LOS ANGLES – Thursday night we witnessed what happens when an unstoppable force meets a moveable object.
The Vikings’ defense, which ranked first in the NFL last season? Shredded, by the Rams’ passing-lane offense.
The Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes? Dented, by a second straight loss.
The Vikings’ pride? Wounded, after allowing quarterback Jared Goff to pass for 465 yards in the Rams’ 38-31 victory in what looked more like a track meet than a tug-of-war.
What now, for a team built to win with defense? “At this point, I don’t know,’’ Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Wherever I’ve been, we’ve never been that poor in pass coverage.’’
“I’m concerned,’’ Zimmer said. “We have not played well defensively. They have a good offense. Same scheme we played last year and they had seven points. We left a bunch of guys open.’’
In the calendar year of 2018 the Vikings’ high-accomplished and well-paid defense has:
• Blown a 17-0 halftime lead to the Saints, winning on a miracle play after giving up 24 second-half points at U.S. Bank Stadium.
• Given up 38 points in the NFC Championship Game (although seven of those points came on an interception return).
• Allowed a gimpy Aaron Rodgers to control most of the game at Lambeau Field.
• Lost to a rookie QB at home.
• Made the Rams look like a sprint relay team.
Last season, the Vikings allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 16 games. This season, they have allowed 17 plays that long in four games.
The Vikings miss Everson Griffen, the star defensive end who is dealing with mental health issues. But one of the strengths of this team was supposed to be its defensive line depth. The current line is proving that depth is no substitute for excellence.
“We made more mistakes than they did,’’ defensive end Danielle Hunter said. “They had a good game plan.’’
As they did in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings on Thursday looked lost. Rams coach Sean McVay and Goff continually created mismatches and exploited them. Note that Vikings star safety Harrison Smith barely contributed, as the Rams chose to pick on lesser defenders.
Barr couldn’t stay with Rams running back Todd Gurley on the Rams’ first touchdown, and he shouldn’t have been expected to stay with receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods on subsequent scores.
Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes lost his composure, compounding a holding call with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for kicking the flag. When Zimmer pulled Rhodes for a play, Goff took advantage with a 47-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks.
September losses shouldn’t be devastating, but the nature of the Vikings’ two consecutive losses is troubling. They couldn’t fluster Bills rookie Josh Allen or even annoy Goff, a third-year pro who is becoming a star this month.
This was a mismatch, and given that the Vikings defense is supposed to be the strength of the team, that is a bad sign.
Entering the season, the Vikings and Rams figured to be two prime contenders for the conference championship, but the Vikings on Thursday required brilliance from Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen merely to avoid a blowout.
Zimmer built a team that should win any time the offense produces 20 points. Thursday, 31 weren’t enough.
Zimmer was hired for his defensive expertise, and the Vikings have invested heavily on that side of the ball in the form of draft picks, free-agent money and long-term contracts.
Now the aspect of the game in which Zimmer takes the most pride is failing him. Or he’s failing his defensive players.
There is something wrong here. Five years into his tenure, Zimmer’s defense has regressed.