeared to be partly related to execution, and particularly when it came to Smith, dropped passes made things worse than they needed to be.
"We have to be consistent with our level of play, and the first thing you have to do is look yourself in the mirror," Thielen said Monday. "You have to say, 'What could I have done better to be more consistent and make plays and take pressure off of Kirk and this offense and be able to stay on the field? That creates more opportunities to stay on the field and make explosive plays and score points, things like that. Like I said, there's obviously a lot of things. But the first it starts with consistency and your level of play."
It's worth wondering how much Cousins trusts anybody but Thielen right now, and how much that might be affecting his execution. In any case, if the Vikings continue to struggle to develop options outside of Thielen, they're going to see teams continue to roll coverage his way and dare the Vikings to go to someone else.
"I think that's probably the reason why it's so frustrating," Thielen said. "We have so many guys that have experience, that are really good football players. We have a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, and we have a quarterback that has proven he can play at a high level in this league, so now we have to do our part individually to make sure that we're helping this team create momentum, stay on the field and make plays.
"Is it frustrating? Yes, 100%, when you have a veteran group and have a lot of leaders on the offensive side of the ball and a lot of guys you look to that can make plays, so I think that's probably the good thing moving forward: 'Hey, we have the pieces. Now let's go do it.' "
Here is one other area of concern from the Vikings' 28-11 loss:
Run defense: After the Packers ran for 160 yards before two game-ending kneel-downs last week, the Colts showed up intent on letting their line overpower the Vikings' defensive front. Coaches have talked up Shamar Stephen's ability to handle the nose tackle spot, but Stephen struggled to get off blocks and control the line of scrimmage on Sunday. Zimmer admitted the Vikings are more "undersized" than they've been in the middle, which obviously wasn't part of their plan. They signed Michael Pierce to replace Linval Joseph, and lost the nose tackle for the season when he opted out because of coronavirus concerns. But the Titans, who come to town on Sunday, are built on a power running game, and they'll try to make things difficult for the Vikings' front again on Sunday.
Two players who stood out
Harrison Smith: The veteran safety seemed to play with an edge on Sunday, and he made his presence felt early, when he read Philip Rivers' eyes on a zone drop and turned a would-be touchdown pass into a deflected ball that Eric Wilson intercepted. Smith nearly created another pick on the next drive when he tipped a pass off a blitz that Michael Pittman still caught for a nine-yard gain. He combined with Yannick Ngakoue for a one-yard loss on a run stop later in the game, though Smith did catch a break when T.Y. Hilton dropped a touchdown pass after getting by him in the second quarter.
TIP DRILL!!!@EWIL23 comes up with the INT.
📺: @NFLonFOX pic.twitter.com/GoBYjKMJsq
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) September 20, 2020
Eric Kendricks: The middle linebacker had 12 tackles and flashed his sideline-to-sideline speed when he stopped Jonathan Taylor for a two-yard loss on an outside run early in the game. The Colts tested the Vikings linebackers with throws to Mo Alie-Cox behind their zone drops, and Kendricks got caught chasing the tight end on a 33-yard completion in the first half.
Two trends to watch
How the Vikings create a pass rush: Linebacker Anthony Barr is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, leaving the team without a key part of its pass rush and run defense. The Vikings could use Smith as a blitzer on occasion, especially if they move him closer to the line of scrimmage to deal with the Titans' running game after Zimmer said he left safeties in coverage more often vs. the Colts to help out his young corners. But the Vikings will need to create some options with Danielle Hunter out for at least one more week, and they're in a tough spot when it comes to how much they might need their safeties to stabilize the back end of their defense. Even though Barr has never put up great pressure numbers, he's been an important piece of the Vikings' blitz packages since they made him the first draft pick of the Zimmer era in 2014. Now, they'll have to figure out how to operate without him. Yannick Ngakoue played more on the right side on Sunday, and got the Vikings' first sack of the season when he stripped Rivers after a speed rush to the quarterback's blind side.
Jeff Gladney's progress: The first-round pick started the game at left cornerback with Mike Hughes in the slot, and committed the first of the Vikings' three illegal contact penalties to give the Colts a first down on their initial drive. We'll have to see how quickly the Vikings can get Cameron Dantzler back from a rib injury, and how they mix Gladney into their rotation at that point. They seem most comfortable with Hughes in the slot at the moment, and Dantzler and Holton Hill have more size than does Gladney.
One big question going forward
How much better can we expect this Vikings team to get? From Cousins to the run defense to dropped passes, penalties and some special teams miscues, the Vikings' issues were as widespread on Sunday as we've seen in some time. They even had some dubious clock management late in the first half on Sunday, when they burned a timeout after the Colts used one of their own while deciding to send Rodrigo Blankenship out for a field goal instead of going for it on 4th-and-1. That timeout might have come in handy after Cousins' 22-yard pass to Jefferson and given the Vikings one more shot to get in field goal range, instead of ending the half with a Hail Mary.
So there were few elements of the Vikings' operation that escaped Sunday unscathed, and it's tough to expect things are going to magically improve overnight, especially given the choice the Vikings seem to continually face between helping their young corners and providing more run support from their safeties. Tennessee, Houston and Seattle — the Vikings' next three opponents — can all stress the defense in pronounced ways, and the Vikings have to face Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers after that. They've had stretches in the Zimmer era where they've been unable to win a big game, or gotten blown out on an off day, but few times have they looked as outclassed as they have the past two weeks. Perhaps it's part of the life cycle of the team, but this is still a group that is expected to win now. If things keep going in this direction, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings react. Zimmer often talks about how much he loves to prove people wrong; he's got quite the chance to do it here.