EAGAN, Minn. – There was optimism inside the Minnesota Vikings organization that things would be different coming off a Week 7 bye.
Coach Mike Zimmer had his staff do an extensive self-scout that spanned multiple weeks to remedy some of their biggest offensive issues. Players talked about not letting their opponents hang around, much like what had happened every week but the Seattle game.
That promise of a fresh start and the chance to “show the world that Vikings are not the ones to be counted out,” as wide receiver Justin Jefferson proclaimed, culminated in an embarrassing 20-16 prime-time loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Minnesota now leads the NFL with the most losses (4) and games (6) decided by one possession this season.
“I thought we were going to come out strong, but we didn't,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “And that's a disappointment on us, and we've got to go back this week and reevaluate ourselves as a group and get better,”
With 10 games to go, Minnesota (3-4, 1-0 NFC North) can hope to right the ship by taking a serious look at what’s contributing to its flaws, both in the form of execution on the field and the decisions made by those calling plays.
A loss of offensive identity
The Vikings established an identity at the end of the 2018 season as a dominant run-first team. Coaches reiterated the team’s prerogative – get the ball to Cook – and it resulted in Minnesota having the sixth-highest designed run percentage a year ago (45.8%). Eight weeks into this season, the Vikings rank 19th in the number of runs called each game, down to 40.4% of plays.
Cook followed up his 140-yard rushing performance against Carolina with 18 carries for 78 yards against Dallas. The run game fell flat on first and second down, which contributed to the failure to move the chains.
“We kind of got away on a couple of series,” Zimmer said. “We were trying to be aggressive in some of the parts there. I think we threw the ball nine straight times in the second half and went three-and-out three times.
“We have to be able to run the football. We’ve got to get the ball to Dalvin, and we’ve got to try to get the ball to (Justin) Jefferson and (Adam) Thielen. When Jefferson got [injured], we’ve got to try to get the ball to Adam a little bit more. We’ve got to try to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers.”
The Vikings offense has been under center more than any other team the last couple of seasons. It led to explosive play-action attempts and had a heavy impact on the success of the run game. Minnesota has altered its approach in several areas under first-year coordinator Klint Kubiak, and that seems to have an impact on its identity. The Vikings are still running the most plays under center (56%), but their play-action usage has dropped from 8th (29%) to 29th (20th) in a year. The things that worked for an offense that ranked fourth in yards and 11th in scoring in 2020 aren’t clicking this year.
Cook is a superstar running back, so naturally teams are going to key in on stopping him. Kubiak attempted to manufacture runs against Dallas by utilizing screens, but their attempts were mostly fruitless.
Coaches need to find their own killer instinct
Minnesota’s offensive playcalling has been the subject of scrutiny for several weeks after close calls against the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers. This offense doesn’t look like the one that went toe-to-toe with the Arizona Cardinals' explosive unit in Week 2. Figuring out the reason behind that is difficult without players and coaches underlining exactly what the issues are.
“No matter what's getting called, we've got to go execute at a high level,” Cook said. “That's the killer mindset. We've got it in the locker room. We've got the guys, the talent and everything. That's not going to win us football games. We've got to dig deep and we've got to want it.”
But that killer instinct Cook mentioned doesn't just extend to players. Coaches need to find that extra gear too, one that minimizes conservative play calling.
In their defense, the Vikings didn’t go into Week 8 aiming to turn Kirk Cousins into a checkdown machine and have the offense convert just one of 13 third-down attempts. But that’s exactly what happened when the playcalls didn’t pan out.
“The first play of the game, we tried to take a shot,” Zimmer said. “We tried to hit a double move that we didn’t connect on. We had another, the one with pass interference to Jefferson, when he got hurt, was a deep over route. So it’s not like we don’t have those things that we’re planning on doing. It’s just sometimes they’re not working.”
Cousins felt the lack of success on third down was attributed to a combination of “coverage and pressure.” According to ESPN Stats and Information, the quarterback was pressured on 39.5% of his dropbacks against Dallas, his highest pressure percentage in a game this season. Much of that has to do with the struggles of the offensive line, particularly on the interior. Right guard Oli Udoh allowed three pressures and was penalized twice. Center Garrett Bradbury allowed four pressures, bringing his season total to 17, which is the most among all starting centers.
All of those things factored into the checkdowns Cousins threw, and his 4.5-yard average depth of target. Cousins may have not had as many chances to take shots down the field due to a number of circumstances. But there’s no reason that fullback C.J. Ham should have more catches (3) than Jefferson (2).
Outside of Minnesota’s first drive, which resulted in a touchdown, the Vikings settled for three field goals after their drives stalled. And they had three straight three-and-outs in the second half.
A point of emphasis for Minnesota’s offense has been scoring in the second half, something it has failed to do in five of its seven contests. Wasted trips inside the red zone, like the Vikings’ second-to-last drive, have yielded field goals instead of touchdowns.
Minnesota’s clock management issues were on display against Dallas.
Sidelines are emotional and chaotic, which often lead to heat-of-the moment decisions that don’t work out. The Vikings, leading 16-13, had three timeouts at their disposal with Dallas driving with 1:49 left. Once the Cowboys reached Minnesota’s 22-yard line, Zimmer called back-to-back timeouts, which resulted in a delay of game penalty. Two plays later, Dallas backup quarterback Cooper Rush hit Amari Cooper for the go-ahead touchdown.
Zimmer took responsibility for the timeout blunder, and mistakes happen. But perhaps a change in how these situations are being managed could yield better results.
At the end of the first half, the Vikings got the ball back with 37 seconds and a chance for one last drive, starting from their own 15-yard line. They had one timeout left. Cousins scrambled 13 yards on second down but couldn’t get the offense lined up quickly enough. Instead of calling a timeout, the quarterback deferred to his coach.
“I just let Zim handle the timeouts, because I never know quite what the coaches want to do with what they're thinking, a play ahead or what that may be,” Cousins said. “So I was just gonna let them handle that and call the next play if one came in.”
Cousins, a 10-year veteran quarterback, is paid $33 million a year. That’s a hefty price to pay a player who doesn’t feel he can make a call in a critical situation, and it appears the head coach and his quarterback weren’t on the same page – a glaring issue that compounds others.
“That’s my fault,” Zimmer said. “That was a miscommunication. He has the ability, but that was a miscommunication. I won’t get into it, but that was a miscommunication. We were trying to get on the ball, and the receiver lined up wrong and took too much time.”