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 clip went viral shortly after Fox's on-field microphones picked up Justin Jefferson's exasperated voice ringing through an empty U.S. Bank Stadium: the receiver yelling an expletive in quarterback Kirk Cousins' direction, followed by a remark that sounded like either, "Come on, throw the ball!" or "Come on, throw the flag!"
It's the type of moment that happens more often in football games than those not on the field typically get to experience. Jefferson took to social media after the game to say the clip was blown out of proportion, adding, "I ain't no diva," and it certainly lacks the context to function as evidence of something more than a moment of frustration.
But on a day where red-zone issues played a major role in the Vikings' inability to win a second straight game they badly needed, the moment was emblematic.
A Vikings team that entered Sunday as the NFL's fourth-best in the red zone went 2-for-4 inside the Bears' 20, twice settling for short Dan Bailey field goals. Sunday's issues came a week after the Vikings were 2-for-4 in the red zone, giving up all six of their sacks in Buccaneers territory. On Sunday, the Vikings missed two chances to score touchdowns that might have changed the complexion of a close game.
Cousins was 4-for-9 for 29 yards in the red zone; his first red-zone throw was a three-yard score to a wide-open Adam Thielen on a Bears coverage miscommunication, and he found Tyler Conklin for a 20-yard TD in the fourth quarter. In between those throws, though, confusion and consternation were palpable factors in the Vikings' red-zone plays.
The play after the incomplete pass to Jefferson, Cousins scrambled to his right and pump faked once, before letting go of the ball awfully close to the line of scrimmage. Irv Smith Jr. dropped it in the end zone.
In the third quarter, after hitting Dalvin Cook for 13 yards to get to the Chicago 6, Cousins' throw for Thielen was mostly a throwaway, and in a rare no-back set on third down, he hitched before throwing behind Jefferson. Thielen was off the field on the play, after losing his shoe earlier on the drive, and Cousins had some words with Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson after the play.
When I asked Cousins about the two throws to Jefferson after the game, he said, "The first one, I was was working inside on an under route and it got mashed and went to my left and was playing off schedule at that point. Was trying to find anybody I could and kind of tried to throw it high and safe to Justin because [with] the traffic patterns I wasn't sure where the defense was going. Put it in kind of an ours-or-nobody's spot and it ended up being nobody's.
"The second one, I'm not even sure. They played like a bracket on Olabisi and Justin and kind of had three-on-two there. Tried to work Olabisi on the out break, but I was nervous about an undercut, then kind of progressed to Justin, but the corner at that point had read my eyes and fallen off. That's where, when we're that tight, we just don't have a lot of grass for them to have to defend so they can kind of cover both guys quickly. Probably my mind-set there is, 'OK. Just go off schedule' rather than throw where I did. Just leave the pocket and try to start a new play off schedule because I kind of had the edge there and didn't have to force it to Justin in what was a low percentage chance there."
According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins has been pressured at least 35 percent of the time in 11 of the Vikings' 14 games this season, and in every game since the team's win over the Packers on Nov. 1. He was pressured on 17 of his 41 dropbacks on Sunday, and I counted pressure on four of his nine red-zone dropbacks.
Some of the pressure might have come from Cousins holding the ball; his second red-zone attempt was a throwaway after he'd had roughly 2.8 seconds to throw, and he opted to extend plays on a couple of his throws (like the one that was too high for Jefferson). But he also was forced to escape on other occasions, like when he had to catch the ball after a pass rusher (Khalil Mack this time) came off the right side of the Vikings' line and nearly stripped it out of his hands for the second week in a row.
The Vikings also had to burn a second-half timeout in the red zone to beat a delay-of-game penalty as they hurriedly tried to line up after getting the play call at the goal line, prompting a frustrated response from Cousins and coach Mike Zimmer on the field.
"I didn't even have time, based on the play clock, to move the tight end [Smith] where we needed him and get the motion sent," Cousins said. "I realized that we just don't have time to do all this, so that's where we had to burn the timeout."
It's perhaps worth debating whether the Vikings would have been better off taking the penalty and saving the timeout in that situation, given the fact it was only second down and they wound up needing the timeout later, but that's easier to say after the fact. What's clear, from Sunday, is this: On a day where the Vikings needed to make a few more plays to answer an offensive outburst from the Bears, a series of issues kept them from finishing drives.
Here's a look at one other area of concern from the Vikings' 33-27 loss to the Bears:
Interior run defense: The Bears ran for more yards than any team had done against the Vikings in Minneapolis since 2003, and their reconfigured line (with Cody Whitehair now playing left guard next to center Sam Mustipher) opened big holes for David Montgomery on zone runs. Former Vikings guard Geoff Schwartz broke down one such play on Montgomery's 14-yard touchdown run, where Whitehair got underneath Jaleel Johnson's arm and put him on the ground before Montgomery broke a tackle from Anthony Harris and carried Jeff Gladney into the end zone.
Said Zimmer: "They were getting us moving and then getting the back side cutting and it looked like the back was coming out the backdoor. Then we didn't do a good job of tackling him."
The Vikings were without Eric Kendricks again on Sunday, and it's tempting to look forward to the possible return of nose tackle Michael Pierce in 2021 following his COVID-19 opt-out this year, but defensive tackle could be a spot the Vikings look to address before next year.
Two players who stood out
Conklin: Cousins has gone out of his way to praise the tight end in recent weeks, and Conklin had two big catch-and-run plays on Sunday: a screen that netted 30 yards, and his 20-yard touchdown reception came as he leaked out for a short pass following a chip of Mack in the fourth quarter. He finished the day with 57 receiving yards while playing 45 of the Vikings' 68 offensive snaps, and continues to make the case for a bigger role in the offense.
Cameron Dantzler: If there's a bright spot on defense from Sunday, it might be with the rookie cornerback, who had his second interception of the season (after returning from an injury he said afterward wouldn't keep him out of such an important game) and continued to show improvement as a cover corner. The Bears targeted him five times, according to Pro Football Focus, but only completed four passes for 35 yards, with just one (a 14-yard completion to Allen Robinson in the first quarter) going for a first down. Trubisky targeted Dantzler in the red zone in the second quarter, but he had good coverage on Robinson, forcing the quarterback to try and squeeze a throw to the sideline. Dantzler's turned in a couple strong games in coverage this month, and might be the furthest along of any young Vikings corner.
Two trends to watch
The Vikings' run rate on second-and-short: This is worth watching, and keeping in mind for future years, as teams play a two-deep shell to take away downfield throws for Cousins. Sam Ekstrom over at Zone Coverage first pointed this out on Sunday, but before their final drive, the Vikings had seven second-down plays with three yards or fewer to go for a first down, and they ran on all seven of them. Five of those seven were outside the red zone. The Vikings picked up five first downs in the process, but second-and-short plays can be prime opportunities to take downfield shots. It's worth noting here the Vikings had three second-and-1 plays outside the red zone; those plays can also put defenses on alert for a downfield throw, but given the attention Cook commands, they could present chances for a strike, as well. At least on Sunday, the Vikings didn't take those opportunities.
Fourth-down decisions: Sunday found Mike Zimmer at perhaps most his aggressive and most conservative against the Bears, going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Vikings' 34 when they were down 10 in the second quarter and twice sending Dan Bailey out for field goals from inside the Bears' 10. The first one of those kicks came after Cousins' aforementioned throws to Jefferson and Smith, and the next was after Cousins missed Jefferson on the third-quarter third down we discussed earlier, so perhaps the coach wasn't feeling confident enough the Vikings could come away with points to send his offense back onto the field for fourth down in those situations. The Vikings' fourth-and-1 decision to run play action with two minutes left got much of the attention after the game, but that discussion was more about their choice of play call, not whether they would choose to go for it.
Two different analytics models — the ones from Edj Sports and Ben Baldwin's fourth-down bot — agreed Zimmer slightly increased the Vikings' chances of winning the game by going for it in the first half, but the models disagreed on whether he should have kicked on the Vikings' next drive. Baldwin's model said Zimmer made the right call by sending Bailey out for a 24-yard attempt when the Vikings were down 20-7 in the third quarter. The coach has generally been more aggressive on fourth downs this season, but has also said he doesn't base his decisions on analytics — so it's not likely he's spending much time poring over these statistics.
One big question
Why so many December/January losses? In Zimmer's seven seasons as the Vikings' coach, the team has a .604 winning percentage in the first 12 weeks of the season. That's the sixth-best percentage in the NFL during that time, and actually ranks just ahead of the Packers' .591 mark for the best in the NFC North.
But in the final five weeks of the season, things change. The Packers, who are celebrating their fourth division title in the past seven years, are 24-9 from Weeks 13 to 17 since 2014 (the second-best mark in the NFL, behind only Kansas City). The Vikings drop to 17-16, with a .515 winning percentage that's tied with Buffalo and Denver for the league's 12th-best.
The teams with the best late-season records (Kansas City, Green Bay, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New England) have had MVP- or Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, and there's little doubt that makes a difference when playoff seeding is decided. But this isn't a QB gripe specifically. The Vikings' defense was gashed on Sunday, and a much more experienced group couldn't stop the Bears or Packers in key December home games the past two years.
People I've talked to about this over the years have raised the question of whether late-season fatigue is an issue for the Vikings; it could also be they're playing tight in these games, or there could be no singular underlying cause (as is certainly a possibility with a sample size that's still only 33 games and incorporates different players and opponents). But it's likely an issue the Vikings have wondered about, and it's come up especially against teams that had winning records for the season. In the final five weeks of the season, the Vikings are 2-12 against those teams since 2014, according to Pro Football Reference. (Sunday's game against the Bears, who are now 7-7, is not included in the mark.)
Short of two late-season wins — starting with Friday's game against the 10-4 Saints — and a lot of help, the Vikings will have plenty of time to ponder questions like these.