Given a 10-day break between games after Thursday’s 38-31 loss to the Rams, Vikings players and coaches have a rare weekend to decompress in the middle of an NFL season before beginning preparations for the defending world champion Eagles.
It’s anyone’s guess, however, just how much of a respite this weekend will be for the head coach.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Mike Zimmer said on Friday, when asked about his plans.
The architect of a defense that finished in the NFL’s top six in points allowed during three of his first four years as Vikings coach, Zimmer is presiding over a unit that currently ranks 22nd in the league in points per game and gave up the fourth-most yards in team history on Thursday.
While the practice of establishing trends over multiple seasons might be dubious — even for a team that retains 10 of its 11 starters from last year’s NFC Championship Game — the Vikings have allowed 158 defensive points in their past six games, dating back to the NFC divisional playoffs.
“This bunch of guys, this coaching staff, we’re not used to losing,” safety Harrison Smith said. “So we’ve got to get into gear. That’s all there is to it. Nobody’s going to fix it but us.”
A defense that allowed only 41 plays of 20 yards or more during the 2017 regular season has already given up 17 in four games, including seven on Thursday night.
The Rams devised some clever ways to isolate linebacker Anthony Barr on a wide receiver: Zimmer said Thursday night the Vikings should have helped Barr on Cooper Kupp’s 70-yard touchdown, and after the Rams lined up with two tight ends in the fourth quarter — forcing the Vikings into their base defense for one of their two snaps on Thursday night — they motioned into an empty backfield, lining up slot receiver Robert Woods on Barr before a 31-yard touchdown.
But there were mistakes elsewhere, too. After cornerback Xavier Rhodes drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for kicking a referee’s flag — earning him a momentary benching from Zimmer — quarterback Jared Goff hit Brandin Cooks for a 47-yard touchdown over Trae Waynes. Linebacker Eric Kendricks missed a tackle after fighting through blockers on Todd Gurley’s 56-yard screen, too.
“It was guys getting out of position,” Zimmer said. “It was some misdirection plays, similar to what we’ve gotten before. Some of it was corners, some of it was safeties, some of it was linebackers, some of it was nickels, some of it was me.”
Zimmer said later in a Friday conference call that he might be “overcoaching” the Vikings defenders somewhat, and Smith said Thursday the group needs to get back to playing freely and doing what it has done best.
As Zimmer noted on Friday, though, there has been one significant change in the secondary, with rookie Mike Hughes and third-year man Mackensie Alexander taking over the nickel role after Terence Newman — who played nearly 56 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year — retired and joined the coaching staff at the end of the preseason.
“I kind of figured it was probably going to take a little bit of time with some of the new pieces,” Zimmer said. “I figured that was going to be the case.
“Everybody forgets we were 2-2 last year at this time. We will just keep fighting and playing. Just because everybody expected us to be 4-0 at this point or whatever it is doesn’t mean that’s realistic. We are just going to keep fighting and try to shore up things and continue to get better and go from there.”
Their next test will be against an Eagles offense that closed the NFC title game with 31 straight points after Patrick Robinson’s interception return for a touchdown. If the Vikings are going to clean up their mistakes and deliver a statement that their defense is as good as ever, there’s perhaps no better place for them to do it.
“This team has a chance to be really, really good,” Zimmer said. “One week it is the offense, one week it is the defense, one week it’s special teams. If we put it all together, we can beat any team there is.”