1. Clean pockets aplenty for Cousins
Kirk Cousins talked last week about NFL pockets being “clean” and sometimes particularly “messy.” Watching from the press box in Sunday’s 21-16 loss at Green Bay, Cousins had what this observer deemed a clean pocket 19 times in his 35 dropbacks. He threw 32 passes, took off running twice and was sacked once. The most interesting part was how poorly some of his throws were out of the cleanest pockets and having the most time to throw. He overthrew Adam Thielen for what would have been a big gain on third-and-8 with time to throw. He threw his first interception — into a crowd of four Packers — with time to throw. He threw two red-zone incompletions with time to throw. He did, however, use clean pockets on his 45-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs and a 30-yard completion to Adam Thielen.
2. Kline leaves feet on strip sack
Cousins keeps talking in great detail about what he needs to do to cut down on his fumbling. And yet he keeps fumbling. He has lost eight of 13 fumbles in 18 games with the Vikings, including one of four in two games this season. Sunday, he fumbled running the ball. Rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. fought valiantly at the bottom of a pile to wrestle the ball back from a Packer. Then, on the next snap, Cousins was stripped of the ball on a sack. He never saw it coming. Nose tackle Kenny Clark started over center Garrett Bradbury and crossed to his left when tackle Dean Lowry crashed low and to his right. Right guard Josh Kline left his feet to pounce on Lowry, allowing Clark an open path to Cousins. Kline could have prevented the sack, but Cousins still needs to secure the ball.
3. Harrison at heart of turnaround
The Vikings needed someone to wake up and be a leader defensively when they trailed 21-0 just 16 minutes into the game. That someone was 2017 first-team All-Pro Harrison Smith. After posting three touchdowns in three possessions, Green Bay’s fourth possession ended with Smith helping Xavier Rhodes on a pass defense on Geronimo Allison. Smith got credit for a forced fumble and recovery at the Vikings’ 28. Two possessions later, Smith flashed the wide range of talents that make him Mike Zimmer’s favorite weapon. On first-and-15 from the Green Bay 30, Smith ran with receiver Davante Adams well enough to be in position to punch a deep ball from the receiver’s hands. On the next play, Smith was crowding the line when he dropped receiver Marques Valdes-Scantling for a 3-yard loss. Green Bay’s last 11 drives ended with eight punts, two turnovers and a loss of downs.
4. Run defense, where … are … you?
The Vikings proved again that better coaching and a healthy Dalvin Cook will take them a long way in the run game. Cook averaged 7.7 yards on 20 carries as the Vikings ran for 198 yards. But where the heck was coach Mike Zimmer’s vaunted run defense? Yes, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a perfect passer rating (158.3) when the Packers led 21-0. But it was running back Aaron Jones who was keeping the Packers balanced. He had 31 yards, a touchdown and a long run of 15 yards, enabling the Packers to have a 10-8 pass-run split. When Zimmer’s defense begins to crack, it’s typically the run defense that starts the slide. And, yes, it doesn’t help that the Vikings played without cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. But the Packers still ran 33 times for 144 yards (4.4) and a touchdown.
5. No three-headed punt returner
Before the season, special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf said the Vikings planned to use three punt returners depending on field position. The three were Chad Beebe, Ameer Abdullah and rookie Olabisi Johnson. So far, only Beebe has fielded punts and there appears to be no plans or logic in alternating three inexperienced guys. After calling fair catches on all three attempts in Week 1, Beebe vowed to be more aggressive at Green Bay. He was. He returned four punts and fair caught two. The first punt went out of bounds after a Beebe muff. He had another muff that he recovered for no gain. He also had two 10-yard returns and a 15-yard return to the Vikings’ 40 early in the fourth quarter. That gave the offense a shorter field, but Cousins wasted it with his interception in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 8.