The game started with a sack. Then a blocked punt. Then a touchdown pass to Adam Thielen.
That’s a textbook example of starting a season on the right note.
Mike Zimmer had his Vikings team ready to go in the season opener with a dominating 28-12 win over the Atlanta Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings were strong in all three phases.
The new-look offense displayed Zimmer’s dream scenario by establishing the run with an explosive performance by Dalvin Cook.
The defense created turnovers by harassing Matt Ryan into poor throws. Safety Anthony Harris finished with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Special teams contributed a blocked punt by Eric Wilson, a 57-yard punt by new punter Britton Colquitt and a perfect day by kicker Dan Bailey on extra points.
Zimmer couldn’t have scripted a better start to the season.
Here are a few decisions and moments that stood out:
Scenario 1: First play of game.
Decision: Mike Zimmer showed how he intends to use linebacker Anthony Barr as a pass rusher. Before the snap, Barr moved up to right end with Everson Griffen shifting over, overloading that side. The Falcons didn’t pick it up, giving Barr a free run at Matt Ryan for a sack.
Reaction: Love this look. Barr’s versatility as a pass rusher gives Zimmer flexibility to use him in creative ways. Barr’s pressure in the first half caused Ryan to rush throws. One pressure led to Anthony Harris’ first-quarter interception.
Scenario 2: Vikings' first offensive play
Decision: Kevin Stefanski called for a handoff to Dalvin Cook, resulting in a 13-yard run that was called back by a holding penalty on Kyle Rudolph.
Reaction: The penalty notwithstanding, smart move getting the ball in Cook’s hands right away to establish the running game. Cook is a game-changer. He looked explosive hitting running lanes – big and small – in rushing for 74 yards and one touchdown in the first half. If he stays healthy, their offense will be tough to defend because he commands a lot of attention.
Scenario 3: Zimmer’s first challenge of the season with 7:58 left in first quarter.
Decision: Cousins was hit from blindside by safety Keanu Neal on a free run. Officials ruled it a fumble, resulting in a 9-yard loss. The ball went out of bounds before a Falcons defender could fall on it. Zimmer challenge that it was an incomplete pass, which replay confirmed.
Reaction: Why not? It was bang-bang call, but everything was going so well at that point, it was a good challenge.
Scenario 4: Cousins celebration dance
Decision: Cousins scored on a sneak from 1 yard to give the Vikings a 21-0 lead in second quarter. He celebrated by doing a dance that was an upgrade from his dead-arm dance of 2018.
Reaction: As a dad with very, very limited dancing skills, thumbs up. No shame in cutting loose if the spirit strikes you.
Scenario 5: End of first half sequence
Decision: The Vikings got the ball with 1:10 left before halftime at their 10-yard line with one timeout. They called three Dalvin Cook runs for no gain before punting the ball back to Atlanta. The Falcons got the ball at their own 45 with 37 seconds left but ran out of time.
Reaction: Wise move by Zimmer. The Vikings had complete control up 21-0. They were getting the ball to start the second half. They forced the Falcons to use their final two timeouts on Cook’s first two runs. No sense in being overly aggressive and risk a turnover to give the Falcons life going into halftime.
Scenario 6: Zimmer challenges pass interference penalty on Trae Waynes in third quarter.
Interesting scenario here. Waynes was called for pass interference AND illegal use of hands on the play. Atlanta declined the illegal use of hands penalty and accepted the PI because it put the ball at the 2-yard line.
Decision: Zimmer made his first pass interference challenge. He lost the challenge on replay.
Reaction: My initial reaction was this was a wasted challenge because Atlanta was guaranteed a first down either way. If Zimmer’s PI failed, the Falcons would get a first down on the illegal use of hands penalty. But Zimmer’s strategy made sense from a field-position perspective. The illegal use of hands penalty is a five-yard penalty, which would have moved the ball to the 23. The PI penalty gave them the ball at a 2.
It turned out to be a moot point because Matt Ryan panicked with Danielle Hunter applying pressure and threw the ball up for grabs in the end zone, which Anthony Harris turned into his second interception.
Maybe I would feel differently in a close game where Zimmer needed to save a challenge.
Scenario 7: Cook plays in fourth quarter
Decision: Cook finished the third quarter with a 7-yard touchdown run that extended the lead to 28-0. His backup, rookie Alexander Mattison, replaced him for the first series in the fourth quarter but Cook returned the next series after Atlanta scored.
Reaction: Why? The game was over. No need to risk injury or ask Cook to take unnecessary hits with the game out of reach.