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 plan their roster (and salary cap management) on three-year cycles. They knew they were reaching a critical point in the life of their defense — what general manager Rick Spielman has termed “an evolution of the roster” — this spring, when it became clear they would need to reinvigorate the group with young players that could also provide cap relief on rookie contracts.
The NFL calendar required the Vikings to commit to their course for 2020 at the start of the league year in March, long before they knew with certainty the coronavirus pandemic would wipe out their offseason program, condense training camp and eliminate the preseason.
Their initial outing, with a group of corners that had collectively played 44 NFL games before Sunday, would come against Aaron Rodgers, who received the additional benefit of a tranquil road environment with no fans in U.S. Bank Stadium.
Those factors all lend perspective to a ghastly debut for the Vikings’ new-look defense in a 43-34 loss, and the progress of the team’s young corners will have to be measured over the course of the season.
The NFL does not use public perception to determine its playoff field, though, nor does it grade on a curve. And with a series of accomplished quarterbacks on the Vikings’ schedule to start the season, Sunday’s debut against Rodgers served as a reminder of just how difficult it will be for the Vikings to build a reliable cornerback group on the fly.
“You just stick with it,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “You just kind of keep going and harp on them to do their best and iron out the little mistakes that they did make. Again, it gets back to technique a lot of times and then alignments, making sure you’re in the proper alignment and the proper hand placement. But it’s good to find out where we were and where we have to go from there.”
Rodgers had his best day in Minneapolis since before Zimmer became the Vikings’ head coach, becoming just the fifth quarterback to throw for more than 350 yards against a Zimmer-led Vikings defense. He tested the Vikings deep with Marquez Valdes-Scantling on three occasions (connecting on two of them), and he helped Davante Adams tie Don Hutson’s 78-year-old franchise record with 14 catches on Sunday.
With the Vikings’ corners playing off coverage on Adams early, Rodgers found his top receiver on a variety of quick throws that leveraged Adams’ ability to beat his man at the line of scrimmage and kept the Vikings’ pass rush at bay. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers was pressured on just seven of his 44 dropbacks, even though the Vikings blitzed him 20 times.
“He got the ball out a lot,” Zimmer said. “Most of the time the ball was out in two-and-a-half seconds. They quick-counted us one time on third down, caught us in a couple man-coverage things where they read pick routes. There were some of those situations, too. But he was getting the ball out pretty quick a lot of times, unless he got out of the pocket or unless it was maximum protections.”
The Packers schemed a few screens and quick throws for Adams, but he caught six passes with Holton Hill covering him, as well as another three against rookie Cameron Dantzler and three against Mike Hughes.
Rodgers’ last two connections to Adams were the ones that broke the game open. The receiver froze Hill with a step at the line of scrimmage before breaking outside for a one-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, then used a step to get a free release off the line before beating Hill down the right sideline for a 40-yard pickup in the fourth.
“I try to treat everybody the same, and just dictate the game — go out and play fast and physical,” Adams said. “Obviously, having some less experienced people out there guarding me, I know certain guys are susceptible to different things, because they haven’t seen me as much. So I try to use that to my advantage.”
On Rodgers’ touchdown to Valdes-Scantling before halftime, Dantzler said he felt “like I was there. He just made a perfect throw and the guy made a perfect catch.”
Better awareness of the situation would have helped the rookie, Zimmer said.
“I think, again, it’s a learning experience,” he said. “There’s 25 seconds left in the half and he’s trying to play bump-and-run on the wide receiver instead of understanding the situation there. Other than that, I thought [Dantzler] did a pretty good job. He missed a tackle early in the ballgame that ended up being about seven yards. He contested a catch by Adams early in the ballgame that he was all over; just didn’t get the ball out. He had some good moments in there — it just gets overshadowed by the long one right before the half.”
The Vikings are on the road for three of their next four, against veteran quarterback Philip Rivers this Sunday before back-to-back road games against Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson in Weeks 4 and 5.
The schedule gives the group few options but to pull itself together quickly.
“There’s not a whole lot of positives about all of that,” Zimmer said. “But I do think, you know, I tried to explain to them this week that with this quarterback, if they’re not tight in coverage, they’re going to watch [the ball] get caught. So maybe that part of them believe in what I’m saying [is] different from college football will be ingrained in them now. We play another good quarterback this week, so it’s not going to get any easier.”
Here is one other area of concern from the Vikings’ loss to the Packers on Sunday:
Perimeter run defense: The Packers’ outside zone scheme is similar to what the Vikings run, but Green Bay came into Sunday’s game intent on testing the Vikings’ remade defense in another way. They used four shovel passes or pitches in their first two drives, designed to get the Vikings’ defense moving laterally and test their ability to force things back inside. The Packers also dressed up some plays with motion and fake sweeps designed to attract defenders’ attention. It’s similar to what the 49ers used to beat both teams in the playoffs last year — and it shouldn’t be a surprise, given the common offensive roots all three teams share — but after a day where the Vikings gave up 160 rushing yards before two kneel-downs at the end, they figure to see more of what the Packers did Sunday.
Two players who stood out
Adam Thielen: The receiver had to deal with some questions about whether he could return to prominence at age 30 after missing nearly two months with a hamstring injury last year, but Thielen’s season debut showed there might not be much to worry about. His six-catch, 110-yard day included some of the staples that have made him a solid downfield threat in the past. Kirk Cousins made a check at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter, hitting Thielen for a 37-yard touchdown off play action after Darnell Savage got caught peeking in the backfield. Thielen also connected with Cousins for 25 yards early in the game on a play the quarterback extended with his feet, and beat Jaire Alexander for a 19-yard score in the final minutes. Thielen was still running downfield, rather than stopping his route, when Alexander blitzed from off coverage to sack Cousins for a safety in the first half, and Alexander’s interception came on a ball Cousins threw too far inside for Thielen. But in his first game of the year, Thielen looked healthy and ready to be Cousins’ top target once again.
Eric Kendricks: The Vikings converted a portion of Kendricks’ base salary into a signing bonus for the second time in as many years on Saturday, when they cleared up $6 million to help pay Dalvin Cook. The move is, in part, a testament to how reliable they believe Kendricks to be — they’re not worried about absorbing dead money in the event they cut him early — and the linebacker was his usual effective self for much of Sunday, making 10 tackles and squeezing Aaron Jones to the sideline when Rodgers tried to hit him on a wheel route for a TD on the Packers’ first drive.
Two trends to watch
How the Vikings use their corners: We only saw first-round pick Jeff Gladney for a few snaps at the end of the game on Sunday. The Vikings gave Dantzler more playing time than Gladney throughout training camp, in part because his size makes him more suitable for base packages, but it would help the Vikings if Gladney could take on a bigger role, particularly if they want to mix and match among their outside corners like they did on Sunday. Dantzler led the group with 64 snaps on Sunday, but Hill (59) and Hughes (58) played plenty, especially given how much time the Vikings still spent in base packages against a Packers team that used plenty of heavy personnel. Hughes played both in the nickel and at outside corner spots on Sunday, after seeing time in both places during training camp.
Yannick Ngakoue’s role: The Vikings wanted to break their new pass rusher in somewhat slowly, given the fact he hadn’t practiced for the Jaguars in camp before his Aug. 30 trade to the Vikings. Ngakoue was on the field for 44 of the Vikings’ 78 snaps on Sunday, and played left end in both the Vikings’ base and sub packages. He didn’t have much success getting to Rodgers, who used quick throws to get rid of the ball early in the game and showed some of his mobility to extend plays later on. The Vikings face a slate of quarterbacks who’ve either made a career of throwing quickly (Philip Rivers) or breaking the pocket (Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson) in the coming weeks; they’ll need Ngakoue to help improve their pass rush quickly while Danielle Hunter is out at least two more weeks with a neck injury.
And one big question going forward
How often will the Vikings find themselves in games where they need to trade scores? For at least a decade, the Vikings have been built to play with a lead: first with Adrian Peterson getting a heavy workload, then with Zimmer’s front four able to pressure quarterbacks in obvious passing situations when the Vikings have a lead. Every team prefers to play in game situations that make their opponent one-dimensional, but the Vikings have constructed themselves to win with defense and a strong ground game — two things that are more effective with a lead. Cousins executed a smooth two-minute drill before halftime on Sunday, and got the offense working once the Packers were up 29-10, but the Vikings’ passing game appeared out of sync in the few possessions it had early in the game. That will have to change quickly if the Vikings find themselves in games they need to win 31-28 instead of 20-13.