LOS ANGELES – Even with as much as the Vikings had working against them, what happened against the Los Angeles Rams defied convention, for a defense that’s been fashioned into one of the NFL’s best under Mike Zimmer’s watchful gaze.
A year ago, the Vikings had shut down the Rams’ high-flying offense, delivering one of its signature performances in a victory that gave the Vikings the inside track on a first-round playoff bye. On Thursday night in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, it was the Rams who landed the haymakers in a 38-31 victory.
Their futuristic offense left the Vikings searching for answers, four days after a surprising 27-7 loss to the Buffalo Bills at home. Now, as the Vikings take a 10-day break, sitting at 1-2-1 before an NFC Championship Game rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles a week from Sunday, they’ll have to reckon with the kinds of defensive questions they’ve rarely faced under Zimmer.
Jared Goff threw five touchdown passes by the end of the third quarter, tying a record for the most TD passes against the Vikings and becoming the first quarterback to post that many against them since Drew Brees did it on Dec. 18, 2011. He finished with a perfect 158.3 passer rating — becoming the first quarterback to post a perfect rating against the Vikings while throwing more than seven passes in a game — and his 465 yards were the second-most ever against the Vikings, behind Doug Williams’ 486 in 1980.
“At this point, I don’t know,” Zimmer said. “We’ve never been, probably anywhere I’ve ever been, this poor in pass coverage. We’re going to look at everything we’re doing and get back to doing things correctly.”
Since 2006, teams traveling two or more time zones west were 13-30 in night games in the Pacific Time zone, posting a 0-6 record on Thursday nights. The Vikings traveled to Los Angeles to face the NFC’s only undefeated team without defensive end Everson Griffen.
Nothing about their task was enviable. Still, the way the Rams carved up the Vikings’ defense — the league’s top-ranked unit from a year ago — was startling to watch.
It forced the Vikings into the kind of shootout they might be better prepared to handle with Kirk Cousins as their quarterback, but still probably would prefer to avoid.
Cousins finished with 422 yards, completing 36 of 50 passes and throwing three touchdowns. It put the Vikings in position for a late comeback, until the third strip sack of Cousins in two games ended their chances.
“I took a five-step drop, thought I’d throw a shallow cross to Adam [Thielen], to his inside shoulder, and the ball got hit,” Cousins said.
The Rams averaged 12.2 yards per play in the first half; according to ESPN Stats and Information, no team had averaged more than 10 yards per play in a game so far this season. A Vikings team that gave up only 41 plays of 20 yards or more last season had allowed 10 in three games so far this year; the Rams had seven of them Thursday.
Goff hit Cooper Kupp for a 70-yard touchdown on the “leak” concept Rams coach Sean McVay developed with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan when both were in Washington. After faking a block, Kupp ran a crossing route past Mackensie Alexander and Eric Kendricks, forcing Anthony Barr to turn and run with him. Barr gave chase as Goff lofted a pass over his head, and Andrew Sendejo made a late attempt to tackle the receiver.
“He came out the back side and ran a wheel route,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t help him on the back side [of the play].”
The Vikings answered with a three-play, 75-yard scoring drive, but after the teams had traded punts, Goff drove the Rams 71 yards in four plays, hitting Kupp for a 20-yard score.
On the Rams’ next drive, Xavier Rhodes was called for a holding penalty to start the drive, and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for kicking an official’s flag while arguing the call. Coach Mike Zimmer pulled Rhodes — who had been shadowing Brandin Cooks — from the game, and on the next play, Goff found Cooks for a 47-yard touchdown pass over Trae Waynes.
“I mean, he kicked the flag,” Zimmer said. “That’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing — having penalties on defense and giving up big plays. It reared its ugly head again [Thursday].”
The Rams ran their count of big plays to six as they built a 31-20 lead in the third quarter. McVay caught the Vikings’ defense in a blitz, and Goff flipped a screen pass to running back Todd Gurley for 56 yards. Referees picked up a flag for a block in the back, as an irate Zimmer paced the sideline.
“My perspective was, he hit [Sendejo] between the 3 and the 4 [on his jersey],” Zimmer said. “But they said he got him in the side.”
The Vikings would catch perhaps their biggest break of the night on the next drive, though, when a Cousins pass bounced off Sam Shields’ hands and went right to Stefon Diggs for a 24-yard gain. Cousins hit Thielen for a 45-yard score on a post route, and the Vikings converted a two-point conversion to pull within three at 31-28.
McVay had more in store for them on the next drive, though. With the Rams driving to the Vikings’ 31, he called for a late shift to put Robert Woods on Barr, and Goff drilled Woods on a seam route beyond the linebacker for his fifth touchdown pass of the night.
“They have a good scheme; I’m not going to take anything away from their scheme,” Zimmer said. “But it’s the same scheme we played last year, and we gave up seven points. We made some mistakes. We left a bunch of guys open.”