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 kicks Dan Bailey missed on Sunday in Tampa cost the VIkings 10 points in a game they lost by 12, making the struggling veteran the chief topic of conversation after a 26-14 loss that could deliver a crucial blow to the team's playoff hopes. But the reason Bailey was attempting field goals at all was because a Vikings offense that moved the ball effectively against the Buccaneers' strong defense couldn't finish drives with touchdowns.
Quite often on Sunday — and especially on two of the three drives that ended with missed Bailey field goals — the Vikings' issues were rooted in how they handled pressure. All six of Tampa Bay's sacks came in Buccaneers territory, and three of the six directly preceded Bailey field goal attempts, taking the Vikings out of position where going for it on fourth down was even a realistic option and forcing them to turn to Bailey.
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed Cousins a modest 34 percent of the time (according to Pro Football Focus), often choosing not to send extra pressure after Kirk Cousins (who'd posted a 107.7 passer rating against blitzes this season, according to Pro Football Focus). Instead, Bowles found he didn't need to devote extra rushers, as the Buccaneers generated five of their six sacks with a standard four-man rush.
On the Buccaneers' first sack, Shaq Barrett and Steve McLendon worked a stunt around Dakota Dozier, forcing the Vikings to punt on a drive that had reached the Tampa Bay 32. The second came on 3rd-and-7 from the Buccaneers' 11, when the Vikings lined up in a rare four-receiver set and motioned Chad Beebe out of the backfield; Tampa beat the Vikings' five-man protection with a standard rush, as Anthony Nelson nearly stripped the ball from Cousins' hands before Ndamukong Suh finished the sack.
The only Bucs blitz for a sack came on the next one, when Tampa brought seven rushers after Cousins and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. forced a fumble. Winfield was unblocked off the left side of the Vikings' line, as Dalvin Cook executed a run-pass option from Cousins' right and no one accounted for the safety in protection, either by devoting a blocker to him or Cousins getting rid of the ball quickly. That sack came on second down; on third down, Barrett dipped inside of right tackle Rashod Hill (who was playing after Brian O'Neill left with an eye injury) to get to Cousins, forcing a 4th-and-goal from the Buccaneers' 28.
In the fourth quarter, Pat O'Connor beat Ezra Cleveland with a spin move off of his initial rush, and on the Vikings' final offensive play, Cousins never seemed to feel Jason Pierre-Paul coming after him as he moved to his left. Pierre-Paul stripped Cousins, providing a fitting end to a day where the Buccaneers were consistently getting to the quarterback with an arm to swipe at the ball.
"There were a couple pressures – a zero blitz, one time that it was kind of a run pass option kind of thing," coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. "We missed a game one time, there were a couple times where we held the ball because we were trying to get the ball downfield, and then there was one time where we thought the guy dropped and so the guy went to help somebody else. So there's several things. We've got to do better there for sure."
All told, Tampa Bay hit Cousins 12 times, a week after the Jaguars hit him 14 times. He continues to get up, and he's shown an ability to make more plays with his feet (which we'll get to in more detail later). But he also held the ball an average of 2.86 seconds on Sunday — sometimes by his own volition, sometimes when he had nothing open downfield — and he's had the league's eight-longest time before throwing this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. At least on some of the pressures on Sunday, he turned a critical eye toward himself.
"I don't know if it was our first or second — maybe it was our first drive — I break the huddle on third down and I see, 'Hey if I take a sack here, we're going to be out of field goal range – can't take a sack.' Then I took a sack," he said. "You think about your role in being able to give your team points and you go back now, I'm going to go back now and see, 'How can I ditch the ball or escape and just avoid the lost yardage that then made the field goal so much more difficult or forced us to punt?' I think that was something that I could've done better today."
The fact the quarterback was under so much pressure — on 24 dropbacks, against just three for Tom Brady, according to Pro Football Focus — came in a different manner than the Vikings might have expected, and it again brings to light one of their most pernicious problems in recent years. For the Vikings to get the wins they'll likely need against the Bears and Saints for their playoff prospects, they'll have to fix their pass protection issues quickly. On Sunday, those issues often left them no choice but to rely on a shaky kicker.
Here is a look at one other area of concern from the Vikings' 26-14 loss:
Quiet days for Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson: Yes, the Buccaneers were able to devote more resources to coverage with their ability to pressure Cousins with four pass rushers. But on the Vikings' 15-play scoring drive in the third quarter, neither receiver was targeted until Cousins found Jefferson for a two-point conversion. The quarterback often talks about how he'll go where his reads take him, and no one is suggesting he should force throws to either player when they're covered. But in the case of Jefferson, especially, there's a dynamism to the offense that's lost when he doesn't get the ball much. He's shown an ability to run after the catch (his longest play of the day on Sunday came when he gained nine yards after settling down in a zone for an eight-yard completion), and isn't afraid of contact (as he showed on his touchdown against the Jaguars last week). Finding ways to get the rookie the ball more often seems like a worthwhile investment of the Vikings' time, both for this season and the future.
Two players who stood out
Irv Smith: On a day where Cousins couldn't find much room to work downfield with Jefferson and Thielen, the second-year tight end returned from injury to give the Vikings a spark in the passing game. He got 15 yards in the second quarter by giving Cousins an easy throw after chipping Shaq Barrett. His touchdown catch came when Smith sat down in a zone and finished the play with a dive into the end zone. The Vikings' biggest play of the day came on a 25-yard Cousins-to-Smith connection; a play fake bought Cousins a bigger throwing window behind the linebackers, and Smith ran a vertical route against Antoine Winfield Jr., who was shaded to the opposite side of the field with Jefferson and Thielen lined up there. Smith also had a nice nine-yard catch against Lavonte David after Cousins stepped away from pressure.
Tyler Conklin: We'll highlight both of the tight ends here on a day where Kyle Rudolph's consecutive games streak ended at 98 (including playoff games). Cousins said after the game that Conklin is "the real deal," and he turned in a solid effort as both a pass protector and a receiver on Sunday, catching a team-high five passes for 40 yards.
Two trends to watch
How Cousins incorporates mobility: The quarterback ran for a career-high 41 yards on four scrambles (and one designed run) on Sunday, and did a good job avoiding a couple sacks by slipping away from pressure (on a 14-yard throw to Tyler Conklin after William Gholston nearly brought him down, and on a nine-yard completion to Smith as he rolled to his left). Cousins has often talked about wanting to make more plays with his feet, and he's seemed more willing to do so in recent weeks. There are still times where it seems as though Cousins' feet aren't synced up with his internal clock, and quick throws — both to get the ball in the hands of a skill position player and to save Cousins from a hit he might incur as a runner — seem like an efficient option at times. But especially against a team that plays as much man coverage as the Buccaneers often like to do, Cousins' ability to make plays on the run is a valuable option.
"The more times he does that, the more stress it puts on the defense and the less times they can play man-to-man," Zimmer said Monday. "Then if he starts doing it, it slows down the pass rush and everything else."
How the Vikings spell Dalvin Cook: We saw Mike Boone and Ameer Abdullah more involved in the game plan on Sunday — the Vikings used both of them on the first two drives of the game — and Cook played only 68 percent of the team's offensive snaps on Sunday, a week after playing 87 percent of them in an overtime win. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has talked about finding ways to keep Cook fresh; it's worth watching to see if the Vikings do it the rest of the way, now that they might need to win out, or if some of Sunday's plan was a product of the heat (with temperatures in the 90s on the field at Raymond James Stadium) the Vikings won't experience again this year.
One big question
Would a kicking change be the right thing for the Vikings to do? Bailey has missed seven kicks in the past two weeks, and Zimmer left the door open they could make a change this week, saying, "We'll just have to make a decision and go with it." But he has also defended the veteran the past two weeks, and seemed conflicted about the possibility of letting Bailey go after the game on Sunday. The question the Vikings might ultimately need to ask themselves — especially this season — is whether getting rid of the kicker will be a net benefit.
If the Vikings were to release Bailey today, they'd either turn to practice squad kicker Tristan Vizcaino (who made only 63 percent of his field goals as a senior at the University of Washington in 2017) or have to get another kicker through the COVID-19 protocol in time for Sunday's game against the Bears. They'd also be introducing another new piece of their field-goal operation, after switching long snappers from Austin Cutting to Andrew DePaola in the middle of the season, and would have $2.1 million of signing bonus prorations left on their cap. The decision might revolve around whether the Vikings think Bailey's issues are fixable, or whether they're the type of struggles that seem endemic to the kicking position at times. Zimmer has praised Bailey's even-keeled approach; the reason Bailey is in Minnesota at all is because the Vikings cut Daniel Carlson (the kicker they'd drafted in 2018) after just two games when Carlson missed three field goals in a tie against the Packers. Carlson has been a reliable kicker for the Raiders since then, and he might serve as a cautionary tale for the Vikings now.
It doesn't mean the Vikings won't decide to release Bailey this week, or even that doing so would be the wrong decision. It's simply that, in this season and at this position, the choice might not be as simple for the Vikings as it seems.