The two biggest plays the Vikings made on Sunday in Baltimore — Kirk Cousins' 50-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook's 66-yard run — came on their first two third downs of the day, suggesting things could be markedly different from a Week 8 loss to the Cowboys where they'd posted the NFL's worst third-down conversion rate (7.6 percent) of the season.

But as the rest of their 34-31 loss to the Ravens became another study in offensive frustration, there was perhaps no down more emblematic of their struggles than the one they needed to keep drives alive.

The Vikings converted just three of their last 12 third-down attempts for the day, finishing 5-for-14. Of their final seven drives that started in their own territory, only one — their game-tying drive in the final minutes — crossed midfield. Between their two scoring drives and their late touchdown, they picked up just two first downs.

As we try to figure out what the Vikings need to get consistent production out of a talented offense, I thought their third downs on Sunday would provide an interesting case study of their problems. Many of their biggest issues against the Ravens — namely, an inability to open holes for Cook, pressure on Cousins and a few surprising accuracy issues from the quarterback — were on display, as the Vikings' offense stalled out for too much of the game.

First, the run game: The Vikings faced five third downs where they needed three yards or fewer to convert, and ran the ball on the first three of them. The first — Cook's 66-yard run — was a beautiful toss play where Brian O'Neill made two blocks to spring the running back, flattening Josh Bynes on his second block.

On the other two runs (a third-and-goal from the Ravens 2 and a third-and-1 from the Vikings 37), the Vikings simply got beat up front. The Ravens created a pile-up with Christian Darrisaw and Tyler Conklin on the goal line to force a fourth-down attempt (the Vikings went for it and picked up a first down on a pass interference call).

On the third-and-1, the Vikings lined up with Conklin and Luke Stocker to Darrisaw's left and C.J. Ham in the backfield. The Ravens responded by stacking the box, and DeShon Elliot slipped a block from Conklin before tackling Cook for a loss.

Cook gained 110 yards on Sunday, but 105 of them came on three runs: his 66-yarder early, a 24-yarder on the Vikings' final drive and a 15-yarder in the first quarter. The rest of the day, he had trouble finding space to run against a Ravens defense that controlled the line of scrimmage, creating space for linebackers such as Bynes, Tyus Bowser and Patrick Queen to get into the backfield. Even though Cook had his best rushing average of the season (6.47 yards per carry), his numbers were built on three big plays; the Ravens beat the Vikings up front the rest of the day.

Cousins was 5-for-10 on third down passing attempts, including his connection with Jefferson for the early touchdown on a third-and-7. He found Jefferson for seven yards to pick up a third-and-6, stepped up in the pocket to hit K.J. Osborn for 20 yards in the second quarter and connected with C.J. Ham for 27 yards on a downfield shot as the Vikings drove to tie the score. But in the middle of the game, particularly on a stretch of four consecutive third-down incompletions in the second and third quarters, the Vikings' passing game had a series of issues.

The Ravens put seven men near the line of scrimmage on a third-and-6 in the second quarter, against a rare four-receiver set and an empty backfield. The Vikings had five blockers for five Ravens rushers, but Charles Clark came unblocked off the right side, forcing Cousins to throw quickly for Dede Westbrook before Marlon Humphrey broke up the pass. Clark didn't show he was going to blitz until there were three seconds left on the play clock; the Vikings didn't have time to reset their protection, and Cousins had to throw quickly while Ezra Cleveland wound up with no one to block.

The Ravens brought a similar blitz third-and-9 in overtime, sending seven against a seven-man protection with Clark getting a free run off the backside of the play. Cousins had to throw before crossing routes for Jefferson and Thielen could develop; he pointed to longer-developing routes on Sunday, but coach Mike Zimmer said Cousins "has some options there" to change the play or the protection.

"You know, the protection was the other way on that one, and they had a free runner coming off the weak side," Zimmer said. "Could we have been in a better place? Sure. That's part of it. But that series was disappointing to me because I thought we had a chance to get some momentum."

Cousins was kicking himself after the game for missing Jefferson on a third-and-11 out route after Bynum's interception, and he overshot Jefferson on a third-and-2 before Kene Nwangwu's 9-yard run on a fake punt. On a third-and-11 in the third quarter, the quarterback was hit on a blitz as two Ravens rushers came through unblocked while he was trying to hit Osborn.

The quarterback said Mason Cole — starting in place of Garrett Bradbury at center — "did his part" in setting protections, adding he didn't have to override Cole much. But the Ravens' blitzes clearly affected Cousins, on a day where he was pressured 39 percent of the time (according to Pro Football Focus), and he missed some throws the Vikings needed him to make.

For the season, Minnesota ranks 25th in the league with a 35.7% conversion rate on third downs. The Vikings are 6-for-27 the past two weeks, in losses that erased much of the work they'd done to get back to 3-3.

Setting aside whatever issues there might be with play-calling or aggressiveness on early downs, the Vikings haven't been able to produce enough on third downs to keep things going. They could point to penalties after the season-opening loss to the Bengals, but their issues in recent weeks have been caused by a combination of different factors, as Cousins is fond of saying. Perhaps that's even more concerning.

"We talked about this offseason, which we do every offseason or going into training camp, how you win games in this league," Thielen said. "Protecting the football, which we've done. Run the ball, which we've done. Convert third downs, which is probably one of the biggest areas where we haven't. In some of the games we've lost, we haven't converted a lot of third downs, but yeah, it is difficult. It's one of those things where everybody's trying to wrap their head around why."

Kene Nwangwu: He hadn't touched the ball in a game since hyperextending his knee on the Vikings' first preseason play, but on two special-teams plays, the fourth-round pick showed what a weapon he can be. His 98-yard kick return touchdown — the first by a Vikings player since Cordarrelle Patterson in 2016 — came mostly as a result of Nwangwu's speed, after he bounced a return to an outside lane and outraced Ravens defenders down the sideline. Then, Nwangwu gained 9 yards on a handoff on a fake punt. He'll continue to get opportunities, and the electricity he provided on Sunday showed why.

Camryn Bynum: We'll highlight another of the Vikings' fourth-round picks here, as Bynum handled a difficult situation extremely well in his first NFL start. He stepped in for Harrison Smith after the veteran was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list before the game, and made the Vikings' biggest defensive play of the day on a leaping interception of Lamar Jackson. The Vikings only got a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown to go up 21-3, but Bynum's pick put them in position to take a commanding lead early, and he made 11 tackles while faring well in coverage the rest of the day.

How much more the Vikings' rookies play in the second half of the season: Nwangwu showed the kind of speed that will be hard to ignore going forward, and Bynum figures to start again on Sunday against the Chargers, with Zimmer saying Harrison Smith would miss a second game while on the COVID-19 reserve list. Nwangwu has replaced Ihmir Smith-Marsette as the kick returner now that he's healthy; Smith-Marsette was inactive Sunday, as were third-round picks Kellen Mond and Chazz Surratt. Third-rounder Patrick Jones played six snaps on Sunday, and could get more playing time in the second half of the year as the Vikings try to build a defensive end rotation with Danielle Hunter out and Everson Griffen rarely coming off the field (Griffen played a career-high 87 snaps Sunday). For decision-makers needing to keep their jobs, few commodities help more than rookies who become a source of hope; GM Rick Spielman would also likely point to Osborn's development and second-year man Kenny Willekes' impressive moments on Sunday. In any case, it's worth watching how the Vikings' rookies perform in the final nine games, especially as they face another series of decisions on high-priced veterans after the season.

Whether the Vikings get more aggressive with kick returns: Nwangwu's touchdown was the Vikings' first since Cordarrelle Patterson's kick return TD against the Cardinals in 2016, and it harkened to an era where Pro Bowl return men like Patterson and Percy Harvin gave them a distinct weapon. Teams are better than ever at booting the ball through the end zone, and the NFL moved the touchback from the 20 to the 25-yard line several years ago, in an effort to disincentivize teams from returning kicks (which the league believes creates a dangerous play). This isn't to suggest Nwangwu is about to bring the Vikings back to the era of Harvin and Patterson, especially given the current conditions of the kickoff around the NFL, but special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken (who was with Mike Priefer in Minnesota when the Vikings had both Harvin and Patterson) knows the value of a dynamic returner.

When the Vikings are struggling to sustain drives, Nwangwu might be able to give their offense an occasional boost if the conditions are right for him to bring the ball out. He didn't have a choice on his return TD yesterday, since he caught the ball at the Vikings' 2, but perhaps his return TD — just the fourth in the NFL this season — will grant him a little more latitude from time to time.

What can the Vikings do to jump-start their offense? This question has come up as often as the Vikings have struggled to sustain drives following a hot start — which is to say, most of the season — and it might be the question that has more to say than any other about whether they can save their playoff hopes.

The problem for the Vikings, though, is they're dealing with a few realities that seem fairly fixed: Cousins, in Year 10, isn't likely to turn overnight from a quarterback who avoids contested throws to one who tests two-deep shells and fires into tight windows. First-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak can't suddenly download years worth of play-calling experience that would give him an innate feel for the job. A Vikings line made up of five draft picks (once Garrett Bradbury returns from the COVID-19 list) isn't going to get major reinforcements after the trade deadline to help with its pass protection struggles. And whatever effect Zimmer's preferences for a strong running game and minimal turnover risk have on the Vikings' offensive approach, those preferences aren't likely to change now.

It's perhaps worth wondering if the Vikings would benefit from working more play-action passes back into their offense; Cousins is only throwing off play action 23.3 percent of the time this season, down from 28.7 percent last year and 31.1 percent in 2019. But he's been less aggressive off play action than in previous years, anyway, so teams might have figured how to stop the Vikings' deep shots by denying Cousins' bootlegs and playing safeties deep.

In all likelihood, though, the Vikings' only way around their offensive doldrums is to go straight through them. They're only missing one key player (tight end Irv Smith) on that side of the ball, and Osborn's emergence has given them another important play-maker to pair with Cook, Jefferson and Thielen. They'll likely need to trust themselves more, play better up front and execute on more passing plays if they want to turn things around. A Chargers rush defense that ranks last in the NFL could help this week, but the Vikings could also need to be ready for a shootout. They are tied for ninth in the NFL, and need to find answers quickly.

"Mondays are tough," Thielen said. "I'm not going to lie to you. Sunday night, Mondays after a tough loss, after an opportunity to win a game, it's difficult. Your mind goes a lot of different places. You actually want to go to places you shouldn't go as far as this or that, thinking this or that. You kind of get Tuesday off and Wednesday you start practice again and you just say, 'Screw it. We're one game out of this thing. We're one game out of the playoffs.'

"Hopefully, we can learn from some of these things and start to move forward because we all know. We all watch the same film. We all know what we need to do, but we get another opportunity. That's what's so great about football, what's so great about sports, is you get another opportunity to prove people wrong. Because everybody right now is going to write us off. Everyone's going to say this or that, or you should do this or you should do that. But we get another opportunity to prove it on Sunday. So, we're excited about that opportunity."