The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
With time ticking down on the 2016 season and only a handful of playoff spots up for grabs, tensions are high at various outposts across the NFL.
In Denver, there was reportedly a shouting match between some Broncos defenders and their offensive teammates after a second straight loss, this one to the mighty Patriots, put the defending champs on the brink.
Here in Minnesota, after the “lackadaisical” Vikings got stampeded by the so-so Colts, there was no reason for teammates to get in each other’s grills, unless the offense and defense wanted to have a spirited debate over which unit was the most inept in an embarrassing 34-6 loss at home.
“We probably could have committed or three more turnovers in the first half if you guys on defense would have just gotten off the field.”
“Yeah, well we let some guy named Robert Turbin run through our defense for a back-breaking touchdown like he was Bo Jackson on ‘Tecmo Bowl.’”
“Hey, we got not one, but two false starts called on wide receivers!”
“Well did you see the play where TWO corners got flagged for holding?”
In a must-win game for the Vikings, who are not technically eliminated from playoff contention but for all practical purposes are done, it was a total system failure for a still-talented team that has no right being 7-7.
The offense, predictably out of sync as the Vikings tried to force-feed Adrian Peterson the football in his first game since September, had as many turnovers (two) in the first half as first downs. On his only good run, Peterson coughed up a fumble, looking like the 2015 version of himself.
Quarterback Sam Bradford padded his stats in the second half after struggling in the first. And his interception just before halftime, which he said was the result of him getting “greedy,” was the ultimate uff-da.
“We didn’t even give ourselves a chance,” he said. “I think that’s what’s really tough, knowing that we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to win.”
The defense had no answers for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns before the Colts called off the dogs, and for running back Frank Gore, who topped 100 yards.
The Colts had to start three rookies on their patchwork offensive line against what is one of the NFL’s best defensive lines. Luck was not sacked.
Coach Mike Zimmer has pointed to the team’s ranking in scoring defense as proof his defense is still dominant. He can’t do that anymore after the 34 points allowed yesterday knocked the Vikings out of the top five.
“I know it sounds like a broken record, but we keep saying that we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. And I don’t want to hear that anymore,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said as others fled the locker room. “We have to live and learn from that, and we’re not doing that as a team.”
Munnerlyn is right. It is time to stop blaming the injuries for this team’s collapse. Sure, down a few starting offensive linemen and without their best defender in Harrison Smith, it was unlikely this would be a Super season. But the Vikings are too good to go 2-7 in their last nine games.
They should not have lost to the lowly Bears. They could have won either of their games against the Lions. And the Colts have Luck and little else.
But the Vikings showed up at U.S. Bank Stadium yesterday expecting to win and took home the most embarrassing loss of the Zimmer era, with the offense and defense delivering their worst performances of 2016.
Now, barring a miracle, their collapse will be complete by Christmas.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Peterson played only a dozen snaps in his return to the lineup. But that appeared to be the result of the Vikings falling behind so quickly and needing to throw the ball and not because Peterson was on a strict snap count. Jerick McKinnon played 34 of 58 offensive snaps and Matt Asiata played a dozen snaps with Peterson playing sparingly in the second half.
2. Joe Berger played every offensive snap in his return to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a concussion. Berger, of course, started in place of the concussed Brandon Fusco and not at center, where youngster Nick Easton got his third straight start. After the game, Zimmer didn’t feel like explaining why the Vikings opted to keep Easton at center and move Berger to guard. Maybe he will shed some light on that today.
3. With the Colts often using multiple-TE sets, veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway played his highest snap total in a month, getting 37 of the 70 defensive snaps in the loss. Emmanuel Lamur got four snaps, too.
4. With the Vikings suddenly shorthanded at wide receiver after Adam Thielen left the game with a neck injury, Jarius Wright had a meaningful role on offense for the first time since Week 5. Wright played 17 snaps. Stefon Diggs played 49 snaps, Cordarrelle Patterson got 44 and Charles Johnson got 39. Meanwhile, tight end Kyle Rudolph, who detailed his weekly recovery routine to me last week, played all but two snaps.
5. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen played 57 and 51 snaps, respectively, against the Colts. Both were season highs. Losing Tom Johnson, who played 27 snaps before exiting with a hamstring injury, was a factor as they have only three defensive tackles on the active roster.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “We just came out lackadaisical … like they were going to read [our] names, look at [our] stats and lay down for us. … To come out like this today, it definitely was embarrassing.” — the always candid Munnerlyn
2. “It was tough. You look at the scoreboard, down by a couple touchdowns, and the run game is kind of irrelevant at that point. Of course I don’t like being on the sideline, but I have faith in Matt [Asiata] and Jerick [McKinnon], and those guys do a great job. … I just did not imagine it going this way today.” — Peterson on his unproductive day
3. “You always want to play against the best. After a game like this when you win we can all go back and say, “‘Hey, man, remember when we were playing the Vikings with Adrian Peterson and they only had a couple rushing yards?’” — Colts defensive end Zach Kerr on shutting down AP
4. “If anything, we’re out here to ruin everybody else’s season. Whatever it takes to get you motivated. We’re still in it a little bit, I guess. For the most part, we have to go out and play better. We have so much talent on this team it’s almost upsetting to see a game fall away like that.” — left guard Alex Boone on the team’s mindset the rest of the way
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Bradford has been solid this season, but he has come up small in big spots. Even if the Vikings don’t make the playoffs, their trade for Bradford was the right move because he buoyed their Super Bowl hopes this season and gives them insurance in the event that Teddy Bridgewater is not ready by Week 1 next season. And for the most part, Bradford has played pretty well, especially when you consider the issues in pass protection. But his play in critical moments has been spotty. He threw costly picks late in close losses in D.C. and Detroit. And in yesterday’s must-win game, he was inconsistent early, threw a bad interception that led to that field goal before halftime and fumbled to cease a promising drive early in the third quarter. He also had another interception wiped out by a penalty. Bradford has been pretty good overall, but not good enough when it counts.
2. The Vikings really missed Smith, their star safety, against the Colts. Second-year defensive back Anthony Harris got another start in his absence and had a rough outing. While it can be dangerous to pin blame on a player without knowing the play calls, I’m fairly certain it’s not a good thing when a safety charges forward, watches a guy run right past him and then does a U turn. That happened to Harris a few times yesterday. He also got lost on Luck’s 50-yard touchdown to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett on the first play of the fourth quarter, the last indignity against Zimmer’s listless defense. In a blowout loss, Smith obviously wouldn’t have turned the tide yesterday. But it was reminder that even though Smith is having a down year by the standard he established last season, the tough, versatile safety is an irreplaceable member of this defense.
3. The Colts exploited the Vikings’ base defense with their multiple-TE sets. Three Colts tight ends played at least 26 snaps yesterday as they often had two and sometimes three tight ends on the field. That meant the Vikings on those plays had to pull Munnerlyn, their slot specialist, and trot out Greenway, who at the end of his career is a liability in coverage. The Colts took advantage of Greenway in the second quarter, when they ran four verticals out of a three-TE look and got tight end Erik Swoope isolated on Greenway on a go route. Greenway could not keep up with Swoope, who is nine years younger than him, and Luck lofted a 27-yard touchdown pass over his head to blow the game wide open. The Packers love going three-wide, as do many other NFL teams, but perhaps they will use more 21 or 12 personnel to try to attack the Vikings’ base defense, too.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Why did you opt to kick a field goal early in the fourth quarter when down by 31 points? The deficit remained four scores after that kick.
2. Where are you hiding the real Anthony Barr and who has been running around in a purple No. 55 jersey these past couple of months?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. A month ago, it looked as if the Vikings would be the only team with something to play for when the Packers hosted them at Lambeau Field on Christmas Eve. At that point, the Packers had fallen to 4-6 and the Vikings were still in playoff position after a win over the Cardinals. Since then, the Packers have reeled off four straight wins, with Aaron Rodgers again making the annual “Why isn’t Aaron Rodgers good anymore?” hot takes look pretty silly. The Vikings, meanwhile, have lost three of four to plummet behind the Packers in the standings. They still have a chance of making the playoffs but after yesterday it looks like they’re all out of fight.